Though Virginia ended the 2018 season on a high note with a 28-0 win over the Gamecocks, the end of the regular season was not so positive. The Hoos lost three of their final four games, losing out on a chance to win the ACC Coastal. This isn’t news to anybody.
One of the big reasons they lost was that they simply could not stop the run game late in the year. That can happen when the defensive line suffers so many injuries and there’s only one healthy upperclassman available. Eight different DL started a game, and four of those were true freshmen.
During those four end-of-season games, Virginia gave up an average of 243 yards rushing. You aren’t going to win many games with that performance. Even Liberty, the one win in that stretch, broke 200 yards rushing, and they ranked 75th nationally in rushing at about 160 yards per game. Up until that point, Virginia had given up an average of just 113 yards rushing per game.
Senior Richard Burney started the first three games of the season and then missed the rest. Mandy Alonso started five games after Burney’s injury before suffering a season ending injury. Jordan Redmond didn’t get hurt, but was in and out of the lineup due to matchups (and some ineffectiveness). Against Georgia Tech’s triple option, freshman Grant Misch started even though he wasn’t on the depth chart and hadn’t seen the field yet. Misch, by the way, has since moved to TE. Expect him to redshirt as he continues to learn the position.
During the year, Virginia played out of a two-man DL on many occasions, including four starts. We also saw some one-man line at times. The team was always going to play a lot of nickel, like many teams across college football. With so much youth on the DL, the extra LB or DB was likely a better player, but it left the team susceptible to power running games.
Well that youth on the DL is a bit grown up now. Those guys who were injured last year are healthy now. Of the eight starters from last year, just one is gone (OSU transfer Dylan Thompson).
Senior Eli Hanback is back for his fourth year as a starter. Hanback has 140 tackles, 13 TFLs and 4.5 sacks in his career thus far. He also has three fumble recoveries. He’ll move around the line, playing all three positions, as he did last year. Wherever he lines up, he’ll be the leader of the unit and the most dangerous player on the DL. He should challenge those TFL and sack totals this year.
Burney is back and healthy, and looks poised for a big year. In his three games last year, he had eight tackles, two TFLs, and a forced fumble (13 game pace of 35 tackles, eight TFLs and four FF). That’s not bad, considering it was his first ever experience on the DL after three years at TE.
Hanback is listed on the roster at DT, but started eight games last year at DE. That’s his most likely position this year, starting at RE with Burney at LE. That’s largely because true freshman Jowon Briggs may be too good to keep off the field. He was the 75th best recruit in the nation last year and the ninth best DT. At 6’1, 295, he has an ideal build for the position.
Here’s Briggs’ highlight video from VirginiaSportsTV:
He’s a man among boys in this video. Why aren’t they double-teaming him? Maybe they double-teamed him the other plays and that’s why these are in his highlight reel. He probably won’t see many double-teams as a freshman, especially playing next to Hanback, but give him a couple years experience (not to mention a couple years with Shawn Griswold), and he’s going to be a beast on the inside.
Also don’t forget Redmond, who last year was just the fourth Virginia DL in over 30 years to start the season opener as a freshman (true or redshirt) and the first since 2002.
Redmond and Briggs alone should help improve the run defense. The depth generated by all those guys getting playing time last year will also help. Alonso will be the first DE off the bench, but sophomore Aaron Faumui was productive last year, as was Tommy Christ.
Rotating guys throughout a game helps keep everybody fresh and makes everybody play better. It can also help avoid injuries. Burney and company were playing a lot of snaps early in the season, because the team didn’t have that “playable depth” that Coach Mendenhall talks about. We’ll never know if that played a role in the injury. But playing DL (and OL) is difficult and injuries happen. Having more guys rotate in and out can help.
2020 and Beyond
Well considering four true freshmen started last year, it seems like the DL should be in good hands for a couple years. Briggs is back obviously. As is Ben Smiley, another true freshman DT who could get snaps this year.
Smiley checks in at just 260 lbs, which is too slight to play 3-4 DT. But Smiley is actually lined up as a 3-4 DE in many of those plays. He could figure into the rotation at DE this year.
That said, Hanback and Burney are expected to start, and both will be gone next season. That means those youngsters need to prove what they can do. Mandy Alonso, Aaron Faumui and company need to take advantage during whatever opportunities they get to help answer whatever questions linger about next season’s DL.