Talk to UVA fans this football season and you'll hear a lot of complaining about our line play, both offensive and defensive. The O-Line isn't giving Perkins enough time, or it's not opening up consistent holes for Ellis. The D-Line isn't generating a pass rush or shutting down opponent running attacks without tons of help from the linebackers. These critiques aren't wholly without merit, as we fully expected going into this season the O- and D-Lines were going to be challenges at times.
But when those critiques start laying blame at Bronco's feet, saying he's failed to recruit and/or develop the position groups in his 32 months in Charlottesville, or that he's failed to make good use of the good depth Mike London left him, I balk. Is this really true? Is it fair? I thought this was worth some homework.
Back in August, as part of our football preview, I did an article spotlighting the rebuilding of the depth chart across the entire roster. Let's use that as a spring-board to deep dive each line further, addressing the defensive side today, and looking at the offensive side down the road.
The Defensive Line
This is obviously the more painful of the position groups, where we've started the season with a five-man gameday rotation that contains one true sophomore, one converted tight end, and two true freshmen; the lone "veteran" is Eli Hanback. How did we get here?
The answer is an unseemly amount of attrition.
Let's start with London's last season in 2015. The DL then was senior-heavy, with Mike Moore, Kwontie Moore, David Dean, and Trent Corney all finishing their eligibility. The defensive line that London left behind included three rising seniors (Miles-Redmond, Wilkins, and hybrid LB/DE Hall), a rising junior (Andrew Brown), a rising sophomore (Carter), and four freshmen coming off their redshirts (Wright, Trucilla, Hanback, and Abdullah).
Bronco took over in December of 2015 and changed from a base 4-3 to a 3-4. Several guys who'd been recruited by London as 4-3 DEs became 3-4 OLBs, such as Chris Peace and Gladimir Paul. Bronco was able to add some D-Linemen in his first class, including ends Juwan Moye and Christian Brooks, TE/DE Christian Baumgardner, and DL/OL Osiris Crutchfield, all of whom originally verballed to London. Additionally, he signed 3-star Floridian Trystan Hill who failed to eventually qualify and ended up at UCF.
This is the point where we stop and ask "how much depth did Bronco really inhereit from London?" Specifically as it relates to the roster that we're looking at this season, we're really only interested in the underclassmen who could still be on today's roster. Mendenhall inherited five underclassmen as he started spring practices in 2016, though Darrious Carter was a poor system fit and left for JMU almost immediately, and transfer Jack Powers barely got started before injuries permanently sidelined him, leaving Bronco 8 freshmen (4 redshirt, 4 true) to start building his future around during the 2016 season.
That offseason, the attrition continued, with Naji Abdullah (limited to special teams as a RS Fr) leaving after spring practice, and a chronically injured Crutchfield being realigned to the offense (where he has yet to ever play a snap). But as of last fall, the numbers weren't bad. Adding a 2017 freshmen class consisting of four D-Linemen (Alonso, Kirven, Buell, and Christ), joining 6 returning underclassmen. They struggled, but given that there was only one upperclassmen on the roster (Andrew Brown), it was fair, with an eye towards a future that could see as many as 10 bodies returning for 2018.
What happened? Moye and Wright got themselves kicked off the team. Trucilla, Baumgardner, Brooks, and Kirven all had to medically retire. That "10 returning bodies" was quickly down to 4, only 2 of them who had any experience. Even attempts at bolstering the line with transfers went astray, with Cassius Peat (Michigan State / JUCO) medically retiring without ever playing a down and Dylan Thompson (Ohio State) arriving at the 11th hour due to academic issues and failing to get onto the game day roster 3 weeks in.
Anyways, of the, let's say, 17 guys who could conceivably be playing DL for us today (5 left over from London, 5 London-recruited/Bronco-signed 2016s, 7 Bronco-recruited 2017s and 2018s; this doesn't include the transfers), only seven were even options as the season kicked off with Richmond, and only ONE upperclassman. That's TEN guys who failed to materialize over just 2+ years... two elective outbound transfers (Carter, Abdullah), two dismissals (Moye, Wright), a temporary move to offense (Crutchfield), a failure to qualify (Hill), and four medical retirements (Trucilla, Baumgardner, Brooks, Kirven). Ten guys. That's a missing three-deep of the D-Line that Bronco has had to overcome, plus the Powers/Peat/Thompson headaches, and it's a stretch to pin much of any of it on recruiting or development.
You may say "well over-recruit!" Well, there have been at least 4 D-Linemen committed in in every offseason (counting inbound transfers), making 4 or 5 DL each year for a 3-down linemen system, which to me looks plenty like over-recruiting.
The staff is trying, but having upwards of a dozen guys fail to pan out over three offseasons is a lot for any 3-4 defense to overcome, especially coupling that with a system change that drastically altered the profile of linemen we wanted to play.
Look at it with recruiting, starting with the 2014 class who could conceivably be redshirt seniors this season, and using Rivals ratings. Green means they're currently contributing, yellow means the jury's still out, red means they were lost to attrition, and grey means they either aged out or changed positions.
2014: Darrious Carter (2* - transfer 2016), Andrew Brown (5* - graduated), Cory Jones (2* - 4-3 OLB), Michael Biesemier (2* - gone before Bronco), JJ Jackson (3* - gone before Bronco)
2015: Eli Hanback (2* - starting DE), Steven Wright (3* - dismissal), Naji Abdullah (2* - transfer 2017), Gladimir Paul (2* - 4-3 OLB), James Trucilla (3* - medically retired), Tanner Cowley (3* - moved to TE), Richard Burney (3* - starting DE, initially slotted as TE)
2016: Osiris Crutchfield (2* - chronic injuries), Christian Brooks (2* - medically retired), Juwan Moye (3* - dismissal), Trystan Hill (2* - failed to qualify), Christian Baumgardner (2* - medically retired), transfer Jack Powers (medically retired)
2017: Isaac Buell (2* - reserve), Charles Snowden (2* - 4-3 OLB), John Kirven (3* - medically retired), Mandy Alonso (2*, starting/reserve DE), Tommy Christ (3* - reserve)
2018: Jordan Redmond (3* - starting/reserve DT), Aaron Faumui (3* - reserve DE), Samson Reed (3* - redshirting), transfer Cassius Peat (medically retired), transfer Dylan Thompson (TBD)
Yes our defensive line is really unfortunately thin right now. No, it is not really Bronco's fault, and I challenge anyone to look above to say what Bronco was supposed to do differently with the players he had. The only real possible critique of the current staff is that they should've recruited better, which could be true, though we'd really only see those results with the 2017 or 2018 classes, and it wouldn't help today's problem of lack of veteran experience. With respect to the 2016 class, Bronco arrived really late in the game (2 months before signing day, once most kids have verballed), plus how was he supposed to know that all the verbals he inherited were going to be such washouts? Avoid excessive attrition this year and/or next, and we've got 8-ish guys coming back next year with potentially Day-1 ready freshmen joining them (elite DT Jowon Briggs and DE Ben Smiley are currently verbal commits with the staff still looking for potentially others).
Let's look at the picture for the future:
Current incoming class of 2019 DL:
Jowon Briggs (4*) - potential impact starter, near-certain member of the two-deep rotation as a true freshman.
Ben Smiley (4*) - High upside, good size, good motor. Plans to enroll early and will have an opportunity to crack the rotation as a true freshman.**
Emil Bo Andersen (3*) - Raw Dane is likely at least a two- or three-year project, but already possesses the size (6-5 / 278) for a favorable projection.
This is an acceptable group with the commitment of Smiley, but one more may be needed, especially with the possibility Andersen could end up on offense.
Note: High school defensive end D'Sean Perry (3*) projects to outside linebacker for the Hoos.
Projected Rotation for 2019:
- Eli Hanback, Sr. - Will be in his fourth season of substantial playing time and development; a rock around with the DL can be built.
- Richard Burney, Sr. - Was coming on as an effective player in 2018 before medical concerns shut his season down after a few games, projects as a potential impact player in 2019.**
- Jordan Redmond, So. - Starting as a true freshman, no reason to expect anything other than solid progression in the nose tackle role.
- Mandy Alonso, Jr. - Quasi-starter showed flashes as a 2017 true freshman, and is battling through injuries to make a dent in the 2018 rotation. Alonso is likely a core member of the rotation - if not an outright starter - for the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
- Aaron Faumui, So. - A surprise contributor as a true freshman in 2018. In an ideal world, he would have redshirted this season, but he's shown more than enough to be counted upon as a member of the present and future rotations.
- Jowon Briggs, Fr. - No way we're able to keep him off of the field as a true freshman.
- Tommy Christ, So. - Remains to be seen what we have - if anything - in Christ. Passed over by two true freshman this season is probably not a great sign.
- Isaac Buell, So. - Has injury issues of his own to overcome in 2018. Probably looking at a clean slate - with zero expectations - in the spring of 2019.
- Ben Smiley, Fr. - The talented in-state product, a borderline 4-star DE prospect from Chesapeake, plans to enroll early and could challenge for a spot on the 2-deep if he can add enough good weight by next August.**
- Samson Reed, RS Fr. - He's "soaking" during his redshirt season in 2018, projecting as a solid four-year contributor, 2019-2022.
- Dylan Thompson, Sr. - Potential for a medical hardship could extend Thompson's career, though UVA may elect not to pursue it if (a) he doesn't make an impact this year and (b) there's ample depth with other players.
- Emil Bo Andersen, Fr. - Near-lock to redshirt.
Next: We'll circle back to look at the Offensive Line in a future installment.
*Hat tip to Kendall for support on this article.
**Updated in October to account for Richard Burney's missed season and the commitment of Ben Smiley