With Steven Peoples graduating, running back was a question mark for Virginia Tech with those concerns growing significantly when Deshawn McClease, the most likely starting RB, briefly entered the transfer portal. While McClease's return helped, the Hokies were still left with a major question mark at RB but with one potential option that would turn that weakness into a strength on a loaded Hokies' offense.
Clemson grad transfer Tavien Feaster.
Unfortunately for Virginia Tech, they were unable to hold off South Carolina despite an official visit that went quite well and a weak schedule in a power conference that lended itself to big numbers for a RB of Feaster's caliber.
Now, the Hokies are back to square 1 looking to their returning RB corps to step up.
Of course, many will mention Keshawn King and Tahj Gary as the answer despite the fact that both are true freshman and Gary is coming off a major injury.
Most of that talk has surrounded King after he put up insane numbers last fall in Florida and showed the potential to be a star which is undeniable. However, even though RB is one of the easier positions for transitioning to the college game, it's still not often that a true freshman RB is a star like Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor. Usually, it takes some time as it did for Clemson's Travis Etienne who showed lots of potential as a true freshman but didn't become a star until this past season as a sophomore.
To expect King to instantly be a star running back is way too soon even if King does seem poised to be a solid contributor with star potential that could come to fruition in 2020 or 2021.
So who could be that highly-productive running back the Hokies are looking for to take control instead of having a bunch of so-so tailbacks splitting carries?
The top candidate by far is the one who nearly left this spring, Deshawn McClease.
McClease has shown flashes of potential with 433 rushing yards, 2 touchdowns, and a 4.5 yards per carry after having 530 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 4.9 yards per carry. McClease has also proven to be a versatile player with 17 receptions over the past 2 seasons to go with his rushing production despite having a rotational role at RB.
However, the big issue with McClease has been his inconsistency which may be in part due to receiving an inconsistent number of carries.
In 2017, McClease had at least 50 yards and 5.0 yards per carry in 2 of the first 3 games and the final 3 games (including 124 and 6.9 per carry against Oklahoma State), but only did that once in the middle 7 games which included not appearing in one game. The common theme was that all but one of those 50+, 5.0+ performances came when McClease received double-digit carries.
The story was similar last season as McClease had at least 70 yards and 5.9 yards per carry in 2 of his first 3 games before failing to surpass either of those numbers again till having 102 yards on 13 carries against Cincinnati in the Military Bowl. In between, McClease only surpassed 30 yards and 5.0 yards per carry twice while also not playing in two important November games against Miami and Pittsburgh.
Deshawn McClease has shown the potential to be a big time productive back to lead the way for the Hokies but for one reason or another, McClease has struggled with consistency disappearing during the middle of seasons in back-to-back seasons now.
If McClease can find some consistency over a 12-game season, he has shown the potential to be the Hokies' first 1,000 yard back since Travon McMillian, but those consistency questions are impossible to ignore for the 5'9'' tailback who has shown the speed, explosiveness, and even the decision-making required to be a lot more productive at the collegiate level.
After McClease, Jalen Holston may be the next most notable returner and while he's proven to be a solid power runner, he hasn't shown much speed and explosiveness to make you think that he's much more than Steven Peoples 2.0. That power has benefited Holston at times with 5 games averaging more than 4.5 yards per carry last season but when you watch the film, you see someone that is fully reliant on being a power runner and lacks the explosiveness to consistently have big play potential.
Now there is a role for a power back in any team including this one, but Holston needs to get faster and more explosive if he wants to take on the full-time role. There were flashes of Holston having potential becoming more explosiveness towards the end of last season with 4 of his 5 highest rushing outputs coming down the stretch. However, Holston also has the consistency issues in addition to concerns about whether he has the speed and explosiveness required to be more than just an effective situational power runner that can get you 3 yards when you need 2.
Terius Wheatley may be the sleeper in all of this after showing the type of speed and explosiveness that the Hokies were lacking at times in the backfield outside of mostly McClease. Wheatley received limited playing before being injured but his 6.0 yards per carry over 21 carries is hard to ignore.
For Wheatley, big questions do remain though not only about his injuries have affected his athletic ability but whether he can be an in-between the tackles tailback as well given that most of his production came on sweeps and outside-tackle plays last season. Part of that was due to the fact that we simply didn't get to see Wheatley operate much in between the tackles so while there may be a big question mark for now, the potential is definitely there for Wheatley to surprise.
Cole Beck and Caleb Steward highlight the returning freshmen who redshirted last season with Steward having a solid Spring Game. However, Beck has always felt more like an "offensive weapon" to be used in the slot and on screens and jet sweeps rather than a true RB while up till his solid Spring Game, questions were raised about whether Steward had the potential to even be a contributor for the Hokies with his high school tape and production being sub-par before arriving at VT.
Tavien Feaster would have alleviated Virginia Tech's running back questions but there is clearly the potential for the Hokies to find a true lead running back for the first time under Justin Fuente especially if Deshawn McClease can find some consistency over a 12+ game season.
However, there's no way for that concern to go away until we see if the Hokies have someone step up on August 31st at Chestnut Hill.
Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
Stay up with The Tech Lunch Pail for the latest on Virginia Tech. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Subscribe to our email updates.