Watching Khalil Herbert regularly run roughshod over much of Virginia Tech’s competition last season was a lot of fun, as the Hokies hadn’t seen a runner like Herbert since David Wilson, which marked the end of a string of exceptional Hokie running backs.
But watching Herbert last season gave me a sad feeling in the pit of my stomach. For one, I was disappointed that neither Herbert nor the Virginia Tech fanbase ever got to connect with each other in person. Hokies will never be able to physically watch Herbert play football inside Lane Stadium, and that pains me.
Secondly, I knew that Herbert was headed to the pros after 2020. Everyone knew — graduate transfers usually don’t stick around.
Herbert’s departure leaves Virginia Tech with a large void at running back, a vacancy that has many options but none that stand out.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that fifth-year back Jalen Holston is the favorite to assume most of the carries. The former Wing-T fullback has played in a lot of games over his previous four seasons — 35 to be exact — but while showing flashes of brilliance, his production hasn't been consistent. Holston averaged 4.7 yards per carry last season, just above his career average of 4.1.
Even at 215 pounds, there’s concern that Holston may not be durable enough to be the workhorse. Most of that is because he’s never been asked, as Holston never carried the ball more than 70 times in a season. By comparison, Herbert carried the ball 155 times last season and spent much of the second half injured.
Offensive weapon Raheem Blackshear will get some carries as well, though the question with him is how the coaching staff plans on using him from game-to-game. Blackshear actually carried the ball 26 more times than Holston in 2020, but Blackshear’s use as a slot receiver and running back allow both Holston and Blackshear to see the field together.
After these two, Virginia Tech’s roster is full of wet-behind-the-ears backs with little to no experience. Marco Lee played in just two games for Tech last season after transferring from junior college. Keshawn King has a world of talent but also at times struggled to hold on to the football. Tahj Gary redshirted after playing in two games in 2019, and then played just once last season. Kenji Christian, Malachi Thomas and Chance Black are all in their first year in the program.
Fortunately, Tech has plenty of options to choose from. They’ve overrecruited the position consistently under Justin Fuente’s leadership, only to find that their most productive players are transfers. The Hokies will have plenty of bodies to choose from, it’s just a matter of finding players who are more than "Just A Guy."
Finding those players is critical to Tech’s offense, which is predicated on read-option and zone running schemes. The Hokies need a back to draw attention off Braxton Burmeister, and they need other backs capable of keeping everyone fresh.
Fuente, offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen, and running backs coach Adam Lechtenberg have their work cut out for them.
Because Khalil Herbert isn’t walking through the Merryman doors any time soon.