Welcome back 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.
It’s not often you see the identity of a team flip completely over the course of a season, but that’s what happened to the 2019 Virginia football team. In September especially and even into October, Virginia was a defense-first team. With a strong-enough defensive line, swarming linebacker unit, and talented secondary, Bronco Mendenhall’s team reflected his background on the defensive side of the ball. But injuries mounted, stealing both starters and quality depth from the defense. Over the final six games of the season – including the ACC Championship and Orange Bowl – the Virginia defense gave up 35.7 points per game. Thankfully, that same stretch is where Bryce Perkins and the Virginia offense took over.
However, in 2020 Virginia won’t have Perkins to lean on. His graduation along with that of other skill players including Joe Reed, Hasise Dubois, and Tanner Cowley make it much more likely Virginia will have to go back to leaning on its defense this season. Although the unit struggled down the stretch, it returns all but three starters from last year’s season opening unit – Eli Hanback, Jordan Mack, and Bryce Hall, who it should be noted missed the final eight games of last season.
Aside from the players returning from injury, the one other notable addition is Clint Sintim’s hire as defensive line coach to replace Vic So’oto, who was lured away by USC. By all accounts, the former Virginia great has acclimated well and should pick up where So’oto left off.
Nick Howell – VirginiaSports.com Bio
Kelly Poppings (Co-) – VirginiaSports.com Bio
2019 ACC Games Production Allowed (ACC Rank)
Rushing Yardage Allowed
Yards/Gm: 147.4 (5th)
Yards/Att: 4.1 (6th)
Passing Yardage Allowed
Yards/Gm: 239.2 (6th)
Yards/Att: 8.3 (12th)
Total Yardage Allowed
Yards/Gm: 386.7 (6th)
Yards/Att: 6.0 (10th)
Sacks/Gm: 2.8 (7th)
Third Down Conv: 37.7% (6th)
Points/Gm Allowed: 27.6 (7th)
Red Zone Scoring Allowed
Trips/Gm: 3.1 (3rd)
Score Rate: 78.6% (3rd)
TD Rate: 60.7% (10th)
Turnovers Forced/Gm: 1.3 (11th)
Position Group Summaries
Click for links:
Defensive Line – Grade: B-
Linebackers – Grade: A
Defensive Backs – Grade: B/B+
Outside Linebackers – This almost goes without saying, as the outside linebacker room has not only the most talented starting duo (Charles Snowden and Noah Taylor) on the team, but also likely the most depth, from the two-deep in Matt Gahm and Elliot Brown down to the freshmen in Jonathan Horton and Brandon Williams. Just as co-defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga did at the end of last season, expect him to get creative with the unit. As the secondary went down with injuries late last year, Poppinga added Gahm into packages with Snowden and Taylor so one of the duo could drop into coverage, and Poppinga has hinted that he wants to use Gahm even more this season. Snowden and Taylor are complete linebackers that are strong in coverage and effective at setting the edge against the run. You would like to see Snowden develop a bit more as a pass rusher, as 3 of his 5 sacks last season came against William & Mary and Old Dominion, but even that is getting nitpicky. The defense will be schemed around the outside linebackers – with good reason.
Safety Versatility – For as banged-up as the secondary was last season, it can be easy to forget that when healthy, Virginia has one of the best safety groups in the ACC. Joey Blount returns for his third season as a starter following 3rd-team All-ACC honors last season, and fellow senior and 2017 ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year Brenton Nelson returns to play his hybrid safety/cornerback role. (One of the more interesting quotes of the offseason from Mendenhall was that Nelson’s injury last season hurt the defense more than Hall’s due to Nelson’s versatility.) Assuming De’Vante Cross stays at safety, he flashed in the box, as a pass-rusher, and as a deep free safety. Finally, expect JMU-transfer and FCS first-team All-American D’Angelo Amos to factor into the equation. Between Blount, Nelson, Cross, and Amos, Virginia has four seniors filling out its two deep that should provide not only depth, but also lineup versatility as co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Nick Howell can play to each of their respective strengths. While injuries are always a wild-card with this group, the safety room is among the most experienced and talented on the team.
Depth at Cornerback – Then-junior cornerback Nick Grant ascended the ladder quite quickly last season after spending his first two years of playing time mostly on special teams. He was thrust into the starting spot opposite Bryce Hall following Darrious Bratton’s preseason ACL tear and became Virginia’s No. 1 corner after Hall’s devastating injury against Miami. While not a superstar like Hall, Grant performed admirably and should return as Virginia’s top corner. But outside of Grant, the cornerback room remains largely unproven. Bratton has been practicing in a brace and seems poised to start opposite Grant following an impressive 2018 campaign where he made five starts before Tim Harris took over the position later in the season. Heskin Smith also played well in a limited capacity down the stretch last season after missing five early season games to injury. Virginia could also look to sophomore Jaylon Baker, who had his ups and downs last season but is now entering his third year in the program. There are more questions than answers at cornerback, a position in which Virginia would prefer to have stronger depth given its aggressive scheme.
Defensive Line Development – There’s really not a great way to say this other than that there are some questions along the defensive line, starting with the addition of Clint Sintim as the position coach. Although by all accounts he is fitting right in, he was previously the outside linebackers coach at Delaware, and Virginia will be Sintim’s first FBS coaching gig. And from a personnel standpoint, Virginia loses Eli Hanback to graduation and Aaron Faumui and Ben Smiley as opt-outs. Although fans should still expect a steady rotation that includes seniors Mandy Alonso and Richard Burney, it’s fair to wonder how JMU-transfer Adeeb Atariwa will fit in the rotation and what sort of second-year jump can be expected from Jowon Briggs. Virginia would also benefit from growth from sophomores Jordan Redmond and Samson Reed as well as any contributions from the three-man freshmen class of defensive lineman. It’s not yet time to press the panic button, but the defensive line situation became more fluid than expected when the 2019 season ended and bears monitoring this season.
3 Keys to Success
1. Multiplicity – This was Kelly Poppinga’s favorite word at his recent press conference. Virginia’s defense will be built around its outside linebackers this season, and Poppinga will get creative to utilize his personnel effectively. The defense is a base 3-4, but look for 4-2-5, 3-3-5, and even 1-5-5 alignments to keep offenses guessing. We’ve seen the staff get creative in past years in utilizing depth in the secondary, bringing safeties into the box, and frequently sending corner blitzes. Look for the staff to do the same thing this season, only geared toward the outside linebackers. The more effectively Virginia can utilize its talent and depth at the position, the more headaches it will cause for opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators.
2. Emergence of a Second (and Third) Cornerback – As mentioned before, Virginia needs to find a cornerback to start opposite Grant, who had two picks and eight pass breakups in 2019. If healthy, Bratton should be the favorite, as he broke up seven passes in 2018 before sixth-year program veteran and future NFL draft pick Harris assumed the starting position opposite Hall. While safety Brenton Nelson could again play the nickelback, you would like to see at least one other player at corner emerge; Heskin Smith is a name to watch here. For as aggressive a scheme as Howell and Poppinga deploy, Virginia needs noticeable gains from its corners and for the future of the position to emerge.
3. Avoid the Injury Bug – It’s easy to forget just how strong Virginia’s defense was through the first half of the last season. Yet injuries went on to devastate the secondary and even the linebacker position, as Jordan Mack played the final games hurt before sitting out the Orange Bowl. While injuries are a part of football, the roster depletion at the end of last season seemed extraordinary. If Virginia can keep its two-deep largely in-tact, the defense should be among the better units in the ACC.
Virginia fans should expect to see an improved defense from the unit that trotted off the field after the Orange Bowl. The real question is what type of ceiling can we expect from the unit. We know the linebackers will be strong, but the defensive line has some questions, and the secondary is thin at corner and has a recent history of injuries among its likely starters.
The simplest way to put it may be that Virginia has the potential to field a very good defense. We know that Mendenhall and co-defensive coordinators Howell and Poppinga are among the brightest defensive minds in the conference and that the scheme will be top-notch, as it has been the past several seasons. But between opt-outs and injuries, there are just a couple more question marks than you would prefer to have.
All that said, the linebackers should be a unit that we can reply upon and will be both the strength and focal point of the defense. If everything can stay in place around them, Virginia should be confident in its defense heading into the 2020 season.