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Virginia Tech Hokies 2023 Roster Review: Linebackers

Time to review the Linebacker situation. There are some good and experienced players here, but there are lots of unknowns. This squad will need to step up in a big way this season. GO HOKIES!!!

Jayden McDonald is challenging for starting Mike. He’ll play regardless of start status.
John Schneider - SB Nation

We all talk a whole lot about positions, and their roles on the field, but few of us really think about how central certain roles are to either the offense or the defense. We’ve said it here, that the absolute most important position group on the offense, is the line. The O-Line makes most college QBs many times better, and most college RBs even better than the QBs. Suffice it to say that without a solid offensive line the offense doesn’t go. This time we are on the ‘D’ side of the line of scrimmage, and about to step into what is arguably the most important single position group on the Defense, and eve the entire football team, namely the Linebackers (of which we are including the new STAR label in the group).

The Basics

There are three groups of defenders. The Defensive Line, Linebackers, and Defensive Backs. That sounds really mundane and ho hum, like everyone with half a brain knows it, but it’s a basic fundamental situation that requires a full set of explanations. In the case of the D-Line, we have covered that in the review, and the talents within that group are largely unary. There are a few specialty package exceptions where some players are used in a Linebacker role to support pass rush and coverage (Zone Blitz) but those physical talents are often difficult to implement. Linemen play the line and that’s the basic rule.

Defensive Backs – Free Safeties, Strong Safeties, some nickel and dime formations, and cornerbacks have primary and secondary roles where they trade off with a Linebacker for certain package calls, but for the most part they have their very defined roles covering receivers and disrupting the opponent’s passing game. Again, the exception would be a blitz package where the Strong Safety operates as an extra linebacker to cover runs or rush the quarterback. There are also special circumstances where a cornerback will get a shot at the task, too. The practical application is, though that pass defense is their primary assignment.

Dealing with the Subject

Then we come to the defensive mid-field. The Linebacker positions are arguably the most important on the field. Linebackers are assigned both run coverage and pass coverage, as a matter of routine. The current system being operated by Coaches Brent Pry and Chris Marve is a basic one-over/single high safety, 4/3/4 (or 4/2/5). The linebacker base formation will be a Mike (Middle Linebacker), a Will (Weakside linebacker), and the Sam (Strong side backer). In that mix there can be 4 linebackers in a package that could be called a “heavy nickel” where the Strong Safety is brought down into the mid-field and assigned some form of zone pass coverage with something challenging like a blitz component as a play assignment. This defense amounts to a 4/4/3 and really depends on the opponent not being expected to put up deep, zone challenging routes.

There is one additional package that we are seeing more of with both the last regime and the 2022 season and that’s the 3/4/4 configuration that often converts the STAR or Nickel/Whip to a Rover which is an extra Strong Safety. Defensive coordinators keep playing with the “total coverage” options but with running quarterbacks, the 3/4/4 is often a losing proposition. Prevent defenses are famous for preventing a team from winning because no team can cover that long without allowing a rangy running QB to either break a big run out of bounds to move the sticks and stop the clock or finding an open man somewhere in the sandlot.

In all cases the physical and tactical knowledge needed to pull off being a quality Linebacker takes some serious athletic talent. It also takes the functional equivalent of a master’s degree in reading offenses and running your defense. Who calls the audibles is often a choice of the Defensive Coordinator. In most cases, the Mike is the “quarterback/signal caller” of the entire defense, but in the case of a defense without a true Mike linebacker position that role can often switch. It also makes it difficult for the quarterback to read cues, when the obvious signal caller standing up is not the guy making the on-field adjustments.

Certainly, last season, we saw the defensive mid-field line up in several varied non-traditional configurations with the Mike outside the DE or in the ‘B’ Gap ‘C’ Gap boundary. In some nickel formations we saw the Field (wide side) Linebacker snug up closer to the B ‘Gap,’ in effect switching coverage responsibilities with the Mike. Messing with the quarterback’s mind, and foiling the opposing OCs forced audibles is the mission, here, and being routinely good at it means generating critical stops. You know that offense is supposed to be as unpredictable as possible, but few people realize that the defense is calling plays, too, and unpredictability Is a path to solid stops.

No matter what the situation is though, whether pass coverage, run coverage, or blitzing, the one thing that has to be absolutely universal for successful linebackers is the ability to tackle effectively, and get the opposing player down with as minimal post contact yardage as possible. Remember, Linebackers are generally playing 3 to 8 yards deep, so a backer making routine stops can mean that the other team is steadily advancing the ball and moving the sticks.

Given that, we need to look at the Tech 2023 Linebacker situation. It’s a relatively big room for the number of positions, and the appearance, this season of the STAR will be explained.

Here’s the Linebacker Roster for your reference:

Please be aware that there are lots of young guys in this mix, and sometimes the information available is a glamor shot, and not much else.

2023 Hokie Linebackers

Number Name Position Height Weight Class Anticipated Depth Playing Potential
Number Name Position Height Weight Class Anticipated Depth Playing Potential
34 Alan Tisdale Mike 6' 3" 232 R-Sr. 1 Starting Mike - though getting competition from Jayden McDonald
48 Matt Johnson LB 6' 0" 226 R-Sr. 2 Missed 2022 with an injury. Needs to make this season count.
21 Keli Lawson OLB 6' 4" 220 R-So. 1 Looking like a starting package duo at Will Linebacker.
24 Jaden Keller OLB 6' 3" 228 R-So. 1 Pushing Lawson hard and a skill set that gives package depth witout quality drop offs.
38 Jayden McDonald Mike 6' 4" 240 R-So. 1 Starting quality player with eyes on doing swaps with Alan Tisdale.
53 Will Johnson LB 6' 2" 230 R-So. 4 Scout Team
43 Josh Hand LB 6' 1" 215 R-Fr. 4 Scout Team
41 George Ballance LB 6' 0" 217 Fr. 4 Scout Team
42 Aycen Stevens LB 6' 4" 237 Fr. 3 Stevens was a 3-Star recruit expect him to redshirt after 4 games but depth concerns might flame it.
47 Tavorian Copeland LB 6' 3" 178 Fr. 3 Coprland like Stevens was a big 3-Star recruit but on the light side. Probable redshirt.
STAR Backers
7 Keonta Jenkins STAR 6' 3" 212 Sr. 1 No doubt start at this position regardless of its name.
35 Sam Hughes STAR 6' 1" 200 R-So.
37 Davion Ames STAR 6' 2" 210 R-So.
20 Caleb Woodson STAR 6' 3" 215 Fr. 2 Being talked about for arriving ready to play looks like a burned redshirt for Woodson.
28 Antonio Cotman Jr. STAR 6' 2" 190 Fr. 3 Redshirt probable - but he will push the 4 game limit
Darius Taylor LB 6'0" 215 Fr. 4 Redshirt Scout Team
Brody Jones STAR 6'2" 212 Fr. 4 Redshirt Scout Team
45 Stone Snyder LB 6' 3" 239 Sr. N/A Snyder was not a scholarship player and decided to end his attempt to make the team. Pry was apprciative and understanding.
The Linebacker position isn’t very deep this season. Gobbler Country from Hokie Sports data

Let’s Go Traditional Terminology and Position Depth

The first and most traditional linebacker position is the Mike “Middle Linebacker” – some of the greatest football players of the past were “Mikes.” We aren’t going to go into the history too deeply but In my lifetime the likes of Ray Nitschke, Dick Butkus, Bobby Bell, Jack Lambert, Mike Singletary, and Ray Lewis all stand out as Hall of Fame greats. They were fearless, fearsome, and always completely on top of their game.

This season, we have two highly thought of candidates for the starting Mike. Alan Tisdale had an opportunity to come back an extra season due to the COVID season and has seriously impressed the coaching staff. He’s in direct competition with Jayden McDonald and both have been mentioned in pressers as being the main competition for the Mike role. I doubt that either of them will ride the pine this season. Both will almost certainly play and could fairly be graded as Ones.

The OLB position (Will and Sam) is a bit tougher to diagnose from what we have in the information mix, currently. Right now, Keli Lawson is looking like he’s going right back out there as the starting Sam Linebacker, and Jaden Keller is definitely in the mix for Will positioning. We’ll see if Coach Marve does some shifting of Will and Mike techniques to put both McDonald and Tisdale on the field together.

On the issue of the threes, it’s difficult to say, but there are two true freshmen on the team, Aycen Stevens and Tavorian Copland who have a shot at having their redshirts burned. It’s going to be the surprise of late fall practice to see how the depth plays out with the true Freshmen.

We expect to see that first game depth chart within a week of the kickoff on September 2nd. And again, the starter distinction might not indicate more than the fact that someone has to start at a position.

Adding STARs to the Mix

Please note that Bryan might actually be covering the STAR roster in Defensive Backs, because it’s a hybrid position. What in the world is a “STAR”? Well, to be honest with you it’s the renaming of an old Bud Foster staple; the Whip/Rover. If a bigger more run dominant coverage is needed the STAR will be a Nickel package addition with the old “Whip” responsibilities. If it’s a more pass heavy offense, then the STAR will be playing a more “Rover” oriented technique. Either way, the pros and college football never warmed up to calling the position Whip and/or Rover, so Pry seems to have gone with the flow and stuck with the new astronomical nomenclature.

There are quite a few “STARs” on this season’s player list. Five nickels on the bench might seem a bit much unless you are Keli Lawson and capable of playing Sam Linebacker and Strong Safety. That sort of versatility gets a young man playing a whole lot. But Lawson is still solidly listed in the OLB category.

Keonta Jenkins is the only real experienced legitimate one listed on the STAR roster. He’s an easy call. What’s more difficult is the remainder of the list where we end up quickly jumping over Sam Hughes and Davion Ames for no other reason than their bios and stats are nonexistent. We’ll have to wait until the season starts to see how they fit in to this position and group. Bryan might have more to say on the defensive back side of things though.

The final two entries on the list are quite interesting. Both players were well recruited, Antonio Cottman, Jr. seems to be destined for 4 games and then a redshirt, but there are sneaky rumors about Caleb Woodson and his potential burned redshirt. With constant statements from the coaching staff that Freshmen will be playing this season, and will need to step up big, we will have to wait and see how some position groups are fielded once the season starts, and game to game.

Summing Up the Mid-Field

The Linebacker room is a mix of old and experienced, and very young and unknown. The worry here is that the experienced players are going to have to stay healthy. This room might be one injury away from a massive challenge that might present a defensive problem. As confident in the defensive line as we can be, there just isn’t a ton here for the Linebackers. Their performance on the field is critical. To help them out the Defensive Line will need to be able to rush the passer effectively, and stuff the run at the Line of Scrimmage. That would allow the Linebackers to cover under the zone and keep the ball in front of them. As Coach Pry said at the mini-presser on Friday that stopping the explosive plays and limiting damage is very important for the defense this season.

Your Turn to Have a Say


How are you feeling about the Linebackers this season?

This poll is closed

  • 15%
    I like the ones. Who the rest are is a complete cypher. Looks like I learn with everyone else starting the 2nd of September.
    (16 votes)
  • 11%
    This looks like a roster called One Injury Equals Disaster. The ones are going to be solid, and there are some twos, but LBs get hurt and this list doesn’t give me a whole lot of confidence.
    (12 votes)
  • 16%
    Lots of stepping up to do. Hopefully the ones can bring up the level of play across the room. There just don’t seem to be any redshirts here, that’s for sure.
    (17 votes)
  • 55%
    Wow is it time for the McDonalds to shine. Tisdale knows his stuff and should be durable enough. Keli Lawson might be a major factor at OLB in 2023. They do have to stay healthy, but I am not totally worried just yet.
    (56 votes)
101 votes total Vote Now

The next article from me will probably be a merger madness review since the ACC withdrawal deadline has passed and no one budged. On to the season, now. We passed the halfway point in August. As of the 17th there are two weeks and two days until kickoff.

Bryan’s taking the rest of the roster, so we’ll see what he has to say.