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2021 Virginia Tech football season preview: Linebackers

There is a good mix of youth and experience here.

Pittsburgh v Virginia Tech
Dax Hollifield
Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images


Dax Hollifield: 6-foot-1, 239 (Jr.)

Alan Tisdale: 6-foot-3, 228 (RS So.)

Keshon Artis: 6-foot-0, 240 (RS So.)

Dean Ferguson: 6-foot-2, 228 (RS Fr.)

Michael Peterson: 6-foot-1, 227, (RS Fr.)

Lakeem Rudolph: 6-foot-4, 227 (Fr.)

Matt Johnson: 6-foot-0, 227 (RS Fr.)

Ben Skinner: 6-foot-1, 222 (RS Fr.)

Tre Maxwell: 6-foot-0, 220 (RS Fr.)

Will Johnson: 6-foot-2, 218 (Fr.)

Jaden Keller: 6-foot-3, 216 (Fr.)

Austin Rosa: 5-foot-10, 220 (GRAD)

C.J. McCray: 6-foot-3, 221 (Fr.)

Key Returnees: Hollifield, Tisdale, Artis, Ferguson

Key Departures: Rayshard Ashby

Top Newcomers: Keller, Will Johnson, McCray

The starters

The Hokies start two linebackers, one at mike linebacker and one outside. Tech lists the nickel position as a starter on defense which is best described as a hybrid position.

Dax Hollified is entering his third season as a starter on Virginia Tech’s defense. In his career, Hollifield has played in every game (36 games) and made 25 total starts. Instead of rotating time on the outside with Alan Tisdale, Hollifield is in his natural position now. That’s a good thing for Hollifield and the Hokies. Of course, Tech lost a very good mike linebacker in Rayshard Ashby, but there shouldn’t be a dropoff in production.

Hollifield is poised for a big season playing at mike linebacker. Regardless of how Hokie fans have criticized him in the past for not making enough plays, just remember, he was playing out of position. That’s not his fault. Hollifield is “all Hokie” and should be a fan favorite. He loves Virginia Tech and is the perfect representative for the school.

Tisdale has added weight in the offseason and starts on the outside. That’s a good thing. TIsdale can run. In the past, keeping weight on throughout the season was always the question. Now, there will not be any rotations, Tisdale is a full-time starter.

Having Tisdale on the field full-time will help defensive coordinator Jusitn Hamilton defend pass-catching running backs and athletic tight ends.

I am excited to see the duo of Hollifield and Tisdale on the field together this season.

The rest

Virginia Tech’s top backups are Dean Ferguson and Keshon Artis. Both are good players who can step in immediately and play. Artis has been patient, waiting for his turn, yet remains the consummate teammate. You would love to see him get his chance, just not through an injury to someone else.

Ferguson is another favorite of the coaching staff for his versatility. He is considered the top backup to Hollifield. Ferguson has great size and a good knowledge of the defense. He is going to be a good player at this level.

Lakeem Rudolph was a member of last year’s class. Physically, his size reminds you a bit of Tisdale. Watch for Rudolph to make his impact on special teams while he waits his turn.

Three newcomers Hokie fans should be excited about are Marshall transfer C.J. McCray, Will Johnson and Jaden Keller. While Johnson is out for the season with shoulder surgery, he has a bright future.

Keller has been, arguably, the talk of Virginia Tech’s camp this summer. He has a terrific combination of size and athleticism and a high football IQ. He will find a role this season. Coaches want to get him on the field.

McCray followed J.C. Price over from Marshall and the Hokies will be better for it. He is another example of the type of length and athleticism Hamilton wants to see in his defenders, specifically at defensive end, linebacker and safety. He didn’t play as a freshman at Marshall, so he has all of his eligibility remaining.

The outlook

Unlike some of the other positions, there is some depth here. If Tisdale or Hollifield go down for a couple of games, the Hokies should be fine. Artis and Ferguson are starting-level players.

I am interested to see a full season of Hollifield and Tisdale on the field together. The addition of Jordan Williams to Virginia Tech’s defensive line should help the linebackers.

Overall, this is a solid group and I like the focus on adding tall, rangy and athletic linebackers to the roster.