Position Preview – Linebacker

Welcome to our 2020 Football Season Preview. To view our preview table of contents and read already-completed pieces, click here or on the Series button above.

 

Linebacker is the glory position in the UVA defense. It sets the pace and #TheStandard. It creates the most havoc and gets the most attention. It even has more position coaches dedicated to it than the defensive backfield or defensive line.

But with that spotlight also comes expectations and competition. Just getting on the field at linebacker for the Hoos is a tall ask. As the cliche goes, everything is earned. Nothing is given.

The 2020 edition is the deepest and most talented group fielded during Bronco Mendenhall’s tenure in Charlottesville. There should not be a situation on the field that this group cannot handle.

 

Position Coach

Kelly Poppinga (OLBs) – VirginiaSports.com Bio

Shane Hunter (ILBs) – VirginiaSports.com Bio

 

Who’s Gone?

Jordan Mack – Mack is a huge, but not insurmountable loss, to the linebacker group. He was banged up the last four games of the season, missing a good amount of time during games. His injuries finally resulted in him missing the Orange Bowl due to surgery. A team captain, Mack’s leadership on and off the field will not be easily replaced. Mack’s versatility and ability to provide highlight worthy hits will also be hard to replicate. The derby to replace Mack in the lineup will be a big story heading into the 2020 season opener.

 Jairus Satiu – Satiu disappeared from the UVA roster on VirginiaSports.com this summer without explanation. We only know that he’s no longer with the football program.

 

Who’s Back?

Robert Snyder – Senior (R) – 6’2″ 230 lb  – Snyder is one of two options assumed to be competing for Mack’s starting spot on the inside. Snyder, a fellow Georgian, has had his share of injury woes as well. He missed his redshirt freshman season in 2017 as a result of a camp injury prior to the season. He then missed ten of fourteen games last season after another injury. In just four games of action last season, Snyder contributed 13 tackles (3 solo / 10 assisted) and 0.5 tackles for loss. In his final game of the season against Old Dominion, Snyder made 7 of his 13 tackles.

Charles Snowden – Senior – 6’7″ 240 lb  – Snowden is the face of the program, even drawing comparisons to Malcolm Brogdon off the court. In UVA athletics circles, there is no higher praise. On the field, Snowden is a matchup terror for opponents. He rushes the passer well, uses his wingspan to inhibit clean passing lanes, and can use his length to keep blockers off of him when setting the edge on run plays. Due to personnel issues in the UVA secondary last season, Snowden didn’t have the monster season, numbers wise, many were anticipating as he had to provide assistance on pass defense more often than fans would have liked. Still, Snowden won Honorable Mention All-ACC honors. He finished last season third on the team in tackles with 72 (36 solo / 36 assisted). He was third on the team with 5 sacks and tied for the lead in QB hurries with 11.

Zane Zandier – Senior – 6’3″ 230 lb  – Fan favorite and best in class nickname owner (ZZ Stop) will look unusual on the field this season as he wears number zero. Known for his aggressive play and penchant for laying the lumber, opponents should not let Zandier’s jersey number choice distract them lest they suffer the consequences. Zandier is one of three returning starters at linebacker and figures to maintain his spot as a starter on the inside. He led the Hoos in tackles last season with 108 (49 solo / 59 assisted). The 49 solo tackles were second on the team behind safety Joey Blount. Zandier’s 5 sacks tied him for third on the team with Charles Snowden. He also stuffed the stat sheet with 1 interception (a pick six against ODU), 2 QB hurries, and 5 pass break ups. If there’s anything the 2019 Honorable Mention All-ACC pick needs to clean up in his game, it could be how closely he straddles the line between legal hits and targeting fouls.

Matt Gahm – Senior – 6’3″ 235 lb  – Prior to last season, Gahm was in a heated battle with Elliott Brown and Noah Taylor to start opposite Charles Snowden at OLB. Taylor ultimately won that battle but Gahm played a ton regardless. He figures to reprise his role as the top OLB backup in 2020 while seeing lots of time on the field in the various sub packages utilized by the UVA defense. Gahm had a knack for making big plays last year, see his timely interception in the season opener at Pitt or a massive, late game sack that helped doom the Hokies’ penultimate drive in the Wahoos’ streak breaking victory. In his role, Gahm finished with 36 tackles (16 solo / 20 assisted) on the season. He also chipped in 1.5 sacks, 1 interception, 3 pass break ups, and 3 QB hurries. 

Elliott Brown – Senior – 6’5″ 225 lb  – Brown fits the physical prototype UVA looks for at the OLB position. He came in with Charles Snowden and had a slightly more accomplished football background at the time. Brown’s career has not developed the same as Snowden’s, but he’s still a valuable reserve and important contributor on special teams. Brown can play either OLB position for the Hoos. During the 2019 campaign, he made 8 tackles (1 solo / 7 assisted) and had 0.5 sacks.

Noah Taylor – Junior – 6’5″ 225 lb  – Taylor burst onto the scene last year in his first season of full time duty on the UVA defense. As the counterpart to Charles Snowden on the outside in UVA’s defense, Taylor’s skills translate into a player that can almost do literally everything on the football field. You won’t see him line up with his hand in the dirt, but that’s about the extent of his limitations. And like both Snowden and Elliott Brown, Taylor’s long frame allows him to be disruptive in the passing game when rushing the passer and dropping into pass coverage. Case in point, Taylor made both of his interceptions last season against Virginia Tech while providing support to the Hoos’ pass defense. The second of those interceptions was an eye-opening play for any linebacker. Besides those two picks last season, Taylor also finished sixth on the team with 57 tackles (36 solo / 21 assisted). His 7 sacks were just a half sack off Jordan Mack’s team lead. And he also chipped in 4 pass break ups, 8 QB hurries, and 1 forced fumble. The sky is the limit for Taylor in 2020.

TC Harrison – Sophomore (R) – 6’2″ 235 lb  – Harrison is still looking to find his niche in the UVA defense while proving capable support on special teams units. During his redshirt freshman season last year, he played in half of UVA’s fourteen games. During that time, Harrison added his first two career tackles (1 solo / 1 assisted) and added 1 QB hurry. In 2020, Harrison figures to compete for a spot on the two-deep at one of the inside linebacker spots.

Nick Jackson – Sophomore – 6’1″ 235 lb  – Jackson played in all 14 games as a true freshman in 2019. He earned two starts including the Orange Bowl for an injured Jordan Mack. Jackson saw heavy action in the late stages of the season while Mack struggled with injury issues. He certainly had his share of growing pains during that run, but Jackson also showed that he belonged. The experience gained during that trial by fire will pay dividends in 2020 as Jackson competes to replace Mack in the Hoos’ starting lineup. For the 2019 season, Jackson tallied 28 tackles (11 solo / 17 assisted), 0.5 sacks, and 1 QB hurry.

Hunter Stewart – Freshman (R) – 6’2″ 240 lb  – Stewart was one of two freshman scholarship linebackers that did not see any game action in 2019. He appears to be a versatile player as whispers indicate that Stewart is training at both inside and outside linebacker during camp. It’s a testament to Stewart’s potential and acumen that the coaching staff feels he can handle either role. At either spot in 2020, Stewart looks to be battling to join the two-deep. Expect spot contributions in the base defense while Stewart makes big contributions on special teams. He has a bright future ahead of him in the program.

Josh Ahern – Freshman (R) – 6’3″ 230 lb  – Ahern was able to maintain his redshirt while playing in only three games during the 2019 season. He was credited with 2 tackles (both assisted) during those three games. Ahern appeared at both inside linebacker and on special teams during that game action. During his high school career, Ahern put up ridiculous tackle numbers from his linebacker spot. He’ll be one to watch on the inside in UVA’s defense in the out years. For now, expect Ahern to compete to make the two-deep during the 2020 season.

D’Sean Perry – Freshman (R) – 6’3″ 235 lb  – Perry joined Hunter Stewart as the other true freshman scholarship linebacker that did not play during the 2019 season. It would be a mistake to read into it that either player lacks a future in the UVA defense. On the contrary, Perry profiles as an explosive pass rusher for the Hoos. It was important for his long-term development and the continuity of the OLB position to ensure that Perry maintained his redshirt. With one spot assumed available on the two-deep at OLB, Perry should compete hard to challenge for that spot behind Charles Snowden. This season look for Perry to get his feet wet from scrimmage while playing a big role on kick coverage units on special teams. He’ll be in the mix to then start in 2021.

 

Who’s New?

Note that for all incoming recruits, their ranking info is as of when they signed with UVA.

Sam Brady – Freshman – 6’3″ 220 lb  – Brady was a 247 composite 3 Star (.8464 grade) recruit out of North Lincoln High School in Lincolnton, North Carolina. UVA was Brady’s first scholarship offer. He essentially made his college decision upon receipt of the offer from the Hoos. Brady figures to slot on the inside at linebacker to begin his career. He’s reported to have plus athleticism and should be a linebacker in the Jordan Mack mold.

Jonathan Horton – Freshman – 6’4″ 220 lb  – Horton was a 247 composite 4 Star (.8926 grade) recruit out of Scotlandville Magnet High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Horton exploded onto the recruiting scene during his senior year of high school football. In the end, he selected the Hoos over offers from Baylor, Utah, Arizona, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Tennessee, SMU, Tulane, and Southeastern Louisiana. His senior year of high school was his first playing football. Until then, Horton was better known as UVA basketball freshman Reece Beekman’s hoops teammate. While he has a lot to learn and refine, Horton brings explosive pass rushing ability and a nearly limitless ceiling to the position. Given that the 2020 season will not count against a player’s eligibility clock, one can reasonably expect the coaching staff to find a way to utilize Horton’s pass rushing skills in select spots during the season.

Brandon Williams – Freshman – 6’3″ 230 lb  – Williams was a 247 composite 4 Star (.8928 grade) recruit out of Isidore Newman School in New Orleans, Louisiana. Williams picked UVA over offers from Arkansas, Boston College, Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Miami, Oklahoma State, Purdue, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Houston, SMU, Southern Miss, Tulane, and Southern. Williams expects to be slotted at OLB at UVA. Pass rushing will be his forte early. But there will be a bit of a transition to the position as he played DE with his hand in the dirt in high school. Expect the 2020 season for Williams to go much like it did for Hunter Steward and D’Sean Perry in 2019.

 

Preseason MVP

Charles Snowden – Noah Taylor’s emergence will prevent teams from keying on Snowden exclusively this season. And a healthy secondary will allow Snowden to do what he does best, causing havoc near the line of scrimmage and in the backfield. As a result, Snowden’s stats and impact will make a big jump for his senior season. Off the field, Snowden will turn in an MVP performance as well, living up to those Malcolm Brogdon comparisons.

 

Breakout Candidate

Noah Taylor – It may surprise many, but Noah Taylor was more productive on the field than Charles Snowden last year. A lot of circumstances went into that, but Taylor is legit. It can be argued that he was the breakout player in 2019. I’d certainly entertain that argument. But what we expect from Taylor in 2020 will make the 2019 contributions seem quaint. This year, he’ll challenge for position MVP honors. 

 

A Stab at the Opening Day Depth Chart

SLB

Charles Snowden (SR)

Elliott Brown (SR)

MLB

Nick Jackson (SO)

Robert Snyder (SR-R)

BLB

Zane Zandier (SR)

Hunter Stewart (FR-R)

WLB

Noah Taylor (JR)

Matt Gahm (SR)

 

Grade: A

 

Final Thoughts

The linebacker position is usually my favorite group on the team. This season, that’s certainly the case. This unit harkens back to the days of Brooks-Parham-Blackstock-Haley, Jones-Sharper-Farrior, or Rainer-Thweatt-Green. The primary difference is that the 2020 linebacking corps has far more depth than those other units.

Besides all the havoc created and punishment dished out on the field, the real fun will be watching how the linebackers are handled on the field.

The versatility of the players will allow the Hoos to utilize just about any alignment imaginable. And then probably some we haven’t even considered yet. 

The depth will allow the coaching staff to keep players fresh and firing on all cylinders during the grind of a college football season.

The high potential youngsters will challenge the coaching staff to play for now while grooming the next generation of great Wahoo linebackers.

I’m ready to start the season today so we can see how it all unfolds.