LB Depth Without Dean Ferguson, Justin Hamilton’s Defense In Year 2

Virginia Tech linebacker Dax Hollifield spoke about the Hokies’ linebacker depth on Tuesday. (Ivan Morozov)

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):

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

Last season, Justin Hamilton didn’t have time to establish his scheme. Now that he’s had time to do so, the Hokies are playing well defensively. (Ivan Morozov)

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.”

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  1. Good article but I think we will be just fine on this side of the ball..JH seems to have a grasp on what he is doing and the players are buying into this…yet we keep an OC that has almost caused a mutiny on the team…go figure!

    1. He’s had 18 months to get the D to a top 30 or better. I like what I see and I’m impressed with the DT coming in ’22; taller and heavier than the current crew. He has good D asst coaches.

      Question: who does he know to develop the O? I’d like him to retain Vice. From there I’m open to a new O assistant rank. I know the RB coach has been a good recruiter, but is he a good RB coach. Not seeing it on the field. New WR coach to make the WR tougher and improve them every year. A good QB coach as we have Tahj that should be the teams QB for 3 years. Get him ready NOW and improve him down the road.


  2. I don’t hear the offensive players talking about their coordinator this way. Something is definitely wrong on that side of the ball. If it takes a new coordinator let’s do it

  3. Give him chance at head coach next year. That way, we keep the defensive staff intact…we may be able to keep vice and any other offense coach we may wish to keep. We likely keep the recruiting class intact. We start JHam at a 3 year contract that pays him 3million/year. We then get a proven offensive coordinator and other offensive position coaches as needed. Fu/Corn/Jafar all go (at the least). I think JHam is going to be a big time coach. Let’s have him be OUR big time coach.

    1. No. I rather we fire Fuente, let Jham be the interim coach, and we hire someone new next year

      1. We fire Fuente now, several coaches including Vice will be affected. The remainder of this year would be worse than you expect.

    2. Let’s have him be OUR big time coach.>>>>

      There are quite a few facts to consider: 1) JH WILL be a HC at some time in the future; 2) More and more VT is not a destination job, except for someone with strong connections to VT; 3) Hiring a big name coach only sets VT up for having to find another HC when he goes to greener pastures. 4) JH and the defensive staff would most probably be lost, because the new coach would want his guys.

      Conclusion – IF Fu is fired, go with JH and go get a hot shot OC and assts. Note: remember how hot the Clemson OC was before the start of this season. How hot is he now? Clemson’s O is as bad as VT’s – and they’re loaded with 4 and 5 stars.

      1. If you elevate Jham to HC, then he needs to hire a new offensive staff AND a new defensive coordinator. Not saying that I’m against it, like what we’re seeing from him but folks have to realize that a move like that has the potential to be very disruptive ti both sides of the ball. They would really need to think through the rippling effect across the board.

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