BLACKSBURG — Call it confidence. Call it naivete. Call it hubris.
Whatever it was, Hokies running back Travon McMillian wasn’t shy about setting lofty goals for himself heading into the 2016 season, Justin Fuente’s first as Virginia Tech’s coach.
McMillian, who was fresh off Tech’s first 1,000-yard season since David Wilson in 2011, set his bar as high as 1,600 to 1,800 rushing yards, a prediction that looked foolish in hindsight after his sophomore campaign produced just 671 yards.
But the redshirt junior’s a year older and wiser now, having spent a full season in Fuente’s offense and now possessing a firmer grasp of everything the Hokies are trying to accomplish with their running backs. And it doesn’t boil down to the number of carries and yards each back gets.
“Every time you’re out there on the field, you want to execute your play,” McMillian said. “You’ve got to do your job every play. So each and every down when I’m out there, I focus on doing my job to win. It’s doing the small things right, focusing on details and things like that.”
If there’s a positive sign in the progress of Virginia Tech’s running backs, it’s that the most veteran guy in the room isn’t talking about carries and yards, but the things Fuente and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen have been preaching for the year and a half they’ve been in Blacksburg.
“[It’s] the details of all those other things those guys have to do in your offense, particularly in an offense like ours where we ask those guys to block for the receivers on the jet sweeps,” Cornelsen said. “There’s a number of different ways that we scheme those plays that those guys have to know how to fit, who to block.
“That takes some time and I’ve seen a big improvement, which is going to help our offense getting the ball to the perimeter, because that position, in particular, has gotten better at that sort of thing. That is a good example I think of things that you may not see, that don’t show up on stats but is extremely important to what we do.”
Tech has no shortage of backs — nor types of backs — to rely upon. McMillian’s the veteran of the group, whose 1,714 career rushing yards are tops among returning running tailbacks in the ACC. At 6 feet, 210 pounds, he’s a strong blend of size and speed.
But Fuente has expressed a desire to deploy his entire arsenal of performers at the position, despite some inexperience.
Junior Steven Peoples is a load at 5-foot-9, 220 pounds, someone who’s benefitted from a full-time move from H-back to tailback.
“Steven coming back there to fully work there has really helped his efficiency, rather than him splitting time between the H-back role and the tailback role,” Fuente said.
Deshawn McClease is a smaller, shiftier back at 5-foot-9, 190 pounds, although Fuente says he packs a big punch for his size. The redshirt sophomore’s yet to break through on the field, set back by a labrum tear in last year’s opener against Liberty that kept him out nearly the entire season.
Then there’s 5-foot-11, 219-pound true freshman Jalen Holston, a more bruising option who arrived this summer, but seems like a safe bet to play a significant role this season.
“He’s tough. He’s downhill,” running backs coach Zohn Burden said. “And he brings a different kind of element as a young guy to the running back room. And he’s also a leader, a young leader. And it’s tough to be able to come here as a freshman and actually lead by example. He doesn’t say much but he just works hard.”
Tech’s ground attack had a resurgence in Fuente’s first season, with the Hokies’ 183.07 yards per game their most since Wilson’s record-setting season in 2011 (186.86). But that was done largely on the shoulders of quarterback Jerod Evans, whose 846 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns led the team.
From an efficiency standpoint, the Hokies’ tailbacks left plenty to be desired. The group ran for 1,426 yards on 327 carries, a 4.36-yard average. Compare that to the 5.22 yards Tech’s tailbacks averaged in Wilson’s final season, the last time the Hokies had a rushing attack that ranked in the top 30 nationally.
Yet as much as the Hokies will need their tailbacks to shoulder a larger portion of the rushing load with Evans gone, they’ll need them to function within the offense, especially when they don’t touch the ball.
McMillian, who saw his carries drop from 200 in 2015 to 145 last year, knows that better than anyone. He struggled at times with his blocking last fall and saw his playing time fluctuate as a result.
“I didn’t know the drastic change of the offense,” he said. “You’ve got to be a confident player. You’ve got to set goals for yourself and accomplish them for yourself. If you can’t believe in yourself, nobody will.”
Blocking is a focal point, with McMillian, who’s putting extra attention into reading the type of defensive fronts he’s up against every time he lines up on the field, even when he knows the ball is going elsewhere.
“I want to make sure my hands are inside [on pass protection],” he said. “Just small details you really want to hone in on to get better.”
It was easy to let a lot of that work fall to Rogers last year. The do-all back was Tech’s best blocker in the backfield and a consummate team leader, both on and off the field — a role McMillian, a former quarterback who’s used to taking charge of a room, has tried to fill as the backfield’s veteran.
McMillian thinks it’s possible to be a 1,000-yard back in Fuente’s offense, even though no one’s achieved that since Ed Wesley ran for 1,078 yards in 2010 for TCU when Fuente was the Horned Frogs’ offensive coordinator.
“It’s a different system,” McMillian said. “Everything is different. With [Frank] Beamer, I touched the ball a lot more. I was a featured back. This offense is schematically not the same. So you’ve got to figure out small details, figure out what you’ve got to get better at to try to get to that 1,000-yard mark.”