A year ago, the Hoos trio of starting LBs finished 3, 4, 5 on the team in tackles with 217 total stops. They also finished 1, 2 and 5 in sacks with 19 total sacks. Finally, they finished 2, 3, 4 in TFLs with 33 total TFLs. That trio was Henry Coley, DaQuan Romero and Max Valles. That trio is gone. All 3 of them. Gone.
Their expected replacement starting LBs totaled 30 tackles, 1.5 TFLs and 0 sacks. To put it bluntly, getting adequate play from the LBs this year will likely determine the success of the defense and perhaps the team as a whole.
Everybody knows the Max Valles story. He came out of nowhere in 2013 and then led the team with 9 sacks a year ago. Replacing Valles on the strong side will be Mark Hall. Hall has seen limited action in 2 years, mostly on special teams. He has, however, looked productive in practices and scrimmages. He isn't nearly the athlete that Valles is, although he is no slouch in that department. You may recall that Mark's brother is a wing on Tony Bennett's basketball team. As mentioned in yesterday's DE preview, Valles spent a lot of time as a DE in the nickel package last year. Hall isn't going to replace Valles in those packages, because he isn't the pass rusher. Most likely, Coach Tenuta will use a pass rushing DE for those spots, with Hall remaining at OLB.
In the middle, whoever replaces Henry Coley has some big shoes to fill. Coley was named 2nd team All-ACC last year, and was also a team captain and on-field leader. But let's not forget that Coley had to replace Steve Greer, and there was concern about his ability to fill Greer's shoes. Coley did a bang-up job from day 1. Can Micah Kiser fill Coley's shoes? He certainly isn't going to step in as the leader that Coley was. That takes experience, and there are far more experienced players on the defense. But Kiser is much quicker than Coley ever was. Kiser has sideline-to-sideline abilities that Coley simply didn't have. He'll have to use that quickness to make up for the instincts that Coley possessed that Kiser simply hasn't had the time to develop.
The final piece of the puzzle is Zach Bradshaw on the weak side. DaQuan Romero was a 3 year starter who played in 46 games over his career. He came into the program as a pass rush specialist, but turned himself into a very good all-around LB. As a senior, he had 8 TFLs, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, an INT and 2 sacks. That's pretty good all-around production. Bradshaw, thus far, has seen most of his time on special teams. He's been productive there, which bodes well for the transition. Bradshaw isn't the quickest of players, but he's big and strong and has good instincts. He'll do an adequate job stopping the run to his side, but he's going to struggle to stay with TEs or RBs in pass coverage. Most likely, in passing situations, Bradshaw will not be on the field.
With no returning starter, and so many question marks, it seems likely there will be other guys involved besides the 3 mentioned. Those are the 3 most likely opening game starters. However, don't be surprised if true freshman C.J. Stalker replaces Bradshaw on the field against UCLA. Stalker has already put on 15 pounds of muscle since enrolling in January. He played well during the spring. He's quicker than Bradshaw and has better pass coverage skills. Long term, Stalker's best position may be in the middle, but he's not big enough right now to take on blocks from interior OLs, so he'll be on the outside for a while.
Another wild card on the weak side is Malcolm Cook. Cook is listed on the post-spring depth chart as a SLB, but that seems strange for a former SS. He's really more of a WLB. Cook would be an undersized LB, but he would provide very good pass coverage for the position. And he's got more time in Coach Tenuta's system than the other guys. He just moved to OLB this spring, and it seems likely that the move was made with the knowledge that WLB could be a problem going forward.
As mentioned in the DE preview, Cory Jones is an OLB who has good pass rush skills and could see time as a pass rusher in the nickel package. He likely isn't ready to be an every down LB, though. That also rings true for the true freshman OLBs on the roster, such as Gladimir Paul. All of the true freshmen should redshirt, as none of them are in a position to contribute.
Behind Kiser, the depth chart is flimsy. A few walk-ons. But, as with WLB, there is a wild-card. Jahvoni Simmons was the Hoos highest rated recruit this year, and he's a natural ILB. He comes to Charlottesville already possessing good size, and has more speed and quickness than Kiser. Simmons needs to work on pass coverage, but he has the skills for it. He isn't going to replace Kiser in the starting lineup, but he'll probably see the field as a true freshman.
As we saw yesterday, the Hoos lost a lot at DE from last year, but they lost even more at LB. Having to replace 3 starters and tons of production is going to be nearly impossible from 3 underclassmen. Once again, Coach Tenuta is going to have to work his magic to get this group of LBs performing at the level necessary to win games.