Virginia Tech Football Veterans Identify Young Talent In The Program

C.J. McCray, Virginia Tech
Defensive end C.J. McCray was mentioned by two Virginia Tech veterans as a young player to watch. (Ivan Morozov)

While talk in the preseason generally surrounds more established players, fans are also interested in knowing which young players are most likely to step up. Virginia Tech fans are no exception. There are some guys in the program right now who haven’t seen the field very much who have a chance to take a step forward this season.

While most of the questions and talk at last week’s ACC Football Kickoff surrounded coaching changes and team culture, I took a different route. I decided to ask each of the three Virginia Tech players in attendance which of the young players in the program were impressing them the most. That’s what we’ll get into today.

Senior linebacker Dax Hollifield, senior offensive tackle Silas Dzansi and junior wide receiver Kaleb Smith were Virginia Tech’s representatives in Charlotte last week. Sophomore wide receiver Da’Wain Lofton was the first young player that all three of them mentioned, though each noted that most fans are already very familiar with Lofton because he played last year.

Moving on to some more unfamiliar players, redshirt freshman linebacker Jaden Keller was mentioned by both Hollifield and Dzansi. Tech’s old staff, particularly linebackers coach Jack Tyler, was very high on Keller, and it appears the current staff feels the same since he got some reps with the No. 1 defense this past spring.

“From what I’ve seen a little bit in spring ball and from what I’ve seen in the weight room, Jaden Keller is going to be a dominant force when he figures it out,” Dzansi said.

Hollifield came up with two other names on the defensive side of the ball.

“On defense, it’s definitely C.J. McCray,” he said. “That or Elijah Howard. Elijah Howard is a very fundamental guy and really works his tail off. CJ McCray, he’s a pretty dude, he looks like a football player. He has a great work ethic. I think those two, if you put those two together, it’s a really good combination when it comes to natural ability and work ethic.”

McCray is a transfer from Marshall who redshirted last season. He’s entering his third year of college football, though he’s still only considered a redshirt freshman because the 2020 season didn’t count towards eligibility.

Dzansi, who goes head-to-head with McCray sometimes during practice, agreed with Hollifield’s assessment.

“C.J.’s a freak athlete,” he said. “When he really figures [it] out and he puts on the right weight, he’s going to be dominant.”

Elijah Howard is a redshirt freshman defensive back who hails from Knoxville, Tenn., and was listed with offers from Tennessee, Louisville, Georgia Tech, Mississippi State, Purdue and Virginia coming out of high school. A very physical player, he was a running back and defensive back in high school, though he’s playing in the secondary for the Hokies. 

Howard has good short-area quickness, and he likes contact. He played well at nickel and cornerback in Tech’s spring game.