As a unit, Virginia Tech’s defense is inadequate. The Hokies rank 84th in scoring defense, 68th in total defense, 89th in third down defense and 90th in plays of 20 yards or more allowed. Tech has allowed an average of 39 points per game against their four ACC opponents this season.
But for all of the negativity surrounding this unit, linebacker Rayshard Ashby has been a strong and steady player in the middle of the unit. Ashby received some recognition on Monday, earning yet another ACC Linebacker of the Week award and maybe, Ashby is finally being seen as what he is — one of the best linebackers in the country.
The statistics speak for themselves. Ashby has registered 71 total tackles, including an astronomical 17 tackles vs. North Carolina. He’s racked up three sacks and 10 tackles for loss, eclipsing his 2018 numbers in both categories. Ashby’s three highest tackle totals have come against ACC teams, so it’s not like he’s padding his stats vs. FCS cupcakes.
But the film backs up the numbers. Ashby displays several key traits as a linebacker, specifically his combination of instincts, patience and athleticism. The play below highlights the first two traits.
On a first-and-10 situation, Ashby makes a hell of a play. North Carolina runs a draw, hoping to push the linebackers away from the line of scrimmage before handing the ball off to the running back. Instead of sinking into coverage, Ashby recognizes the draw and comes closer to the line of scrimmage. Ashby makes his move before the ball is even handed off. He sniffs out the gap, which was created by a stunt from Emmanuel Belmar. Ashby meets the back at the line of scrimmage and makes the tackle for loss.
Later in the North Carolina game, Ashby made a critical third down stop. The Tar Heels run an outside zone on third-and-one, hoping to create a hole in the defense. The rest of the defense stays in their gaps and Ashby, who comes from the A-gap. He moves with the play and finds the hole between the tackle and tight end, sniffing out the run and creating yet another tackle for loss.
Ashby is more than just a smart player. At 5-foot-10 and 237 pounds, Ashby is a bit of a tank. He has raw strength and is capable of taking on offensive linemen in one-on-one matchups. Here, Virginia Tech sends both Ashby and Alan Tisdale on the blitz, overwhelming an already porous Miami front. Ashby is met head-on by the left guard and simply throws him aside. He comes off the block and sprints at N’Kosi Perry, dropping him for a significant loss.
Ashby’s range and agility was on full display against Boston College. On consecutive plays, Ashby flashed athleticism and intelligence that most linebackers never develop. Here, Ashby recognizes the play action and rushes the backfield. Jarrod Hewitt nearly finishes the play himself, but Eagles quarterback Anthony Brown spins and runs upfield. Unfortunately for him, Ashby is already there and as he’s being blocked, Ashby dives and completes the sack.
The sack created a third-and-14 for Boston College. Virginia Tech rushes just three, dropping eight into coverage. Ashby is playing a middle zone underneath the first down marker. Ashby drops into coverage and at first glance, it looks like the inside receiver is going to run right past him. Brown tries to force the throw over the middle, but Ashby has already moved into place. He should have made the interception here, but Tech was certainly happy with just getting off the field.
Ashby isn’t physical specimen, but he has uncanny strength and instinct for the position. He’s also more athletic than he looks and is capable of running down plays to the sidelines. He’s been awarded ACC Linebacker of the Week four different times this season and Ashby is second in tackles and third in tackles for loss in the ACC. Ashby and Boston College’s Max Richardson are the class of the conference, and it’ll be fun to see if one of them gets a leg up on the other.