Throughout spring camp, the questions have been fired away at them.
"Are you big enough?" "Are you experienced enough?" "Are there things you still haven't grasped in the playbook?"
Virginia Tech’s two freshman running backs — Michael Holmes and J.C. Coleman — have their work cut out for them this upcoming season. Yet only one question truly matters come August.
"Can you replace David Wilson?"
“Everyone has to prove something,” Holmes said. “No one has a proven spot, so everyone has to work hard.”
Holmes, who has an extra semester on campus than Coleman, showed a burst last Saturday in the Hokies’ third mini-scrimmage. His 60-yard touchdown burst out of the pistol formation wowed head coach Frank Beamer.
“I think he’s kind of learning, but when he gets out there, he’s running away from people,” Beamer said. “People can’t catch him. Then, he’s a big body, runs with power.”
After redshirting this past fall, Holmes now has a better grasp of the playbook than when he first arrived in Blacksburg last August. That familiarity is helping him grow as a player.
“The defense was still flying around,” Holmes said. “Everything is slowing down for me, though.”
A bit of an under-the-radar recruit, Holmes was the definition of productive as a high school player. In his senior season at Harrisonburg High School, Holmes rushed for 2,877 yards and 41 touchdowns.
While Holmes may be used to being a workhorse running back, he may be asked to catch the ball out of the backfield or line up in the shotgun this season. Offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring and quarterbacks coach Mike O’Cain are inserting a pistol formation this season.
“Sometimes, you probably can’t even see us back there behind (6-foot-6 quarterback) Logan (Thomas),” Holmes said of the pistol set. “That’s probably a plus.”
The other running back, Coleman, still has a ways to go as far as seeing major playing time this fall.
At just 5-foot-7, Coleman hails from football powerhouse Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake, Va. Opting to enroll in January, Coleman now has a head start on the rest of the 2012 recruiting class.
While he may not be on Holmes’ level in terms of knowing where to go, O’Cain likes where Coleman is, mentally.
“We've been pleased with him because he makes virtually no mental mistakes,” O'Cain said. “He's not as full-speed as you'd like for him to be yet, and part of that is he's still thinking.”
Running backs coach Shane Beamer, who watched Wilson rush for 1,709 yards last year, is looking for some very basic things from his running backs this spring.
“It’s pass protection, it’s route running, it’s catching the ball, carrying the ball — that type of thing,” he said. “We want to be able to walk out of this spring and say we can count on these guys. Then, if one of these incoming freshmen is a part of it, that’s an added bonus.”
Pass protection, an area in which many young running backs struggle, has been a point of focus for Coleman this spring.
"Everybody wants to play right away, but I know what I have to do before I can play," Coleman said. "I'm trying to learn a lot before the season starts. I feel like being here right now is going to help me get in games this year."
Martin Scales, a fullback last season, has been working at the running back position this spring. Tony Gregory is still recovering from a torn left ACL. Incoming freshman Drew Harris will be on campus in July, and figures to challenge for playing time this year as well.
No matter who gets the bulk of the carries this fall, the weight of the offense will fall on the shoulders of its quarterback Thomas. With the possible addition of more spread formations, the Hokies won’t be forced to hand it off to one guy 20 times a game like they were with Wilson last year. If one or two players separate themselves in the eyes of Shane Beamer, the future looks bright at running back.