The 2019 Virginia Tech Spring Game is one day after a very quiet spring that fell into the background mostly due to the success of Virginia Tech basketball followed by an attention-grabbing coaching change that saw Buzz Williams replaced by Mike Young after Williams' departure for Texas A&M.
After breaking down the three things to watch on offense yesterday, here's our look at our top 3 things to watch on defense in tomorrow's Spring Game.
1. The JUCO Talent Infusion
After signing 4 JUCO talents, half of those 4 will make those debuts in DT Dashawn Crawford and CB Brion Murray, both of whom seem poised to factor in to next year's defense especially Crawford.
Crawford entered this spring as arguably the favoite to earn the starting DT job next to Jarrod Hewitt with Robert Porcher IV being the top challenger on campus and the large freshman class plus Jaden Cunningham not arriving till the summer.
Crawford may not be the biggest DT, but he fits the traditional Virginia Tech mold of smaller, lighter DTs with greater speed and athleticism that has worked well with plenty of past DTs like former All-ACC First Teamer Woody Baron. Tomorrow will provide some insight into how well Crawford has made the transition and whether Porcher can give him a serious challenge at defensive tackle or if the job is truly Crawford's to lose.
Meanwhile, Murray is a little more intriguing having three years of eligibility left while not bringing some of the same expectations in. However, there's definitely plenty of places for Murray to compete for playing time whether that's at cornerback or at the whip linebacker spot with Khalil Ladler and Tyree Rodgers out this spring (more on that battle later).
2. Long Term Linebacker Duo
After emerging during his true freshman season at backer, Dax Hollifield appears to be consolidating his starting job and is adjusting to his different position slimming down this season to be a better fit at backer. Hollifield has clearly emerged as a leader on and off the field, and his play was quite good showing impressive instincts for a true freshman even if he didn't have the best athleticism to fit the position at that time.
Meanwhile, Rayshard Ashby continues to have a firm grasp on the mike linebacker job especially after the move of Hollifield to backer along with Hollifield's effort to slim down. Ashby was one of Virginia Tech's best defenders last season with 105 tackles including 9.5 for loss in what was a very good debut season for the Richmond native on his way to earning All-ACC Honorable Mention honors. If Ashby does lose his job, that will be a clear sign that a pair of Hokies have made a significant development jump this spring.
There's also something about having a linebacker unit that has experience playing together and has been able to build a lot of chemistry. Virginia Tech's best linebacker units have had that type of pairing including back in 2017 with Tremaine Edmunds and Andrew Motuapuaka having a year of experience playing next to each other under their belts before the duo were dominant in their final seasons in Blacksburg.
Now, the Hokies have a chance to build something similar and long term with Ashby only being a junior and Hollfield being a sophomore. While others like Dylan Rivers and Keshon Artis should be able to push Ashby and Hollifield, the Hokies' linebacker duo for the next two years appears set in stone with those two.
With that said, there is definitely potential for change especially as Hollifield develops. Rivers could be the one who could throw that into change with Hollifield having the versatility to move back to mike if Rivers makes a big jump in his development. If he doesn't, the Hokies would be wise to redshirt both Rivers and Keshon Artis, creating some spacing gaps that would open the door for Ashby-Hollifield at LB in 2019-2020, Hollifield-Rivers in 2021, and Artis to take over at mike for his redshirt senior season in 2022 with someone like Alan Tisdale or Dean Ferguson at backer.
After plenty of doubt this time last year about the future at linebacker, Virginia Tech has a clear future at least for the next two years and potentially beyond then.
3. Questions at Cornerback, Whip Linebacker
The two biggest question marks for Virginia Tech's defense may be on the back end at cornerback and whip linebacker after a season in which Bryce Watts and Caleb Farley had their moments at CB, and where whip linebacker saw some change turning the season.
At whip, Khalil Ladler would appear to be the frontrunner to keep the spot with Devon Hunter moving back to rover, but after Divine Deablo spent time at whip with Tyree Rodgers filling in at free safety, Ladler's job is definitely not safe at all. Debalo is sure to have a starting spot wherever that may be, making part of the intrigue about whether Rodgers at FS or Ladler at whip gives VT the better options, things Hokie fans won't get to see due to injury for Ladler and Rodgers.
However, that does mean the door has been opened for other young players like JUCO DB Brion Murray or sophomore Chamarri Conner to add to the coming competition at the whip/nickelback spot. Conner is especially intriguing after Dax Hollifield mentioned that Conner was working at the whip spot and had an interception in a recent scrimmage for the Hokies.
Keep an eye on Chamarri Conner who may be the sleeper who can surprise and claim the job at the whip spot.
Meanwhile, cornerback is one of the biggest unknowns with both Bryce Watts and Caleb Farley likely to get pushed this spring. The addition of Murray definitely makes things interesting while Jermaine Waller has been publicly noted by VT as a CB who is making some noise this spring.
Additionally, there still remains lots of intrigue around Armani Chatman and Nadir Thompson after both redshirted this past season (Thompson due to injury).
Jeremy Webb may be the biggest wild card after two torn Achilles in less than a year in Blacksburg. Webb appears to be on track for a full recovery, but there's undoubtedly rightful concern about whether Webb can return to full strength. If he can, there appears to be no doubt that he'll be a serious threat to win one of the two cornerback jobs.
For now, the incumbents Bryce Watts and Caleb Farley remain the favorites to be next year's starting cornerbacks, but this year's Spring Game could give us some insight as to how close players like Waller, Murray, and even Jovonn Quillen are to those starting jobs
Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
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