As we look back on the 2023 football season for Virginia Tech, one of the more interesting stories that didn't get too much talk during the season was that of two players who fought their way up the Hokies' depth chart: Jayden McDonald and Cole Nelson.
To tell the whole story, we must go back to the beginning of this season when the first depth chart was released.
With that first depth chart, Jayden McDonald was nowhere to be found on the two-deep for the Hokies. Meanwhile, Cole Nelson was a backup behind the younger Keyshawn Burgos. Now, the McDonald news was a major surprise given that he had been competing for the starting mike LB job while things had been trending towards Burgos starting over Nelson.
However, this certainly had to be a humbling moment for both McDonald and Nelson, especially after McDonald was a surprise starter on the first depth chart for the Hokies in 2022, and Nelson had made a pair of starts in 2022 and seemed ready to ascend to be a starter.
McDonald and Nelson both had decisions to make at this point. They could either feel wronged by their spot on the depth chart, or they could fight and try to climb their way back up their depth chart.
McDonald and Nelson showed they had the character and competitive nature that any coach would want, choosing to fight to climb back up the depth and work to improve their game every day regardless of their depth chart spot. While that didn't guarantee either would climb back up the depth chart and into the starting lineup, that proved to be the case for both.
McDonald had the most significant rise going from off the depth chart to finishing the season as a co-starter at the will LB spot with Keli Lawson. Things started to change at the Marshall game, where McDonald got some reps in the second half with the Hokies looking for answers of any sort at linebacker.
He seized that opportunity and continued to build on that, jumping back into the two-deep after that game and then continuing to climb from there. That led to McDonald playing 34 or more snaps in four of the final five games, a significant change from the 27 total defensive snaps he played in the first four games.
Throughout the season, McDonald stepped his game up, impressing defensive coordinator Chris Marve in the process, as Marve shared in mid-December.
"I think we all saw it. The kid, he got better. He’s working at it, man. You’re talking about somebody who’s played safety the majority of his career. Safety and receiver in high school and even DB when he got here. He’s played the position for a year and a half. It’s come with lumps. He’s a younger guy, but he takes coaching well, he’s a student of the game and I think you saw that in his production and the uptick of his production as the season went on. He played multiple positions - Mike and Will for us - and did it without blinking. Proud of that kid and we’re going to keep working and getting better," Marve said.
The numbers back up McDonald's rise as he not only had a career-high 316 defensive snaps, but he also had 30 tackles while earning a 68.8 defensive grade from Pro Football Focus. That 68.8 was a significant jump from a 52.2 in 2022, showing how much his game improved this past season.
Even with Sam Brumfield III transferring in, McDonald is certainly poised to be one of the three primary mike/will LBs for the Hokies in 2024, splitting time with Lawson at the will spot and maybe working some at mike when Brumfield needs a break.
Meanwhile, Cole Nelson steadily stepped his game up, and with Keyshawn Burgos not being the most consistent, Nelson seized his starting job back against Pittsburgh and the top spot on the depth chart by mid-October.
Nelson produced more big plays for the Hokies this season, having 7.5 tackles for loss, including 4.5 sacks, and 13 QB pressures per Pro Football Focus, up from eight in 2022, despite playing only 40 or so more defensive snaps this season.
Following the end of the regular season, Cole Nelson received plenty of praise from his coaches and teammates. That included head coach Brent Pry, who shared this on Nelson at his Early Signing Day press conference.
"I thought the end of the season for Cole Nelson was really impressive, the way he came on," Pry said.
During Military Bowl prep, Antwaun Powell-Ryland also praised the strides that Nelson made this past season and has high expectations for what he can do in 2024.
"I just felt like Cole just wanted to turn it up even more. I felt like he’s kind of a young guy — well, now transitioning so he won’t be, but he was still considered a young guy for the most part. So by him being a year older, by him warming up by the end of the season, by the end of the season next year, should definitely see some great things," Powell-Ryland said.
Both Jayden McDonald and Cole Nelson chose to eat their humble pie and fight their way back up the depth chart. And because of their fight, they reaped the rewards of more playing time and the best seasons of their respective careers to date.