Virginia Tech 2022 fall position previews: Three thoughts on the linebackers | Virginia Tech

BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech linebacker Dax Hollifield never gave a thought to leaving Blacksburg last fall.

While the NCAA granted every student-athlete an extra year of eligibility who played in 2020 thanks to the impact of COVID-19 pandemic, Hollifield was an academic senior last year and could have hung the cleats.

He didn’t even consider going through senior day festivities citing “unfinished business.”

Tech’s coaching change a week later didn’t do anything to change his mind. Hollifield saw a little bit of Bud Foster in Tech’s new coach Brent Pry, who recruited him years earlier as Penn State’s defensive coordinator, and was eager to play for him.

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Pry viewed Hollifield as a key building block for a program in transition thanks to the linebacker’s dedication to the Hokies on and off the field.

He’s hoping to reward Hollfield’s loyalty by guiding him to an All-ACC season alongside defensive coordinator Chris Marve. The tandem are putting a lot on Hollifield’s shoulders at mic linebacker by asking him to learn the responsibilities of every position while having him work to lean up to play at a faster level.

Hollifield’s already a fan-favorite for Tech fans with a 3-1 record against key rivals (Virginia and North Carolina), but he knows the program’s overall record the last four years has been underwhelming.

He told reporters at the ACC Kickoff his dream would be a 10-win season this fall to go with a Coastal Division title.

That seems a tad unrealistic, but helping Tech reach bowl eligibility would be an impressive feat given all the offseason changes the program went through.

New era

Pry has shifted around a bunch of personnel as it transitions to a 4-3 defense.

There’s still three-plus weeks of fall camp left, but safety turned linebacker Keonta Jenkins looks like an early favorite at the new sam linebacker position. He was trending that way in spring camp, but Pry reiterated the point on Wednesday.

“The guy that stands out the most to me is Keonta Jenkins,” Pry said. “He’s a long guy. Really good speed. Particularly when you move him from safety to linebacker, he’s got a lot of DB qualities. And he’s learning the linebacker traits that are going to be necessary, but the spot he’s playing for us is kind of a hybrid. He’s got to have both sets in his toolbox.”

Pry has described the position as the most “physically challenging” on the defense.

“I’ve actually coached that spot for multiple years,” Pry said, during spring. “We ask that guy to do a lot from an athletic standpoint. There’s less adjustments, so for a lot of guys changing positions, they can pick that one up pretty quick.”

It makes sense Jenkins has jumped up the depth chart. The 6-foot-3, 207-pounder played in eight games as a true freshman in 2020 and started the first two games of the season. He didn’t look out of place in the starting lineup and might have locked the job down if not for a bout with COVID-19.

This new position could be what unlocks all the potential Tech’s current and former staff saw in him.

One on one

There aren’t many position battles left to settle on the defensive side of the ball in fall camp.

The biggest question mark is an unexpected one thanks to Jaden Keller’s continued improvement.

While returning starter Alan Tisdale has all sorts of experience ( 35 career games with 18 starts), Keller is a more imposing physical presence with athleticism to match. The former three-star recruit got looks from a pair of SEC schools (South Carolina and Tennessee) coming out of high school in Tennessee.

Tisdale provided the Hokies some versatility in recent years with his ability to drop back in coverage.

On third and long situations, he would often be the only linebacker on the field. According to Pro Football Focus, he dropped back in coverage more times (327 snaps) than Armani Chatman (316) and Jermaine Waller (278).

That role is likely to shift to the sam linebacker, and Keller might just be a better fit for what the new staff is asking from the will linebacker in the new defense. They should both seeing playing time this fall regardless of who wins the starting job.

Projected depth chart

  1. Alan Tisdale OR Jaden Keller
  2. Dean Ferguson
  1. Dax Hollifield
  2. Keshon Artis
  1. Keonta Jenkins
  2. J.R. Walker

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