By just about any measure, the Virginia Cavaliers defense last year was bad.
Total defense: 121st
Rushing defense: 123rd
Pass defense: 87th
Pass efficiency allowed: 93rd
Turnovers forced: 82nd
First down defense: 103rd
Somehow, Virginia was 28th in red zone defense. How does that happen? Who knows. Virginia gave up so many big plays, there weren’t many red zone opportunities.
There were issues throughout the defense, but there were also bright spots. Mandy Alonso was a bright spot on the DL last year, leading the team in sacks (tied with the now UNC Tar Heel Noah Taylor) and second in TFLs (behind Taylor). Of course, Alonso has exhausted his eligibility after starting every game last season.
That still leaves four returning starters though. The top candidate to replace Alonso’s production is Aaron Faumui. Though he started just five games last season, he has three years of starting experience and 14 total starts heading into this season, as many as the rest of the DL room combined.
The other three returning starters are Jahmeer Carter (10 starts in the middle), Ben Smiley (3 starts) and Olasunkonmi Agunloye (1 start).
We don’t know all the details of what defensive scheme the Wahoos will run, but we can get some information from the defense run by John Rudzinksi at Air Force.
This is early in last year’s bowl game between Air Force and Louisville. It’s 1st and 10, against a team that runs the ball a lot. So it’s the base package from the Falcons. Their depth chart was a 3-4, and you can see that in the play above. There are three down linemen plus a single edge rusher lined up in a two-point stance on the strong side of the line. That player is a sort of hybrid DE/OLB sometimes called a “BANDIT”. We’ll cover UVA’s BANDIT position in another story coming shortly.
The DLs at Air Force were all on the smaller side, with the starters ranging from a 250 lb end to a 295 lb NG. Is that because Rudzinski prefers smaller, quicker players? Or is that because his options were limited at a service academy? Faumui, for example, is 282 pounds. Does he fit as that interior NG, or might he play as a bigger end? Carter, on the other hand, is 313 pounds. Clearly he’s going to play on the inside.
The truth is, Faumui will likely play on both the inside and the outside. On running downs, such as the 1st and 10 above, Faumui is likely on the outside as the coaches want to get more bulk out there to handle the offense’s drive blocks. But on passing downs, Faumui could move inside where his quickness plays better as a pass rusher.
Here is Faumui showing those pass rush skills from the inside. He didn’t get too many chances last year, but the 5th year senior (Faumui skipped the 2020 CoVID year) has 6 career sacks and 12.5 TFLs and will likely be the most productive player on the DL this season.
Virginia will probably rotate six or seven players along the DL, which obviously includes all four of the guys listed above. That only leaves a couple of spots open for other guys. The most likely starters are Carter, Faumui and Smiley. Agunloye will rotate in and out of both end spots with Faumui also getting reps on the inside.
The Depth Chart
Along with the four returning starters, there are a number of players in the mix to get reps on the DL. Many of them, including grad transfers Paul Akere (Columbia), Jack Camper (Michigan State) and Kam Butler (Miami of Ohio), are listed at Edge but could see time at DE as well. Butler has been getting a lot of love during training camp, while Camper was expected to be a contributor for the Spartans last year before an injury cut his season short.
Among “pure” DLs, the one guy to watch is South Carolina transfer Devontae Davis. At 6’4” 306 pounds, he is likely the primary backup to Carter on the inside of the base package. He came to the Gamecocks as a JUCO transfer and then missed a year with a foot injury. So he’s a bit raw and inexperienced. But he’s got good size and athleticism.
Sophomore Michael Diatta is another to watch, a 6’5” 268 DL with good athleticism off the snap. His Hudl page, linked below, shows him playing a 3-4 that may be similar to what Rudzinski runs. That could give him a leg up on some other candidates. Diatta played defense against Illinois and against Virginia Tech last year. He is the only other DL on the roster without any experience.
There is good talent at the top of the DL depth chart, especially if you include the Edge guys. However, there isn’t much depth behind them. Should Faumui or Carter miss time, the DL would be perilously thin. That is part of why guys like Butler are likely to play both DL and Edge.
Faumui and all those grad transfers are gone next year, meaning there will have to be guys stepping up. Again, there are some guys listed at Edge, such as sophomore Bryce Carter, who could play DE as well as Edge. But again, among “pure” DL, sophomore Lorenz Terry and freshman Terrell Jones are the only scholarship players on the roster who haven’t yet been mentioned.
However, Coach Elliott already has two commits at DL for next year’s class, which will be an important one. Look for Elliott to possibly dip into the transfer market again for some ready-to-contribute guys. Otherwise, the DL next season could be a real problem.