Welcome back to our 2018 Football Season Preview. In this installment, we're tackling the Defensive Line. To view our preview schedule and read already-completed pieces, click here.
Andrew Brown is a Cincinnati Bengal. Juwan Moye, Steven Wright, James Trucilla, and John Kirven have departed the program for various reasons. So essentially, the DL has been gutted. But it's not as bad as it seems on the surface, I swear...
A stalwart returns to lead the defensive line: Eli Hanback started all 13 games last season and proved himself to be one of our better defensive players. Meanwhile, Mandy Alonso saw action in 11 games, started 4, and had some nice flashes. Richard Burney has plenty of football experience (action in 13 games, with 3 starts), but is relatively new to the defensive end position. Those three will be counted upon heavily in 2018. Meanwhile, Isaac Buell and Tommy Christ come off of their redshirt freshman seasons hopefully ready to help fill in some depth.
Eli Hanback - Jr. - 6-4, 300 -- He's a two-gap player, but may be potentially miscast as a true 0-tech nose in our odd-man front. I like him best as a 5-tech, where he can weaponize his strength and tenacity against the finesse OTs he'll face. Either way, he's our most reliable defensive lineman; the closest thing we have to a "sure thing."
Mandy Alonso - So. - 6-2, 290 -- I think he'd be a great fit as a 3-tech, shooting the B-gap and rushing the passer. He'll do some of that in the silverback system. But his main role as a sophomore is going to be filling two gaps and stopping the run. He's a talented young guy with a bright future, and we're lucky to have him.
Richard Burney - Jr. - 6-4, 280 -- He's too lean to be assigned anything other than one gap to shoot and/or pass rushing responsibilities. I think he'll shine in the nickel but fear he'll be too frequently washed out in the run-stopping effort. (See also: the bowl game against Navy.) Burney is a role player who just needs to be given the right role.
Isaac Buell - RS Fr. - 6-2, 300 -- Not yet ready to play, but is developing as a traditional 5-tech two-gap end.
Tommy Christ - RS Fr. - 6-5, 285 -- Not yet ready to play, but is developing in the Alonso-style silverback 1/3-tech hybrid role.
Big, burly linewrecker Dylan Thompson is transferring in from Ohio State (as of press time he's finishing up summer school in Columbus to finally graduate and will promptly join the Hoos fall practices). Pass-rushy edgebender Cassius Peat is a JUCO transfer who once upon a time redshirted as a freshman at Michigan State. Thompson and Peat will likely join Hanback, Alonso, and Burney to form our primary defensive line rotation. We've also got a bevy of true freshmen on campus, any of whom could follow the same route as Alonso and contribute in their first year at UVA.
Dylan Thompson - Sr. - 6-5, 280
Cassius Peat - Jr. - 6-3, 280
Jordan Redmond - Fr. - 6-0, 320
Samson Reed - Fr. - 6-2, 265
Aaron Faumui - Fr. - 6-1, 280
It has to be the one truly indispensable defensive lineman we have -- Eli Hanback. I expect him to start every game and play a majority of the snaps in the base defense. He eats blocks playing a silverback-style 1-tech and can also kick outside into more of a 4/5-tech, J.J. Watt-type role. To have a truly "good" defensive line, we'll need one or two others to seriously challenge Hanback for the MVP nod, but rolling into training camp, Eli is the man up front for the Hoos.
There are a few legit candidates here. Alonso represents a nice marriage of talent and opportunity. Burney has good physical gifts and just needs to hone some of his skills. Thompson was buried at Ohio State but now has a chance to get on the field and show what he can do here at UVA. Any and all of those three could be breakout stars this season. That being said, my choice for the "breakout candidate" distinction is Cassius Peat. And the reason for that decision is... well... sacks. Even with Andrew Brown's talent on the line last season, we only generated 7 sacks from the DL. Even with a 3-man front and operating out of the nickel well over half the time, that number is way too low. Hanback, Alonso, and Thompson are block-eating, run-stopping types and shouldn't be counted on for much in the way of QB pressures or sacks. Burney is still triangulating his game. That leaves Peat, our most talented natural pass rusher on the line, falling into a situation yearning for a pass rush threat to emerge. We know Chris Peace and Charles Snowden will generate pressure from their outside linebacker spots, and I'm looking for Peat to provide a nice complement to those two, and add a dash of hot sauce to the beef provided by the Hanback/Alonso/Thompson trio. I believe Peat will lead our defensive line in sacks, despite coming off the bench and playing most heavily in the nickel.
A Stab at the UofR Game Depth Chart
Without serious progress from Buell or Christ, and without true freshmen coming in ready to contribute from day one, the depth on the defensive line is THIN. But that lack of depth is the biggest issue with the DL. Assuming good health, we have a solid five-man rotation that should be able to hold up its end of the bargain and let a very good defensive back seven do their thing. It all adds up to an effective defense for the Hoos in 2018... and if the five defensive linemen stay healthy, Virginia could surprise with a top-25 type of defense in 2018.