September has come and gone for Virginia Tech as the Hokies enter their bye week at 3-1 with a roller coaster of emotions already from the elation of a top 10 win over North Carolina to the immense frustration that has built from a loss at West Virginia followed by a lackluster, uninspiring 21-10 win over FCS Richmond.
During the open month, there have been definitely been a lot of players who have shown improvement but who are the top breakout Hokies of the fall? Here are my top 3 players from the first month of the season.
1. LB Dax Hollifield
There was plenty who wondered if Dax Hollifield had reached his ceiling as a football player after flatlining following a strong freshman season in 2018?
Instead, Hollifield has proved that he has plenty of more room to grow as a football player with a move to mike linebacker being exactly what he needed.
Through 4 games, Hollifield has already a single season personal career high with 3 sacks while being well on his way to setting single season career highs in tackles with 30 and tackles for loss with 4.5. Hollifield also leads the Hokies in sacks and total tackles for loss while being second behind only Alan Tisdale in total tackles through the first four games.
Hollifield has always had the natural leadership qualities that would make him a fitting mike linebacker replacement for Rayshard Ashby and those have shone through. He's also proven to be a great run defender who has grown in that role proving to be effective shutting down the run.
However, some of Hollifield's biggest growth has come on pass plays with his now career high 3 sacks plus some really good pass defense working in coverage or as a spy depending on the circumstances. While Alan Tisdale is still the better pass coverage LB when Tech goes with a dime package, Hollifield has proven he is more than competent as a pass defender.
Entering the season, there were questions about whether Hollifield had reached his ceiling but now, he's emerging as one of the best linebackers in the ACC.
2. OT Silas Dzansi
Silas Dzansi seemed to reach his ceiling a couple years ago which led to him being surpassed by Luke Tenuta for the starting right tackle job with Christian Darrisaw at left tackle. With Tenuta at left tackle now to replace Darrisaw, Dzansi rose back to the starting right tackle job and has delivered so far.
Dzansi was a big piece of the puzzle for Tech's strong offensive line performance that helped their run-first attack be effective especially in the first half of their season-opening win against North Carolina. He's also the highest rated VT offensive lineman through the first month of the season by Pro Football Focus in another indication of Dzansi's strong play.
However, the best picture of Dzansi's strength and value is how Tech has looked in his absence.
As we saw against West Virginia, Virginia Tech had no answer for replacing him after his injury with VT's offensive line struggling especially at right tackle throughout the rest of that game whether they went with Tyrell Smith or Brock Hoffman. Tech then had to go with a completely reshuffled offensive line that included Tenuta at right tackle and Lecitus Smith at left tackle this apst week in an attempt to cope with Dzansi's absence.
While that offensive line last week was definitely an improvement, it's clear that Tech will be at their best on the offensive line when they can have a healthy Silas Dzansi at right tackle. The only question that remains is whether Dzansi will be healthy for their big showdown with Notre Dame next week.
3. DE TyJuan Garbutt
Before the season, defensive line coach Bill Teerlinck proclaimed that TyJuan Garbutt was "back". So far, Garbutt has shown in 2021 that not only is he back but also is taking his game to the next level in what are early signs of a potential breakout season.
Garbutt opened his season with a big game against North Carolina, but has since looked like the bigger threat at defensive end over the more renowned Amare Barno. Through the first 4 games, Garbutt has 13 tackles including 3.5 for loss with 3 sacks plus a pair of forced fumbles.
Garbutt seemed poised for a breakout in 2020 after a solid 2019 season but some family challenges off the field led him to taking some time away from the program. That put him behind the eight ball when he returned in the fall which he didn't recover from in terms of regaining the starting job he previously had.
However, a full offseason gave him the chance to easily reclaim his old starting DE job opposite Amare Barno, and he's delivered now with his early season production. The biggest encouraging sign is the fact that Garbutt has proven to be a higher end pass rusher and not just a run-stuffing first DE with his 3 sacks so far this season in addition to being able to play a spy-type zone coverage role given his athleticism.
Looking ahead, Garbutt is going to continue to play a valuable role with Tech needing him to continue to play at this high level in part to give Amare Barno greater freedom and likely less attention than he currently receives, allowing Tech's defensive line to be even more effective.