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Virginia Cavaliers Football Previews: Linebackers

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Capital One Orange Bowl - Virginia v Florida Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

We continue our unit previews of the 2020 Virginia Cavaliers by dedicating an entire day to the linebackers. In case you missed it, so far we’ve taken a look at each of the offensive skilled positions, the offensive line, and the defensive line. Today, we focus on the single most important position on the field when running a 3-4 defense.

These four guys are pass rushers, run stoppers, pass defenders and more. Generally speaking, the ILBs are tasked with stopping the run and the OLBs are on pass rush or in pass coverage, but that of course is an oversimplification—ILB Jordan Mack led the team with 7.5 sacks last year.

Although Virginia differentiates between the two OLB (Strong and Weak) and two ILB positions (Middle and Buck), there really isn’t a ton of difference in the way the players are used.

The first clip above is Charles Snowden coming off the edge to the quarterback’s left. The second clip is Noah Taylor on an almost identical play. Snowden is listed at SLB and Taylor at WLB, but both above plays come from the strong side (which is also the field side). Where they line up is dependent on personnel and game situation, but they are often used interchangeably. This helps keep the offense off-filter. The QB doesn’t know which (if any) of the OLBs will be coming on a blitz.

Here’s an example, coming from that 2-4-5 defense we saw so much of. Before the snap, Rob Snyder (in the middle) and Matt Gahm (on the QB’s left) look poised to come on the rush. Both drop into coverage, with Snowden coming off the QB’s right and Zane Zandier coming behind from 5 yards back. This confused Pitt QB Kenny Pickett and Matt Gahm ends up with the interception. Pickett never saw Gahm out there in coverage.

Mike ILB (MLB)
Starter: Rob Snyder (Sr)
Backup: Nick Jackson (So)

Buck ILB (BLB)
Starter: Zane Zandier (Sr)
Backup: Josh Ahern (R. Fr)

Zandier led the team in tackles and tackles for loss. He was third in sacks (tied) and pass breakups. And he did this, which may have single-handedly beaten ODU.

Just a great play. He starts out on a middle blitz, reads the screen and cuts in front of the running back.

Nick Jackson has been getting a lot of chatter this offseason, and he looked solid when he played last year, especially in the Orange Bowl with Jordan Mack out. But Snyder is a senior with a lot of experience and probably gets the starting nod to open the season. It may not matter who starts, as both will play extensively.

Strong OLB (SLB)
Starter: Charles Snowden (Sr)
Backup: Hunter Stewart (R. Fr)

Weak OLB (WLB)
Starter: Noah Taylor (Jr)
Backup: Matt Gahm (Sr)

Taylor and Charles Snowden are the stars of this defense. Both could be early draft picks next year (hopefully, Taylor returns for his senior year). Last year, Charles Snowden had 11 TFLs, while Noah Taylor had 12 (Zane Zandier led the team with 12.5). They each had 36 solo tackles and four passes defended.

Matt Gahm isn’t the all-around player that Snowden and Taylor are, but he’s a very good pass rusher and as you saw above, he can make a play in the secondary as well. When the Hoos go with a 2-4-5 formation, Gahm is often on the field as an extra pass rusher.

In the first clip, Gahm is lined up as a defensive end, out of a 2-point stance (no hand on the ground). Snowden is lined up on the opposite end, and Taylor is lined up on the outside, basically as a DB.

In the second clip, Gahm is really lined up as a DT, with Snowden to his outside. (That play didn’t work out too well though, as is often the case when bringing seven pass rushers. It seems that perhaps Elliott Brown was supposed to drop into the flat, but did so too late.)

That kind of versatility from the OLBs is a huge difference maker. There’s just so much talent there.

Snowden and Taylor are also both excellent special teams players. Taylor blocked a punt against Pitt (which was a HUGE play in that game) and Snowden had a big catch on a fake punt against UNC.