We continue with our position-by-position breakdown of the 2018 Virginia Cavaliers by turning to the defensive line, a unit that returns just two of the five guys who started a game for the Hoos last year. Two other starters, Juwon Moye and Steven Wright, were expected to return, but each lost his scholarship and subsequently transferred.
The two returning—junior DT Eli Hanback and sophomore DE Mandy Alonso—account for just 15 out of 38 starts (Virginia opened in a 2-4-5 look against William and Mary), but combine for over 50% of the total tackles from the DL (72 out of 143), with 58 of that coming from nose tackle Hanback. Though Hanback led the unit in tackles, former Cavalier Andrew Brown was undoubtedly the best player on the line. Despite being double-teamed on almost every play, he still managed 10.5 tackles for loss (pretty good for a 3-4 DL). Replacing Brown’s production will be a tall order for Virginia.
A good 3-4 defense almost always includes at least one real playmaker on the DL. Often in that scheme, the DL’s job is just to occupy blockers and allow the linebackers to make plays. But having a lineman who can beat his man (or men) and make plays on his own makes a huge difference. The best defense UVA had this millennium was back in 2007 when Chris Long, Nate Collins and Jeffrey Fitzgerald were wrecking havoc in opposing backfields, conbining for 35 tackles for loss and 23 sacks. That defense ranked 23rd in the nation and 16th in scoring defense. They were also sixth in sacks.
As far as we’ve seen so far, this year’s unit has not displayed that same level of playmaking ability.
Returning at nose tackle for Virginia will be Hanback, whose 58 tackles last year from the middle position is impressive. Without Brown, he’ll be seeing a lot more double-teams now, but a big year from him could change the picture on the DL (and the defense as a whole). The other returning starter, Alonso, started as a true freshman, which is rare for DL, especially in a 3-4. Most freshmen simply don’t have the size and strength. You can bet that Alonso will be back in the starting lineup against Richmond (Alonso was in a walking boot during fall camp, but he’s expected to be ready).
The third starter is up in the air and there simply aren’t a lot of candidates. Coming into camp, the list started with two graduate transfers, OSU’s Dylan Thompson and MSU’s (via Scottsdale Community College) Cassius Peat. The only other option with any playing experience is junior Richard Burney, but his experience is mostly at tight end. Peat is on grounds, but has not been practicing and has been seen running sprints on the sidelines. Thompson hasn’t made it to grounds yet and Coach Mendenhall has said that he’s “unlikely” to get there, although Thompson told the Daily Progress that his goal will be to be at UVA by Thursday.
With Peat hurt and Thompson not yet on grounds, Burney has been getting first team reps. Following the departure of Wright and Moye, Burney moved to DE for the bowl game, giving him some extra time to practice the position. At 6’4, 280, he certainly has the size for the position, and as a former TE, he’s got the agility as well, but we won’t know if he can occupy blockers and make plays until he’s out there (at time of publish, Burney was also out with a concussion, but expected to be ready for Richmond).
The guys mentioned above are the only experienced players that Virginia has on the defensive line. Everybody else is either a redshirt (3) or true freshman (4, one of whom is a walk-on). There’s also Grant Misch, a 6’4, 240 lb. linebacker who has been getting some run at DE. He’d be undersized, but might be useful as a pass rusher.
Behind Hanback, there’s really only one NT option, Jordan Redmond. One of the top UVA prospects this year according to ESPN.com, Redmond is listed at 292 lbs. in his recruiting profile and is listed at 320 on the UVA roster. Those extra 30 pounds are very important in the middle of a 3-4 defense. Redmond is big, but he’s also mobile enough to handle playing. He’ll almost definitely play as a true freshman, simply because there isn’t anybody else to backup Hanback. Expect Hanback to get as many snaps as he can handle, though.
For the defensive end, there are a few options. A couple of redshirt freshmen—Isaac Buell and Tommy Christ—are getting to play in camp. Among the true freshmen, Aaron Faumui seems ready to play. Samson Reed is talented, but he’s too slight to play right now, except maybe in obvious passing situations and could potentially be a candidate to redshirt.
Playing a 3-4 gives Coach Mendenhall some flexibility—Alonso could line up on the inside, for example. Tommy Christ is listed at DT, but has been working at DE. He could move around.
If some of the younger players develop quickly, and Peat is able to get himself in game shape, maybe the unit can surprise. Right now, there’s too little depth, too few talented players, and a few too many injuries to count on the DL.