With Khalil Herbert gone, Hokies have clear running back plan entering camp
Virginia Tech football officially kicked off its 2021 football season on Wednesday, as the program hosted its first in-person media day in two years at the Beamer-Lawson Indoor Practice Facility in Blacksburg.
With the COVID-riddled 2020 football season in the rearview mirror and 2021 clearly in focus, a common question (and obvious one) was how the team planned on replacing the production of Second-Team All-ACC running back Khalil Herbert.
After transferring into the program from Kansas prior to the 2020 campaign, Herbert delivered in a major way - rushing for 1,183 yards and eight scores on the ground, while averaging 7.6 yards per carry. Herbert delivered the program's best running game since the 2011 season with David Wilson.
Naturally, a popular question at Wednesday's media day was whether or not the Hokies could replace Herbert's production, and if so, with who?
"There are some guys that have some experience, from Raheem [Blackshear], Jalen [Holston], and Keshawn [King]. Those are the guys with the most experience underneath them heading into the fall. Those will be the guys that kind of mix in the most there with probably the first group up front," offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen said on Wednesday.
"Khalil had a great year...and it's time for the next guy to step up and fill those shoes."
The sentiment was echoed by starting quarterback Braxton Burmeister, who expects big things from the stable of running backs in the backfield.
"It's always hard to lose a playmaker like Khalil...but there are a bunch of guys in the backfield like Raheem Blackshear, Jalen Holston, and Keshawn King who are capable [of filling his shoes]."
There's no doubt that this trio has the game reps and experience that warrant a large role - at least to start the season.
Holston has had an up-and-down career with the Hokies, as the senior has been used sparingly over the years due to injury and being jumped on the depth chart. Over parts of four seasons with the Hokies, Holston has carried the ball 173 times for 715 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 4.1 yards per carry in the process. His best season came in 2018, as rushed for 281 yards and two touchdowns, averaging nearly five yards per attempt.
Keshawn King had a strong freshman campaign in 2019, bursting onto the scene as a change-of-pace running back with good burst out of the backfield. In 11 games as a freshman, King rushed for 340 yards and two touchdowns, with a 4.3 yards per carry average. However, King only appeared in two games last season and did not record a carry, as he battled offseason injury and playing weight concerns.
Raheem Blackshear is a name that Hokies fans heard much about heading into the season last year. While Herbert quickly stole the show out of the backfield, it was Blackshear that garnered the preseason headlines. After being ruled immediately eligible to play for Tech last fall following his transfer from Rutgers, Blackshear quickly became a focal point of conversation due to his elusiveness, versatility, and speed.
Blackshear battled a hamstring injury throughout parts of the 2020 season, but Tech fans were able to see glimpses of his potential. Blackshear recorded 66 carries for 243 yards and two touchdowns a year ago, and added 18 receptions for 154 yards (most of which came out of the slot).
Blackshear, if healthy, provides a threat both out of the backfield and split out as a receiver, and could be in for a big year two with the program. When asked on Wednesday about what he believes his role is with the offense this year, Blackshear did not shy away.
"I definitely feel like a hybrid player that can be used anywhere. I want to line up all over the field."
While it remains to be seen whether or not Herbert's production can be fully replaced in 2021, Tech's coaching staff will lean on the veterans in the backfield to start fall camp. If the trio is unable to get the consistency that the staff is looking for, there are no shortage of players to choose from. Running back has been one of the most over-recruited positions on the entire roster, but there are not many players with the experience of Holston, Blackshear, or King.
It will be interesting to see how it plays out in camp, but the staff has a plan to start. Only time will tell if it comes to fruition.
A note on a couple other running backs...
Many were asking on social media about the status of freshmen running backs Jordan Brunson and Jalen Hampton after they did not appear in the position group photos provided on HokieSports.com. A team spokesman told me on Thursday morning that they remain on the roster with no official change to their status with the program. Take that as you will.