Welcome back to our 2018 Football Season Preview. In this installment, we're tackling the linebacker position group. To view our preview schedule and read already-completed pieces, click here.
Micah Kiser - The 5th round draft pick of the LA Rams was one of the ACC's most productive linebackers last year, leading the league in tackles (143), while adding 5 sacks, 9.5 TFL, and 2 fumble recoveries. He was the anchor of last year's solid defense, and was rewarded with all-ACC honors, the Dudley award, a finalist for the Butkus award, and winner of the Campbell trophy. He's a major loss.
Jahvoni Simmons - The former 4-star Mike London commit never quite fit into Bronco's defense, and after a couple games as Micah Kiser's backup, disappeared from the 2-deep in mid-September, leapfrogged by true freshman Zane Zandier. He announced in January he'd graduate-transfer to Hampton.
Well. just about everyone else. Of the 10 linebackers who appeared on the 2-deep last season (not counting DB Juan Thornhill's emergency appearances as Chris Moores's backup for two games), Virginia returns 8 of them, making this potentially our most stable unit.
Jordan Mack - Jr - 6'2" 230 lbs - Our most productive returner, started all 13 games inside next to Kiser last year, to the tune of 114 tackles, 7 TFLs, 3 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles. Will be the centerpiece of this year's defense.
Chris Peace - RS Sr - 6'2" 250 lbs - An incredibly important veteran piece of the defense, Peace was recruited as an undersized, low-rated DE out of Denbigh HS in Newport News, but has outworked everyone to become a standout OLB, earning Honorable Mention all-ACC as a junior last year. Starting all 13 games, he amassed 68 tackles with 7.5 sacks (tied for 5th in the ACC), 10.5 TFLs, 2 force fumbles, 2 pass breakups, and an interception.
Malcolm Cook - RS Sr - 6'1" 240lb - Cook is a 6th year redshirt senior, originally recruited as a Safety in Mike London's 2013 class. Injuries have derailed what was supposed to be a good career, as he appeared in only 3 games apiece in 2014 and 2015 before missing all of 2016. But last year he managed to play in 9 games (starting 6), and if he can stay healthy, can be a solid, veteran presence among a young core. (He spent his missed 2016 season as an assistant play-caller, a de facto student coach.)
Charles Snowden - So - 6'7" 225 lbs - The true sophomore broke out as a rangy backup OLB last year, appearing in 10 games, accumulating 13 tackles, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and 2 TFLs. He's in line for a much bigger role this year.
Chris Moore - Jr - 6'0 210 lbs - Played a lot last year at OLB, but really is more of a hybrid LB/S, who is heavily leaned on in our 3-3-5 Nickel packages. Productive as a true sophomore, with 41 tackles, 2 TFLs, 2 pass breakups, and an interception last year. He's not included on the 2-deep below, but will play a lot of very linebacker-like snaps in alternative formations.
CJ Stalker - Sr - 6'2" 230 lb - The former 4-star (Rivals) London recruit has served as a reserve LB in Bronco's defense, last year backing up Kiser and Mack at ILB. He made one emergency start, at BC, though only accumulated 8 tackles as Kiser and Mack rarely came off the field. A gym rat, he provides solid depth at ILB this year should Mack or Cook miss any time, though would arguably be better suited in a 4-3 defense for which he was originally recruited.
Zane Zandier - So - 6'3" 235 lbs - The true sophomore logged time in 12 games as a freshman as a backup to Micah Kiser and Jordan Mack. Will continue to serve as a backup this year. Was one of the better rated recruits in the 2017 class, rated four stars by ESPN. Tons of upside, just needs experience. May be a year away from making a big impact on the defense.
Elliot Brown - So - 6'5" 230 lb - Played in 10 games as a true freshman, platooning at OLB with Charles Snowden, Chris Moore, and Malcolm Cook. Has lots of upside, and while projecting to be a #2 this year behind Peace and Snowden, should be first in line to inherit Peace's starting role next year. Long and rangy with upside and good instincts.
Matt Gahm - So - 6'3" 225 lbs - The Texan appeared in 7 games as a true freshman, though mostly on special teams. Has some potential, but likely a limited contributor this year, his real shot coming next year. With that said, a good fall camp could see him make the 2-deep at OLB, allowing Chris Moore to move back to Nickle/Safety full time.
Robert Snyder - RS So - 6'2" 235 lbs - The 3-star Georgia product has yet to see the field at VA, after redshirting 2016 and missing 2017 due to injury. Had a good spring, however, and finally healthy, may have earned himself a spot in the 2-deep at ILB this year.
Reed Kellam - RS Jr - 6'1" 225 lbs - Purely a special teams contributor.
Gladimir Paul - RS Jr - 6'2" 225 lbs - The former London recruit has not yet factored into the defensive rotation in his career.
Dominic Sheppard - RS Jr - 6'1" 235 lbs - The former 3-star London recruit has yet to make an impact on the depth chart.
Javar Garrett - Fr - 6'1" 225 lbs - 3-star true freshman from New Jersey. Not projected to be a contributor this year, and likely to redshirt instead.
TC Harrison - Fr - 6'2" 215 lbs - 3-star true freshman from Georgia. Not projected to be a contributor this year, and likely to redshirt instead.
Grant Misch - Fr - 6'4" 240 lbs - 3-star in-state true freshman. Not projected to be a contributor this year, and likely to redshirt instead.
Noah Taylor - Fr - 6'5" 205 lbs - 3-star prospect from the DMV who did enroll early and participate in Spring ball. Highly unlikely to crack the defensive rotation.
Jordan Mack - He ranked 5th in the ACC in tackles last year as a sophomore. This year, he gets to step out of Kiser's shadow and inherit the mantle of defensive signal caller, putting his extensive experience (played in every game the last two years) to use in the middle of our active scheme. He brings it both as a stat sheet stuffer and as a high character leader, an extension of the coaches on the field.
Charles Snowden - The freak of nature has the length of an SDE, but the speed and ranginess of a safety. A backup as a true freshman, he's too talented to keep off the field, and should crack the starting lineup this year. He's a prototype SLB for this scheme, equally comfortable taking on OTs playing downhill or staying with TEs in coverage. If this is the year the system "clicks" for the youngster, watch out.
A Stab at the UofR Game Depth Chart
This isn't to say that the group is without question marks, because it's not. We're rooting like all get out for Cook to finally have one healthy season for his career, but it's hard to bet on, and similarly hard to predict what toll those years on the sidelines have done to his potential. There are also a number of sophomores (Snowden, Brown, Zandier, Gahm, and Snyder) being counted on to populate the 2-deep, and it's fair to be concerned about their youth against ACC offenses. But this is still one of the deeper, more veteran position groups on the squad. Mack and Peace are both studs, who will produce on the field and lead in the locker room. Cook, if he can stay healthy, will be a solid, high IQ contributor. And the youngsters, while inexperienced, have some upside, and get rave reviews for their passion and work ethic. The pieces are all there for this to be a plus piece of a good defense this year.