Film Review: Herbert adds Needed Downhill Option to Virginia Tech Run Attack

Virginia Tech added a grad transfer capable of changing the dynamic of the running back room.

With Deshawn McClease's departure for a run at the NFL, Virginia Tech lost a productive, hard-nosed running back, and a solid blocker. Throughout the season, McClease and freshman Keshawn King were effective running mostly outside the tackles. However, the Hokies never established a reliable rusher inside. When the Hokies attempted to extend drives late in the game against Virginia and Kentucky, the opposing defenses keyed on outside zones and limited both McClease and King's effectiveness.

Enter Kansas transfer Khalil Herbert. Herbert entered the transfer portal only a handful of weeks after a 187 yard rushing performance against Boston College. Despite Herbert's consistent production when he received touches, (including racking up 291 rushing yards against West Virginia as a sophomore), when watching the tape of Kansas, it was pretty apparent that Les Miles preferred the more elusive Pooka Williams as his tailback.

The Jayhawks' loss is Virginia Tech's gain. Herbert is short in stature at 5'9 and weighs a solid 205 pounds. Patterns emerged when I evaluated his Kansas tape. As demonstrated on this big run, Herbert is a patient runner. He allows his blocking develop before getting to the second level.

Boston College's pair of defensive tackles crisscross on a stunt. Herbert feels the penetration and makes a slight cut to his left instead of barreling right into the line of scrimmage. As the right d-tackle, Tanner Karafa (No. 48), works to his left and penetrates, Herbert steps behind his block and cuts through the hole. The hesitation also causes the left DT, TJ Rayam (No. 99), to work too far back to the field. Herbert explodes through the hole and finishes the run in the secondary.

Herbert doesn't have great long speed, but once he finds a seam, he has tremendous burst into the second-level. On this 1st-and-10, Herbert was one-on-one against unblocked linebacker Max Richardson (No. 14).

The Jayhawks' blockers account for the defensive front. Herbert takes the handoff and reads Richardson. Herbert hesitates at the mesh point until Richardson commits to fit the backside A-gap. Herbert plants his right leg and cuts hard left. Richardson tries to recover, but Herbert explodes out of his cut and beats Richardson to the angle. Keep in mind, Richardson was a monster against Virginia Tech, delivering a 10 tackle performance.

Evaluating Herbert's larger body of work, he seemed much more comfortable getting the ball from a pistol, ace, or I formation. Aligned offset next to the quarterback (as the Hokies do on most snaps), Herbert loses some of that explosiveness. Watch this zone read.

Herbert makes West Virginia linebacker Dylan Tonkery (No. 10) miss with an outside cut. However, once he moves laterally, he loses some of his burst. The Mountaineers string out the play and Herbert can't get going north-south again.

Check out the speed option underhand toss play the Hokies featured frequently this season. This was designed for Herbert to get to the edge.

To his credit, Herbert knows his limitations. He sees the boundary safety fly up outside of the edge defender, cuts back to the inside and makes something out of nothing, but this wasn't where the play was intended to go.

The positive takeaway is Herbert gives the Hokies a powerful downhill presence between the tackles. When Herbert is in the game, I expect the Hokies to use more pistol formation looks. I also expect Justin Fuente to utilize more interior power plays and perhaps some off tackle G run to maximize Herbert's skills. On this pistol formation snap, Kansas ran an inside power.

The right guard pulls and turns up behind the center to trap the inside linebacker. Herbert runs straight downhill. He hits the bubble with force and bursts through the line. Outside of Hendon Hooker and Quincy Patterson on the inverted veer, I am hard pressed to recall any explosive tailback runs from B-gap to B-gap like this.

When deep in the backfield from an alignment here he can attack the line of scrimmage, Herbert has time to read the play and can make defenders look silly. Herbert made a house call on this pistol off tackle power play.

Safety Dravon Askew-Henry (No. 6) and LB Al-Rasheed Benton (No. 3) follow the pulling guard and flow from right to left. They take a step too wide, and Herbert cuts back and explodes into the secondary. Benton can't recover to trip him up.

Herbert will settle into an important role. In games when Virginia Tech wants to limit quarterback runs, he can grind out yards without relying on a quarterback run threat on the backside of the play. He can make the unblocked man miss and run through arm tackles. He reminds me of Cedric Humes as a runner, and will have his best success in schemes similar to the inside zones in which Humes was so dynamic. Expect the Hokies to incorporate more inside zone with Herbert aligning in the pistol than Tech has run in recent years.

I couldn't find many examples of Herbert impacting the passing game. He was regularly replaced by Williams on passing downs last season. Against Oklahoma in 2018, Herbert did have a handful of snaps in pass pro. On one third down, he leaked out between the linebackers and ran a crossing route, but was not targeted. On this swing pass, Herbert was wide open but was forced to make a difficult catch.

Herbert extends and secures the ball in stride. He also delivers a physical finnish. However, I do not envision him contributing more than a safety valve such passes.

Two concerns loom. If the Hokies want to feature the zone read and jet sweep run actions that were staples of the offense in 2019, he may not be a great fit with that lack of ability to effectively run horizontally.

Also, Herbert was replaced on most passing downs. While he wasn't as dynamic as Williams in space, I think his lack of snaps in passing situations also reflects his blocking ability. I couldn't find a single clip on film of Herbert blocking. On this busted play, he had an opportunity to find any crimson jersey and get a hat on hat. Instead, he looked like a deer in headlights. He had his hands down by his side and was in no position to even try to deliver a block.

On this pass Herbert was assigned to block backside.

He stops short. Defensive end Amani Bledsoe (No, 72) doesn't impact the play, however Herbert gets in a poor position to stop Bledsoe's momentum if he rushes. Also, because Herbert doesn't close the gap and engage Bledsoe, it frees Bledsoe to reach up and disrupt the throw.

I think Herbert will struggle a bit adjusting to the Hokies' system. Expect some packages which will best utilize and maximize his skillset. When he is called upon, I expect him aligned in the pistol getting carries on powers and inside zones. However, unless Herbert demonstrates he is a much more willing and able blocker than previously shown on film, his snaps will limit the effectiveness of jet sweeps and pass protections.

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Comments

Just in time for the morning coffee.

@CraigThompsonVT

Same!

Thanks French. Appreciate your insight, as always!

Thank you baby yoda for something to digest today at work! It worries me that he is not a complete back or has not shown that yet, hopefully he will adjust quickly and surprise us.

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“I served in the United States Navy"

KCCO

Cedric Humes you say?
Oh hell to the yes.

If he's ineffective in the passing game and horizontal run game, a significant percentage of our playbook, shouldn't we fear that his snaps will be limited? And when he is in the game, seems like easy scouting for the defense to load up in the box and stuff the inside run?

Counterpoint- he adds the ability to run the down hill inside zone, which was completely absent last season.

But yes, his limitations do worry me. Herbert being in the game, based on the every snap film, tells the universe what is coming. The narrative that he was the top back at Kansas is false. It was very clear he was the number 2 guy based on both the talent as translated through film and how the coaches utilized him versus how Pookha was used.

I think he plays a role similar to Humes or Josh Oglesby- a reliable (he doesn't fumble) grinder between the tackles. He will be in with very specific packages- wham izr, izr with a jet sweep motion, pistol iso and PA off inside dive (quick slant package.) They will try to run him on stretch plays against bad opponents just to get it on film to keep the defense honest, but unless he adds that element he won't be effective outside against ACC teams. And the blocking thing will be a big issue. He may end up being great. But, he was either taken out or was bad when the tailback position was asked to block.

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But, he was either taken out or was bad when the tailback position was asked to block.

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The positive I take away from this is that you can teach a RB to block, but you can't teach them vision. I like that he is able to make some guys miss in traffic and run through arm tackles. I think his little shakes and steps to make defenders take poor angles come from a bit of natural instinct and a bit of experience, both are very hard to teach. Sounds like Herbert won't be taking King's job as the #1, but is a nice compliment at #2 or aligned in a split back role.

Whatever. It was one bad year.

Seasonal Brew means High ABV for football season and standard the rest of the year.

I was quite young, but I remember Humes as a fumbler. Although, my memory could be tainted by his fumble on a kick return at the end of the 2003 BC game to seal a loss (which was unfortunately the first season I really followed the Hokies).

The narrative that he was the top back at Kansas is false. It was very clear he was the number 2 guy based on both the talent as translated through film and how the coaches utilized him versus how Pookha was used.

Did anyone actually think Herbert was better than Pookah?

Twitter me

When the transfer was announced, I saw lots of twitter traffic saying VT was getting the starter from Kansas. I don't think any of those folks actually watched any Kansas football. That is all.

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Do you see him as more of a guy to feature against some of the lesser opponents (Liberty, UNA, etc.)? I would love Tech to be able to show as small of a playbook as possible and just power run the ball against teams like that. But the past couple seasons it seems like they haven't been able to do that at all.

It would also be nice to limit King's carries early in the season, since he seemed less than sturdy in his freshman season.

I think he has a role. For example, Marshawn Williams wasn't running stretch zones, but he was productive when called upon under Fuente until his final knee injury. I think Herbert can be a consistent force if Cornelsen can run the same concepts while using more pistol and offeset formations that allow Herbert to get down hill.

What I don't see is outside zone read, or Herbert as a lead blocker on a jet sweep. Now, Kansas just may not have showcased him. Pooka was more the stretch zone guy, and Kansas really didn't run jet sweep. But, when I watch multiple games and I don't see a RB getting 30-40% of the snaps never pass blocking, that is surprising by omission.

Now watch. Spring practice will roll around and he will be mashing folks like Cullen Hawkins.

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I think you add him to the list of players to watch in spring ball. Similar to James Mitchell last year, it should give us an indication how they plan to use him.

I'd argue if Tech had an Oglesby the last two years, he would have been the clear starter. A little more athletic than Peoples IMO, and could break out.

Don't see much in Herbert's game beyond a depth option particularly if Holston is healthy. Much more interested to see King's physical development with a full year of prep and what Marco Lee brings as a more typical power-back.

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One of the things that really impressed me about McClease this past season was that despite his size he was a willing blocker. To my untrained eye he appeared to be mostly effective at it to.

After losing McClease and Keene I am a little concerned about pass protection outside of the offensive line. I hope one or more of these running backs is able to step up and block. Maybe that's Marco Lee, but from what you shared it doesn't look like Herbert is that guy.

Gallo is one hell of a run blocker. Hopefully that translates to pass pro. RB? Big question mark for me.

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I think folks may be getting a little too excited over Herbert. He certainly does bring an element to VT which has been lacking. But his limitations mean he also brings predictability - something which hasn't been lacking at VT in recent years.

And other than the two just ridiculous games in his career, he's otherwise be fairly pedestrian in his other 30+ college games. Now maybe that's partly a Kansas thing too, but not all of it I suspect.

I'm not saying he's a net minus or anything. But I don't think he's THE answer to VT's RB challenges either.

Yeah, it seems like he may be a very specific role player in this offense, but if his limitations mean he will be ineffective in pass pro and in the bread and butter zone reads and jet sweep plays of this offense, I worry it will be a massive giveaway what we are doing every time he comes in the game. I feel like we have a lot of interesting options at RB that each have their own specific strengths and weaknesses, but really no every-down all purpose back. We're treading very closely to the Lefty RB approach with a different player for each different formation or play, which was unbelievably predictable.

McLease may not have been great at anything (or even really good), but he was solid at a several things. And this year he may have given VT its most versatile back (resulting in the least predictable play-calling) in some time at VT.

My favorite part of that first clip is the end of the run, instead of going out of bounds at the 20, he secures the ball, drives straight into the defender and gains another 8 yards.

Now finish up them taters; I'm gonna go fondle my sweaters.

Great Stuff....reminds me of JC Coleman in the Military bowl but with more power. I think his struggles with us will be in the Zone read.

If he can attack from the pistol, he will be solid for bursts down hill. Overall with Herbert, Lee and I assume Holston and King, we should be in good shape overall.

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JC Coleman is a really good instagram follow these days. He works for Lays Chips and is always doing job fairs at VT and is really into his fish and aquariums. Pretty funny guy too.

Considering we have a hard time beating Boston College in anything I get really pumped whenever I see this kid's tape.

Hokie Club member since 2017

I also expect Justin Fuente to utilize more interior power plays and perhaps some off tackle G run to maximize Herbert's skills.

CJF may immediately think of this but the true question is will CORN actually call it in a game. So far his run play calls seem scripted to me and they don't necessarily match the strengths in the moment. But the great thing about this is we can objectively see if he calls it with with our own eyes and he can't use the "execution" excuse for a bad run play call.

Hokie Club member since 2017

With as well as Lecitus Smith moves, and given how well Gallo and Darrisaw look when blocking down, a G play to the left side seems like a no brainer. But, I don't recall them running it since Fuente came aboard. Maybe a handful of times when Teller was there, but none since.

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I 100% agree with you. I haven't seen it called much either (watching the OL is my fav. part of the game). My comment on CJF was more of a throw away line to discuss Corn. I should have just left that first sentence out. The point was- Corn is the one who needs to call the play ultimately so hopefully it's Corn thinking this new approach with Herbert.

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Any word on if they are replacing Kill's position? I haven't been following things that closely, so hopefully this isn't too redundant of a question.

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After careful consideration and discussions with my wife, we have decided that, if offered, I will refuse to accept a position as Kill's replacement.

This is going to be great for the ACC.

Communication with wife is the key.
I also discussed with my wife and she made the following two comments:
1) "Babe, you don't know jack $hi1 about football"
2)"Don't touch me, I'm tired."

So I will continue to run my business

He may have limitations, however, I can't remember a single running back in the last couple of years break off any runs remotely close to the clips shown. Even with plays very well blocked our running backs have failed to break big runs. They certainly have rarely if ever leveraged the free hitter in the hole and made them whiff. Our offense is sorely missing this component.

Tyrod’s Tailor

McClease did this a few times this year. I just rewatched the Wake game yesterday and McClease did it at least a couple of times in that game alone. Now he wasn't the biggest or fastest guy but he did get better at making the unblocked player miss.

I will take your word for it. The majority of the time our backs were being brought down in the hole with arm tackles and ankle tackles and failed to make the free hitter miss. I really like how Herbert leverages or influences the free hitter out of the hole. To be a very good offense we definitely need a significant upgrade at RB.

Tyrod’s Tailor

Didn't King have a REALLY nice run brought back because Cannon held a guy (away from the play)?

Are there stats kept on how many 20+ yard carries backs have? I want to say King had some nice ones. And he'll have had the offseason to bulk up some.

I am hoping with another year of experience and Hoffman able to play, we'll see some improved run play.

I did notice what seemed like a lack of breakaway speed from several players when they got open. Not sure if that's a player problem or if Hilgart focuses on bulk and not the specific things needed to improve speed (or if that's even a Hilgart thing).

Herbert looks like a 4th quarter game finisher. We need to hand the ball off and finish some games this year, we let 3 games go through our fingers in 19.

exactly -- a guy who can get you 3 yards when there don't seem to be any available is so valuable when you've got a lead.

"Why gobble gobble chumps asks such good questions, I will never know." - TheFifthFuller

I read every word and every comment so far and all I hear is we can run up the middle to get a yard or two when we need it.

Watching two clips from this year, BC (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVKvOd9OTyc) and WV (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCKu-8W4GIU), he looks like a drop in replacement for McClease in VT's scheme. More explosive runner and not as good a blocker (he does actually throw a few blocks in the WVU game...though he also looks silly at times). May not be as good a receiver either...he's a wide open safety valve on a few plays and they never look at him...1 catch in 4 games under Miles.

So French, what about his usefulness inside the 10 yard line. All those times we bogged down this year and took a field goal instead of a touchdown (and then usually lost the game), isn't this and Lee exactly the kind of runners we could have used and will use next year to get the winning TD instead of the losing FG?

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Thanks French! Great insight to upside and some potential limitations. I think at a minimum this a weapon and skill-set that was absent at the RB position last year and would have been absent this year sans this move. You can point to a couple of games (ND) where a RB with this skill-set could have been a difference-maker. I think his body and running style present some great upside as well.

The blocking is concerning due to telegraphing what is coming as much as anything. I will say this, I like that he is here for spring and I my hope is that he will be asked (and will want to) do more in terms of blocking in order to increase his utilization and tape when the season hits. Time will tell if he wants to be more than a hired gun and a complete player.

Are you happier with him on the team, or would you have preferred to have McClease for another season?

Aren't they very different players though?

Of course, that's why I thought it would be fun to consider their unique skill sets and choose one between the two.

If he can have a few breakout games where he runs wild I'll be happy. Anything on top of that will be gravy.

Hopefully King has a few hundred yard games, Blackshear has a few (receiving is fine), Herbert a few, and the rest of the games are cobbled together between the backs and the QB, and voila, VT has a formidable rushing attack again.

Blackshear is going to play slot and may line up as a RB sometimes, but he isn't a RB. He was brought in to work with Tayvion to bring another play-maker to that spot.

I think the RB room has upgraded significantly since last year and the last step is the off-season. Does King (and Gary maybe) mature/work-hard and max out their potential? If so - then we win more. If not that will make the path for the QB's much harder.

Blackshear - that's why I added "(receiving is fine)", meaning that I hope he has a few breakout games in the slot or wherever he plays, but I include him in this discussion because he is technically a RB transfer just like Herbert.

RB room upgraded - yes, we are in agreement, and my hope is that over the course of the season different backs have big games at different times, and possibly in different ways, to fully develop that part of the offense that has been lacking for too long

The positive I take away from this is that you can teach a RB to block

I'd think he would if he wanted to. He's a senior.

"Hey Bud, you wont have to hold the opponent to 17 points anymore."

Does VT employ the same (or close to the same) line blocking scheme? If not, how do you think it would impact his effectiveness?
To my untrained eye, it looked like the Kansas linemen tried to block the guy directly opposite them maneo-a-maneo, whereas I thought our line would block right (or left).

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Yes. But sometimes, no.

It's nice to have a RB with good vision, but all the videos of his runs, the O-line created something for him to work with..... not the norm for us.

A decent O-line can make an average RB look very good.

Maybe the aging and additions to our 0-line will produce the running threat we need to open the pass better.