Hokies' success on offense in 2017 starts on the ground

The talk of spring practice at Virginia Tech will no doubt be the quarterbacks, but as coach Justin Fuente made abundantly clear this week, that’s the least of his concerns on offense.

Who’ll replace the production of Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges?

How will the O-line gel?

Can his players hang on to the football?

And, of course, the ground game. That pesky ground game.

“I don’t know who’s going to play running back, either,” Fuente said, noting the inconsistency of last season's group.

Indeed, the 2016 numbers were less than gaudy.

Virginia Tech averaged less than 4 yards per carry overall in eight of 14 games. Many of the best runs were from quarterback Jerod Evans, who departed at season's end for the NFL draft. On non-QB runs, the Hokies averaged 3.92 yards per carry against FBS foes, 59th of 65 Power 5 teams. They ranked 57th in first-down yards per rush, 50th in yards before contact, 61st in yards after contact, and they were the worst Power 5 team in the country at converting third-and-short runs.

So yeah, Fuente has cause for concern.

“We have a couple guys who haven’t played much have great offseasons that have me cautiously optimistic,” Fuente said. “That is another question mark undoubtedly. We were not very productive there last year, and I’m anxious to see those guys practice and see who can do it consistently.”

That list of “guys who haven’t played much” isn’t likely to wow anyone outside the program. Redshirt sophomore Deshawn McClease and redshirt junior D.J. Reid have had minimal impact despite their years in Blacksburg. Freshman Terius Wheatley, the son of Michigan legend Tyrone Wheatley, joins the mix, too, though certainly the Hokies aren’t expecting the pedigree to translate to his dad’s level of production immediately.

The most likely candidate for carries remains Travon McMillian, who had a solid enough freshman season under the previous coaching staff but never seemed to be on solid footing after Fuente’s arrival. After what seemed like a potential breakthrough performance against Miami last season (18 carries, 131 yards), McMillian managed just 53 carries (and 213 yards) over the Hokies’ final seven games, topping 40 yards on the ground just once. His 1.77 yards after contact average ranked 16th among ACC running backs, and his work between the tackles was less than impressive.

Looking back at last season, of Virginia Tech’s 13 games against FBS opponents, its non-QB rushers averaged 4 yards per carry, while its opponents allowed 5.18 yards per rush in their other FBS games. That’s 23 percent below average. Overall, there were just three games when the Hokies’ rushers bested their opponent average: Miami, Duke and Virginia. Two of those were blowouts, with the bulk of the production coming in the second half.

That doesn’t mean the sky is falling, of course. And as Fuente said, there’s reason for “cautious optimism” this spring.

But it’s also worth noting that 2016's limited performance came during a season in which the quarterback play was strong.

“As far as why we weren’t as productive, I don’t know,” Fuente said. “We look at our scheme, at our offensive line, we made some plays in the passing game, our QB ran it a little bit. We made some plays and found ways to be effective.”

Will the Hokies find those same ways to be effective in 2017? That’s a tough scenario to envision with so much talent gone, which only serves to underscore the need for the backs to hold on to the ball, the line to open more holes and, most important, the overall ground game to blossom into a legitimate threat.