Justin Hamilton’s first year at the helm of the Hokies’ defense was chaotic in more ways than one, but as spring practice approaches, he hopes to have a normal lead-up to the 2021 season.
“So much of that season was just trying to survive that day or that week. In my evaluation of myself, I kind of eliminated all of the circumstances of COVID and all of the things that we couldn’t plan for,” Hamilton said. “Even if next year, knock on wood, hopefully it’s not that way, even if it is a similar situation, we have a precedent for that.”
COVID-19 took away any chance for Hamilton to implement his own system. Not only did the Hokies not get spring practice, but fall camp was marred by an outbreak of cases on the team. The final kicker was Hamilton testing positive just before the season opener and missing his first two games in his new role.
While the coronavirus pandemic will still have an impact throughout the offseason, Hamilton should finally get a chance to settle in and complete the transition from legendary defensive coordinator Bud Foster.
“When we look at things we did, it’s been a lot of delete, delete, delete and taking things away. Then we can put our focus on what we’re keeping and finetuning it, so it becomes a system of rules,” Hamilton said. “When we get into spring, we want to be able to teach concepts to them, rather than, ‘just in that call, this is what you’re doing.’”
Hamilton’s coaching staff will look very similar to last year, with two notable exceptions. Linebackers coach Tracy Claeys left the Hokies’ staff in January after just one year with the program. He’ll be replaced by former All-ACC linebacker and Hokies’ quality control coach Jack Tyler.
Tyler’s group looks to take a large leap this season despite the loss of longtime middle linebacker Rayshard Ashby this offseason. Tech hopes for a big leap from athletic outside linebacker Alan Tisdale after he showed flashes the last two seasons. However, the largest development needs to come from former star recruit Dax Hollifield as he takes over the mike position full-time.
“For him, it’s really with new age recruiting and how much attention is being put on these kids when they’re young and being recruited. There’s a lot of expectations that they didn’t ask for or create,” Hamilton said. “Dax falls into that category where there was a lot asked of him that he didn’t ask for. He just wanted to come and go to work. He’s already met those expectations. He’s one of the best teammates in our locker room.”
“We have to be careful that we don’t ask too much of him. He’s going to try to learn it all anyway because that’s how he’s wired, but giving him a role and a spot and allowing him to make that his own will help,” Hamilton said. “As far as breakout, in my mind, maybe he hasn’t broken out statistically how some people thought he would, but he’s already broken out. He’s the type of guy that if he’s in the game, the other ten guys are going to know what to do.”
Tech also lost assistant defensive line coach and former star defensive end Darryl Tapp after he took a job under his former NFL teammate DeMeco Ryans with the San Francisco 49ers. Hamilton was able to find a replacement who fits a similar mold in another former Hokies’ pass-rusher, J.C. Price.
“When Coach Fuente and I went over a checklist of things that were important to us for this job, he was the right blend,” Hamilton said. “He’s always wanted to be back here, now he is, and it’s the right time.”
Price and Hamilton have a long history as Price was a graduate assistant under Frank Beamer when Hamilton played in Blacksburg. The two stayed connected over the last two decades and finally reunite back where it all started.
“Those relationships go forever, and it will be good for them to see living proof of that and not just hear about it like it’s folklore. J.C. is the same guy today as he was back then when I was a 19-year-old,” Hamilton said. “That’s another part of why I felt so excited about getting him here and why he wanted to come back.”
Price will work alongside Bill Teerlinck with the Hokies’ defensive front that looks to be the strength of the unit in 2021. Despite losing two starters in Jarrod Hewitt and Justus Reed, two more seniors have decided to use the extra year of eligibility and return.
Emmanuel Belmar and DaShawn Crawford both struggled with injuries throughout the 2020 season and now are coming back to help lead the defense and take advantage of this second chance.
“They have to get back in conditioning and back into game mode. I love both of them and what they bring to us,” Hamilton said. “Hopefully with them experiencing some struggles of their own, that will help younger guys when they experience their own trouble, which builds culture and builds unity on your defense.”
Tech also immediately injected talent into the middle of the defensive front with Clemson transfer Jordan Williams. The Virginia-native returns home and looks to make an instant impact up front for the Hokies.
“It’s good to have a veteran presence that you bring in with him. He’s a guy that we want to come in and compete,” Hamilton said. “I think he’s going to get respect from his teammates because of the type of guy he is, but he’s going to stamp it with how he works and how practices daily.”
Despite a few changes, Hamilton and the Hokies’ defense should have much more consistency in the months leading up to kick off against North Carolina. If Tech takes the next step in 2021, it will be due to the development of Hamilton and his stop troops in year two post-Bud.