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Virginia Football Position Preview: Meet the Bandits

What is a bandit, and who’s going to play it for UVA this year?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 23 Georgia Tech at Virginia Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If you've been feverishly refreshing for tidbits about the 2022 Virginia Cavaliers football season (and who amongst us hasn’t?), you may have noticed a new group of players on the Hoos’ football roster page:

Gone are the distinctions between “DL” and “DE,” or between “ILB” and “OLB.” Instead, UVA is growing with the times and describing a category of players simply as EDGE. It’s a trend that has grown over the past five seasons or so, especially in evaluating NFL Draft prospects, where the classification allows for uniformly evaluating players from myriad college defensive systems.

For new defensive coordinator John Rudzinski, the EDGE role epitomizes one of the core tenets of the defensive scheme: versatility. Having guys who can put their hand in the dirt to play a traditional down lineman, only to drift back into pass coverage—or line up off the line of scrimmage, but end up as a blitzer—gives Rudzinski options to mess with an offense’s assignments and audibles.

In his time at Air Force, when Rudzinski’s defenses were routinely among the nation’s best in yards allowed per game, the EDGE guys were dubbed “bandits.” That’s a name that is popular among defensive systems that deploy a hybrid EDGE role: see, e.g., West Virginia, Old Dominion, and Texas Tech, just to name a few. (For a great player’s perspective on what the bandit role requires, check out the linked story for West Virginia, which features insight from Mountaineers bandit Jared Bartlett.) For schools that can’t reliably land the four- and five-star recruits in more classic roles, the bandit position is a way to get productive “tweeners” on the field. Think of it as a defense’s version of the Keytaon Thompson “Football Player” position last year.

The versatility required for the role is evident when you look at the wide range of size in the players UVA identified as “EDGE.” A number of players in the 220-230 pound range, and even Jonathan Horton coming in at just 210; but also a handful of guys around 260-plus. Which suggests that even among a position group that requires Swiss-army-knife skills, the coaches may deploy a subgroup of pass-down bandits that are smaller and quicker (and thus more suited to pass coverage) than the bandits who play more run-oriented on first or second downs.

What’s most notable about this group this season is how few of the players listed have significant experience at Virginia, and how many of them are transfers—and especially transfers the new staff brought in. Horton was the highest rated player in his recruiting class, while Mike Green and Bryce Carter were significant in-state wins on the recruiting trail as well, but the three of them have a total of nine games played amongst them (three for Green, two for Horton, and one for Carter) with zero starts. Meanwhile, Paul Akere, Kam Butler, and Jack Camper represent two-thirds of UVA’s transfers in this past offseason, and Chico Bennett looks to take the field for the first time in orange and blue since transferring from Georgia Tech before the 2021 season.

The Starters — We Think

With an all-new scheme and an all-new group, it’s hard to pin down who exactly will start. But our best guess would be Mike Green and Kam Butler take some sort of 1A/1B role once the depth chart is set.

Green has been the subject of a ton of buzz coming out of the offseason and fall camp so far. Listed as a wide receiver by recruiting services coming out of high school, Green has length and athleticism to create lots of problems for blockers trying to handle him. Two years in a college strength-and-conditioning program—including Tony Elliott’s new emphasis on nutrition with new S&C coach Adam Smotherman—has added bulk to his frame that should help him become more of a three-down player.

The other camp standout has been Kam Butler. A three-time all-conference player at Miami Ohio, Butler seems to be penciled in as a starter for Rudzinski and the Cavaliers. His experience at the FBS level should play a big part as the Hoos look to take a step forward on defense after disappointing results the past two seasons.

Next In Line?

Butler’s growth from a 210-pound freshman to the centerpiece of a defense provides a nice mold for Horton to follow, too. The Baton Rouge product (and classmate of Reece Beekman) was a late addition to UVA’s 2020 recruiting class but he immediately became the highlight of the class. Expect to see him as more of a situational contributor, and probably see the field as a special teams defender this year; he blocked a kick during an August scrimmage.

While Akere and Camper both come to Charlottesville via the transfer route, their paths are otherwise quite different. Akere did not garner much buzz as a high schooler—multiple all-district awards but only a two-star recruit—but became a significant contributor for a good Columbia team; he played all 10 games in 2019 and started all 10 in 2021 (with the Ivy League canceling the 2020 season altogether due to COVID). Camper was a top-100 recruit in the state of Florida, per 247 Sports, and played for the IMG Academy powerhouse, but managed only limited appearances at Michigan State. Both give this position group playable depth and capable backups should the starters see injuries.

What To Watch For

Expect this position group to create some of the stat-sheet stuffers on Virginia’s defense. This is where a lot of sacks and QB pressures should come from, but also interceptions and passes defended. Rudzinski is looking to create organized chaos—simple to play but hard to decipher—and the bandits are the spoon that will stir that drink.