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2017 Virginia Depth Chart Preview: Linebackers

Four offseason transfers leave this unit nearly depleted.

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

We continue our preseason look at the Virginia Cavaliers’ projected depth chart as we charge full steam ahead into fall camp. On Monday, we took at look at the offensive line. Today, we turn our attention to the other side of the ball as we look at what’s become a shallow bench of defensive linebackers.

Last Year

As most fans know, and as we’ve discussed in the past, the 3-4 defense relies on linebackers to make plays. The defensive line’s job is largely to occupy blockers and create penetration into the backfield. But a majority of the tackles are going to be made by the LBs, a majority of the sacks are going to come from the LBs and significant pass coverage responsibilities fall on the LBs.

Last year, ILB Micah Kiser led the team (and the ACC) in tackles. But behind him weren’t more linebackers -- instead, safeties Quin Blanding and Kelvin Rainey finished 2nd and 3rd, respectively, and Blanding himself led the team in solo tackles. Kiser, Blanding and Rainey each played nearly every snap for the defense. As a unit, the linebackers led the team with nearly 350 total tackles, while the defensive backs totaled just over 300.

There are a couple of reasons why there weren’t more linebackers leading the team in tackles. For one, Blanding and Rainey were both very talented. Beyond that, the Hoos used a number of different players around Kiser at linebacker, which tended to spread the numbers out a bit. But perhaps most telling is that Virginia’s defense as a whole struggled throughout the year, and bad defenses tend give up more big plays, and big plays are more likely to end with defensive backs, like Blanding and Rainey, making the tackle.

As far as pass rush goes, the story is largely the same. Kiser led the team with 6.5 sacks, but DL Andrew Brown was second. As a unit, though, the LBs led with 14 of the team’s 25 sacks. The LBs also totaled nine of the team’s 12 forced fumbles and four of the eight recovered fumbles.

This Year

Kiser, of course, returns to lead the unit. He has garnered a ton of pre-season accolades, including being named to the Bednarik, Butkus and Nagurski Awards. He’s also been named preseason first team All-ACC.

After Kiser, there are a lot of question marks. Zach Bradshaw graduated. Four (count em, four) linebackers transferred out of the program. That has left the cupboard a bit bare at LB. Here is the roster breakdown for the Hoos at LB:

ILB: Micah Kiser (Sr), C.J. Stalker (Jr), Jahvoni Simmons (So), Dominic Sheppard (So), Reed Kellam (So, walk-on), Robert Snyder (RS Fr), Matt Gahm (Fr), Christian Pluchino (Fr, walk-on)

OLB: Malcolm Cook (Jr), Chris Peace (Jr), Jordan Mack (So), Gladimir Paul (So), Dre Bryant (RS Fr, walk-on), Zane Zandier (Fr), Elliott Brown (Fr), Charles Snowden (Fr), Harrison Turlington (Fr, walk-on)

Not counting the walk-ons, there are 13 players at LB, just one fewer than last year. But with four of those guys being freshmen (and not particularly highly recruited freshmen at that), there is barely enough room to fill out a 2-deep with experienced players. With that in mind, here is our projected depth chart.

2017 Linebacker Projected Depth Chart

Position First Team Second Team
Position First Team Second Team
Will (Weakside) Linebacker Malcolm Cook Jordan Mack
Mike (Middle/Inside) Linebacker Micah Kiser Dominic Sheppard
Buck (Middle/Inside) Linebacker CJ Stalker Jahvoni Simmons
Sam (Strongside) Linebacker Chris Peace Gladimir Paul

As noted in the offensive lineman preview, I am purposefully not allowing a player on the depth chart more than once. With that in mind, it is highly likely that Simmons is the first ILB off the bench regardless of which of the two positions is being replaced (let’s hope he’s not replacing Kiser for any extended period of time). In fact, Simmons will be competing with Stalker for the starting gig at “Buck.” Either of these players is going to benefit greatly playing next to Kiser. They are similar players, but Stalker has a bit more experience. Stalker has better instincts in pass coverage, while Simmons is a bit more athletic. Regardless of who starts, both are likely to see extensive action next to the All-American.

Peace is an underrated player at OLB, and finished third on the team last year in both sacks and tackles for losses. He has put on another 15 pounds of muscle, which will really help him pass rushing against opposing OTs. Just a junior, he’s still developing, but could become the pass rusher this defense needs to turn the corner and become a really strong unit.

On the other side from Peace will hopefully be Malcolm Cook. We expected that last year, and then Cook was forced to miss the season with a “medical issue” which was later explained as a heart condition. Cook was recruited as a safety and played some safety earlier in his UVA career. Those instincts make him a perfect 3-4 OLB. He has strong pass coverage skills for a LB and he’s bulked up enough to be able to fight off blocks from pulling linemen and bring down opposing RBs. He was very impressive last spring, leading to a great deal of hype regarding his move to OLB. This year is no different, as long as he is 100% healthy.

If they remain healthy, there is a lot of potential for this unit. Obviously, having a 1st team All-ACC performer returning helps. Kiser is the “QB of the defense” and is poised to have a big year for the Hoos. The duo of Peace and Cook are actually kind of a perfect set of 3-4 OLBs. Ask a 3-4 defensive coordinator what he’s looking for from his OLBs and he’ll say he wants a pass rushing specialist (former DE Chris Peace) and a pass coverage specialist (former SS Malcolm Cook).

Of course, keeping these guys healthy will be key. Kiser, for obvious reasons, needs to be on the field as much as possible. But behind Cook and Peace there is limited experience. Jordan Mack actually looked good last year, and came up with perhaps the biggest play of the year in the Duke game last year. Although the highlight came on a blitz, his strength is really in pass coverage. Like Cook, he’s a former safety prospect. Behind Peace, there is almost no experience, and at least one of the true freshmen will likely see the field.

The big question mark is the Stalker/Simmons combination next to Kiser. Zach Bradshaw did yeoman’s work there last year, finishing 4th on the team in tackles, 4th in TFLs and T-4th in passes defended. He was strong in pass coverage, while also capable of coming on a blitz. That made him ideal in the Hoos 3-3-5 nickel packages. The Hoos may well spend a lot of time in those packages again this year, which would keep Stalker/Simmons off the field in lieu of an extra DB.

Future Years

Kiser graduates this year, which will be a big blow to this unit. That is a part of why both Stalker and Simmons will see time next to him. The Hoos need those two guys to be ready next year, and it will be a struggle next year if they aren’t. Dominic Sheppard has a lot of potential, but is completely unproven at this point. Until we see what he can do, the future at ILB is very shaky.

But at OLB, there appears to be a much stronger future. Both Peace and Cook should be back next year. And with Mack and Paul behind them, there is depth there for the next several years. Zane Zandier was arguably the top recruit for the Hoos this year, having offers from the likes of Michigan State and West Virginia. He is one of the more likely freshmen to see action this year, and will likely be on the two-deep next year.

So, while this year the strength of the unit will be inside, it seems likely that this will switch in the next couple of years, as the depth and talent on the outside is more prominent than on the inside.