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Virginia football roster prediction: Who starts for the Cavaliers' defense against Richmond?

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An educated guess of dubious validity

Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday we covered what we've learned about Virginia's defensive line scheme under Bronco Mendenhall. With that piece of information in mind, today we're trying to read tea leaves and figure out who may be the starting eleven on the defensive side of the ball.

Caveats and fundamental assumptions

  1. This assumes the defense will be similar to what BYU ran, with personnel roles similar to how BYU's depth chart looked toward the end of 2015. That means assuming a 3-4 base, but knowing a 3-3-5 is also likely to be a frequent look.
  2. The 3-4 scheme is also presumed to be similar to the Steelers' 3-4 Okie defense, as discussed some yesterday.
  3. All of the heights and weights are taken from the 2015 Virginia football roster.
  4. Mendenhall has said his defense will be designed around the best 11 players, and we have all heard his "Will before skill" line. These predictions are based off what we've seen in years past, and without the benefit of seeing effort/fit in practice.

Roles in BYU's defense

Defensive end: Big, long gap-fillers. BYU's DEs were between 280 and 300 pounds. A typical 3-4 defense features a strongside DE who is sturdier to take on frontside run blocks, and a weakside DE who is a bit more athletic and gets after the QB more.

Nose tackle: Self-explanatory. Should be a planetoid, mammoth human being who generates his own gravitational pull. Ideally 300+ pounds.

Outside linebacker: In BYU's defense, these guys were between 220 and 240 pounds. A strongside/SAM OLB is the run stuffer, the weakside/WILL OLB is the faster, more athletic pass rusher.

Inside linebacker: Bigger and more stout than their outside counterparts. Ran between 240 and 260 for BYU.

Cornerbacks: BYU played a defense with two different CB roles. One is the boundary corner, taking the WR who lines up closest to the sideline. The field corner "plays the field," matching up with the WR at the other end who has more room to work. The boundary is usually taller to play jump balls along the sideline, while the field needs to be a little quicker and can sacrifice some height.

KATback: Defining feature of Mendenhall defenses. Hybrid safety role who plays closer to the line of scrimmage. Kai Nacua played this role for BYU in 2015 and led the team with 6 interceptions.

Free safety: Plays the deeper cover role than the KATback.

Predicting UVA's 2016 defensive starters

SDE: Andre Miles-Redmond (6'4, 280). Miles-Redmond has been nursing a hamstring issue in the spring, but a converted defensive tackle makes perfect sense here.

NT: Donte Wilkins (6'1, 290). This is where Wilkins has been playing in spring, as discussed yesterday. His stockier build should give him better leverage to control gaps. Trysten Hill would be an incoming freshman to watch here as a backup to Wilkins, as Hill came out of high school at 308 pounds.

WDE: Andrew Brown (6'4, 280). Let's see—athletic freak with good size who attacks attacks attacks. Yea, the former Gatorade National Player of the Year should fit the bill. A healthy, in-shape Mark Hall (6'2, 245) converting from linebacker could also fit here, with Brown sliding over to the bigger WDE role.

SAM LB: C.J Stalker (6'2, 225). Stalker was among the most highly touted defensive recruits in Mike London's final class. He's been featured in some video reports from practice, indicating he's earning more respect from the coaches.

ILBs: Micah Kiser (6'2, 240) and Zach Bradshaw (6'3, 235). Two of the staples of last year's defense. It would be hard to imagine the defense working well without Kiser in the middle. Bradshaw could slip out to SAM if the team goes 3-3-5, with Stalker moving to WILL.

WILL LB: Gladimir Paul (6'2, 210). Paul was one of the guys singled out by the coaches as a top performer in winter workouts. His athleticism could be a benefit to the pass rush. One of the former DEs like Darrious Carter (6'5, 235) or Chris Peace (6'1, 240) could make sense in this role as well.

Boundary CB: Tim Harris (6'2, 200). Harris is going to need to be the shutdown corner for the Hoos this year most likely, and his 6'2 frame makes him a good fit along the sideline.

Field CB: Juan Thornhill (6'1, 200). Thornhill was a FS last year but has reportedly been working as a CB in camp this spring. If he isn't starting, he could be backing up Harris on the other side, leaving this spot for a Darious Latimore (6'0, 165)—or someone else entirely.

KAT: Quin Blanding (6'2, 205). If there is a guy on the roster to emulate Troy Polamalu, it's got to be Blanding. While it might seem like a waste of his considerable ball skills to move him closer to the line, seeing Nacua's stat line makes this look like a prime spot for Blanding. (And look for freshman Jordan Mack (6'3, 205) to grow into this role after Blanding.)

FS: Kelvin Rainey (6'1, 195). Rainey played strong safety to Blanding's free last year, but the shift in roles makes Rainey look like a natural candidate for this job. Wil Wahee (5'10, 200) should also be in the mix.

A 3-3-5 would probably have Harris, Latimore, Blanding, Rainey, and Thornhill all on the field at the same time.

We'll find out soon enough if these predictions are anything close to correct. The spring game should show us some, but we won't know for sure until opening against Richmond on September 3rd.