Three Spring Moves That Could Pay Big Dividends For Virginia’s Defense

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A look at Virginia’s defensive statistics last season shows what you might expect from a 2-10 squad.

Total Defense: No. 93 (Rank among all 128 FBS teams)
Scoring Defense: No. 99
Rush Defense: No. 78
Passing Yards Allowed: No. 103
Passing Efficiency Defense: No. 119
Turnovers Gained: No. 88
Sacks: No. 61
Red Zone Defense: No. 123

Despite the numbers there were some bright spots from the Hoos’ D, which returns two 2016 First-Team All-ACC performers as well as some promising young talents. Fourteen players who started at least one game in 2016 are back in 2017, including …

– Quin Blanding, FS, Senior (12 games played, 12 starts in 2016)
– Micah Kiser, MLB, Senior (12, 12)
– Chris Peace, WLB, Junior (12, 12)
– Eli Hanback, DE, Sophomore (12, 11)
– Juan Thornhill, CB, Junior (12, 11)
– Andrew Brown, DE, Senior (12, 10)
– Jordan Mack, OLB, Sophomore (12, 9)
– Bryce Hall, CB, Sophomore (12, 7)
– Jack Powers, DL, Senior (12, 2)
– Steven Wright, DE, Sophomore (12, 1)
– Chris Moore, S, Sophomore (11, 1)
– Kirk Garner, DB, Senior (8, 1)
– Kareem Gibson, CB, Sophomore (6, 2)
– Myles Robinson, CB, Junior (4, 4)

Headlining the “other notable returnees” list are cornerback Tim Harris and outside linebacker Malcolm Cook. Harris started nine games in 2015 but played in only two games last season before being sidelined with an injury. He was granted a medical hardship and will be a redshirt senior in 2017. Cook missed all of last season with a health concern. He was cleared earlier this offseason.

Injuries and sheer lack of depth paved the way for a good number of players to see action in 2016. There are some quality pieces in place, but there are also some key areas that must be addressed. Coach Bronco Mendenhall has made some moves this spring in hopes of addressing those concerns, and if those moves pay off the Virginia defense has reason to be optimistic heading into 2017.

Here are three key moves that could pay big dividends this fall.

JUWAN MOYE TO NOSE TACKLE

Gone is the dependable and durable Donte Wilkins, who started all 12 games at nose tackle last season. Rising redshirt sophomore James Trucilla, who recorded four tackles in six games as a reserve, returns at the nose as well. Rising senior Jack Powers is back, too, and provides depth at nose and at defensive end. The bottom line, though, is that the Cavaliers are looking for the answer at nose, one of the most important positions in the 3-4.

Mendenhall didn’t get the exact fit he was looking for in 2017 recruiting. During his National Signing Day press conference this past February, Virginia’s second year head coach lamented not being able to sign his ideal nose tackle. Defensive tackle Mandy Alonso, who signed with Virginia out of Gulliver Prep (Miami, FL), is expected to play nose tackle. Perhaps he turns out to be the answer Mendenhall is looking for, but we’ll have to wait until the summer and fall to find out if his impact will be immediate.

Enter rising sophomore Juwan Moye.

Moye moved inside this spring after playing 10 games as a reserve defensive end his true freshman campaign. The Georgia native has impressed in his new role. The hope is that his quality play will continue into the regular season, giving the Cavaliers a short term and long term solution on the defensive line interior.

JUAN THORNHILL TO THE SABRE SAFETY SPOT

The trouble with moving Juan Thornhill to the Sabre spot is Virginia loses perhaps its best corner. Playing in all 12 games, starting 11, at cornerback in 2016, Thornhill racked up 45 tackles while leading the team in picks with three and tying for the team lead with Micah Kiser for most pass break-ups with seven. I thought he showed tremendous promise at corner. However, with rising senior Tim Harris returning from injury, the promise of rising sophomore Bryce Hall and true freshman Germane Crowell, and no clear successor to departed Sabre starter Kelvin Rainey, putting Thornhill at safety makes sense and potentially gets UVA’s top four defensive backs on the field.

Thornhill and Quin Blanding are two of the savviest players on the team. Together, they have the potential to be a dynamic duo at safety.

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Jordan Mack shined as a true freshman OLB in 2016. Now he could be the answer Virginia needs at ILB alongside Micah Kiser. ~ Kris Wright

JORDAN MACK TO INSIDE LINEBACKER

Losing Landan Word was a blow. No question about it. He played in 11 games — starting two — as a true freshman inside linebacker, finishing with 21 tackles (14 solo), three tackles for loss and two sacks. Based on this performance, the talented UVA legacy figured to have the inside track to replacing Zach Bradshaw at the Buck inside linebacker spot next season.

Word transferred, though, leaving the coaches looking for an answer. Rising juniors C.J. Stalker and Jahvoni Simmons, noteworthy prospects in high school, have yet to make a significant impact. Jordan Mack, who shined as a true freshman outside linebacker in 2016, is now getting a close look and I like the move.

For starters, Mack gives the Hoos a fast, athletic inside linebacker to go beside Kiser. Mack’s versatile skillset is intriguing. He played a variety of positions, including cornerback, in high school and entered Virginia as a safety. The fact that he was able to make a seamless transition to outside linebacker speaks to his versatility and feel for the game. His athleticism and speed will be a bonus in coverage as well as rushing the quarterback.

Further, this gives Virginia a chance to get its best four linebackers on the field. Outside linebacker Malcolm Cook received significant buzz last preseason before being sidelined due to health concerns. He’s back along with rising junior outside linebacker Chris Peace, a quality performer in 12 games as a starter last season, and of course the All-American Kiser.

If healthy, I really the speed, playmaking and potential of a Cook, Kiser, Mack and Peace linebacking corps heading into 2017.

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