The Virginia linebacking corps will look a little different this season when the Cavaliers take the field on September 4 against William & Mary. Charles Snowden and Zane Zandier had become synonymous with the Bronco Mendenhall hard-nosed defense over their time in Charlottesville, but the duo moved on to pursue professional careers after the 2020 season.
The Returning Players
Nick Jackson might be the most talked about defender coming into this season for the Hoos. Jackson is the lone Cavalier representative on the preseason All-ACC team (as voted by the media), and he’s the best returning player on the team. He led the team in total tackles (105) and solo tackles (55) last season, stepping up with quiet efficiency. In 2019, Jackson had 28 total tackles, with 11 solo tackles in 11 games that he saw action.
With the departures of Snowden and Zandier, Jackson is expected to step up both in his play on the field, but also his leadership.
“As the offseason has gone on, and now as we get into camp here, I think everybody’s seeing that he is one of the main leaders on this team,” co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga told the media this week. “The way that he plays the game really, I think his leadership quality of just being a leader by example, and by the effort that he plays with, the execution, [and] the playmaking. He is starting to get more vocal, which I like, and I think that that will continue as he gets more and more comfortable with this new role that he has being one of the main leaders on our team.”
If anyone in the linebacking group is going to push Jackson for that top player title, it’s Noah Taylor. He’s long, lanky, and athletic, and he brings experience to the position. Last year, Taylor had 8.5 tackles for loss, and he’s a guy that can both get to the quarterback and get his arms into the passing lanes (seven QB hurries, two pass break-ups, and one interception). He will take the outside linebacker position — Jackson works on the inside — and is hoping to build off of last season’s disappointing ending.
“The first thing I think of when I wake up is that is that [Virginia] Tech loss, and that’s how it’s been since since we lost to them,” Taylor stated after Virginia’s first fall practice. “We definitely just use it as a as motivation for this season.”
The New Faces
There are a lot of questions and a lot of options for Coach Poppinga at linebacker. At inside linebacker, Josh Ahern, Elliott Brown, and first year West Weeks have stood out so far. Brown is likely to see action at both inside and outside linebacker, and Weeks has become Jackson’s “little brother,” per Poppinga.
“He’s getting West weeks ready, and West ... man he graded higher than any first year that I’ve ever been a part of yesterday,” Poppinga said. “He had like a 92% in his execution, and I credit that to Nick just working with the younger guys.”
Like Jackson, West hails from the Peach state, something that has connected them on at least some level. “I guess Georgia boys have that natural connection, because we’re both from down South. But at the same time, Wes is just, he’s a great player,” Jackson said of the first year. “He’s just kind of been taken under my wing right now and just help him go through plays and just asking him questions, and he’s a sponge right now.”
At outside linebacker, Poppinga listed second year Hunter Stewart and first years Josh McCarron and James Jackson among those that could also have an impact this season. With some questions surrounding the secondary, the linebacking corps is going to be instrumental in helping get to the QB to limit passing plays. Although there are a lot of fresh faces, there is reason to be optimistic about the position group heading into the season.