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Welcome to our 2020 Football Season Preview. To view our preview table of contents and read already-completed pieces, click here or on the Series button above.

 

It's the beginning of a new era for the UVA defensive line. Stalwart Eli Hanback has graduated. And popular position coach Vic So'oto traded in his #GoHoos for #FightOn as he took the same job at Southern Cal. Replacing Coach So'oto was former Wahoo linebacker Clint Sintim. Sintim joined the program from the University of Delaware where he coached linebackers and defensive ends for the Blue Hens.

Replacing Hanback won't be easy but there's a potential future star waiting in the wings to take the first shot. An old veteran is still around to grab Hanback's stalwart mantle. A couple solid to emerging veterans are being looked towards for big seasons. And the next generation of defensive lineman are making preparations to announce their presence on the scene.

The Hoos use multiple fronts and configurations on the defensive line. So, it's always an interesting unit to watch. That won't change this season. And finding out how all the pieces fit together will be one of the constant subplots of 2020.

(*9/4 - This article was revised to account for the arrival of Ben Smiley to the team after missing summer workouts and potentially being unavailable for the season.)

Position Coach

Clint Sintim - VirginiaSports.com Bio

 

Who's Gone?

Eli Hanback - The lone graduate from the position group this offseason, the hybrid DE/DT racked up 178 tackles, 23 TFLs, 10 sacks, and two touchdowns over his five years in Charlottesville. He'll be missed.

Isaac Buell - A member of the 2017 recruiting class, Buell's health never allowed him to crack the rotation, and he medically retired over the offseason.

Aaron Faumui - After being pressed into emergency action as a true freshman in 2018, arguably before he was ready, Faumui took a significant step forward in his second year, registering second on the DL behind Hanback in both tackles (33) and sacks (4). There are numerous rumors floating around that Faumui is one of UVA's COVID opt outs. With no trace of him in practice videos and pictures released by the program and no jersey selection through two rounds of player jersey drafting, it's not difficult to surmise that those rumors are correct. 

 

Who's Back?

Richard Burney - Senior (R) - 6'4" 280 lb  - The old man of the group, Burney was granted a medical waiver for a 6th season this year. The converted tight end is going into only his 3rd season on the defensive side of the ball, and last year was his first fully healthy season, leading to productive contributions to the rotation, chipping in 21 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, and a sack.

Mandy Alonso - Senior - 6'2" 280 lb -  With Hanback departed and likely no Faumui this season, the Hoos will be counting on Alonso to deliver a big season. In 2019, he delivered 23 tackles (10 solo / 13 assisted), 6.5 tackles for loss (6 solo / 0.5 assisted), and 2 sacks across 14 games. Alonso also delivered a massive, forced fumble in the end zone in the home finale against Virginia Tech that resulted in a euphoric recovery for a touchdown by Eli Hanback.

Tommy Christ - Junior (R) - 6'5" 315 lb -  Christ moved to OT last year. And despite being listed there on the official site's roster, pictures have surfaced from fall camp of Christ with both the offensive and defensive lines. We'll include Christ in this section as well to cover all our bases. Christ did play on the defensive line in 2018 as a redshirt freshman. On a depleted line, he made 3 starts and 8 appearances in 13 games. During that season, Christ made 10 tackles (2 solo / 8 assisted) and had 1 tackle for loss. That tackle for loss was a sack. 

Jordan Redmond - Sophomore (R) - 6'0" 310 lb  - Redmond was forced into action as a true freshman in 2018 where he played in 8 of 13 games. Last season, he reclaimed his redshirt, appearing in just 3 of 14 games. Redmond was a rotational reserve in the 3 games played in 2019. He did not record any stats in those outings. Expect him to be more of a factor in 2020, perhaps being one of the top reserves on the defensive line. Word on the street is that Redmond used his redshirt season well and added a good deal of much needed strength.

Samson Reed - Sophomore (R) - 6'2" 280 lb  - Reed is looking for his first game appearance as a Hoo. Depth on the DL this season could give him that opportunity.

Jowon Briggs - Sophomore - 6'1" 310 lb  - All eyes will be on UVA Football's Renaissance man this season. Briggs arrived on Grounds and made himself known from the start. As a true freshman, he played in 13 games, starting in 7. During his freshman campaign, Briggs contributed 19 tackles (5 solo / 14 assisted), 3 tackles for loss (1 solo / 2 assisted), and 1 sack. It would be a shock if Briggs were not a starter in 2020.

Ben Smiley - Freshman (R) - 6'4" 260 lb - Smiley took a redshirt in 2019 as a freshman. He played in the games against William & Mary and Duke, but those two games were well under the four-game maximum for maintaining redshirt eligibility. In those two games, Smiley finished with three tackles. He had an assisted tackle against William & Mary and two solo tackles against Duke. Smiley missed a lot of summer workouts, but appears to be back with the team now and ready for his second year. Having missed summer practice, he's likely to need September to work back into game shape, but he has promise and could be a factor for the Hoos come October. 

 

Who's New?

Note that for all incoming recruits, their ranking info is as of when they signed with UVA.

Adeeb Atariwa - Senior (R) - 6'3" 280 lb - Atariwa comes to UVA as a grad transfer from James Madison. At JMU, Atariwa made 23 starts in 39 career appearances. During the 2019 season, he made 52 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. He also recovered a fumble, caused a fumble, blocked a kick, and broke up 1 pass. Atariwa was an interior defensive lineman at JMU. But at UVA, it would not be a surprise to see him play all over the defensive line due to UVA's multiple fronts. As soon as Atariwa becomes proficient in the Hoos' defensive and gets his conditioning up to UVA's standards, he'll likely be a major factor in the defensive line rotation.

Jahmeer Carter - Freshman - 6'2" 305 lb  - Carter was a 247 composite 3 Star (.8633 grade) recruit out of Archbishop Spalding High School in Severn, Maryland. He picked the Hoos over offers from Boston College, Temple, and Howard. Carter was the first player to commit to UVA during the previous recruiting cycle. If you've been on Twitter over the last two years, you've surely seen training videos of Carter posted by his father. And if so, you'll know that he's physically ready to contribute on the field already. If the Hoos play a lot of three-man fronts during the season, a lack of experienced depth on the defensive line could get Carter a significant number of snaps in 2020.

Nusi Malani - Freshman - 6'6" 250 lb  - Malani was a 247 Composite 3 Star (.8444 grade) recruit out of Junipero Serra High School in San Bruno, California. He picked the Hoos over offers from Arizona, Washington State, Nebraska, Arizona State, Colorado, Boise State, BYU, Colorado State, Utah State, and Hawaii. Malani was a late addition to UVA's recruiting class. He signed during the February 2020 signing period. He could stand to add some bulk to his frame before being forced into action. Malani plays hard and carries a nasty streak onto the field that is similar to Aaron Faumui's.

Olasunkonmi "Su" Agunloye - Freshman - 6'6" 270 lb  - Agunloye was a 247 Composite 3 Star (.8577 grade) recruit out of Lindenhurst High School in Lindenhurst, New York. He picked the Hoos over offers from UCLA, Boston College, Indiana, Pitt, Syracuse, Air Force, Army, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Dartmouth, Elon, Holy Cross, Monmouth, New Hampshire, Penn, Stony Brook, and Villanova. Like Jahmeer Carter, Su is already a grown man. It's scary to think about what UVA's strength staff will be able to do with him after a year or two of intense training. Agunloye is a bit raw at the moment, so his best days are still in the future. He probably soaks for a year or two before he's regularly collapsing pockets and setting a stout edge on run plays.

 

Preseason MVP

Jowon Briggs - The defensive line is not a glamour unit at UVA. That's reserved for the linebackers. But a lack of glamour does not equate to a lack of importance. Briggs, with the best pedigree of anyone on the roster at defensive line, enters the season with a lot of hype. He'll be tasked with holding his gap, collapsing pockets, and interior penetration most of the time. That may not generate a ton of counting stats, but the expectation is that Briggs will be the man for this unit in 2020. His combination of size, strength, and agility will allow Briggs to play inside and out in three-man fronts while also playing in two-man fronts as well. That versatility will be a driving force in allowing the defense to showcase the creative and exotic looks that drive opposing offenses crazy.

 

Breakout Candidate

Jowon Briggs  - If Briggs turns in a season that earns him unit MVP honors, he'll also take home recognition here. He got his feet wet as a true freshman in 2019. During his sophomore season, the expectation is that his contributions build throughout the course of the season. By season's end, if things go as expected, Briggs will be a known quantity throughout the ACC and be expected to challenge for all league honors in 2021. There's a lot riding on his development, but we think he's the next household name on the Wahoo defense.

 

A Stab at the Opening Day Depth Chart

DE

Richard Burney (SR-R)

Adeeb Atariwa (SR-R)

NT

Jowon Briggs (SO)

Jordan Redmond (SO-R)

DE

Mandy Alonso (SR)

Adeeb Atariwa (SR-R)

 

Grade: B-

 

Final Thoughts

The projected starters are solid. Both Alonso and Burney have been around the block and seen all there is to see in college football. Briggs is a phenom in waiting that's expected to burst onto the scene this year. After those three, things become murky.

You'd feel a lot better about this unit if you expected to have Aaron Faumui available. He would be a likely starter. And if not, then you'd consider him a co-starter at the very least. Ben Smiley was a coveted recruit that had the natural size and athleticism to begin making small contributions in a reserve role this year, but his delays in joining practice may postpone his potential breakout.

With those shortfalls, depth begins to look precarious. 

The Hoos need Atariwa's transition from FCS James Madison to be seamless. He was a major cog in one of the best defenses in FCS. Major playing time is available for him to seize immediately if things go as planned. Atariwa played well in JMU's biggest games last season including against West Virginia and FCS National Champion North Dakota State. The key for fans will be managing expectations here as he adjusts to the new defensive scheme and change in level of competition.

From there, someone in the Jordan Redmond, Samson Reed, Ben Smiley, and Jahmeer Carter group will need to step up. It would be ideal if at least two of these players did just that. Another major contributor, or two, will keep the starters fresh deep into the season and ensure that the UVA defense can be deployed in its most havoc inducing manner. Right now, I have the most confidence in Redmond. It's his third season in the program so he should be ready to roll.

Ultimately, the depth issues and lack of proven productivity from the reserves make it impossible to assign a higher grade prior to the season.