2022 Virginia Tech Linebackers Preview

Dax Hollifield is one of two veterans returning for the Hokies at linebacker. (Jon Fleming)

For the past few seasons, Virginia Tech has returned at least one veteran at linebacker. In the past, it was a Mike/Backer/Whip system; with Brent Pry, there will be three linebackers: Sam/Mike/Will.

Rayshard Ashby was a staple in that room from 2018-2020, while Dax Hollifield and Alan Tisdale have been in the rotation since joining the program in 2018 and 2019, respectively. But what does a new scheme change mean for the group? Let’s break it down.

Mike Linebacker

The Mike or “middle” linebacker under Pry at Virginia Tech is a familiar position, one that Bud Foster and Justin Hamilton both utilized. Three players are currently working at that spot for the Hokies:

Dax Hollifield (6-1, 245, Sr.*): 49 app., 37 starts, 2,197 snaps; 273 tackles, 23.5 TFL, 10 sacks
Keshon Artis (6-0, 246, r-Sr.*): 35 app., 1 start, 230 snaps; 26 tackles, 6 TFL, 1 sack
Dean Ferguson (6-2, 225, r-Jr.*): 14 app., 61 snaps; 9 tackles, 1 TFL

*Hollifield is using his COVID year in 2022, while Artis and Ferguson each have the opportunity to use it down the road.

Everyone knows Hollifield, a ball of energy and Tech’s own Energizer Bunny. But looking at his entire college career, the grades he put up in 2021 are close to those from his freshman year.

Defensive coordinator Chris Marve told reporters at Tech’s media day that he challenges Hollifield in every aspect, starting with the basics.

“One thing about older players, very similar to when Coach Pry came and coached me my redshirt senior year [at Vanderbilt],” Marve said, “there are always fundamentals that you can clean up. … Sometimes you can lose track of the fundamentals because you’re trying to play so fast and be so engaged and so intentional with a particular call.

“When you can really fine tune your fundamentals and the details of your game, which come into play in every aspect, that’s where you can see the most growth in every other area because it metastasizes in a good way. … It’s about identifying the areas for him [Hollifield], the deficits that he can improve at that will take his game to the next level.”

How many strides Hollifield will take in his final year of collegiate eligibility remains to be seen, but if he was going to be supplanted by Artis, it likely would’ve happened already. Artis could return next season if he pleases, but if he doesn’t, is Ferguson the future at Mike?

Will Linebacker

Like the competition at Mike, Will linebacker features a tenured veteran in Alan Tisdale. However, there’s a talented young player fighting for playing time, too, in Jaden Keller.

The Will is the weak-side linebacker, and four players are working at that spot:

Alan Tisdale (6-3, 225, r-Sr.*): 35 app., 18 starts, 1,333 snaps; 195 tackles, 17 TFL, 5.5 sacks
Jaden Keller (6-3, 223, r-Fr.): 4 app.
Will Johnson (6-2, 218, r-Fr.):
Jayden McDonald (6-4, 231, r-Fr.): 1 app.

Alan Tisdale is the experienced linebacker practicing at Will, but Jaden Keller isn’t far behind. (Jon Fleming)

Because Tisdale was healthy last season, he played just about every single snap at Backer while Hollifield was at Mike and Artis rotated in. Keller, Johnson and McDonald all redshirted. That doesn’t mean Tisdale’s a shoo-in for all of the reps this year, though.

“Tisdale’s older, he’s played in games,” Marve said, “so he’s seen a lot of things that we’re talking about now, just getting used to our verbiage, getting used to our vernacular, but also cleaning up his eyes, cleaning up his technique and fine-tuning the pieces.

“Then you have a young man by the name of Jaden Keller, who hasn’t played in as many games, but is tremendously gifted and works his behind off, loves the game, loves to improve.”

Pry’s made a point to say that the Will position is still up for grabs. He also mentioned that the staff might start looking at Tisdale at Mike at some point, too. As he explained at media day, once players master one spot, Pry hopes they can conquer a second to create some depth.

“Depth to me isn’t just about somebody emerging,” Pry said. “…You teach them one position. And when they’re ready to teach them a second one, it creates depth at a position. We’re in the process of doing that right now.”

As it stands, Keller has a real shot to be the starting Will linebacker. Pry said he’s had a great summer, and he plays as fast as anybody on the defense. Though Tisdale may start in the season-opener at Old Dominion, Keller will certainly have his opportunities this fall.

Sam Linebacker

Shawn Quinn, who coaches the Sam linebackers and nickelbacks, has described the position as “playing in a telephone booth because they’re part superhero, part defensive back, part linebacker.” The position is on the wide side of the field, it has both blitzing and coverage duties, and three players are practicing there:

J.R. Walker (6-0, 223, r-Jr.*): 23 app., 1 start, 80 snaps; 6 tackles – all at DB
Keonta Jenkins (6-3, 214, Jr.*): 20 app., 3 starts, 364 snaps; 27 tackles – all at DB
Keli Lawson (6-4, 215, r-Fr.): 4 app., 25 snaps; 1 tackle – all at WR or on special teams

J.R. Walker is practicing at Sam with Keli Lawson and Keonta Jenkins. (Jon Fleming)

Jenkins and Walker moved over from safety in the spring, while Lawson was previously a wide receiver. Walker appears to be behind the other two in the competition.

Quinn said Jenkins has a really good football IQ and made a huge leap over the summer, and he’s trending in the right direction. Pry likes the qualities that a defensive back brings to the position, especially for the coverage aspect.

“He’s a long guy, really good speed,” Pry said of Jenkins. “But the spot he plays for us, he’s kind of a hybrid, he’s got to have both sets in his toolbox.”

Lawson’s willingness to throw his body around has really stood out, and he’s a good blitzer.

“He’s tall and thin, but he flies around,” Quinn said of Lawson. “[Lawson’s] got great speed, really good range. He’s just really new to this, but you can see the arc where he’s going if he keeps his hunger and attitude. He’s gonna be a big time player for us when it’s all said and done.”

Overall, Quinn has solid athleticism to work with in that role, whether it be Jenkins, Lawson, or even Walker. And just like the Will spot, Pry has not named a starter at Sam. 

“All three of those guys – J.R., Keonta and Keli – probably have a little bit more DB in them now than what I’m used to over the last four or five years,” Pry said. “So now it’s getting schooled up and trained for the linebacker, so that they have reins and athleticism. They have to learn to give their body up a little bit more than they did it safety and receiver. It can get messy down in there as often as we’re gonna bring them off the edge.”

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