From the early years of coaching football for Beulah youth athletic association, Robert Ashby still recalls a number of people who would come up to him and marvel, saying they had never seen an eight-year-old play linebacker the way his son, Rayshard Ashby, did.
Now preparing for his junior season at Virginia Tech, linebacker Rayshard Ashby possesses the same intangibles he’s held from an early age, with the biggest of those being the competition that fuels his fire.
“My motivation comes every day,” Ashby said. “I love to compete… I always think I’m competing every day no matter how much I played or started. Any time someone can take my position…competition in general motivates me.”
Ashby’s father, Robert, noticed that competitive nature whenever he played a sport, whether it was football, basketball or baseball. Rayshard was surely never one to back down from a challenge, even as an undersized center on the court.
“He just loved to compete,” Robert said. “Competing is just him. I can’t say exactly who he got it from, it’s just who he is. He’s quiet. He won’t say it, but Rayshard is one of those people instead of me telling you, I’m going to show you.
“His AAU basketball team, when they were in the 11U, they won the National Championship for Division II with him playing center. There was this one team that was just dominating. One of the players was 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3. Rayshard couldn’t have been more than 5-foot-7 or 5-foot-8 at the time, and he just said I want to play them. They thought we were going to get blown out, and we ended up winning that game. He’s just always had that level of competition.”
It was Ashby’s lack of size, standing 5-foot-10 now, that caused him to be lightly recruited despite the eye-popping stats that he recorded in high school at L.C. Bird in Chesterfield, Virginia. Ashby burst onto the scene as a just turned 13-year-old eighth grader who led the Skyhawks’ JV team in tackles, while going up against players two or three years his senior.
The hard-hitting linebacker racked up over 100 tackles in all four years on varsity, earning himself the nickname ‘Rook’ as a freshman. His senior year, Ashby was named a 5A All-State First Team player and 5A State Defensive Player of the Year with a staggering 117 tackles, 25 sacks, three interceptions, and five forced fumbles.
“Scouts and coaches always used to tell him when he was getting recruited that he would be a five-star linebacker had you just been 6-foot-1,” Robert said. “He’s heard that several times. Competing was never the problem. They always loved his film and loved how he played, it was just some recruiters were nervous about his height.”
Bud Foster and the Hokies are now reaping the benefits. Ashby was the team’s leading tackler last season with 105, earning All-ACC Honorable Mention honors despite missing two starts due to injury.
Throughout his time in Blacksburg, Bud Foster and Justin Fuente have raved about Ashby’s instincts at linebacker. It’s his cerebral ability that often gives Ashby a leg up on the competition.
Part of that intellect on the field dates back to Ashby’s youth football experiences. Coach Chamont Thompson, now head coach at Meadowbrook High School in Richmond, gave Ashby play calling responsibilities from the time he was just eight. Then an assistant coach at L.C. Bird, Thompson brought that same system to the youth league, and allowed Ashby to morph into the quarterback of the defense.
“Coach Thompson had given him a lot of responsibility as far as he’s been calling the defense since he was eight years old,” Robert said. “[Rayshard] could tell you what every person was supposed to do. Our defense, we were basically running L.C. Bird’s.
“He’s always had that responsibility. Mentally he was just smart, but he got that ever since he was eight. I give credit to coach Thompson because I wouldn’t give a kid at eight years old that responsibility and instill this type of defense where he’s making all these calls and changing defense.”
Robert insists that he truly didn’t think much of his son’s football IQ until he attended a camp at FBU (Football University), an elite camp for position-specific training, in the seventh grade. It was here where Ashby showed a mastery of the wide-nine defense that was installed at the tournament.
“When I really realized it is when he was in seventh grade, we put him in FBU,” Robert said. “One of the coaches that used to coach semi-pro came up to me… and he said, ‘I have grown men that didn’t pick up on it and understand it and could relate it to other players the way he just picked up on it.’”
It’s a combination of intellect and instincts that was uncommon for a player at such a young age.
“Sometimes we would just sit down and discuss football, and sometimes I was like, ‘Hold on, you’re not supposed to know or understand that.’ He could just tell me stuff that I didn’t even know,” Robert said. “He has an understanding of what’s going on.”
It’s that same understanding that has caused Foster to compare Ashby to two Virginia Tech linebackers of the past.
“He’s really been a take-charge guy,” Foster said. “I see him in a lot of ways like I did Andrew Motuapuaka or Jack Tyler ability-wise. Then I see a guy right now that’s already taken over leadership wise. That position demands that you communicate and do a lot of things verbally and take charge. I see a guy because of that experience is taking that next step.”
Like Foster mentions, the biggest focus during the spring for Ashby and the rest of the linebackers has been communication. Foster’s defense calls for the mike and backer positions to sometimes make three or four calls before every snap.
Ashby is the leader of the defense in this scenario, and fellow linebacker Dax Hollifield follows suit, both sensing that there’s already a positive impact from the communication emphasis during the spring.
“[Rayshard’s] a guy I can depend on,” Hollifield said. “I know he’s going to make the right play every time. He’s going to help me out, he’s always going to be there. I know if I hammer to him or spill to him, he’s going to make the tackle. He’s a great leader. He’s a funny guy to be around. He’s a brother to me. He taught me a lot about how to take control of the team. Just be a good example for other players and just working to be the best you can be every day.”
“Our communication is really good,” Ashby said. “He communicates a lot. I communicate a lot. We both like to talk and try to get everybody calls. We just go off each other, so we just work well together.”
In many senses, Hollifield is the ying to Ashby’s yang. Hollifield’s amped up nature is the perfect balance to Ashby’s calm demeanor.
“He has way more energy than me,” Ashby said with a smile. “He has enough energy for both of us. That’s how he is.”
The spring practices are over, and the Hokies have to wait to reconvene for the summer period. In the meantime, the defense remains anxious to take the field again and right the wrongs from the 2018 season.
Bud Foster returns to the helm for his 33rd season at Virginia Tech, hoping to concoct a plan to return the defense to the days of old. In the center of his defense stands an undersized linebacker whose amalgamation of intangibles places Ashby as the right player to lead the charge.
“Truthfully, I expect him to be leaps and bounds better than he was last year,” Robert said. “I don’t know if that will equate to the numbers, but once he gets that understanding of what’s going on and he’s not thinking, he just plays. He loves football.”