Spring practice has returned across the country. College football fans everywhere can rejoice. Yesterday, Jake Lyman took a look at the offensive side of the ball. Today, we’ll look at Virginia Tech’s outlook on defense.
With no spring practice last year, the Hokies were hit harder than most teams due to a number of changes on the defensive staff. In particular, Justin Hamilton took over for Bud Foster at the defensive coordinator post. It put Hamilton in a peculiar spot attempting to bring his own system in without the benefit of a full offseason. As a result, the defense took it lumps in the early part of the 2020 season.
“Halfway through the season is when it really started making sense to everybody and started cleaning up things,” Dax Hollifield said. “It’s cleaned up now going into spring ball. It’s a lot simpler, things make sense, and everything is just really cleaned up. That’s really what we want to get to.
“Clemson game was probably the best game to see it. I truly think Trevor Lawrence didn’t know what looks we were in. That’s really the thing. We try not to let the offense know what we’re in or what we’re trying to do. By the end of the year I felt like we were getting somewhere, so I’m excited to see where it goes this spring.”
It was at the midpoint of the season that Hamilton scratched some of the schematic changes and went back to a more simplified version of the defense. It allowed Virginia Tech’s defense to play faster. Now, with the benefit of spring practice, those adjustments can be brought on steadily over time instead of right before the start of the season.
“It’s an opportunity to start at square one and focus on fundamentals and really try to build from the ground up,” Justin Fuente said. “That doesn’t mean a completely new scheme, but taking more of a whole-part-whole philosophy in there, letting the kids know how it all fits together. Certainly, assuming things go well, it’s a much better situation for us to enter heading into the spring.”
Dax Moves to Mike
Hollifield has been a key piece in Virginia Tech’s defense over the past three years without even playing his natural position. This year, Hollifield will slide back over to the Mike linebacker spot where he fits in best. He’ll fill the void left by Rayshard Ashby, who tallied 294 tackles over the last three seasons.
“Mike is his natural spot, and I think that will help more than anything,” Fuente said. “The problem was that Rayshard was there. Moving Dax over there, athletically, he fits that spot a little bit better. Letting him just concentrate on one position should benefit him from a mental standpoint.”
Standing 6-foot-1, 239-pounds, Hollifield had his difficulties at times covering and making open field tackles in space at the backer position. By moving inside, he can use his physicality between the tackles while still using the added mobility that he’s added to his arsenal over the last few seasons.
For Hollifield, it’s already been a beneficial experience this offseason.
“It’s way easier,” Hollifield said. “That’s the position I was recruited to play here. Rook is one of the best Mikes in the country, so I learned behind him, but I also learned how to play out in space which helped me out a lot at Will. Finally I get to play the position that I was recruited for and suits me better. I’m excited about it.”
Bringing Young Players Along
Most of the experienced players have already established themselves at this point in their career, making spring practice a time for some of the younger players to take in everything and make the next step.
Virginia Tech’s 2020 recruiting class was highlighted by three defensive ends: Alec Bryant, Robert Wooten and Justin Beadles. Of those three, only Wooten appeared in any games last year, as it was a lost season for most true freshmen in terms of finding any significant playing time. However, a big progression in the spring could change that.
“I’m excited for them to get out there and get coached a little bit,” Fuente said. “They’ve done the work in the weight room. You look at Beadles and how his body has continued to change along with the strides that Wooten and Bryant have made, you get excited about what they can be. They’re still a long ways away in terms of learning how to play the game. It’ll be a really big spring for them in terms of their development in how to go play end.
In the secondary, there’s a number of different players who were thrust into action at some point last year largely before they were truly ready to play. A keen eye will be on a number of these players as they head into spring practice.
“Nasir Peoples is the first one who comes to mind just because I felt like he was really coming on when he got hurt,” Fuente said. “He won’t be full this spring, but he’s going to get to go out there and do some stuff. He can still take steps forward even in a limited role in the spring.
“Keonta [Jenkins] is somebody who started earlier in the season. Didn’t play nearly as much as the season went along. Really needs those opportunities to practice and communicate back there. J.R. Walker is another player back there who got thrown in the fire a little bit. Really needs some confidence and ability to go practice on a consistent basis in one position to see if he can continue to improve.”
New Team Leader?
With the loss of Jarrod Hewitt – who was an outspoken leader – and others like Divine Deablo and Rayshard Ashby – who led by example – the Hokies will be looking for the next crop of leaders on defense.
“I think we have a great group of guys who have played a lot of football and that have been productive,” Fuente said. “They’re not the most outgoing group. Can they feel a little more comfortable standing on the stage instead of standing next to the stage? That’s a challenge for some of those players. And I’ve seen some of them in a really positive light through the offseason.”
One player has quickly established himself as a leader in just a short period of time in Blacksburg. It’s Tae Daley, the transfer safety from Vanderbilt.
“He’s a dog. I’m telling you, he’s wired different,” Hollifield said. “I’ve come to respect him a lot over the last couple weeks and months since spring semester started. He’s a dude, and I’m excited to see what he does on the field. Vocal with how he leads. It’s pretty incredible to see a guy come in for just a couple weeks and basically take hold of the team.”
Daley didn’t play in 2020, but started 17 games over two seasons with the Commodores and recorded 102 tackles and three interceptions.