Virginia Tech came up short against Boston College 31-21, but there are plenty of things to takeaway from the game including the Hokies’ improved linebacker depth, the should-be growing role of Dalton Keene, and the emergence of Steven Peoples as the Hokies’ top back.
1. Virginia Tech Has Depth and Competition at Linebacker
The Hokies turned to their backup linebackers in Dax Hollifield and Rico Kearney with Dylan Rivers and Rayshard Ashby out, and the duo stepped up in a big way.
Hollifield had a strong 10 tackle debut start that made you wonder if Hollifield may take the starting job permanently from Dylan Rivers especially with how often Bud Foster has rotated the two in and out when both have been healthy. Whatever the case may be, Hollifield looks like a future playmaker on the Hokies’ defense, and it seems inevitable that he’ll be a starter in the not too distant future.
In addition, Hollifield is already starting to emerge as a leader on the Hokies’ defense despite his status as a true freshman in part because of his work ethic and high motor that remind Bud Foster of Sam Rogers.
Meanwhile, Rico Kearney was one of the Hokies’ best overall performers leading the team with 18 tackles including 1.5 for loss on his way to earning Defensive Hokie of the Game honors. Kearney’s performance was one of the best from a Virginia Tech linebacker this season as the Florida native was all over the field making plays.
Though Kearney did have a very impressive game, it’s harder to see him taking the job from Rayshard Ashby who appeared to emerge as the #1 linebacker during fall camp and still leads the Hokies in total tackles and tackles for loss this season. However, don’t be surprised to see Kearney still have a large role with Bud Foster having a deep linebacker group that he has shown plenty of comfort with rotating in and out.
Virginia Tech entered the season with lots of youth and inexperience at linebacker, but the unit is showing that they may be one of the most talented on the Hokies’ roster going forward.
2. Dalton Keene Should Have a Larger, More Consistent Role.
Dalton Keene’s game was a tale of two halves with 3 catches for 65 yards in the first half followed by no catches in the second half. While part of that could have been due to adjustments from Boston College, more of that seemed to be because of Keene being less-used in the passing game especially in his role as a checkdown receiver that has worked quite well.
Keene may not be the fastest tight end of all-time, but he has proven to be productive with the ball in his hands averaging 18 yards per reception this season after averaging 16.7 yards per reception last season. While that number is slightly inflated because of his 67-yard touchdown play against Duke, Keene has shown that he can be relied on as a checkdown option on a consistent basis when given the opportunity.
However, the Hokies should look for ways to take advantage of Keene in the spot. One of the best examples came in the second half when the Hokies failed to convert on a fourth and short after having Hezekiah Grimsley run a mini-curl route and have him as the primary and only read. While Grimsley ran the route well, Keene would have given you a better chance on this play given his size that would give him a better chance at boxing out the defender and creating a window.
Dalton Keene’s role has grown in the past few weeks, but that role should only continue to grow going forward especially after his strong first half performance last week.
3. Steven Peoples is Virginia Tech’s #1 RB.
Entering the season, Deshawn McClease appeared to be the top candidate to become Virginia Tech’s #1 running back if the Hokies had anything close to a true top tailback this season. Instead, Steven Peoples has slowly but steadily earned that title with quietly productive performances over the past few weeks.
Peoples has consistently received more carries in recent games and has outperformed McClease recently after another solid game with 12 carries for 39 yards and 4 catches for 39 yards. Meanwhile, McClease only had 7 carries for 13 yards, his fourth-straight game with 7 or fewer carries.
While Peoples has always been known as a power runner, the Galax native has started to take his game to the next level showing some explosiveness and agility that had been lacking in his running the previous two years. Over the past two weeks, Peoples has shown an ability to make guys miss time and time again while also continuing to be a handle to bring down with his strength and non-stop motor.
The role of Peoples hasn’t been limited to the rushing game as Peoples has seen an expanded role in the passing game with 15 receptions for 155 receiving yards this season, 2.5 times his reception total in 2016 and 2017. Part of that has come from using Peoples on swing routes giving Ryan Willis a checkdown or even primary option in the flat on the outside when the Hokies have either cleared a side of the field with their routes or gone with some sort of mostly vertical passing play.
Just as he fought and earned playing time early in his career, Steven Peoples has kept fighting on his way to earning the top running back job not only because of his improved play on the ground, but also because of his versatility in the passing game as a receiver and pass blocker.