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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.

 

When the sign-up list came out for our football preview series, I jumped at the chance to preview the linebackers. It's an exciting, diverse group of talents. It may be the best unit on the team in 2019. And it's certainly my favorite.

As a group, there's a little bit of everything: emerging stars, position battles, and a large group of exciting newcomers.

Let's dive in.

Who's Gone?

Continuity at the linebacker position is another reason for added excitement this season. While there was some turnover, there's only one player gone, or perhaps two, that would be considered big losses.

The first of those, of course, is former OLB Chris Peace. Peace completed one of the more interesting careers at UVA going from unheralded, unknown recruit to a top player on the team over the course of his time in Charlottesville. He finished his senior season as a team captain while earning All-ACC Third Team honors. Peace is now in training camp with the Los Angeles Chargers as an undrafted free agent.

Due to the time spent injured or out with other ailments, some may not consider Malcolm Cook a big loss either. They'd be mistaken, of course, because Cook's contributions to the program were not always measured between the sidelines. An inspirational member of the team, Cook could also hold his own on the field at linebacker for the Hoos. His on field contributions may not have matched Peace's but he was still an important contributor to the rebuild in Charlottesville.

Gladimir Paul will not be returning for a fifth year. But he earned his degree from the university and has plans to put it to great use in his native Philadelphia. Paul was planning on entering Philadelphia's teacher residency program where after a year he'll have his teaching certificate while working towards a master's degree according to Virginia.edu.

CJ Stalker also completed his degree and eligibility this past season. You'll still find Stalker part of the program, however. He's joined the coaching staff as a graduate assistant working with the defense. Posts on social media show Stalker working with the defensive line.

Finally, a couple promising linebackers elected to transfer as well. Dominic Sheppard took a grad transfer opportunity at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) after earning his degree from UVA. And freshman linebacker Javar Garrett transferred to Delaware in the offseason.

Who's Back?

Despite those losses, the position is still well-stocked with returning talent.

Charles Snowden - OLB - Junior - 6-7 225 - Snowden showed some flashes as a freshman. But he really began to break out as a sophomore for the Hoos in 2018 after starting all thirteen games. Snowden led the country's linebackers with nine pass break ups and eleven passes defended. He also contributed numerous highlight reel plays including big interceptions against ACC foes Louisville and Virginia Tech. On top of that, Snowden blocked a field goal, forced a fumble, recovered a fumble, and made 2.5 sacks. Yet, it still seems as if Snowden is just scratching the surface of his talents. That's not surprising given that he was fairly new to football when he signed with UVA. It's not a stretch to expect Snowden to compete for all league honors from his OLB position in 2019.

Jordan Mack - ILB - Senior - 6-2 230 - When not terrorizing the dreams of former Duke QB Daniel Jones, Mack found time to make the impressive transition from safety prospect to an outstanding college linebacker. Mack's speed and instincts learned from the safety position allow him attack modern college football spread offenses as an inside linebacker. While not the biggest player at linebacker, it's those instincts and that speed that allow Mack to diagnose plays quickly so that he can beat blockers to the point of attack. As evidenced by his memorable hit (not nearly a strong enough description) on Daniel Jones during his freshman season, Mack still brings enough punch to the table so that blockers overlooking him due to his stature are certain to pay the price.

Robert Snyder - ILB - Junior - 6-2 240 - After fighting the injury bug most of his time on Grounds, Snyder earned the first playing time of his career last season. He played in twelve of thirteen games while making seven starts. Snyder earned a reputation as a sound but not flashy option on the inside for Coach Shane Hunter. Against both Liberty and Georgia Tech, the Georgia native made a career high eleven tackles. He'll be competing hard during fall camp for the starting position next to Jordan Mack with our next returnee.

Zane Zandier - ILB - Junior - 6-3 230 - Fan favorite ZZ Stop is the yin to Robert Snyder's yang. Where Snyder is steady and sound, Zandier is flashy and full of energy. During his first full season of extended playing time, Zandier made several highlight reel stops (see the Louisville game for a one man wrecking of a goal line opportunity for Louisville). In his first collegiate start against Ohio, Zandier led the Hoos with ten tackles while pitching in one and a half sacks. Quick and aggressive out of his stance, he also had a tendency to be a bit over aggressive at times. Reigning in that aggression while still playing with the reckless abandon that earned Zandier his nickname will be his challenge as a junior. His battle with Robert Snyder for the starting spot opposite Jordan Mack will likely go down to the wire.

Elliott Brown - OLB - Junior - 6-5 210 - Bronco and Coach Kelly Poppinga love them some tall, rangy athletes at OLB. And Elliott Brown fits that description to a T. I do, however, doubt that the 210 pounds listed on the official roster is anywhere close to correct. Like his recruiting class member Charles Snowden, Brown was fairly new to the game of football when recruited by the Hoos. He isn't quite the freak athlete that Snowden is. And he's taken to the game a bit slower, but Brown is a legit contender to start opposite Snowden in 2019 in his own right. Brown has yet to put up counting statistics that turn the head but he was an integral member of the Wahoo's nickel defensive alignments. His size and range allows the team to get creative in alignments and blitz packages.

Matt Gahm - OLB - Junior - 6-3 240 - The native Texan is one of two of Elliott Brown's competitors for the OLB spot opened by Chris Peace's graduation. Like Brown, Gahm's contribution to the stat book don't tell the true story of his contributions. His stats are marginally better than Brown's, but like Brown it's Gahm's versatility that allows the UVA defense to be quite diverse in their nickel package alignments. Gahm has the size to hold up against the run but can also play adequately in space. That versatility allows Defensive Coordinator Nick Howell to give Gahm (and Brown) varied assignments on the field while lining up in various locations. That results in unpredictability from UVA's defense that only serves to increase the defense's effectiveness.

Noah Taylor - OLB - Sophomore - 6-5 215 - Taylor is the final candidate to be Chris Peace's replacement at the OLB spot opposite Charles Snowden. When Taylor arrived at UVA as an early enrollee in January 2018, he was given a quick look at the safety position during spring practice. After quickly transitioning back to linebacker, Taylor saw the field in every game as a true freshman during the 2018 season. Nearly all of his playing time was on the special teams coverage units. But Taylor did find some snaps on defense including the Belk Bowl shutout of South Carolina. Taylor is in this competition because of his potential and athleticism. That's not to sell his work ethic short. But that's a given on this defense. Many will peg Taylor as the top breakout candidate on defense in 2019.

T.C. Harrison - ILB - Redshirt Freshman - 6-2 225 - Entering UVA, Harrison was more athlete than football player. That approach seems to occur fairly often at the linebacker position for the Hoos. But he appears to have taken to the linebacker position like a natural. During his brief time on Grounds, those around the program have had nothing but great things to say about the Georgia native. His father was a linebacker at Georgia Tech in the late 1980s where he amassed over one hundred career tackles. It's probably no surprise that the former high school track star is proving to be a natural at football too. Harrison, who figures to make his career debut in 2019, is probably a year away from making a big impact but he'll certainly see the field in some capacity this season.

Reed Kellam - ILB - Senior - 6-1 225 - A former walk-on from Richmond, Kellam was awarded a scholarship at the end of 2018's fall camp. He played in all thirteen games during the 2018 season exclusively on special teams. Kellam projects to fill that same role in 2019.

Who's New?

The Hoos brought in a fairly large class at linebacker this year with five signees. With two scholarship seniors and five scholarship juniors on the roster, it's easy to see why the class was so heavy on linebackers.

Josh Ahern - Lake Braddock High School (Burke, VA) - 247 Composite 3 Star - 6-3 225 - Ahern has the ability to play inside or outside in UVA's defense. It appears that his initial slotting will be inside. Chances are that Ahern will take a redshirt in 2019 but like many young players, he could find himself as a core special teams player. His senior year of high school saw him log an amazing 183 tackles. For his efforts, Ahern earned First-Team All-Region, First-Team All-Northern Virginia, and Second-Team All-Metro honors as a high school senior.

Nick Jackson - The Lovett School (Atlanta, GA) - 247 Composite 3 Star - 6-1 225 - Jackson is going to begin his career on the inside at UVA. A Virginia legacy, Jackson selected the Hoos over several ACC (Boston College, Duke, Louisville, NC State, Pitt, Syracuse, Wake Forest), B1G (Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Rutgers, Wisconsin), SEC (Kentucky, Missouri, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt), Big 12 (Iowa State), and PAC 12 (Colorado) offers. Jackson's best days in orange and blue are ahead of him but after the first scrimmage during camp, he's generating a lot of buzz. There's so much buzz that Coach Poppinga was recently quoted as saying that Jackson could challenge for a starting spot at ILB this season. Gone are the expectations for getting his feet wet a bit and a probable redshirt.

D'Sean Perry - Gulliver Prep (Miami, FL) - 247 Composite 3 Star - 6-3 230 - Perry hails from the Hoos' favorite prep program in Florida. Mandy Alonso and freshman DB walk-on Sean Moore are also alums of Gulliver Prep. Their football program is led by former UVA linebacker Earl Sims. Perry is also making an impression in the program because of his physicality and willingness to learn. Perry won Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2018 for the South Florida Conference where he collected 89 tackles, sixteen tackles for loss, three sacks, and three interceptions. Existing depth at OLB will let Perry soak as a freshman but he's one to keep a close eye on in the future.

Jairus Satiu - Skyridge High School / Fork Union Military Academy (Lehi, Utah) - 247 Composite 3 Star - 6-2 200 - Satiu's ultimate position in the linebacker corps is probably TBD but he's started his career at OLB. The Hoos stole Satiu out from under BYU and Utah's nose and then placed him at FUMA for a year of postgrad schooling from legendary coach John Shuman. His year at FUMA helped Satiu transition from a WR/LB to a full time linebacker. He figures to be a project for coaches Shane Hunter and Kelly Poppinga. Look for a definite redshirt year in 2019 as he continues to learn the position while gaining size.

Hunter Stewart - Gonzaga College High School (Alexandria, VA) - 247 Composite 3 Star - 6-2 220 - Stewart is the highest rated linebacker in the recruiting class and the second highest rated recruit overall per the 247 composite ratings. Out of the prestigious WCAC, Stewart earned Second-Team All-WCAC as a defensive end as a senior. He's now slotted at OLB for the Hoos. Like his other classmates at the OLB position, the existing depth won't require Stewart to play early. But between him and Perry, it wouldn't be a big surprise to see one or both get action on special teams. Expectations will be high for Stewart once he establishes himself as a player that logs snaps on defense.

Preseason MVP

This could be a cop out but Snowden and Mack are getting Co-MVP honors heading into the season. The demands and requirements of their positions are so different, it's difficult to make an apples to apples comparison. Both players look to be leaders at their respective position and within the defense overall. Both players will also be the focus of opposing offenses when game plans are formulated during game week. Both players can, and will, blow up opposing offenses this year. Mack's highlights will tend to be more physical whereas Snowden's will show off his freakish athleticism. Both players will undoubtedly anchor the defense and finish the season in tandem as the MVP of the linebacker group. 

Breakout Candidate

While he has stiff competition to get on the field from scrimmage, sophomore Noah Taylor is the clear favorite here. UVA fans are already salivating at his potential due to a rare combination of size and athleticism in the Charles Snowden vein. Taylor is currently is a battle with fellow OLBs Matt Gahm and Elliott Brown for the starting spot opposite of Snowden. For now, it appears that Gahm and Taylor have the edge in that battle. That only increases the anticipation for Taylor to become a full time contributor on defense.

A Stab at the Pitt Depth Chart

SLB

Charles Snowden (Jr)

Elliott Brown (Jr)

MLB

Jordan Mack (Sr)

TC Harrison (RS Fr)

BLB

Robert Snyder (RS Jr)

Zane Zandier (Jr)

WLB

Matt Gahm (Jr)

Noah Taylor (So)


Grade: A-

Final Thoughts

I can't help but be excited about the potential of this group. The stars are there (Mack, Snowden), the position battles are there (one ILB, one OLB), the high potential youngsters are there (Taylor, Jackson, Perry, Stewart), an excellent recruiting class is joining the ranks, and there's a diverse skillset that will allow the coaches to respond to any contingency. That diversity will also allow the coaches to dictate to the offenses by way of who they put on the field and how they deploy those players. Everyone brings a little something different to the table. And the sum of the parts at linebacker are going to allow the 2019 UVA defense to wreak havoc all season long.

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