On Monday, Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente announced that linebacker Dean Ferguson will miss the rest of the season.
The redshirt freshman, who played in Tech’s first five games of the season and recorded five tackles, will have season-ending shoulder surgery in the near future. As a result, the Hokies’ linebacker depth has shrunk.
At the beginning of the season, Virginia Tech had eight scholarship linebackers (in alphabetical order):
- Keshon Artis, R-So.
- Dean Ferguson, R-Fr.
- Dax Hollifield, Jr., Captain
- Will Johnson, Fr.
- Jaden Keller, Fr.
- C.J. McCray, Fr.
- Lakeem Rudolph, Fr.
- Alan Tisdale, R-So.
Johnson was ruled out for the season back in August with a shoulder injury, while McCray moved to the defensive line. With Ferguson out for the season, that means, in terms of scholarship players, the Hokies are essentially down to their two starters in Hollifield and Tisdale, a redshirt sophomore in Artis and two freshmen in Jaden Keller and Lakeem Rudolph.
That doesn’t include walk-ons, like redshirt freshman Matt Johnson, who Hollifield said has gotten a good amount of reps this week behind him at mike due to the depth of the group.
“Dean was an incredibly hard worker,” Hollifield said. “Our depth now there is a little bit… less. Some other guys are going to have to step up in different positions, Keshon Artis is going to have to play, both mike and will [backer]. I’m practicing a little bit of will just so I know it.”
Artis was thrust into the starting mike role last week with Hollifield out for the first half due to targeting. In his first career start, he finished with three tackles, including one TFL, which was on the first play of the game.
“Keshon did a great job,” Hollifield said. “I thought we did a great job on defense in the first half. There are some plays that we gave up that we really wish we could’ve gotten back, but overall, we played really hard and, I thought, we got the job done to keep us in the game.”
That group will be challenged this week against Syracuse, which boasts the conference’s top rushing attack.
Justin Hamilton’s Defense In Year Two
Because of COVID-19 in 2020, Justin Hamilton didn’t really have a chance to get situated as Virginia Tech’s defensive coordinator. Thanks to practicing throughout this spring, summer and fall, he had time to implement his system and get the players and staff on the same page.
It’s clear and obvious that the Hokies are much better defensively this year. They haven’t been perfect, and they’re not Kirby Smart’s Georgia defense, but they’ve done their job and given the team chances to win, though, which is the important part.
Most of all, the players have confidence. Fuente mentioned a lack of confidence on the offensive side of the ball on Monday, but it’s the complete opposite defensively. That’s what’s made the unit so solid through six games this season.
Defensive back Chamarri Conner praised the way defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton has prepared him, and the rest of the secondary, to play so far this season, saying, “he’s put us in great positions.” Hollifield echoed that.
“He has a reason for everything he does,” Hollifield said. “He puts people in positions to make plays, and that’s really the biggest thing I’ve seen.”
To throw out some stats to describe this Virginia Tech defense in 2021, the Hokies are:
- 13th in the nation (fourth in the ACC) in third down conversion defense
- 32nd in the nation (fifth in the ACC) in first down defense
- 27th in the nation (second in ACC) in passing yards allowed
- 37th in the nation (third in ACC) in team passing efficiency defense
- 49th in the nation (sixth in the ACC) in total defense
This isn’t the Bud Foster defense of old from 2007 and 2008, which ranked No. 1 in the country, but it’s a defense that will keep a team in games. As Hollifield described it, the Hokies went through last year “making stuff up, trying to figure out how things fit” on that side of the ball.
This season, the Hokies have belief defensively, and have worked out almost all of the kinks. The defense knows its identity, and though injuries, like Ferguson’s, might throw a wrench in the gameplan, the unit is confident that its coordinator is going to put them in the right position to succeed.
“It’s a big difference because it’s easier to believe in what he’s instilling and what he’s bringing in,” Tech defensive end TyJuan Garbutt said. “Seeing it work is just a testament to us going out there and going to work every day and trying to execute exactly what he wants to. He’s a really good coach and the way he talks, you can tell he’s a really good football mind and he’s a really good person, too.”