October 2, 2022

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Virginia Tech 2022 spring position previews: Running backs | Virginia Tech

BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech is gearing up for its first spring camp under new coach Brent Pry. The Roanoke Times is taking a position-by-position look at the roster before the Hokies return to the practice field on March 18.

Virginia Tech’s running backs are next…

  • Departing (2): Raheem Blackshear (NFL), Tahj Gary (transfer)
  • Returning (8): Jalen Holston (R-Sr), Marco Lee (R-Sr), Keshawn King (Jr), Jalen Hampton (R-Fr), Jordan Brunson (R-Fr), Malachi Thomas (Soph), Chance Black (R-Fr), Kenji Christian (R-Fr)
  • Early enrollees (1): Bryce Duke
  • Fall enrollees: N/A

The size of Tech’s running back room has become a running joke amongst fans.

The Hokies dropped under 10 scholarship running backs for the first time since 2019 when Tahj Gary entered the transfer portal in January.

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Tech’s ongoing struggle to get that number under control — Tech had as many as 13 running backs at one point in 2020 — has created a numbers crunch at other positions while offering very little upside. The previous staff only utilized three running backs in 2020 and four running backs last fall.

Pry and new running backs coach Stu Holt want to get that number down to five or six, but that’s not going to happen overnight. Holt will face the same logistical challenges former running backs coach Adam Lechtenberg did last spring in trying to get everyone reps.

Tech’s previous coaching staff spent the last two offseasons talking about Jalen Holston as a viable contender for the starting job only for him to remain a bit player in the offense.

He had 53 carries for 199 yards last season with much of those coming during the first six weeks of the season. He periodically took to social media to vent some frustration as he went six weeks without a carry going into the Pinstripe Bowl.

Holston has never let that irritation spill over into the practice field where he’s remained one of the team’s hardest workers. In February, he was one of the players recognized by the new staff in the first week of the “Hunger Drills”, the winter workouts supervised by Tech’s new coaches.

Will Holt be able to unlock the potential the previous staff always talked about? Can he land the starting job in year six? That would be a rare feat for someone who has never carried the ball 15 times in a single game or had 10 or more carries in back-to-back games.

Keshawn King, who is a few years younger, is in a similar spot.

It feels like his career has been a series of false starts — injuries have contributed to that — since his breakout performance against Furman in 2019. He brought back memories of that game with nine carries for 90 yards and a 47-yard touchdown catch in a win over Duke last fall, but that came in the midst of a blowout.

The goal for the new offensive staff will be getting more productive out of King’s obvious athleticism.

Malachi Thomas wouldn’t be a bad pick here.

The 2021 signee showed real promise as a freshman when he had 59 carries for 324 yards with three touchdowns during an impressive three-game stretch at midseason. He could really benefit from a full offseason in the weight room — he was listed at 6-foot-0 and 197-pounds last year — considering he showed a knack for pushing the pile forward even with a slight frame.

The slightly more intriguing option is former junior college transfer Marco Lee.

It made sense in 2020 when Lee didn’t get an opportunity in the wake of Khalil Herbert’s breakout season.

Lee’s continued absence from the lineup last fall was a bit perplexing. He didn’t get so much as a single carry over a four week stretch early in the year when Tech averaged 3.1 yards per carry. The previous coaching staff decided to preserve Lee’s redshirt year once it reached midseason since he didn’t factor into their plans assuming he would transfer.

Tech made a coaching change and Lee is staying put for now. The good news for Lee is that Holt likes his size — he was listed just shy of 230 pounds on last year’s roster — and can envision a role for him in the offense.

Just as murky as it was last year.

Tech’s struggles in the run game date back to Frank Beamer’s tenure. After David Wilson won the ACC Offensive Player in the Year in 2011, the team’s production fell off a cliff. The previous staff found success with a few transfers, but their track record with running backs coming out of high school was abysmal. They compounded the problem by signing an abundance of backs who ended up buried on the bench.

Holt, who is also the team’s special teams coordinator, might find a role for a few more of those unused guys covering kicks, but that doesn’t exactly solve any of the team’s larger issues at the position.

  • Tech position previews: Quarterbacks
  • Tech position previews: Running backs
  • Tech position previews: Wide receivers (March 15)
  • Tech position previews: Offensive line (March 15)
  • Tech position previews: Tight ends (March 16)
  • Tech position previews: Defensive tackles (March 16)
  • Tech position previews: Defensive ends (March 17)
  • Tech position previews: Linebackers (March 17)
  • Tech position previews: Cornerbacks (March 18)
  • Tech position previews: Safety (March 18)

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