2012 DL: Will Hill and a Lot of Question Marks

With guys like Cam Johnson no longer manning the Virginia DL, can the youngsters step in and have the same impact?
Previous UVA Football
Position Breakdowns
* Quarterbacks
* Running Backs
* Fullbacks
* Wide Receivers
* Tight Ends
* Offensive Line

Last week, we covered the units on the offensive side of the ball. They are linked in the box to the right. The overall vibe of those previews was quite optimistic. There is a ton of talent at all the skill positions, depth at QB and 3 returning starters on the line. If things go as expected, the Virginia offense will be very good this year.

But now, we turn our eyes to the defense. What does that side of the ball look like? Can they match the talent of the offense?

Today, we'll start with the Defensive Line. Last year, we had 3 seniors starting on the line, although there was a great deal of rotation among the players. Those 3 seniors (Cam Johnson, Matt Conrath and Nick Jenkins) are all gone now, so that rotation was key because it gave some younger players a chance to get acclimated to the game.

So, who is going to start this year? Will we see a similar type of rotation on the line? How does the unit as a whole look?

The sole returning starter from last year's unit is DE Jake Snyder. Snyder likely isn't ever going to be a star DE, because he won't rack up the sack and TFL numbers that people look for. However, Snyder is a good solid edge defender who plays the run well and will continually occupy blockers, allowing for others to make plays. Snyder is 6'4" and 270 lbs, and uses that size with great leverage. He isn't the quickest guy off the edge, which is why he'll never be a big sack guy, but he did have 2 TFLs and a sack last year. Considering he was often off the field on passing downs, those numbers are better than they look.

Starting opposite Snyder is most likely going to be Bill Schautz. (Note: The depth chart indeed lists Schautz as the starter.) The key for Schautz is his health, as he recovers from a gruesome leg injury suffered last season. By all accounts, he is healthy and ready to go. While Schautz is similar in size to Snyder, his profile is much different and he is a vastly different player. Schautz is much quicker than he should be at 260+ pounds, and is athletic enough to drop back into coverage on a zone blitz. In fact, he was in coverage on the play against FSU when he broke his leg. Despite not starting and missing a few games, Schautz had 6.5 TFLs and 2 sacks last year. Odds are he improves on both of those numbers this year.

I mentioned that Snyder was often off the field on passing downs last year. Well, that figures to be the case again this year. There are a number of players at DE who look like very good pass rushers. The first of these players is Ausar Walcott. Walcott was originally a safety, and then a linebacker, and then a defensive end, and then a linebacker, and now he's back at DE. As you can imagine for a guy who was a safety, Walcott has tremendous speed for the DE position. He's bulked up to about 240 pounds, but still has that outstanding speed. Coming off the edge, that speed is a big weapon. It means teams may have to send a back to chip him, or use a TE to help hold the edge. Some OTs can block him one-on-one, but they'll have to get into his drop very quickly, in order to beat him to a spot. This often opens up options for blitzing LBs and safeties.

The other option at DE is true freshman Eli Harold. Harold was one of the top DE recruits in the nation, and pretty much unanimously our top recruit. At 225 pounds, Harold doesn't have the bulk to hold against the run, so he's going to be used almost exclusively in passing situations. That said, against the pass he could be devastating. He might be even quicker than Walcott, and has pass rush moves that true freshman shouldn't have. Harold may not play all that much, but he will have an impact.

The final member of the DE rotation is Mike Moore. Depending on how things work out, Moore may end up playing on the inside in his career, but right now he's more valuable on the edge. Not as quick as Harold, but with a lot more size and strength, provides a much different look than Harold. And with Moore's size, I could see him lining up as a pass rush DT this year in certain situations.

The picture at DT is, amazingly, even less rosy than the DE picture is. One starter is Will Hill, who started 1 game last year, and rotated at DT with the two starters. Hill played 537 snaps at DT last year and was productive, finishing with 36 stops and 7 TFLs. Hill is a senior, and a team captain. He has a great body for a DT, at 6'4" and over 280 pounds. He's strong and he's quick, and he's shown that he can consistently get into the backfield. As a starter this year, Will is going to see the field more regularly, and his numbers should go up. And with a lot of unknowns on the DT depth chart with him, he's going to have to be the leader of this group.

All signs point to Brent Urban starting next to Hill. (Note: The depth chart lists Urban as the starter). But there are other options. Urban moves inside after being a DE last year. He played in every game last year, finishing with 15 tackles, including 2.5 TFLs. Urban looks a bit like Matt Conrath, and has a similar profile. He needs to get low because at 6'7" his center of gravity can be too high to win a battle against 300+ pound linemen. However, that same height becomes a plus when he gets his arms up in the passing lanes. Conrath was particularly adept at knocking passes down, and Urban can have that same ability. As a pass rusher, Urban isn't going to provide much. However, he should be able to hold his own on the inside as a run stopper.

The other option to start at DT is Justin Renfrow. Renfrow is bigger than Urban, and therefore is more likely to win the point of attack battle with the OLs. His 6'6", 310 pound frame is going to tough to push out of the way. This makes him, on paper at least, a very good run stopper. He is a good complement to Will Hill, because he can take up space and blockers, while Hill looks to penetrate. Renfrow will get a lot of Brent Urban's snaps against more ground oriented teams, and may in fact start some games.

There are two other candidates at DT, Chris Brathwaite and David Dean. Dean redshirted last year, but will almost definitely see the field this year. He is a similar type of DT to Will Hill, although a bit smaller. At just 6'1", he has the low center of gravity that you want from a DT, but he is tremendously quick and athletic and should be able to use that quickness to get into the backfield. It may be another season or two before Dean is truly a difference maker on the DL, but that moment will come. Brathwaite played a little bit last year, so he has a bit of a leg up on Dean. Other than that, he and Dean are pretty similar. The two of them will fight for spots as the primary backup to Hill. Both could also see time next to Hill on passing downs.

We are going to see a lot of players get time on the DL. There should be as many as 5 DTs and 6 DEs getting playing time in week 1 alone. Specialists such as Eli Harold will be used only in certain situations, to best utilize their specific skillset, but there will be a great deal of rotation. This will help keep everybody fresh, which is important when there isn't a truly dominant force on the line.

With so much youth on the depth chart, it seems like the future is bright for the DL. However, the present could be another story. With a few upper-classmen like Hill and Snyder, there is certainly cause for optimism, but teams with good, experienced OLs will not fear our line.

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