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2018 Virginia Cavaliers Football Position Previews: Linebackers

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Experience and depth highlight this critical unit.

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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Micah Kiser led the 2017 Virginia Cavaliers in tackles. He was second in sacks and third in tackles for loss. He had two fumble recoveries, and no other defender had registered a single one. He was also fourth in pass break-ups. Now that he’s in the NFL, the linebacker unit is going to suffer a downgrade, right?

Thankfully, not. As we saw last week, the defensive line is not going to be a source of strength this year. But the linebackers may be able to cover for that weakness. After all, the unit returns last year’s third and fourth place finishers in tackles, as well as last year’s sack leader, TFL leader (tied) and five forced fumbles (out of a total of 8). Yes, Kiser was really good. But the rest of the unit returns almost entirely and there’s a ton of potential there.

As we’ll see later this week, there’s a ton of depth in the defensive backfield as well, which means Virginia is going to play a lot of substitution packages this year. Yes, we’ll see an extra DB (or two) on the field—and we’ll talk more about that when we turn to the DBs—but, especially this year, because of the depth at LB and lack thereof at DL, you may see Bronco Mendenhall send out a 2-4-5 defense at times.

In that situation, the OLBs will look an awful lot like stand-up DEs in a 4-2-5 look. There’s a lot of flexibility in that formation. An OLB could slide towards the middle to help clog up the short passing games. Similarly, an ILB could slide outside to add an extra pass rusher. The personnel is there at LB for the staff to do some fun things to confuse ACC offenses.

The Starters

The LB unit this year begins with Jordan Mack. Mack was recruited as a safety, then was moved to OLB and finally to ILB last year. All he did was wrack up 114 tackles, 7 TFLs, 3 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. Befitting his past as a safety, Mack is excellent in pass coverage. But he’s also put on 35 pounds since getting on grounds and now has the bulk to stop RBs in the hole as well.

Many of us will always remember Mack for this play:

That, of course, came from OLB. Mack is a different player now. Here’s what No. 37 can do from the inside:

In the above gifs, you can see Mack rush the passer, play the pass and play the run. He’s still learning the schemes, but he’s a complete LB and a team leader and the best part is, he still has a year left.

The ILB next to Mack is still undecided. Fall camp opened with sixth year senior Malcolm Cook in that spot. But, he has competition. Cook’s biggest rival is sophomore Zane Zandier. In fact, in the more recent practices, Zandier is running next to Mack with the first team. Like Mack, Cook began his career as a safety. He’s up to 240 pounds now, after starting his career at 200. Zandier is a more natural LB, and still has three years to go. It also bears noting that Cook has had trouble staying healthy throughout his career, so counting on him to last 13 (!) games is precarious. The competition between the two is tight, but the tie has to go to the guy who’s gonna be here a while and who might stay healthy all season.

As with ILB, one OLB spot is set in stone. That’s Chris Peace. Peace led the team with 7.5 sacks last year and was tied for the lead with 10.5 TFLs. He also had 68 tackles, two pass breakups, two forced fumbles and an INT. He’s the most experienced LB on the team, and he’s a team leader. He could have a big year coming off the edge, so don’t be surprised with double-digit sacks from Peace.

Peace, like Mack, had previously been a safety. He outgrew the position and moved to DE (while switching high schools). That is where he learned his pass rush moves. Here’s a few of them:

Those three plays really run the gamut of pass rushes. He beats Miami’s LT with a spin move, beats UNC’s right tackle with a speed rush and gets GT with a delayed rush up the middle. Peace is basically the prototypical 3-4 rush LB.

Next to Peace, the presumed starter is sophomore Charles Snowden. He was productive in limited action last year, and has added 20 pounds to a lean frame. At 6’7” 225, he’s got great size for Bronco’s OLBs. He’s long and quick and the added weight makes him stronger. Snowden is competing mostly with his classmate Elliott Brown. At 6’5” 230, Brown’s game is similar to Snowden’s. Regardless of who starts, each will see a lot of time on the field.

The Backups

The LB unit is one of the deepest on the team. This is especially true at OLB. The Hoos have seven scholarship OLBs on the roster, plus a couple of true freshmen who probably fit there. There are five ILBs on the roster (and again, a couple of true freshmen will probably end up on the inside).

Behind Zandier, Cook and Mack, there’s 2 upperclassmen, Dominic Sheppard and C.J. Stalker. Though both were highly regarded recruits, neither has made much impact on the field. Keep in mind both of them were recruited to play OLB in Mike London’s 4-3 defense. Stalker has had some impact on special teams, but Sheppard has barely played in 3 years. Both of them are athletic and strong, so maybe this is their year. Doesn’t seem likely though. The guy most likely to get snaps behind the top 3 is sophomore Robert Snyder. Snyder, though, has been injured in camp, and missed all of spring. That lost practice time will hurt his prospects of getting on the field.

Like ILB, there’s upperclass OLBs who simply haven’t ever developed the way you’d hope. Gladimir Paul played DE in high school, and might’ve fit there in the 4-3 had he been able to put on enough weight. He really wasn’t, and as a result he’s now an undersized 3-4 OLB who can’t really get onto the field. He did not see the field at all last year and will likely be fighting for a special teams role.

The actual backup behind the trio of “starters” is sophomore Matt Gahm. Gahm saw action on special teams last year, picking up 2 tackles. He’s impressed in practice throughout his career, and looks ready to see action on defense. Gahm is a different player from Peace, Snowden and Brown. He’s less of a pure pass rusher, but more of an all-around LB. (Perhaps that’s unfair to Peace, who has become a very good all-around LB, but is simply a natural born pass rusher.) Gahm is a very heady player with a high motor and good technique. He’s a solid cover LB in a zone, but he’d likely struggle to cover good TEs or RBs man-to-man.

Another OLB candidate is freshman Noah Taylor. Though listed as a true freshman, Taylor enrolled in January, so he’s already been through a full spring session. At 6’5” 205, he’s built like Snowden and Brown were last year. Expect Taylor to see the field, even if it’s just some garbage time snaps.

Because of the depth at LB, it should be a strong unit this year. Next year, they lose Chris Peace, but Jordan Mack will be back. And as a returning senior in 2019, Mack could be among the top defenders in the nation. Add in a year of experience for Zandier, Snowden, Brown, Taylor, etc and this unit could be devastating next year.

The nature of college football is that there are always going to be transitions. But with upperclassmen leading the way, and youngsters stepping up and competing for playing time, there can be consistency at the unit from season to season. And that is exactly what Bronco is trying to build. He’s done it at LB, and as we’ll see later this week, he’s done it at DB as well.