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2017 Virginia Depth Chart Preview: Defensive Line

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Could Andrew Brown be poised for a 5-star breakout year?

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

Last Year

Just like the safety position, the defensive line is led by a 5-star recruit entering his senior year. However, unlike the safety position, Andrew Brown has not yet proven himself to be worthy of that high rating.

Or has he?

Last year, Brown finished as the Virginia leader in tackles for losses last year with 13. He was second in sacks with six (behind Micah Kiser with 6.5), and he was actually tied for 65th in the nation in TFLs. Those are pretty good numbers, especially when you consider that, as a unit, the Hoos were 81st in the nation in TFLs and 94th in total defense. The defense was simply not good, but Andrew Brown was actually pretty good.

In a 3-4 defense, the defensive ends are mostly just around to occupy blockers. The linebackers are the ones making plays; any plays from a DE tend to be icing on the cake. However, the best 3-4 defenses are ones in which the DLs are able to make plays. If nothing else, they force the offense to account two blockers for one DL and that means fewer blockers against the LBs.

Fans may recall the Hoos’ defenses from 2005-2007, which were the top defenses the Hoos have had since the George Welsh Era. Those three defenses each featured a pair of DEs who could get into the backfield and make plays. Brennan Schmidt (10.5 TFLs in 2005), Jeffrey Fitzgerald (11 in 2006) and Chris Long (19 in 2007) were all key figures in those defenses. Long was on all three, which is no surprise. He was one of the best defensive players in UVA history and was a #2 overall pick in the NFL Draft.

This Year

Andrew Brown has that kind of potential. He’s capable of putting up Chris Long-type numbers. There’s a reason why he was one of the top overall recruits in the nation three years ago. Since then, injuries have held him back, and changes in defensive scheme have held him back. This year, as a senior, he needs to bring it, armed with a better knowledge of the scheme and with a ferocity in attitude.

The rest of the defensive line is a much bigger question mark. Here’s what it looks like:

Defensive Ends: Andrew Brown (Sr), Jack Powers (Sr), Eli Hanback (So), Steven Wright (So), Christian Baumgardner (RS Fr), Christian Brooks (RS Fr), Isaac Buell (Fr), John Kirven (Fr), Colin Dixon (Fr, walk-on)

Defensive Tackles: Juwan Moye (So), James Trucilla (So), Mandy Alonso (Fr), Tommy Christ (Fr)

The lack of depth at DT is troubling. Alonso and Christ are both promising, but both need to gain strength and experience before they’ll be ready to have a real impact. Because of that, guys like Eli Hanback and Jack Powers have been working on the inside. Moye has also been working on the outside.

In fact, as we take a look at our projected depth chart for the DL, you’ll notice that Moye is projected on the outside and Hanback is projected on the inside. Hanback has gained nearly 30 pounds since last year.

2017 Projected Defensive Line Depth Chart

Position First Team Second Team
Position First Team Second Team
DE Andrew Brown Steven Wright
DT Eli Hanback James Trucilla
DE Juwan Moye Jack Powers

This depth chart is heavily influenced by what we’ve seen in the open practices.

Like previous depth charts I’ve included, the goal here is to include a full depth chart with one person per spot. But in reality, the depth charts are not that simple. Jack Powers is almost certainly going to be the first defensive lineman off the bench regardless of who comes off the field. Also, DLs tend to rotate quite a bit during the game, especially early in the season when it is very hot. So all of these guys (and a few others) will get some run.

As with last year, I expect the Hoos to spend a lot of time in a nickel package. It seems, based on the open practices that the Hoos may only go with 2 down linemen in these situations. Whether you want to call it a 2-4-5 or a 4-2-5 (with 2 OLBs playing on the line out of a 2-point stance), that seems to be the preferred lineup. The depth at OLB and the lack of depth at DL makes this a great option. It could leave the Hoos vulnerable to running plays, especially from mobile QBs. But that is a chance you take.

In these nickel packages, the down linemen seem to be Brown and Moye. But Hanback and Powers will also be included in those packages. We didn’t really cover these packages in detail during the LB previews, but the OLBs (Malcolm Cook and Chris Peace) are the primary edge rushers in these packages. Behind those two Gladimir Paul has shown promise and a couple of the true freshmen will be in the mix (Zane Zandier being the primary candidate).

If Brown stays healthy, we know he is capable of putting together a big season. Chris Long’s numbers in 2006 weren’t all that different from Browns’s last year. In fact, Brown’s were better. This year could be Andrew Brown’s coming out party.

Health will be an important factor in the DL. As mentioned, Brown has struggled with injuries since he first stepped on grounds. There isn’t anybody who can do what he does, so if he’s not out there, the DL takes a hit. The drop-off isn’t as big at the other two spots, especially with Powers waiting in the wings. But the depth behind that isn’t great, with almost no experience and nobody who has shown the ability to consistently make plays.

Brown’s play will really set the tone for the DL. If Brown is wreaking havoc on one side, that leaves the other side for Moye and Powers and whoever else to have one-on-one matchups on most plays. How many of those matchups they can win will determine just how good this defense will be.

Future Years

Although the Hoos lose Brown and Powers this year, the depth chart also includes a number of underclassmen. These guys are going to be asked to step into Brown’s shoes next year and the year after. The promise of Alonso and Christ and Buell and Wright gives hope for the future as well.

There aren’t a lot of Andrew Browns (or Chris Longs) looking to come to Charlottesville. Virginia has three commitments from defensive linemen in the 2018 class, and a couple of UVA's linebacker recruits could potentially grow into defensive ends. Still, the Hoos would do well to land one more DL recruit this cycle