BLACKSBURG, Va. — After the ball sailed through Virginia Tech running back Trey Edmunds’s hands during practice Tuesday, position coach Shane Beamer grimaced from a few feet away. But by the time Edmunds had turned around to see his coach’s reaction, well aware of his careless mistake, Beamer’s frown had turned into a smile and a quick word of encouragement.
Positive reinforcement has been Beamer’s strategy because the “veteran” in his tailback stable this year is J.C. Coleman, who’s only a sophomore. The rest hadn’t played a college snap before the 2013 season, and it has shown in recent weeks.
But behind this effervescent facade is a realization that the Hokies will go only so far with their rushing attack stuck in neutral.
“We’re not gonna be able to win games the rest of October and November if we’re running the ball for 40 yards a game or whatever it is,” Beamer acknowledged this week. “We’ve got to get that going.”
After an offseason in which Coach Frank Beamer made reigniting his once-powerful running game the most important goal, No. 24 Virginia Tech (5-1) enters Saturday’s home matchup with Pittsburgh (3-1) on a five-game winning streak despite being ranked 12th in the ACC in rushing. The Hokies have finished with 55 rushing yards or less in three of their past four games.
It’s partly because of the eight-man fronts that defenses have used against the Hokies this year. In response, quarterback Logan Thomas and Virginia Tech’s receivers have gotten progressively better every week with opponents stacking the box. But the lack of rushing yards “drives you nuts,” offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler said.
To remedy the situation, Shane Beamer said the offensive coaches were in the office “extra late” Monday trying to pinpoint what exactly is holding back Virginia Tech’s rushing attack. There are several factors, from an offensive line Beamer called “beat up as hell” this week to young tailbacks who have struggled at times identifying the proper running lanes to a receiving corps that features a freshman tight end and several inexperienced wideouts who still are learning to block on the perimeter.
“It’s obviously something that nobody is feeling like right now we’re where we need to be,” offensive line coach Jeff Grimes said. “If you look at the results, it’s a results-driven business, and we have not run the ball well enough.”
The Hokies have, however, shown flashes they can move the ball on the ground against the best. In Virginia Tech’s season-opening loss to No. 1 Alabama, it churned out 153 rushing yards against a defense that ranks sixth nationally against the run, including a 77-yard touchdown run by Edmunds.
Beamer mentioned this week that the multitude of formations Loeffler has used this year could be behind the inconsistency. Last weekend in a 27-17 win over North Carolina, for instance, Beamer pointed to a play call that was similar to the one used when Edmunds burst through Alabama’s defensive front for his long touchdown run.
But because the Hokies hadn’t practiced it as much in recent weeks, in part because of the installation of new formations to combat the Tar Heels’ defense, Edmunds chose the wrong lane and ended up with a minimal gain.
“It’s just things sometimes that Trey is gonna see for the first time,” Beamer said. “If he had just seen the backside, he’d still be running.”
Edmunds said after the game he’s not frustrated by his recent struggles — he’s averaging 3.1 yards per carry since the Alabama game — because the passing attack has thrived as a result. But Coleman, who returned to full strength last weekend after a high-ankle sprain limited him the first month of the season, indicated the scrutiny — and lack of success — has begun to wear on him.
“Everybody is talking about how bad we are,” said Coleman, who finished with 492 yards last year, the fewest for Virginia Tech’s top tailback since 1967. “To kind of be the negative crutch on the offense, that’s eating away at me and probably the rest of the running backs as well.”
Nonetheless, with a chance to ice last weekend’s win over North Carolina, the Hokies turned to the ground game. After a muffed punt by the Tar Heels set up Virginia Tech in prime field position, Loeffler called the same running play six straight times until Edmunds barreled into the end zone from one yard out.
It was the sort of statement Beamer hopes will become more frequent starting Saturday.
“It’s not like we’re sitting here going: ‘We can’t run the ball. What are we going to do?’ ” Beamer said. “We’re confident that we can run the ball.”