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Virginia Football Position Preview: Linebackers

A high-potential group with a stud leader in Nick Jackson could solidify the UVA defense.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 09 Virginia at Louisville Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With the Virginia Cavaliers’ defensive line seemingly on the rise, the Wahoo linebacking room is another component of DC John Rudzinksi’s defense which has the opportunity to make a jump this fall. With a number of returners including young players on the rise and a steady veteran presence, there will be an opportunity for the UVA linebackers to be the difference makers for the team’s defense this season.

The starters

As UVA is set to play a 4-2-5 defense this season, there are fewer spots for linebackers to fill on the defense. Obviously certain personnel packages will put more linebackers on the field from time to time. But the ‘Hoos look set to only consistently play two linebackers on the field at one time with the MIKE and WILL spots filled.

Among the starters, Nick Jackson is the name to know. The most experienced player in a UVA uniform on the entire team, Jackson enters his fourth season in Charlottesville regarded as one of the best linebackers in the ACC. A Second-Team All-ACC selection last season and the conference’s leader in tackles, Jackson will man the MIKE (inside linebacker) spot for the ‘Hoos this season and will be the quarterback of the defense once again. He’ll be responsible for getting the defense lined up and is tasked with

Meanwhile, at the WILL spot, UVA will likely rotate a pair of players through the spot with Josh Ahern option 1a and James Jackson 1b. James Jackson will get the start against Richmond on Saturday, although Tony Elliott noted yesterday that that is a result of Ahern serving a one half suspension from a targeting call in last year’s Virginia Tech game — he would’ve served the suspension in the Fenway Bowl last year had the ‘Hoos played in it.

As a player, Ahern is a guy who can get downhill fast as an aggressive tackler. He fills the WILL role well as a playmaker as a tackler and should complement Nick Jackson well. Meanwhile, Tony Elliott has noted James Jackson’s extreme potential especially with getting from sideline to sideline. Each should suit the WILL spot well and should make a solid starting group with the two of them rotating through.

The depth

That said, there isn’t much drop-off when going beyond those first three. Elliott said early in fall camp that he felt the position was potentially six deep with juniors Hunter Stewart and D’Sean Perry, and sophomore Josh McCarron as returning players who have the opportunity to provide functional depth.

Stewart and Perry are probably the names to watch as immediate playable depth. Perry is a player who has a penchant for making big plays and adds another element to the WILL position. Consistency is the question for the junior, though, as he’s learning a new position.

Meanwhile, Stewart — while being listed as a WILL on the first depth chart — is probably more of a MIKE linebacker. He’ll be the fourth guy after the two Jacksons and Ahern. While he’s not quite as quick to the ball as the three above him on the depth chart, Stewart is a heady player who is good in the box and provides decent experience at the position.

New faces

Among the new players, freshmen Trey McDonald and Stevie Bracey are the two players Elliott has highlighted as two youngsters who could grow into depth roles. Both three star prospects ranked as the 150th and 91st best linebackers in the 2022 class per the 247Sports Composite. McDonald, out of Chattanooga, Tennessee is an outside backer while Bracey — a mid-year enrollee out of Atlanta — could likely fill both spots.