No, seriously this time.
After shuffling through four backs throughout all of last season, with none ever assuming the mantle of The Guy, running backs coach Shane Beamer‘s mission this spring is to find the top guy or guys in his stable of backs and play them.
“I felt like I did a poor job last year in a lot of ways, but not being able to say, ‘This is our guy, this is our guy. Here’s kind of a pecking order,’” Beamer said. “Scot [Loeffler] and I talked about it [Tuesday], being able to identify a back early. … I like the way we’re working, but certainly we’d like to get kind of a solidified rotation coming out of spring.”
How scattered was the rotation last year? A Hokies tailback got more than 13 carries only twice last year – J.C. Coleman had 16 carries for 41 yards against Florida State and Tony Gregory 14 carries for 69 yards at Boston College.
Virginia Tech’s four backs each had double digit carry games throughout the year — Coleman with five, Gregory with three, Michael Holmes with two and Martin Scales with two — although it produced only one game in which a single runner had more than 70 yards (Coleman’s 183 against Duke).
While it kept everyone in the game, it didn’t necessarily bolster the Hokies’ ground game, which ranked 79th nationally at 145.8 yards per game, mostly because of the load quarterback Logan Thomas shouldered throughout the year. In fact, Coleman’s 492 rushing yards were the lowest by Virginia Tech’s lead running back since 1967.
So it’s easy to see why the give-everyone-a-chance approach isn’t sticking around this year.
“It’s going to be some guys that aren’t going to be happy about the way we’re doing things,” Coleman said. “Last year everybody was able to get a taste of the game action. This year, it might not be like that. It definitely puts a lot of pressure on the running backs, because we have to earn our spot in the rotation.”
For now, Coleman sits atop the running back depth chart, followed by four backs — Gregory and Holmes, plus redshirt freshmen Trey Edmunds and Chris Mangus. Beamer says not to read much into that. Coleman finished last year as the No. 1 guy, so he started there again, but nothing is solidified at this point.
Edmunds is perhaps the most intriguing player of the spring. He nearly played last year after some tantalizing moments in preseason scrimmages, but the coaches decided to redshirt him because of a concern about reps.
This year, at 6-foot-1, 215 pounds — 15 more than when he signed last February — he’s still among the fastest backs in the rotation, having matched Coleman’s 40 time in offseason workouts. There’s an excitement about the Danville product, who ran for 2,596 yards and 33 touchdowns as a senior at Dan River High.
“Great kid, first of all,” Beamer said. “Wants to be good. Wants to be great and it’s important to him. Studies the game. He really takes pride in his work. Extremely explosive. You guys all saw what he ran the 40 in. I mean, I saw it with my own eyes. He can run.
“And then to have that strength and that power, it’s exciting and it’s intriguing, particularly when it’s a good kid like that. He’s just raw, very raw. We knew that last fall. He’s gotten better on some things fundamentally. We’ve just got to keep cleaning that up, but it’s just intriguing to do that.”
Beamer called Edmunds “country strong,” able to stand up linebacker and defensive ends in the Hokies’ pass blocking drills.
“He’s just so strong naturally that he was able to go in there and battle and win and things like that,” Beamer said. “You kind of refine that and get it in there where it’s under control and sharper. That’s exciting, that potential. And then you see the power in him. And he was already fast, but to put on 15 pounds and then still run like he did. It’s not fat that he put on. It’s muscle. And he’s impressive when he walks in the door.”
The crowded backfield means some players might move to different positions if they’re not in the rotation. To alleviate the strain on reps, Tech already has moved newcomer Jerome Wright to fullback. Beamer says the 229-pounder is light on his feet for that size and could bring some versatility to the position.
Regardless of where everyone plays and in what order, the Hokies are trying to get back to basics, attempting to perfect one running play right now — a simple, one-cut run — that they can rely on out of a variety of formations. Whoever can consistently do it best will probably shoot to the top of the depth chart.
“It’s wide open,” Beamer said. “They’ve got 15 opportunities to show what they can do. Every practice counts. We’re evaluating after every practice.”