Welcome to the fourth installment of STL’s “UVA, Explained” series. Today we’ll break down the Virginia Cavaliers defense, led by co-defensive coordinators Nick Howell and Kelly Poppinga.
Fun fact: Bronco Mendenhall played defensive positions his whole career. He saw time at both linebacker and safety for Oregon State when he played there and began his coaching career as a defensive coordinator. You could say this is kind of his wheelhouse.
The loss of All-American linebacker Micah Kiser, All-American safety Quin Blanding, and defensive end Andrew Brown definitely hurts the Cavaliers. The trio combined for more than a third of Virginia’s tackles last season, but with a little defensive development and the addition of a few graduate transfers, the team should almost be able to replace the lost production.
On the plus side, Virginia returns eight of 11 defensive starters in Bronco’s 3-4 scheme.
The 3-4 defense consists of three defensive linemen (two defensive ends, one nose tackle) and four linebackers (two outside linebackers, two inside linebackers). A typical 3-4 scheme will ask the nose tackle to take responsibility for two run gaps—one on either side of the center—with each defensive end and each linebacker responsible for one. As you’d expect, this requires a stout fella to play nose tackle: an absolute unit in the internet parlance of our times.
The other way to play a 3-4 is to have each down lineman responsible for only one run gap, with the nose tackle aggressively trying to penetrate the offensive backfield. This approach allows the nose tackle to still affect two run gaps by blowing up the blocking before it can hit its targets.
Virginia under Mendenhall has shown flexibility, playing both approaches. The scheme shift from Mike London’s 4-3 means the defensive personnel have had to adapt to new roles. With a guy like Eli Hanback playing nose tackle at “just” 300 pounds, and young defensive linemen like Samson Reed and Isaac Buell in a similar weight class, the penetrating approach utilizes the mold of linemen with more motor than girth—the “Silverbacks” that defensive line coach Vic So’oto is so proud of.
But look at a freshman like Jordan Redmond and you see where the two-gapping approach could take hold in Charlottesville soon. Tipping the scales at 320 pounds, Redmond is more like the prototypical 3-4 nose tackle. Put some tall, 275-plus-pound defensive ends—like sophomore Mandy Alonso and incoming transfer Cassius Peat—and that looks like an NFL-caliber 3-4 defense.
The linebackers in this system are something more of a mixed bag. Inside linebackers often have to fight offensive linemen who get to the second level of the defense, so they have to have more size than a 4-3 middle linebacker. Kiser was fit-perfect there; a bulked-up Jordan Mack has the lead to fill his shoes.
Outside linebackers for Mendenhall are more like QB-seeking missiles. He likes those pass rushers tall and athletic. Charles Snowden got on the field plenty as a freshman because he’s 6-foot-7; now that he’s put on 20 pounds to get up to 225, Snowden is filling in a professional-size frame. Elliott Brown, at 6’5, 230, should spell Snowden without needing much change of philosophy.
On the other side, senior OLB Chris Peace is a bit more stout. He gives the linebacking corps another solid tackler, almost like a more athletic ILB. Sophomore Matt Gahm backs up Peace and has impressed during the offseason.
Without question, though, the strength of the 2018 Cavalier defense will be the defensive backfield. Whether you're gauging by upside, by returning production, or just plain experience, the cornerbacks and safeties will anchor the defensive unit.
Mendenhall likes to use two different types of corner. The boundary corner tends to be taller with better straight-line speed, responsible for deep Go routes and jump balls against the other teams’ top outside guys. Inside, the field corner can be shorter because he has to have better agility and quickness—he’s going to be covering slot receivers and more lateral routes, so he better get side-to-side real fast.
Sixth-year senior Tim Harris and junior Bryce Hall will take the top two corner spots, even though they’re roughly the same size. Younger guys like Germane Crowell and Jaylon Baker (both 6-foot-2) both fit the boundary corner mold; Myles Robinson and Darrius Bratton should fit better inside.
The safety positions are similarly both unique and interchangeable. Free safety is much like it would be in any defense: a deep, rangy centerfielder to set the top of the defense. The strong safety position—also called SABRE in previous iterations of the Mendenhall era in Charlottesville—can play more in the box, buttressing the run game.
There’s a three-man rotation for the two safety spots this year. Senior Juan Thornhill will likely replace Blanding at free safety, with reigning ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year Brenton Nelson and Joey Blount also seeing plenty of action. Look for Nelson to slide into almost a nickel corner position when opponents go four- or five-wide.
A lot of new faces will need to make a lot of tackles to make up for what the Cavaliers lost last season. Even though they return eight of 11 starters, this line will look drastically different than it did in 2017. Although the secondary definitely took a hit this spring with the loss of it’s top tacklers, they do have some remaining talent they can utilize. The graduate transfers will hopefully help, too. Mendenhall is confident that as he continues to develop his team defensively, they’ll be just fine this season even without their all-star All-Americans.
TLDR (too long, didn’t read):
Virginia’s 3-4 scheme might have some initial struggles but the defensive line shouldn’t suffer too much this season. They have decent depth and Mendenhall is continuing to develop talent, especially at the safety position. While they won’t be able to make up for the insane number of tackles made by Kiser, Blanding, and Brown, they also won’t completely crumble without their four-year stars.
Next up: special teams.