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Virginia football spring practice: A peek inside the new defensive scheme under Bronco Mendenhall

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New defense means new roles for UVA's defensive personnel

Andrew Brown

One of the biggest questions for UVA football's transition to the Bronco Mendenhall era has been how the coaches would adapt their schemes to Virginia's personnel, and vice versa. This has been especially true on defense, where the London-era 4-3 sets have apparently given way to Mendenhall's preferred 3-4 look.

Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch spoke with some of the players that will affect the most: the defensive line.

Mendenhall, who basically serves as the defensive coordinator although defensive backs coach Nick Howell has that title, has brought to U.Va. the same odd-front, 3-4 defense he ran at BYU. Last season, the Cougars ranked 23rd nationally in total defense, giving up 22.8 points per game, and 34th nationally in scoring defense, allowing 345.7 yards per outing.

That new alignment will have 6-1, 290-pound senior Donte Wilkins playing nose tackle, lining up over the center, with two ends on either side of him, head-up on the offensive tackles. [Andrew] Brown and redshirt freshman Eli Hanback have been working with the first-team defense at those positions.

Brown shared a picture on Instagram showing that first-team group: Hanback in the foreground, Wilkins in the middle, Brown at the far end. Jackson Matteo is lined up as the center.

3-4 defense

Barber's article mentions the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense as the foundation on which Mendenhall built his system, with Ruffin McNeill showing tape of Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton to demonstrate the fundamentals. Most likely, this means the 2016 Cavaliers will have a two-gap scheme for the defenders in the trenches. (For a great explanation of techniques and schemes in a 3-4 modeled after the Steelers, read this post from Behind the Steel Curtain.)

Virginia last ran a 3-4 defense under Al Groh, and guys like Darryl Blackstock and Ahmad Brooks and Clint Sintim and Angelo Crowell set all sorts of program records from their linebacker spots. But the backers were freed up by guys like Brennan Schmidt and Nate Collins and Kwakou Robinson—space-eating linemen who occupied blockers for the other 8 guys on the field to wreak havoc. If Andrew Brown lives up to his talented billing, he could play a role in Mendenhall's 3-4 like Chris Long or Chris Canty did in Groh's.