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By Grant Mitchell | October 20
Photo: Nell Redmond, USA Today

It’s no secret; senior running back Khalil Herbert has won over the Hokie fan base.

The former Kansas Jayhawk has put up an absurd 592 yards in only four games so far this season. Combine this with five total trips past the pylons, already tied for a career high, and you are looking at one of the most dominant forces on the ground this year. But where did he come from?

Born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Herbert was almost never a Hokie at all. The running back spent his first four years of college at the University of Kansas before citing “personal issues” four games into the season, presenting him with an option that he had not considered.

While Herbert never intended to transfer, he had to make the best of his situation. Given that redshirt eligibility disappears after participation in five games, and that Herbert was already listed second in the depth chart behind sophomore back Pooka Williams, it became clear that the best option would be to forgo the rest of the 2019-20 season, train harder, and return for one last year of college football at a new location.

It just so happened that Virginia Tech would become the perfect landing spot for the 5’9 212lb bruiser affectionately known as "Juice".

The Hokies were in search of offensive firepower to compliment dynamic quarterback Hendon Hooker and explosive receiver Tre Turner following former tailback Deshawn McClease’s departure for the NFL. Herbert has taken over the spot and never looked back.

Herbert got off to a similar start during his final season as a Jayhawk, averaging 8.9 yards on his 43 carries. Maybe, perhaps, this season is a continuation of the dominance that the star back flashed, but never got to fully display as the featured ball carrier.

According to a recent Bleacher Report article, the current best running backs in college football are Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard, Clemson’s Travis Etienne, and Alabama’s Najee Harris. What is not being talked about is that Khalil Herbert has gotten off to a better start than all of these players through the first four games of the season: and has done so convincingly.

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Photo: Virginia Tech Athletics

First, let’s look at Hubbard. The Alabama-born junior has gained 339 yards on the ground, maintaining an average of 4.9 yards per carry, and has scored four touchdowns so far this season. The Cowboys are off to a good start posting a 3-0 record and are currently ranked 6th in the nation. Unfortunately, OSU’s matchup last weekend against Baylor was postponed, so we must calculate Hubbard’s projected stats through four games based on his current clip. At that pace, Hubbard would have 452 yards and five touchdowns after four games.

Next, Etienne. The former national champion has been the bell cow for the Tigers and has put up 392 yards and four touchdowns with 7.0 YPC in his first four games of the fall. Etienne flashed his breakaway speed against the Miami Hurricanes on the 10th of the month with a 72-yard scamper to the end zone and is a threat to add a new clip to his highlight reel any time that he touches the ball. Etienne is also multitalented, adding 17 receptions for 245 yards and a touchdown to this season’s resume.

Finally, Harris. The fourth-year man has already scored a staggering 11 touchdowns while rushing for 499 yards, averaging a 6.0 yard gain every time that he touches the pigskin. Arguably the biggest name of the three and an almost guaranteed future first-round pick, Harris is on pace to run for 33 touchdowns assuming a twelve-game season, which would tie the second-best mark all time.

Back to Herbert. The Hokies’ leading man has earned 592 yards on the ground and carried the rock for four rushing touchdowns and one receiving touchdown while pacing himself at an astounding 9.7 YPC through the first four games of the season. Of the three highlighted candidates from the running back position, Herbert finds himself tied for second in rushing and total touchdowns and first in both yards and YPC. In fact, "Juice" has rushed for the second most yards through four games in the past 10 years of ACC play beating out Lamar Jackson, Dalvin Cook and Lamar Miller.

Now, let’s compare the Virginia Tech running back’s projected stats, based on his current pace through the first four games of the season, against the three most recent Heisman winners from the running back position: Derrick Henry, Mark Ingram, and Ron Dayne (Reggie Bush won in 2005 but had his award vacated after it was revealed that he had received improper benefits from the University of Southern California, where he attended school).

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Herbert will be looking to join a coveted list of Hesiman winners.

During Derrick Henry’s spectacular 2015 season at the University of Alabama not only did he win the national championship, he also posted 2,219 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns on 395 carries, averaging out to 5.6 YPC. This was an immense workload for Henry, who despite playing only 15 games toted the rock nine times more than the NFL’s leader in attempts last season… Derrick Henry. Let’s leave that there.

Mark Ingram, a fellow member of a national title-winning Crimson Tide squad, won his Heisman as a sophomore during which he ran for 1,658 yards in 14 games, scoring 17 touchdowns on the ground and three through the air while averaging 6.1 YPC. Ingram followed this season up with a less impressive but still productive junior season before declaring for the NFL draft and being taken 28th overall by the New Orleans Saints.

The third name, Ron Dayne, is often forgotten in football history, but that does not diminish the incredible season that he had. Dayne led his Wisconsin team with 2,034 yards and 20 touchdowns on 337 attempts in 12 games, yielding 6.0 YPC. Dayne capped off his incredible senior year with a Rose Bowl victory over UCLA, 38-31.

So how does Herbert compare? Well, at this rate, he would average as follows.

12-game season (like Dayne): 1,776 rushing yards and 15 total touchdowns on 183 carries with 9.7 YPC.

14-game season (like Ingram): 2,072 rushing yards and 18 total touchdowns on 214 carries with 9.7 YPC.

15-game season (like Henry): 2,220 rushing yards and 19 total touchdowns on 229 carries with 9.7 YPC.

The numbers show that Herbert is right in line with the previous winners despite having a significantly lesser workload; but the real question is how can he guarantee himself a Heisman?

Photo: Virginia Tech Athletics

Outside of the obvious, such as staying healthy, he needs to get lots of carries. Herbert is projected to rush fewer times than all of the mentioned winners and members of his competition and needs to be the focal point of Tech’s attack to have a chance at the Heisman.

Herbert also needs to help his team win games. He will be facing stark competition from quarterbacks Justin Fields, Trevor Lawrence and Kyle Trask, all of whom will also be expected to win. This means that there cannot be any future losses to conference opponents, even if they are ranked 8th like UNC. Herbert must consistently dominate between the hash marks and provide highlight-quality material down the sidelines.

The race is just beginning… but if Herbert is as fast to the award as he is to the end zone, he could do something that no Hokie before him could: bring a Heisman trophy to Blacksburg for the first time.