The Virginia Cavaliers’ defense ranked 43rd nationally last season, not too bad considering how much they were on the field (Virginia ranked 117th in time of possession, losing the clock battle by roughly five minutes per game). The rush defense ranked 70th, not great. But they were 18th in most rush attempts against and 34th in rush yards per attempt. This was not a bad run defense.
That run defense starts up front, and it starts in the middle. If the defense can push the middle of the offensive line backwards, the offense is going nowhere. If the offense is successful running the ball up the middle, the defense isn’t getting stops.
In Virginia’s 4-3 defense, the two middle guys on the line are responsible for that space. The MLB runs clean up. Nick Jackson led the team in tackles, but two-third of his tackles were assisted. Nothing against Nick, that’s the system. When Virginia’s run defense was successful, it was because the DTs either made plays or at least held their own against the interior OL.
To open the season last year, the starters at interior D-line were Jahmeer Carter (NT) and Aaron Faumui (DT). In the final game of the season, the starters at interior D-line were…Jahmeer Carter (NT) and Aaron Faumui (DT). Considering both of those players are still around, it certainly seems like that will be the starting duo against Tennessee.
It starts with Faumui. Entering his sixth year as a Wahoo (he sat out the 2020 pandemic season), Aaron is one of the leaders of the defense and the team. Last season, he led all DLs with 39 tackles and led the team with 8.5 TFLs. He also had 4 sacks and 3 QB hurries.
Look at that clip again. Look at the right side of the Virginia defense. It is EMPTY. If Faumui doesn’t make this play, that dude is still running today. You can’t really tell what’s going on in that jumble of bodies inside, but Faumui comes out of it and makes the tackle. Just an amazing individual effort.
Faumui had those four sacks, so obviously he’s a capable pass rusher. Leading the team in TFLs tells you he can play the run too (as in that clip above). I would love to have the time to chart Virginia plays from last year to see how the defense compares with Faumui on the field and off. Just watching a few plays here and there, the difference seems stark.
Carter doesn’t put up the same numbers Faumui does, but that’s not his role. His role is to take up blockers and seal off the middle for the Virginia’s run defense. At 313 lbs, he’s the biggest defensive player on the team. He’s just very hard to push around. Carter had just 1 TFL and no sacks. He’s a run stopper, he’s not usually on the field in passing situations. But he is very good in that role.
The duo of Faumui and Carter were not easy to run against. There wasn’t much depth last year, and the Hoos were often trailing and couldn’t stop turning the ball over. Despite the lack of depth, this unit was one of the strengths of the team last year. They could be again, especially if they can find some consistency behind the starters.
About that Depth
Yeah, there still isn’t much depth. Mostly, two guys rotated in for the starters, Olasunkonmi Agonleye and Ben Smiley III. Smiley had some very good moments and is ready for a bigger role. That role will come at DE though, where he has moved and may be the starter there. That leaves Agonleye as the sole experienced backup. He also had his moments, including a sack against UNC. He fits into the Carter role, but he’s 40 pounds lighter than Carter. He’s just not as hard to push.
The only other DT with any playing experience is junior Michael Diatta, so he figures to be the fourth rotation lineman. Diatta has the potential to be successful in the Faumui role. Right now, there is a large drop-off from a pre-season All-ACC candidate to a guy with only a handful of defensive snaps.
There is a little bit of longer depth behind that group. We have been talking about Bryce Carter’s potential for two years now, but he’s barely seen the field. It’s hit third year in the program. Time for that potential to turn into actual production. Among the younger guys, Terrell Jones seems to be the most promising in that got some defensive snaps as a true freshman. Jones was all-state in Alabama and had some good offers. What we saw from him was not enough to judge, but the staff must’ve seen enough to put him out there, even in garbage time.
As long as Carter and Faumui are healthy and able to play a lot of snaps, this unit will continue to be good. The backups are fine, and there is potential for more. But until we see the depth really start to produce, the rotation after the starters is uncertain.