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Virginia Football: Projecting the depth chart on Defense

The strength of this defense is in the middle.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Virginia James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

We continue our depth chart predictions by turning to the defensive side of the ball. Some of these are fairly obvious (Quin Blanding, for example), although there are some positions, such as cornerback and outside linebacker, that aren’t as transparent.

Depth charts are fluid until the season begins (and even after that) but this is our best guess for right now.

Virginia Media Relations

Defensive End
Starters: Andrew Brown, Eli Hanback
Backups: Mark Hall, Naji Abdullah
Others: Steven Wright, Jack Powers

The DL as a whole is pretty well set at this point. We know about Andrew Brown. Is this the year he finally shows everybody why he was the National Player of the Year as a HS senior? Hanback is also garnering rave reviews from the coaching staff for his strength and technique. Interesting, considering he was an OL recruit.

Hall is a senior who never seemed to fit at OLB, but could be a situational pass rusher at DE. Powers is one of the biggest guys on the team could be used at DE or DT this year. Wright and Abdullah are the same year as Hanback, but both are severely undersized for 3-4 DEs and neither seems to have picked up the 2-gap scheme yet. These guys will rotate a bit, especially as game situations change, but the defense will take a hit when the starters come off.

Virginia Media Relations

Defensive Tackle
Starter: Donte Wilkins
Backup: James Trucilla
Others: Jack Powers, Andre Miles-Redmond

There may not be a position on the roster where the difference between the starter and the reserves is bigger than DT. Donte Wilkins is a prototypical 3-4 DT. He’s big and strong and smart. He can beat his man to a spot, he can handle a double team and he can single-handedly stop an interior run. The Hoos’ defense was better last year with Wilkins at DT, and it’ll be better this year with Wilkins in the middle of the defense.

Virginia Media Relations

Strong-side Linebacker
Starter: Chris Peace
Backup: Cory Jones
Others: Matt Terrell

Peace and Jones have been fighting for this spot throughout the spring and fall camps. Peace seems to be in the lead right now, though it’s still close. Ultimately, Peace gets the nod because he’s bigger and more able to hold the edge against the run. Both are going to be very good pass rushers, though they may both be a year away from putting up any real sack numbers.

Terrell is a wild-card because he enrolled early and participated in spring practice. He’s big and he’s strong and he may very well see the field this year.

Malcolm Cook Virginia Media Relations

Weak-side Linebacker
Starter: Malcolm Cook
Backup: Eric Gallon
Others: Sean Fitzgerald, Reed Kellam, Kelvin Rainey

Cook’s transformation from 210 pound SS to 230 pound OLB is one of the best stories of the year. His ability to cover TEs and RBs while also being able to shut down the edge runs could make or break the defense this season. He’s also capable of rushing the passer a bit.

Gallon has reportedly been moved to ILB, but there isn’t anybody else on the roster who’s capable of playing that weak-side position better than him. Two walk-on LBs are the only other guys really slotted there.

If something were to cause Cook to miss extended time, I could see Rainey dropping down to OLB and being replaced at safety.

NCAA Football: ACC Football Kickoff Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Inside Linebacker
Starters: Micah Kiser, Zach Bradshaw
Backups: C.J. Stalker, Jahvoni Simmons, Dominic Sheppard
Others: Eric Gallon

The strength of this defense is in the middle. That starts with Wilkins, with Kiser and Bradshaw and the safeties right behind. Kiser and Bradshaw are probably going to lead the team in tackles. But the future is bright at this position, with a trio of very talented players right behind them.

Gallon, as mentioned, is working at ILB after beginning fall camp at OLB. He may not see much action at either position, but it will be interesting to see how things pan out for him.

tim harris Virginia Media Relations

Starters: Tim Harris, Juan Thornhill
Backups: Kirk Garner, Myles Robinson
Others: Darious Latimore, Bryce Hall

Harris is a senior and has been starting on and off since his freshman year. He hasn’t really put it all together yet, but this defensive scheme seems more his style than Jon Tenuta’s did. He could have a big year. Thornhill is still listed on the roster at safety, but has been impressing at CB. He’s another big CB who has a lot of skill at either DB position. Garner is the likely nickel back, but has also been working at safety.

Latimore was in line to start, but he was suspended for a “violation of team rules” and missed quite a bit of practice time. He’s back practicing now and will almost definitely be in the mix at CB as the season progresses. Hall has been mentioned over and over again by the coaching staff as a guy who has impressed. He’s even bigger than Harris and Thornhill, but may still be a year away from seeing extended action simply because of the depth at the position.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Free Safety
Starter: Quin Blanding
Backup: Kirk Garner
Others: Brenton Nelson, CJ Epps

This is one of those “set in stone” positions. Blanding is probably the best all-around player on the team. He’s just a junior, but he’s already on the NFL radar. Barring something weird happening this year, Blanding is almost definitely leaving after this year to go pro. He’s probably a late first or second round pick.

Garner, though listed at CB, has been working at safety throughout camp. He’s been mentioned as somebody who has impressed. He’s likely to be the nickel back when the Hoos go with 5 DBs, but would also probably be the first safety off the bench.

Nelson is a walk-on who arrived on grounds as a track athlete and decided to pursue football as well. He had some good offers for football. He might be the fastest player on the team. Epps is raw, but he’s got talent. He’s probably another year away from contributing.

Virginia Media Relations

Strong Safety
Starter: Kelvin Rainey
Backup: Wil Wahee
Others: Chris Sharp

Rainey played very well last year at strong safety, and his role should be the same this year. He’s a big hitter, and he performed well enough in pass coverage. He’s a very good fit alongside Blanding because he attacks downhill, which often forces the ball towards Blanding.

Wahee has a lot of experience and has played both SS and FS in his career. He may be the first safety off the bench for either Blanding or Rainey should one of them be forced out of the game, simply because of his playing experience. Sharp is very athletic and really looks the part, and may be starting next year after Rainey (and probably Blanding) are gone.