This is the second part of the two-part series where we’ll ask five intriguing questions by position unit heading into fall camp and the regular season, this time focusing on the defefnse.
1) Defensive Line: What does the rotation look like?
It’s kind of nice to have this question, which was more of an afterthought a year ago. One of the more amazing things about the Belk Bowl victory was that Virginia dressed only four defensive linemen – one of which was the seldom used and occasionally maligned Dylan Thompson. Having to play two true freshmen out of necessity last season and then losing Richard Burney, Mandy Alonso, and Aaron Faumui to various injuries and illnesses took its toll on the line.
While defensive line depth won’t necessarily be a strength this season, it’ll be improved. Burney is back, as is Alonso. Faumui and Jordan Redmond will be back after playing as true freshmen, and classmate Samson Reed will join the group after redshirting last season. Sophomore Tommy Christ will be a more experienced sophomore after earning meaningful playing time in the season’s last month as guys went down. Top-100 recruit Jowon Briggs along with in-state signee Ben Smiley will come in as potential day-one contributors to the line. And steady tackle Eli Hanback will return for his senior season after quietly anchoring the line for three seasons. (Note that sophomore Isaac Buell is also on the roster, although he did not appear in any games last season after redshirting in 2017.)
So that’s ten potential players in the rotation – more than double what Virginia dressed in the Belk Bowl. That improved depth will also come with more experience, as well. Injuries are an inevitable part of football, so some of these guys will most likely miss some time throughout the season, but that’s why this newfound depth is so important – so Virginia can weather the storm, unlike its performance last year against Pittsburgh or in the waning moments of regulation against Virginia Tech.
My best guess at the starting three in the base 3-4 defense will be Alonso and Burney at end and Hanback at tackle. But Faumui will also become an option in pass-rush situations, and Christ and Redmond can spell the starters, particularly in run sets. It’s too early to peg a defined role for Briggs or Smiley, but I’d expect at least Briggs to contribute in some fashion this season.
The options are growing on the defensive line, and that makes the unit not only much more formidable, but also much more interesting.
2) Inside Linebacker: Jordan Mack + Rob Snyder or Zane Zandier?
I think Jordan Mack is going to shine this season. It’s a shame he hurt his shoulder in garbage time against Louisville, because he could have had an All-ACC season last year, too. After missing four games and being eased back into action, he played fantastic against Virginia Tech and South Carolina to finish the season. I’d be surprised if you don’t hear his name called in the 2019 NFL draft.
But who starts alongside Mack remains to be determined. Zandier got the first crack at inside linebacker last season, recording 1.5 sacks against Ohio and contributing to a goal-line stand the following week against Louisville. But he wasn’t always the most disciplined player and was eventually rotated out in favor of Rob Snyder later in the season. Both will play in 2019, but the question is who will play more and when.
Zandier is a workout warrior and was a member of strength coach Shawn Griswold’s “Dirty Dozen” last summer. I still think Zandier has a higher ceiling, but he has a tendency to over pursue his angles and isn’t quite the steadying presence of Snyder, who performed well in 2018 after missing his redshirt freshman season a year before with a torn pec.
I’m curious to see how and when the defensive staff deploy these two. This will be one of the more interesting battles to watch in fall camp.
3) Outside Linebacker: Who steps up and when / how?
With Chris Peace moving on to his chance with the Chargers following another solid season with 7.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss at Virginia, the outside linebackers must find a replacement for the steady stalwart, who started the final 38 games of his career – and every game of the Mendenhall era. Part of the question is who will replace Peace in the starting lineup; that will be decided in camp between Elliot Brown, Matt Gahm, and Noah Taylor. But the other part of the question is how are those three linebackers worked into the general rotation with Charles Snowden.
Last season, Virginia used various “NASCAR” packages to put as many as four OLBs (Peace, Snowden, Brown, and Gahm) on the field at the same time. As the season went on and both Brown and Gahm gained experience, they became good situational pass rushers. Mendenhall described the then-sophomore Brown as on the same trajectory as Snowden in the latter’s freshman season, which is nice praise considering Snowden’s impact last season. Brown finished with one sack and an interception, while Gahm had 1.5 sacks and a pass breakup. Neither of those numbers are eye popping, but they’re enough to build some hype for the two rising juniors.
The wild card in the lineup is sophomore Noah Taylor, who has been the talk of the offseason despite just appearing in 9 games as a true freshman and not recording any stats. Still, the 6-foot-5 linebacker is a name to watch in situational pass rushes.
The linebacker-heavy packages were likely used, in part, to compensate for the lack of defensive line depth. With that expected to improve this season, I’m excited to see how Mendenhall deploys his four outside linebackers in both the rushing and passing situations. With an All-ACC-caliber leap expected by this writer for Snowden paired with the offseason strides from Brown, Gahm, and Taylor, I suspect co-defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga is licking his chops with various packages to deploy his newfound depth.
4) Cornerbacks: Are the corner blitzes here to stay?
This is an aspect of this defensive staff’s philosophy that I love. Not so much the corner blitzes themselves, as it can be risky bring All-American cover-man Bryce Hall out of coverage and into the pass rush. But I love it because of its philosophic significance – you never know which way and from which angles this defense is going to attack you. It keeps offenses off balance, and when your defense is disciplined enough to drop into the correct coverage before the quarterback can read the brief opening, it can be quite effective.
It caused a strip-sack against North Carolina, where the blitzing Hall jumped up and forced North Carolina’s quarterback to pump his throw, allowing Chris Peace the time to cause the strip-sack and for Hall to recover the fumble. It was an impressive play that most defenses simply don’t have the secondary talent and depth to accomplish. But Virginia did in 2018 and should again in 2019. (A similar blitz from Brenton Nelson in the slot also led to Joey Blount’s interception against Miami.)
Hall is an above average blitzer from the corner, and I suspect we’ll see similar rushes from both the slot (whether that’s Brenton Nelson, Chris Moore in a hybrid safety role, or whoever ends up as the third corner) as well as from Darrius Bratton on the outside, who is the favorite to start at corner opposite Hall.
I’m excited to see how Mendenhall and his staff continue to utilize the multiple strengths and discipline of both the individual players at corner as well as the defensive unit as a whole. This was just one example of how they did so last season.
5) Safety: How to get all of that talent on the field?
I wish we could have seen Juan Thornhill play safety for all four of his years on grounds. He was an above average corner when pressed into action for two consecutive seasons, but he was an incredible safety. For as steady as Quin Blanding was, Thornhill brought a newfound energy, swagger, and playmaking ability to the secondary last season. His team-leading 98 tackles and six interceptions won’t be easily replaced.
But while the safeties might not experience a step up moving on from Thornhill like they did from Blanding, the group is intriguing. According to a Q&A with Jeff White in June, Bronco is still concerned about how a group that includes Joey Blount, Brenton Nelson, Chris Moore, and De’Vante Cross will replace the second-round pick. But this group is far from being considered a weakness.
After being named ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2017, Brenton Nelson was actually replaced in the starting lineup by Blount in 2018. Blount is poised to become an All-ACC candidate in 2019, and Nelson will likely join him as the second safety in base packages. That said, Nelson also played heavily in the slot last season, so he could again be an option there depending on the play of Moore and Cross.
Moore was my pick as a breakout player last year before a preseason hip injury ended his season before it started. Playing more outside linebacker than safety in 2017, he played admirably when pressed into action, including five starts. While maybe not the purest safety, I could see Nick Howell bringing him into the box in certain packages. The Swiss Army Knife is an intriguing tool for this defense.
Meanwhile, after bouncing between quarterback, cornerback, and receiver his first three years on grounds, the redshirt-junior De’Vante Cross was reportedly one of the stars of spring ball. With the injury histories of Blount and Nelson, he was pressed into action last season, snagging an interception against Liberty. He’s likely still more of a backup than a starter, but again, with others’ injury concerns, he’ll play this season. He could also slide in as a free safety if Nelson again plays the slot in subpackages.
If all of the safeties make it to week one healthy, Chris Moore is the guy I’m really watching – how do the coaches utilize him. But if Nelson or Blount have to miss some time, the safety pairings will all of a sudden become very interesting.