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Why Virginia football’s edge defenders are one of the roster’s biggest strengths

Previewing one of the strengths of Virginia’s roster and how they’ll be used this fall.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 12 Pitt at Virginia Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

You probably know that the base defense employed by Virginia Cavaliers Defensive Coordinator John Rudzinski is a hybrid scheme. On any given play, they could be in a 4-2-5, one-gap formation or they could be a 3-3-5, two-gap scheme. There are other wrinkles of course as well. Could be a straight 4-3 or a 3-4. Could even be a 2-4-5 or a 3-2-6.

One reason this works is the Bandit position, a hybrid DE/LB spot. This can be a pass-rushing DE on one play, and a pass-coverage LB on another play. He might be setting an edge one play, and coming on a blitz the next. Virginia will rotate several players at this position, but they all need to be versatile.

It is somewhat telling that, despite the hybrid nature of the position, the starter at BANDIT (Chico Bennett) led the team in sacks while accumulating zero pass defenses. It’s a hybrid by scheme, but generally much closer to DE than to LB.

On the other of the DL, the position is simply listed at DE. The guys who played there last year were bigger than the BANDIT. They generally aren’t asked to do quite as much. Set an edge and rush the passer. That’s about it. On most plays, that isn’t so different from BANDIT.

As a team, Virginia finished twelfth in the nation in sacks, averaging three per game. That is despite trailing in most games and facing far more rushes than passes on the year. The pass rush comes from everywhere, but the three main EDGE defenders totaled 14 out of the team’s 30 sacks. Another 7.5 sacks came from the DTs, and all 21.5 of those sacks return for this season. Is it clear where the strength of this team is?

The Starters

Last year’s roster had multiple players, including Bennett, listed at BANDIT. This year’s roster does not. Everybody is simply listed at DE. If this is a change in scheme, or even just nomenclature, that would be a big surprise. More likely, due to overlap in the skillset between the two, the staff did not want to pigeon-hole players into a specific role. This is especially true in light of the injury to Chico Bennett, who started nine games at BANDIT last year. Bennett is definitely out for the Tennessee game, his status beyond that is unknown.

Bennett is matched up with a TE, and he bull rushes him right into the QBs face. Can’t block him with a TE. Bennett is also a solid run defender and also forced two fumbles. His loss is problematic.

At DE, Kam Butler started all ten games last year. He totaled 3 sacks, 4.5 TFLs, 3 QB hurries, and 2 forced fumbles. Since he’s back, you’d certainly expect him to start. Based on PFF metrics, Butler was the best pass rusher returning this year, slightly ahead of Bennett.

Butler is just too quick here and gets around the tackle almost without being touched. Sack and forced fumble.

With Bennett injured, we know one EDGE spot is open, at least temporarily. Until he’s back, somebody else gets to start in that spot. It seems like that would be Paul Akere, who transferred from Columbia last season. He played in every game, racked up 4 sacks and 4 TFLs, and actually had a higher pass rush win rate than Bennett or Butler.

Depth? Maybe...

Although Akere seems to have a leg up in replacing Bennett, don’t be too surprised if Ben Smiley actually starts. Smiley played DT last year, at almost 290 lbs. He’s down to 270 now, and is back at his natural DE spot. Many people, including members of the staff, have predicted a breakout season from Smiley. With Bennett out, we may actually see Smiley at DE with Butler moving over to BANDIT.

That’s the end of the good news here. Beyond Akere and Smiley, there is basically nothing. Of eight scholarship DEs, three are freshmen and are unlikely to contribute, especially early in the season. Add in the four already mentioned, and that leaves just Jonathan Horton. Horton has seen action on special teams, over the past three seasons. He’s listed at just 220 lbs, which is way too small to play on the DL. He’ll continue to be a factor on special teams though.

It isn’t great to start with your top pass rusher dealing with an injury. But assuming Bennett has no lasting effects, this unit should be pretty good. The Virginia DL is probably the strength of this team, and that’s a good thing.

The best way to slow down good offenses is by getting pressure on the QB. If your D-linemen live in the backfield, you’re going to be successful. Any chance Virginia has of upsetting the Volunteers on Saturday comes down to getting pressure on Joe Milton and forcing turnovers. (Please note that there is no actual chance of upsetting the Volunteers on Saturday.)