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.
Bronco Mendenhall’s reputation throughout his career has been as a defensive guru, and he’s certainly shown it in Charlottesville. After a first season that at this point can safely be called an outlier, he’s fielded two of the finer defensive units in the ACC each of the past two seasons.
Last year’s unit was especially notable – it’s rare the secondary can really carry a defense, but last year’s unit absolutely did that. Highlighted by a 28-0 Belk Bowl shutout against South Carolina – a team that put up 35 points against national champions Clemson earlier in the season – Virginia’s defense is starting to look the part of the old BYU units Mendenhall used to field.
With a focus on discipline, length, and physicality, Virginia should again be one of the top defensive teams in the conference this season. While the secondary might take a slight step back without a playmaker like Juan Thornhill (emphasis on slight), the front seven should be dramatically improved, where the combination of more strength, depth, and experience should be a huge boost to a group that was plagued by youth, injuries, and inexperience last season. After a dominating spring game performance where the defense again looked the part without several key pieces on the field, you just get the feeling Bronco and his coaching staff have found their groove in Charlottesville.
2018 Production Allowed (ACC Rank)
Yards/Gm: 147.5 (4th)
Yards/Att: 4.3 (7th)
Yards/Gm: 183.0 (2nd)
Yards/Att: 6.4 (3rd)
Yards/Gm: 330.5 (3rd)
Yards/Att: 5.3 (5th)
Sacks/Gm: 2.00 (9th)
Third Down Conv: 40.3% (10th)
Points/Gm: 20.1 (3rd)
Turnovers/Gm: 1.6 (5th)
Position Group Summaries
Click for links:
Defensive Line - Grade: B
Linebackers - Grade: A-
Defensive Backs - Grade: A
Scheme Design - This is one area where the staff excels, and is easily one of the benefits of having a well-rounded, deep coaching staff. Virginia has shown the ability to disrupt offenses’ rhythms through well-time blitzes and exotic scheme designs. Part of this is the 3-4 defense, which simply enables more flexibility from the base set than the 4-3. That said, the other part is the coaches putting together well-executed packages, ranging from safety and corner blitzes to NASCAR packages that put multiple outside linebackers on the field at the same time. No better example came than the Belk Bowl against South Carolina, where quarterback Jake Bentley was hurried, hit, and forced into mistimed throws – two of which were intercepted in the shutout. I’ll take this staff’s play design almost any other team’s in the ACC.
Pass Coverage - Virginia’s secondary was certainly the strength of the defense last season, and while potentially not to the same extreme as a year ago, that will likely be the case again this season. Even with the graduation of Juan Thornhill and Tim Harris, the Cavaliers have two good safeties in Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson (paired with depth from Chris Moore and De’Vante Cross) along with Harris’ replacement in Darrius Bratton, who made five starts and defended seven passes in 2018. Of course, All-American Bryce Hall returns for his senior season as arguably the best corner in the nation after leading the country with 22 pass break ups. Nick Grant and Heskin Smith also each had strong springs, and Germane Crowell has the potential to contribute this season after battling concussions early in his career. Virginia has both talent and depth across the secondary, which should give opposing quarterbacks fits yet again.
Athleticism - Length, speed, punishing, and athletic are all words that have rarely been associated with Virginia teams of the past decade, but they all likely fit the bill for the defense this season. Virginia looked the part against South Carolina, and although it should be taken with a grain of salt, the defense – even without several starters – looked menacing in the spring game. This identity will be forged primarily from a deep and athletic group of linebackers, but also from a secondary that isn’t afraid to play the line of scrimmage and get involved in rush defense. With the combination of depth and talent finally starting to come together, expect Virginia to fly to and swarm the football this season.
Pass Rushers -While not really dynamic, Chris Peace was productive, and certainly Virginia’s best pass rusher for each of the past two seasons. Although the coaching staff is effective at dialing-up blitzes that free up open lanes for rushers, without Peace, the team doesn’t have a player that can routinely win on his own. If the defensive line holds its own and the secondary plays at a similar level to last season, that should be enough for Virginia get pressure with blitzes. However, when Virginia rushes just three or four players, no players is really a threat to get to the quarterback.
Defensive Line Consistency - Including the defensive line as a weakness might surprise some people, and I’ll admit that the unit is definitely trending upwards. That said, the defensive line cannot yet be considered a strength, either, and it’s likely a weaker unit than both the linebackers and secondary. While Virginia has bodies for the first time in Mendenhall’s tenure, with the exception of Eli Hanback, the contributors are still relatively unproven. It will take some time for the staff to find the right combinations in both rushing and passing situations. Maybe by midseason this unit becomes a strength, but they will have to prove themselves with early season tests against Pittsburgh, Florida State, and Notre Dame.
3 Keys to Success
1. Finishing Sacks - While Virginia successfully pressured opposing quarterbacks last season, the team didn’t always finish in the backfield. With the graduation of Chris Peace and his 7.5 sacks from a season ago, no Virginia player returns with more than 2.5 sacks from 2018. That distinction goes to Jordan Mack and Charles Snowden, both of whom are likely to see their sack totals increase. For starters, Mack only played in nine games after missing the middle of the season to injury; a full season of health should allow for a breakout senior campaign. Additionally, Snowden’s added strength should help him finish the plays where the quarterback slipped out of his grip. Those two are likely to be the team’s top pass rushers, but added development from Elliot Brown, Noah Taylor, Zane Zandier, and others would go a long way towards helping Virginia’s pass rush.
2. Defensive Line Improvement - The depth will improve by continuing to add numbers, including redshirt freshman Samson Reed and true freshman Jowon Briggs and Ben Smiley. Virginia will also return Mandy Alonso and Richard Burney – two major contributors at the beginning of the season who both missed the stretch run with injuries. With a trio of sophomores returning in Tommy Christ, Aaron Faumui, and Jordan Redmond, each of whom gained valuable experience last season, Virginia should be pretty well stocked here, especially with the steady Eli Hanback around for his senior season. So defensive line improvement should be the expectation, but it’s still worth noting. Defensive line coach Vic So’oto has done a fantastic job coaching this group, doing more with less better than arguably any other position coach on the staff. Given the 3-4 scheme, sack totals are not necessarily expected to increase (Eli Hanback led the defensive line with 2.0 sacks in 2018), but the ability to set the line of scrimmage and get consistent push and penetration will be a key to unlocking the potential in the linebacking corps.
3. Find the Next Ball Hawk - Juan Thornhill will be missed all over the field this season, but most in his ability to snag interceptions. Finally playing his natural safety position in 2018, the second-round draft pick corralled six interceptions, best on the team by a wide margin – no other player had more than two. Fellow draft pick Tim Harris also graduated, with his two interceptions last season coming in the final two games – Virginia Tech and South Carolina. Between those two, Virginia will need to replace 8 of its 17 picks from a season ago (47%). The secondary will still be the strength of this team, but Virginia’s ability to force quarterbacks into throwing picks played a large part in several wins last season, most notably Miami. Bryce Hall dropped a few would-be interceptions early in the season, and he’s mentioned increasing his pick total is an area to improve for his senior season. Both Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson have the ability to improve their totals from last season, especially the latter after snagging four interceptions in his freshman campaign. One of Mendenhall’s three keys to victory is winning the turnover battle, so expect this to be an area of focus this season.
Virginia’s defense is going to be good again next season, likely even better than they were in 2018. There’s just more depth, speed, athleticism, and experience than a year ago, and it’s safe to expect the coaching staff to draw up plays that take advantage of that. Virginia will swarm to the ball and likely be the hardest hitting Cavalier team of recent memory.
Still, this defense is still not without its questions, primarily as it comes to increasing its sack total and replacing Juan Thornhill’s interceptions from a season ago. While returning eight starters from last season, the graduating seniors – Thornhill, Harris, and Peace – each held key roles on the team. They will be replaced by committee, just as Virginia did quite effectively last season, when the defense was tasked with replacing Andrew Brown, Micah Kiser, and Quin Blanding. That’s just how college sports work.
Ultimately, this will be the most complete defense that Mendenhall has coached in Charlottesville. Each season the defense has progressed closer to its final form, and the transformation is nearly complete. With All-ACC talent at linebacker and in the secondary, a defensive line with improving depth and talent, and a plus-coaching staff, opposing offenses have been warned when they take the field against Virginia.