BLACKSBURG — It was fitting that Virginia Tech linebacker Dax Hollifield came up with a late interception to dash Wake Forest’s comeback hopes on “Bud Foster Day.”
The program’s longtime defensive coordinator did cartwheels through the halls of the Jamerson Athletic Center when Hollifield told the staff on national signing day in 2018 he was headed to Blacksburg. Foster said last year he visited Hollifield “more than any recruit that I’ve ever recruited” and that bond has only grown stronger.
Hollifield’s interception came with Wake backed up to its own end zone with less than five minutes to go.
Foster sent consistent pressure in the second half and called Hollifield’s number on plenty of those blitz packages. The linebacker was credited with a quarterback hurry coming off the edge on DaShawn Crawford’s interception in the third quarter.
In the final minutes, Hollifield didn’t get a great jump on a blitz off the left side. He backed off a bit as TyJuan Garbutt burst through the line and hit quarterback Jamie Newman as he let go of the ball.
“I thought the ball was in the air forever,” Hollifield said. “...I was like, ‘Please just don’t drop this thing.’ I wanted to be able to run the thing but there was no way. I was about to fall.”
A wild celebration ensued on Virginia Tech’s sideline with Hollifield at the center of things. While his teammates swarmed around him, the sophomore only had one thought on his mind — keeping that football.
“I wanted the ball but I think one of the ball boys took it,” Hollifield said. “I tried hiding it, but they found me.”
Foster’s impending retirement has been on Hollifield’s mind all season. The outspoken linebacker was caught off guard by the announcement before fall camp like much of the locker room.
“I’m doing it totally for Bud,” Hollifield said in August. “I’m doing it all for Bud, seriously...It’s only one more for him, I got to make it perfect or as close to perfect as I can make it. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure he goes out with a bang.”
Hollifield struggled handling those emotions in the weeks that followed. He put pressure on himself and it prevented him from getting into a rhythm as Tech struggled early in the season.
“I work real hard and it upsets me when I don’t make the play, when I’m supposed to make the play and I mess up here and there,” Hollifield said in September. “And I really get down on myself.
Hollifield wanted to be perfect for Foster, the coach he first noticed when his dad took him to see Virginia Tech for the first time as a ninth-grader in the infamous 6-3 game against Wake Forest. Hollifield’s father Aubrey played for Wake Forest, but Hollifield had a hard time cheering for the home team that day.
“I felt something special just watching Virginia Tech play defense,” Hollifield said.
The two years playing for Foster has been everything Hollifield expected.
“It’s more the football, to be honest with you,” Hollifield said after the game. “You’re with him every day. He talks a lot about life too. He knows it all, too, to be honest with you. He’s a very wise man. But he’s just one of the best men I’ve ever met in my life.”
Hollifield has kept those emotions in check in recent weeks. The team’s 45-10 loss to Duke at the end of September was the wakeup call he needed to get back on track. Hollifield has watched more film with Jack Tyler, another Foster disciple that is currently one of the team's quality control assistants, and done a better job taking one play at a time.
“I’m not really forcing anything anymore, so I’ve just got to trust my technique and my ability and just trust that I know what to do,” Hollifield said.
Hollifield’s play has improved as Tech has rattled off four wins in five games and were one stop away from also scoring an upset win over Notre Dame on the road. The linebacker has interceptions in two straight games. He’s fourth on the team with 51 tackles (14 solo) with 2.5 for a loss, a forced fumble and a team-high nine quarterback hurries.
After another solid performance on Saturday — six tackles (one for a loss) with two quarterback hurries — Hollifield wasn’t worried about hiding his emotions in the final minutes when he shared a hug with Foster on the sidelines.
“I said I loved him,” Hollifield said. “I said I appreciated everything he’s done for me. And he said, I love you too.”