Virginia Tech's defense was the best unit on the field Friday night in Norfolk but on a night where they had to play perfect due to getting little help from the offense, they couldn't as the Hokies lost 20-17 to Old Dominion.
Here's a look at 3 defensive takeaways from Tech's loss to ODU.
1. Dax Hollifield Puts Together One Of His Best Games
Dax Hollifield started his final season of college football in the best way possible in terms of his individual performance as he was probably the best player on the field Friday night even in defeat.
Hollifield was all over the field looking extremely comfortable in his mike linebacker role as you would hope from a veteran captain in his fifth year of college football. He finished the night with 10 tackles including 1m5 for loss plus a pair of pass breakups, 1 forced fumbles, and 3 fumble recoveries. If this was fantasy football, Hollifield would probably be the #1 scoring linebacker in America after the opening week.
But his play went beyond the impressive stats but the tone-setting and dictating plays he had. Of course, the tackles for loss, forced fumbles, and fumble recoveries will draw the headlines but some of his best highlights were smaller, early plays.
Hollifield set the tone on Tech's first drive with an instinctual pass breakup on a blitz along with a nice open-the-field tackle short of a first down that helped Tech force a 3 and out to start. Those type of quality plays continued all night with Tech's defensive QB almost willing the Hokies to victory on a night where VT's offense and its QB had loads of turnover and penalty issues.
If this is the Dax Hollifield we're about to see in 2022, the Hokies might just have an All-ACC First Teamer in the heart of their defense.
2. Tech's Defensive Spine Was Strong
The spine of the Virginia Tech defense looked strong in the opener as some of Tech's best players on Friday night were those up the middle from Norell Pollard leading the DTs to Dax Hollifield's big game at mike to a strong night at safety for Nasir Peoples, Chamarri Conner, and even Jalen Stroman.
Tech was able to keep ODU's Hayden Wolff under duress all night with Pollard and the DTs deserving plenty of credit for that. Pollard finished the night 2 tackles including 0.5 for loss and a QB hurry while receiving a strong grade from Pro Football Focus. Josh Fuga and Wilfried Pene were also productive with Fuga and Pene each having 3 tackles.
We've already discussed Hollifield but Tech's safeties were all over the field making plays led by Nasir Peoples who had one of his best games as a Hokie with 10 tackles including 1.5 for loss with 1 of those being an impressive stuff well in the backfield near the goalline. Chamarri Conner also made his fair share of plays as always with 7 tackles including 1 for loss.
The future at safety also showed lots of potential as Jalen Stroman had a tackle and a nice pass breakup while positioning himself as one of Tech's backup DBs with Brion Murray likely having the only claim above him in that regard.
3. Competition Continues at Will LB, DE2
One thing that remains clear after Friday night is that the competitions at will linebacker and the second starting DE spot remain fairly wide open and could easily see week to week change.
Tech fans likely were surprised to see Jayden McDonald get the start at will LB with Jaden Keller coming in off the bench while Alan Tisdale was not with the team for the game Friday night for unknown reasons.
McDonald finished the night with 6 tackles including 0.5 for loss playing around the double the snaps of Keller. However, Keller had the biggest play among the duo with a strip sack of Hayden Wolff that was recovered by Hollifield and led to points. Keller finished the game with 3 tackles headline by that strip sack play.
McDonald received some critiques from some but the Salem, VA native had some good moments as well while Keller brought more of the wow factor in his limited action. McDonald may have the surprising slight edge that no one expected based on the snap breakdown Friday night, but Keller made the type of big plays that could easily cause that to flip in his favor against BC.
Meanwhile, DE2 seems even more wide open with Jaylen Griffin getting the start and most snaps finishing with 3 tackles while Cole Nelson had 2 tackles including 0.5 for loss. CJ McCray was also able to play and had a tackle plus 2 QB hurries in what was a strong performance for McCray.
What was interesting was that McCray was brought in at times to give Tech 5 DL in the game though his background as a LB gives Tech some versatility. However, his pass rushing success against ODU may open the door for him to claim a larger role over Nelson and Griffin though this battle, like the will LB, looks to be wide open with plenty of variance possible in the coming weeks.