It is no secret that Virginia Tech’s defense had serious trouble against the run in 2018. Now, an opening week matchup with one of the best running backs in the nation will give them a chance to prove whether or not they have learned from those mistakes.
“We’re just looking forward to the challenge,” said senior defensive tackle Jarrod Hewitt. “We weren’t too good [against] the run game last year, so what better opponent to start out with than Boston College to see where we are at.”
A challenge is exactly what the Hokies are going to face when they see preseason All-ACC running back AJ Dillon on Saturday. Last season, Dillon racked up 1,108 yards and 10 touchdowns despite missing 2 games due to injury.
Against Virginia Tech in Week 10 last season, Dillon carried the ball 24 times for 96 yards and a touchdown. The Hokies will look to limit his production this time around, and force Anthony Brown to try to beat the Hokies this time instead of Dillon.
“[Dillon] is a big time player, and he is hard to bring down,” said Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster. “We’ve got to do a great job of swarming him, being physical in our approach coming to the football and coming with a purpose.”
Boston College is known for playing smash mouth football with a big offensive line and a big running back. Junior linebacker Rayshard Ashby says that Tech's defense knows that and is prepared for it.
"I know every down they're going to try to run the ball right up our throats," said Ashby. "That's what we're going to have to stop."
One specific area where the Hokies’ defense struggled last year was in tackling. For that reason, Foster has been spending time this fall camp putting his players through tackling drills.
“We really work hard on what we call a roll tackle, which is that kinda thing that we're gonna go grab their feet and pull,” said Foster.
Sophomore Dax Hollifield says he appreciates the focus on tackling. He is confident that Foster has them prepared to play in real time.
“We should take pride in being a great defense, and that’s what you’ve got to do,” Hollifield said. “You’ve gotta be a great tackling defense to be a great defense.”
Some good news for Virginia Tech is that their defense will be significantly more experienced than last season. The Hokies return both of their starting linebackers, and their four defensive line starters are all redshirt sophomores or older with all but DaShawn Crawford having started multiple games for Virginia Tech in 2018.
That experience has now experienced players like Dax Hollifield feeling much more prepared to play and compete against the highest levels of competition in college football
“Last year, to be honest with you, I really wasn’t ready to play,” said Hollifield. “I know what I’m doing now.”
Of course, there are still some newcomers on the Hokies defense as well. The aforementioned JUCO transfer DaShawn Crawford will be making his first start for Virginia Tech on Saturday, and his teammates have full confidence in him.
“He’s come a long way since he first got here. He’s adapted,” said Hewitt of Crawford. “At first, it kind of seemed like he was kind of, I don’t know how to put it, just uncomfortable a little bit with transitioning from kind of across the country. Now he’s in his position, he’s playing well, he’s very consistent, and I’m looking forward to see what he does, too.”
Another factor that Virginia Tech’s defense will have to address is the running ability of Boston College quarterback Anthony Brown. While he only rushed for 37 yards against the Hokies last year, he has shown the ability to make plays with his legs in the past.
Despite these challenges, the Hokies are eager to show what they can do to open the 2019 season. They have a chip on their shoulder after last season, and as Dax Hollifield said best, they’re ready to stop talking about doing a better job of stopping the run and ready to go prove it on the field.
“I’m tired of the talk, to be honest with you,” said Hollifield. “I’m tired of everybody talking. I’m just ready to play.”