Welcome back to our 2019 Football Season Preview. To view our preview table of contents and read already-completed pieces, click here or on the Series button above.
Dylan Thompson - The rent-a-senior from Ohio State took a while to get going, arriving late, needing a lot of conditioning and playbook work, before finally being available to paper over some late-season depth concerns.
Grant Misch - The 2018 recruit redshirted last year, appearing in only one game (Georgia Tech), before switching to tight end in the offseason.
The Hoos bring back most everyone from last year's depth chart; though injuries or youth limited the impact for many of these guys, position coach Vic So'oto at least has an unusual amount of familiarity to work with in this group.
Eli Hanback - RS Senior - 6'4" 300 lb - He's the old man of the position group, the lone London player left. The iron man has logged 25 starts over the past two seasons, both at end and nose. His 47 tackles, two sacks, and two recovered fumbles set the standard for last year's line.
Richard Burney - RS Senior - 6'4" 275 lb - A bit of a wild card, Burney was a tight end through most of the 2017 season before being an emergency convert to the DL for the Military Bowl. The move stuck, and he impressed in spring ball enough to start at LE last year before medical concerns shut him down after three games (eight tackles, two for losses, one forced fumble). After sitting out the spring to recover, he's healthy now and looking for a big senior year to round out his career.
Mandy Alonso - Junior - 6'2" 280 lb - Along with Eli, one of the position group's veterans, Mandy has 20 games (nine starts) to his credit over his first two years as a DE. His absence over the last four games last year was felt after a leg injury. While not overly disruptive (only 1.5 sacks last year), he's a steady presence and a key member of the rotation.
Tommy Christ - RS Sophomore - 6'5" 280 lb - Tommy was thought to still be a year away this time last year, but when depth issues pressed him into increased action down the stretch (including three late starts) he acquitted himself well. He had 10 tackles, a sack, and two pass deflections, likely establishing himself as part of the 2019 rotation.
Isaac Buell - RS Sophomore - 6'2" 290 lb - He's battled injuries through his first two years and has yet to appear in a game. This year will be an opportunity for him to break through.
Aaron Faumui - Sophomore - 6'1" 285 lb - Faumui arguably should've been a redshirt candidate last year, but depth concerns pushed him into early action. He played every game but the bowl game, logging four starts at DE, with a modest stat line of seven tackles, one sack, and one forced fumble. He projects as a rotation DE.
Jordan Redmond - Sophomore - 6'0" 290 lb lb - A modest pleasant surprise out of the 2018 class, he debuted as the starting NT as a true freshman, logging five total starts, eating space in the middle while chipping in 10 tackles, with a pair going for losses, before missing five games down the stretch.
Samson Reed - RS Freshman - 6'2" 275 lb - The lone member of the 2018 class to redshirt, Reed was a ballyhooed prospect who simply needed to bulk up. He's got good speed and instincts and could easily push into the two-deep at DE, though he did miss some spring ball.
Jowon Briggs - Freshman - 6'2" 295 lb - The star of the 2019 recruiting class, Briggs was a top-100 recruit nationally. He may not be on the two-deep when the season kicks off, but he's too good to redshirt, and if healthy will be in the rotation sooner rather than later.
Ben Smiley - Freshman - 6'4" 260 lb - Smiley is the highest-rated in-state recruit of the Bronco era and projects to be a long-term force at DE once he gets up to speed. Better depth this year may enable him to keep his redshirt eligibility, but no reason to panic if he does get into the rotation later this season.
Eli Hanback - He's the obvious pick as the most proven talent in the stable. He's played in 37 games over his past three years in Charlottesville, which dwarfs the rest of the lineup, and he's been the most consistent producer in that stretch. He can play anywhere on the line, which has immense value as So'oto and Bronco have had to shuffle the line constantly to deal with injuries. He's a plus space-eater against better lines, enabling linebackers to finish off ball carriers or get into the backfield, and when the play drags out, he's got a knack for collapsing the pocket. Look for Eli to finish off his UVA career strong.
Jowon Briggs - This was a tough one to pick, as the group's youth (seven sophomores and freshmen) lends itself to the potential for multiple underclassmen to surprise. None of those players tallied more than 10 tackles, so the room for improvement is there with all of them. (I could also make the argument for Burney if he's finally close to 100 percent this year). I'm going with the true freshman Briggs, even though I hate the idea of going with a true freshman. His pedigree is just too good, just too intriguing a combination of size, athleticism, and IQ. He's explosive and disruptive, is already getting rave reviews from the coaches, and his battle with Jordan Redmond at the nose will be incredibly intriguing. If he picks up the playbook quickly, he's not only going to be hard to keep off the field, he's going to be hard to keep out of the backfield. Having a NT consistently break down the center of opposing O-lines is only going to key incredible production from the rest of the veteran front seven.
A Stab at the Pitt Game Depth Chart
Eli Hanback (RS Sr)
Aaron Faumui (So)
Jordan Redmond (So)
Jowon Briggs (Fr)
Richard Burney (RS Sr)
Mandy Alonso (Jr)
What a difference a year makes. Going into the 2018 season, this group was a mess, having lost six players to premature attrition the prior offseason, and transfers Cassius Peat and Dylan Thompson were slow to join the fray (Peat never did, and Thompson did late). So'oto returned only two linemen with real experience (Eli and Mandy), having to augment them with a converted TE (Burney) and some still-developing freshmen (Christ, Faumui, and Redmond). Injuries took that group down to as few as three healthy players some weeks. Now, So'oto has up to 10 guys with which to work, six of whom have experience at the position plus some high upside freshmen. Health will, as always, be a critical factor; we can't get to a point where we're back down to only three or four of these guys healthy, instead preferably keeping around six ready on any given gameday to provide good rotations, spread the wear-and-tear around, and stay fresh for November.
At end, Hanback, Burney, and Alonso could all start. Picking who rotates in off the bench may ultimately be semantics, and it could easily change throughout the year. Faumui should continue to build on his promising freshman campaign as a reserve DE, spelling starters with fresh legs throughout the season.
At nose, it will be an intriguing camp battle between Briggs, Redmond, and Christ. Redmond and Christ each showed well in their appearances last year, though obviously as youngsters, so more development may yet be required to be a plus at the position. But Briggs is a wild card and may be the most Day 1-ready player Bronco has recruited. The high school All-American is not just a stout space-eater in the middle, he's disruptive. And the prospect of having a nose tackle who can collapse a pocket at the point of attack, breaking down a pass play before it begins, has to intrigue the coaches. He'll play early and often, but we have to assume the start at Pitt goes to the incumbent with more experience in the playbook and reacting to ACC O-line blocking schemes.
Two years ago, our defense had the league's fourth-worst rush defense (4.65 ypc); that improved to seventh-best in the league last year (4.34 ypc) despite the depth woes, and we can expect that run defense to continue to improve with more experience and better health. Sack totals have been mediocre (26 last year, ninth in the ACC, 28 the year prior, tied for seventh) while TFLs dipped from 70 (11th) in 2017 to 62 (12th) in 2018. Yes, our defense was great last year, allowing just 20.1 points and 330 yards per game, both good enough for third in the ACC. But the trench play was still substandard, merely average against the run and largely unable to generate many negative plays. If this is the year the line play can start to turn the corner, watch out. With so many pieces back and hopefully healthy, while it may not be the ACC's most disruptive D-line, our three-man front should finally be able to turn our defense into the Coastal's best, able to keep the Hoos in just about any game.