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Virginia Football Unit Previews: Linebackers

The linebacker group could be the deepest unit UVA has.

NCAA Football: Belk Bowl-South Carolina vs Virginia Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia Cavaliers’ secondary has gotten a lot of hype this offseason, and rightly so. It is a deep and talented unit, led by a possible first round pick in Bryce Hall. But, it is possible that the linebacker group is actually better and deeper.

Last year, five of the top eight tacklers were LBs and four of those return. That includes two of the top three in TFLs and sacks. Yes, Chris Peace is gone, and he was the best pass rusher on the team, leading in sacks, TFLs and QB hits. His loss will hurt.

But there’s no shortage in options to replace him. Of the 36 players who received their numbers in the first numbers draft, seven were LBs. Three more received numbers in the second draft. Only the DBs have more.

2019 Outlook

Opposite from Peace last year was Charles Snowden. Just a sophomore, Snowden led the nation’s LBs in pass breakups and passes defended. He also chipped in 61 tackles, 7.5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks plus 2 INTs, 8 QB hits, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Oh and he also blocked a kick against Indiana. That’s filling the stat sheet. Snowden was named to the Butkus Award Watch List.

The crazy thing is that it isn’t clear that Snowden is the best LB on the team. Heading into last season, that honor undoubtedly went to Jordan Mack. Mack missed four games last year with a shoulder injury, but in just nine games he finished second on the team in tackles, third in sacks, and second in TFLs. Mack came to school as a safety, but was moved to OLB as a freshman. He was just 205 lbs as a freshman. But he’s played at 230 the last two years, which is good size for a college LB. He might need to bulk up a bit to play ILB at the NFL level.

Mack and Snowden are vastly different players. Although Mack spent a season at OLB, he’s a more natural inside guy. He’s a tackling machine. He runs well enough to be a sideline to sideline guy. He’s also a natural at covering the middle zone against the pass, which comes, at least in part, from his history at safety.

Snowden is 6’7” 235, which again is a bit slight for an NFL OLB, but is ideal for a college LB. Snowden runs well, but that length makes it really tough to throw the ball by him.

Snowden uses almost all of his enormous reach to get to this ball. A 6’2” OLB like Chris Peace doesn’t get to that ball.

Here’s another great play from Snowden.

They put a tight end on him one-on-one. That didn’t go well. Snowden actually did not get credit for this sack—Chris Peace did—but Snowden creates it by pushing the TE right into the QB’s face. That play ended up being a fumble recovered by Eli Hanback.

It almost isn’t fair that the same guy can make both of those plays. Snowden is doing a lot of this with just his natural gifts. He was late to football after concentrating on basketball up until 2015. He’s just going to get better and better. He has shown the ability to hold the edge against the run, chase down running QBs from behind, play short zones and rush the passer. That is a complete OLB.

Last season began with Mack and senior Malcolm Cook at the ILB spots. Both Mack and Cook were injured at the same time, and after four games both were out of the starting lineup. The backups at that point were sophomores Rob Snyder and Zane Zandier. Prior to that, Zandier had played sparingly and Snyder hadn’t played at all. Zandier actually stayed in the starting lineup after Mack and Cook both returned, but then ended up losing the starting gig to Snyder. Zandier started eight times and Snyder started seven times.

Those two guys are competing for the starting gig this season next to Mack. Regardless of who wins that contest, both will play extensively.

The OLB spot replacing Peace isn’t in quite such good hands. Nobody has really stepped up to take that job and there’s three guys competing for it. Junior Matt Gahm was Peace’s backup for every game last year and saw action in every game. He was also one of the 36 to receive his number in the first jersey draft. But so was Noah Taylor, and he’s been the most mentioned guy at that position during training camp.

Elliott Brown is the other guy who was up for the position. Brown did not earn his number in the first draft, but did in the second draft. What does that mean, with respect to the OLB competition? We don’t know. We likely won’t know for another week, until the first depth chart comes out. From chatter around camp, it seems like Taylor is the frontrunner right now. All three will get PT at OLB.

That is it for the experienced guys. Not a single other player on the roster has ever played LB for the Hoos. Senior Reed Kellam is a special teams ace (and maybe you heard that he was granted the #1 pick of jerseys this year). He’s never played on defense, only on special teams. That really means the LBs cannot afford multiple injuries as they had last year. Both Mack and Cook missed time with injuries, and something like that again could be disastrous.

2020 and Beyond

Other than Mack, all of this year’s expected contributors will be back next year. (There’s a chance that Snowden goes pro if he has a big year.) So, generally, it seems like 2020 should be a big year.

However, there’s an awful lot of unknown at LB. The 2018 recruiting class included four LBs. One, Grant Misch, has moved to TE. Another, Javar Garrett has left the football team. The 2019 class includes five LBs, four of whom are slated for the outside. Most likely, one or two of the young LBs will move from outside to inside. Actually, it’s probably happening already.

Of those seven LBs, just one will be on the depth chart this year, at least to open the season. That’s Taylor, who enrolled in spring of 2018 and played last season. He’s a sophomore, but the entire rest of this group is freshmen (redshirt or true). With quality and depth ahead of them, there may not be many chances for the youngsters to get onto the field (outside of special teams) this year or the next.

With Mack leaving after this year, the starters next year are almost definitely Zandier and Snyder. But right now, the pecking order behind them is completely unknown. It’s not quite as bad at OLB, even if Snowden leaves early for the NFL. Gahm, Taylor and Brown will all return next year, along with several talented freshmen.

Of those freshmen, the most physically ready is 6’1” 225 lb Nick Jackson. Jackson has already earned his number, one of just six true freshmen and one of just two freshman LBs (the other being redshirt freshman T.C. Harrison). Here is Jackson’s recruit video from VirginiaSportsTV.

As you can see, Jackson is a very physical player. He can take on and shed blocks, but can also play through traffic. He’s got experience playing in the middle, so could perhaps be used at ILB if needed. He gets upfield quickly and has the quickness to make plays once he gets there. Jackson will almost definitely see action on special teams, and could figure into the mix at LB.

Coach Mendenhall has not shied from using graduate transfers to fill in gaps in the roster. Could he possibly bring in a graduate transfer LB for next year and/or 2021? Unless some of the youngsters really impress during training camp, practice and special teams, the depth chart is could be awfully bare next season.