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Virginia Cavaliers Football Previews: Defensive Line

Duke v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

We started our Virginia Cavaliers unit previews last week, tackling the offense (get it?) to close out the week. As we’re under two weeks away from the return of Virginia Football, we’re going to take an early look at Virginia’s defense, one that started last season strong, boasting a top-10 national defense in mid-October before injuries plagued the team, mostly in the secondary.

Bryce Hall was lost for the season. Brenton Nelson was lost for the season. Add to that the pre-season injury to Darrius Bratton and the secondary was suddenly very thin.

The Virginia defense is aggressive. Rushing the passer is priority number one, and doing so puts pressure on the secondary, a unit that just didn’t have the depth or experience last year to handle that. Towards the end of the season, the Virginia defense was struggling to stop anybody. By the end of the season, they’d fallen all the way to 48th nationally in total defense. Over the first seven games, the Hoos allowed under 20 points per game. Over the final seven, it was almost 35 points per game.

There is a lot returning on this defense from last year. Some of that is just because last year’s defense was young, but it’s also as a result of those injuries. For example, redshirt freshman Jaylon Baker was not expected to be a part of the secondary last season, but not only did he find himself on the depth chart, he even started a game. He saw action in five games, giving him a leg up heading into this season.

Will this year be better? There’s plenty of depth everywhere. If they remain healthy, they could be very very good. But this is such a strange season. We’ve seen other schools have breakout of COVID-19. A breakout within a position group could be devastating. As we saw last year, even just one or two top contributors could be enough to derail the defense.

We’re starting today with the defensive line, and as the week goes on, we’ll take a look at the linebackers, and then this secondary unit I’ve been so focused on.

Defensive Line

The Virginia defense loses Eli Hanback, a four year starter. That’s never easy. But there is no position with as much depth as the defensive line. Even with Hanback gone and Aaron Faumui opting out for the season, the DL should be a very strong unit.

Last year, five different guys started at least four games. Hanback led with 11 starts. He’s tough to replace, but with three of the other four returning and some youngsters ready to step in as well, it’s a reasonable line.

And don’t forget we also saw a lot of 2-4-5 formations from the Wahoo defense. When they go nickel, the Hoos will often use two DLs along with two OLBs as pass rushers (more on that later).

Defensive End
Starter: Mandy Alonso (Sr.)
Backup: Ben Smiley III (R. Fr)

Defensive Tackle
Starter: Jowon Briggs (So.)
Backup: Jordan Redmond (So.)

Defensive End
Starter: Richard Burney (R. Sr.)
Backup: Adeeb Atariwa (Sr.)

Alonso and Burney each started at least five games last year (as did Faumui), and so these are presumably your starters at DE. Atariwa is a transfer from JMU who has excellent size and experience. Last year, he had 53 tackles, 13 TFLs, 1.5 sacks and blocked a kick. However, JMU runs a 4-3, so Atariwa has very little experience in Virginia’s two-gap 3-4 scheme. He may get some playing time early in simpler sets, especially in the 2-4-5 nickel package which is generally a one-gap responsibility for the DLs. As he gets more comfortable with the defense, he will get more time. As it is, he’s probably the first DE off the bench, just because of his game experience and high level success.

Smiley is the only other experienced DE on the roster. He saw action in two games last year, totaling three tackles (one against W&M and two against Duke). He retained his redshirt, so he’s still a freshman.

Briggs showed promise his first year and looks to build on that. Redmond was starting as a freshman in 2018 before basically being passed on the depth chart by Briggs. He’s a capable backup and could even see time at DE if there was a need.

Come back tomorrow to take a look at the Cavaliers’ linebackers, and we’ll also be back later in the week with a look at the secondary to see what kind of playmakers we’ll get to see this year.