As time ran down in the second quarter in South Bend on Saturday, Notre Dame prepared for third-and-goal from the 1-yard line against Virginia Tech. Quarterback Ian Book handed the ball off to Jafar Armstrong, who lowered his shoulder into a pile of Hokies and Irish.
Suddenly, the ball popped into the air and fell into the hands of Divine Deablo. After getting past Notre Dame tacklers, Deablo streaked down the sideline and scored the game-tying touchdown.
“I just saw the ball and I grabbed it,” Deablo said. “I saw the quarterback and got rid of him, and I saw open space after that, but I was glad to see all of the guys following me down the field after that.”
Rayshard Ashby met Armstrong in the pile and knocked the ball out, and Deablo did the rest. The two juniors have stepped up in a big way for the young Hokies’ defense.
Ashby has been one of the top linebackers in the nation, currently averaging 10.5 tackles per game, while Deablo has held down the back end of the defense with six tackles per game and big plays like he made on Saturday.
“That’s an unbelievable momentum swing. Great job by Rayshard on the goal line causing the fumble and Divine picks it up and takes it to the house,” said Justin Fuente, head coach. “That gave us a huge amount of momentum coming out of the half.”
Not only did Deablo have the touchdown at the end of the first half, but he also pulled in an interception in the end zone in the second half. The Hokies would not have been in the position that they were late in the game without his contributions.
Both players received accolades for their performance against the Fighting Irish. Deablo won his first ACC Defensive Back of the Week award. Ashby won ACC Linebacker of the Week for the fourth time this season. No other player has won the award more than twice.
“What I saw from him in high school is what I see now, just a great football player,” defensive coordinator Bud Foster said of Ashby. “He’s very instinctive, the closest thing that he reminded me of was Vince Hall watching him in high school as far as a guy who just had a great nose for the ball.”
Just a few plays before the scoop and score, Book flipped a swing pass to Armstrong on third-and-10. Armstrong faced up with Ashby in the open field and made the linebacker miss on his way to the first down. It was a rare occasion that Ashby didn’t make the play, but he made up for it with the big hit just over a minute later.
The Hokies’ defense is young, with multiple freshmen and sophomores receiving significant playing time. Reggie Floyd is the only senior starter on that side of the ball. However, juniors Ashby and Deablo have stepped up in a big way.
Their impact isn’t only felt from their own contributions. Each player is in a position group with young, talented players behind them.
Ashby plays alongside Dax Hollifield and Alan Tisdale, who have both shown flashes at linebacker in their young careers. However, neither have been as consistent as Ashby. Having a seasoned veteran like him in the group will raise the play of the other linebackers in the program not only this year, but even after Ashby has moved on from Blacksburg.
“[Ashby] comes to work every day, he’s great in the classroom, he competes in the weight room and he’s out there making every call,” Foster said. “He is just so alert and into it and just a complete guy.”
In the secondary, Deablo, alongside Floyd, have had to be the leaders of the group. Just like the linebackers, talented, young players like Devon Hunter have had their moments, but haven’t proven to be staples in the back end.
The defense may not have left South Bend with the best feeling after the final drive, but the group stepped up multiple times on Saturday. Foster is leaving the Lunch Pail Defense in capable hands with players like Ashby and Deablo at the helm.