This piece is a part of our 2018 football preview. To view other entries in the preview series, click here.
Welcome back to our two-part piece on Bronco's efforts to reconstruct the roster to an ACC level. A sort of "State of the Rebuild." You can read part 1 here. Yesterday we looked at the offense. Today, the defense and some summary thoughts. Let's dive in.
Starters needed: 3
Ready backups wanted: 5
Preferred scholarship count: 12-13
If any position group has been the hardest for Bronco and staff to rebuild, it's the defensive line. He actually inherited an okay depth chart, with 12 on scholarship, 7 of them freshmen (true or redshirted) and added a transfer in UNC's Jack Powers. But three graduated, Powers never was healthy enough to play, and Naji Abdullah quit. The following year we had 11 on scholarship, but only one upperclassman (Brown), so at least the future looked somewhat bright. But again, attrition struck, with Moye, Trucilla, Brooks, Wright, Baumgardner, and Kirven all gone in short order, necessitating two transfers and a converted TE to bolster the line. There are 11 on scholarship, with 7 underclassmen this year. Keeping those underclassmen in the pipeline, healthy and developing, is crucial. To date, Eli Hanback is the only underclassman Bronco's seen make it through two years in the program. The future looks bright, with three high-upside freshmen arriving this year, and studs Briggs and Carter committed with more 2019 DL being targeted; it's the foundation of a great future group, but will they see their junior and senior years with a consistency we haven't seen from many D-Linemen the last few years?
Verdict: Behind schedule. Long term, things could be okay, with some youngsters in the pipeline from the 2017-2019 classes. This season could be painful, with only four returners, and once again having to turn to grad transfers and likely true freshmen to build a rotation. Preventing the attrition that's plagued the last two summers is critical... without attrition we project to return 8 or 9 bodies each of the next two years. But until we see the staff get the attrition under control, we're holding our breath.
Starters needed: 4
Ready backups wanted: 6
Preferred scholarship count: 12-14
Bronco inherited a roster light on upperclassmen, with only Zach Bradshaw and Micah Kiser on the roster as a junior or senior. With 9 underclass LBs already on Grounds and 3 more arriving with the 2016 class, it had a lot of potential once those 12 youngsters developed. There was some setback with four of those youngsters getting run off after the first year and Simmons a year later, which in turn forced Bronco to press 6 true freshmen into action over the last two years. It's created a gap in the classes, with no redshirt freshmen on this year's roster, meaning that if all three true freshmen this year redshirt (and they should, unless they're special teams warriors), there will be no sophomores next year. But the ones we have look good, as this year's sophomore class seems loaded with potential current and future starters. They'll be asked to log the bulk of the snaps the next two years while their backups from the 2018 and 2019 classes get up to speed, which at this juncture seems like a reasonable hope.
Verdict: Solid. Assuming enough of the current juniors and sophomores (8 total on scholarship) stay the course, there will be plenty of depth to allow the three 2018s and four 2019s to redshirt as true freshmen and then work in as backups their redshirt freshmen seasons, letting them compete for starting jobs starting their sophomore years, as it should be. Hopefully the need to press true freshmen into action is behind us.
Starters needed: 4-5
Ready backups wanted: 6
Preferred scholarship count: 15
The depth inherited in the secondary was okay but not great. Bronco has had to press five different true freshmen into action over the last two years (not shown on the graphic is Germane Crowell, who played early but got his redshirt year back after he missed most of the season to injury). This year the unit has 10 returners from last year's unit, from which a 2-deep at this point can be comfortably built, even for nickel packages with a junior Chris Moore in place and Myles Robinson, a starter in 2016, back this year. With only two seniors this year, the depth could grow with the addition of three 2018 DBs and four 2019 recruits, pushing our annual returning depth to a very comfortable level.
Verdict: Solid. Along with the LBs, the DBs are a position group that has been relatively consistent. Really only one player has been prematurely lost from the roster (Gibson) in the last two years, and while injuries have plagued guys like Harris, Crowell, and Robinson, there's been enough depth to cover down. With good depth in the 2018 and 19 classes at the position, the group should stay a deep one.
Depth: Overall, the depth is suffering as of today, still. Only 39 on scholarship, and only 26 of those returning from last year's team. It is projected to grow over the next couple of years, as Bronco stacks every position group with bodies.The underclassman and returning player numbers are growing, which is promising though.
Balance: The linebackers and the secondary look good. Which means, for the purposes of balance, the defensive line is skewing the balance towards the back 8. This is especially difficult to stomach since linemen usually need the longest to be physically ready to meaningfully contribute, whereas LBs and DBs can often contribute as freshmen. Looking at class balance, the attrition from the LB and DL positions over those first two years are going to be felt over the next couple of seasons as well, with only 19 defensive upperclassmen next year and a paltry 14 projected for the 2020 season.
Talent: The talent level at this point is still looking like 3-star across the board, minus a few London-era four stars at LB (Cook) or DB (Harris) who'll age out this year. Like the offense, the talent level at least is ACC-worthy, but lacks obvious game changers or early contributors. Instead, the focus is on fit and work ethic, allowing the staff to overachieve with those 3-stars by putting them in great position to succeed. The 2019 class could possibly be a breakthrough talent wise with studs like Jowon Briggs and D'Sean Perry committed, plus other 4-star talents still being pursued.
Starters needed: 2 (1 PK, 1 P)
Ready backups wanted: 2
Preferred scholarship count: 2
Lord knows the kicking game has been a trainwreck since Bronco arrived. Sam Hayward and Alex Furbank combined to make only 5 of 10 Field Goal Attempts, none of them a threat to be consistent outside of 25 or 30 yards. They left and two freshmen came to compete for the job. A scholarship was largely wasted on Brian Delaney, who couldn't impress the coaches in camp. Meija fared only mildly better (8/12, still not a threat from distance), and this year another scholarship was spent, this time on Hunter Pearson (247's #4 and Kohl's #10 PK in the 2018 class), who hopefully can drive some improvement. 2019 pledge Justin Duenkel also has a lot of hype (Kornblue's #10), and between the two of them, one should finally emerge to take us through the next few years. The Delaney scholarship is unfortunate, as we now have two schollies given to PK's... TBD how that works itself out, but for the time being that means a scholarship not given to a player/position of need elsewhere on the roster.
Punting has been okay so far, with Conte and Coleman both being great special teamers. Question marks exist for the future, but that was inevitable with no one having the opportunity to shine with Conte and Coleman having that position on lock for a few years. Nash Griffin was Kohl's #10 Punter in the 2016 class (https://www.streakingthelawn.com/2016/2/10/10958812/punter-nash-griffin-commits-to-the-virginia-football-program), and hopefully will carry the torch for the next couple years while his replacement is recruited and groomed in a future recruiting class. Only Coleman is on scholarship for now, and in theory that will pass to whoever can seize his starting job next year.
The cooler heads always said this was going to be a five year project. These numbers back up what the talking heads said all along, that our roster was thin on the lines and at QB, arguably the three most important position groups. This was made even worse by Bronco's need to reinstall toughness within the locker room, meaning a weed-out phase that saw 18 premature departures over two offseasons, basically an entire recruiting class. As a band-aid, Bronco had to plug 8 different grad / JUCO transfers into the rotation at QB and on the lines, plus additional transfers that didn't pan out, and use 22 true freshmen (4 of whom were linemen, position groups where it's nigh unfathomable to see 3-star true freshmen playing).
Those 18 premature departures are what's really making this more of a long-term project. Their losses hurt in two ways. First, we suffer in the short term because we don't have veteran talent in key positions to help us win games. Winning games is important, ya know, to attracting recruits, fans, donors, bowl bids, and TV appearances. Second, in the long term, it pushes too many true freshmen into the rotation, meaning you're perpetually playing catch-up with your recruiting classes.
But slowly but surely, through most of the roster, we're seeing the signs of a roster pointed in the right direction. The number that I like best is the number of returning players jumping potentially into the 60's over the next couple of years, which is nearly a 3-deep made up of ballers with at least a year under Bronco and his staff. That's setting up well to be able to find 22 ACC-level starters with another crop of ACC-worthy backups on the 2-deep, while not compromising the long term development of your freshmen. The D-Line is the only group that's probably a year or so behind the rest of the roster, which is a real concern, but most ACC schools that aren't Clemson or Miami or FSU have a long-term depth concern somewhere on the roster; D-Line looks to be ours.
One last perspective to look at is what I'll call the roster's "Bronco-ization," which means the transition from it being a roster of London-recruited and coached players to one of Bronco's. For this argument, over the same five-year period, I counted the number of scholarship players who (a) were recruited by, signed by, and once coached by Mike London, (b) players in the 2016 class who were primarily recruited by London, but signed by and only ever coached by Bronco's staff, and (c) players who are all Bronco's, which includes transfers he brought in.
This will be the first year the majority of the roster is made up of Bronco's players, though they'll mostly be underclassmen and primarily in reserve roles if not redshirting. That means for the third straight year Bronco's got a lot of London guys on the field for him. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as we've seen a number of London guys flourish under Bronco, but at the end of the day a coach wants a roster full of guys he chose, guys he coached up from high school. By next year, however, only 10 guys that ever played for London, and the 12 guys remaining from that hybrid 2016 class will be in their fourth year under Bronco, so effectively they're all his guys by that point... That'll really be the year where you can feel confident you're seeing a field nearly full of Bronco guys long-experienced in Bronco's systems. Folks have said from the beginning to give the coaches a few years to get "their" guys on Grounds before letting yourself judge to harshly, and to me it looks like next season will be that year.
So my message to Hoo fans is to stay the course. I don't know how many wins we'll see this year, the schedule is full of toss-ups. Maybe we're a year or so away from turning the corner into a team capable of annually winning 7 or 8 games. But it sure as heck looks like that corner will be turned as the roster finally starts to look like one Bronco has been working towards. The only thing really lacking is top-end talent, at least as star ratings are concerned (which, yes, I know, are not the end-all be-all predictors), but Bronco is a coach who proved at BYU he can win big with a roster full of 3-stars that fit his program. Hang tight, things are moving in the right direction.