2005 Position Outlook: The Defensive Line

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For the first time since Al Groh became Virginia’s coach, he should have the depth and size he likes on the defensive line. The Cavs may go eight deep – three nose tackles and at least five ends – which would allow new defensive line coach Lavern Belin the luxury of rotating players and keeping them fresh. They all have the requisite bulk to take on blockers, a key to the 3-4 defense, but there are questions about their experience, pass-rushing ability and durability.

Nose Tackle

1a) Ron Darden (Jr., 6-4, 327)

1b) Kwakou Robinson (Sr., 6-4, 327)

1c) Keenan Carter (So., 6-1. 324)

Keenan Carter

Ahmad Brooks was a Butkus Award finalist and Darryl Blackstock made 11 sacks, but no one had a better season on defense last year than Andrew Hoffman, according to Coach Groh. Which is why finding his replacement is among the biggest issues facing the Cavaliers right now. Hoffman wasn’t a prototypical nose tackle in terms of size, but he had the strength to hold his ground and the lateral quickness to chase down ball carriers. His development was a big reason UVa’s rushing defense improved so dramatically over the course of his career.

Lack of size isn’t an issue for any of his potential replacements. Darden, Robinson and Carter weigh nearly half a ton all together. If anything, they have a history of being a little too big. Robinson still appears to be a bit heavier than he ought to be, while Carter and Darden are in relatively good shape. Regardless, they’re all massive young men. They certainly look like nose tackles. Whether they can do the job remains to be seen since all are unproven and have different obstacles to overcome.

Ron Darden

For Darden, the problem is in his head – literally. Severe headaches forced him to leave the team last season and nearly caused him to drop out of school. He says he tried 20-30 medications and a variety of treatments and diets with little success. Finally, he managed to reduce the frequency and severity of the headaches with relaxation techniques that lowered his heart rate. “I willed it away,” he said. Groh says Darden has “come on like gangbusters” in the summer and has been working with the first unit during most of training camp, though he hasn’t been given the orange jersey of a surefire starter. A converted guard, Darden has not played defense since high school, but he seems like a natural at nose tackle. The question is whether he can stay healthy. He admits that he still suffers headaches, a condition that will be monitored closely, but he has the potential to be a mountain in the middle. “Regardless of whatever else was going on with Ron’s game,” Groh said, “he doesn’t go backwards.”

Kwakou Robinson

Robinson hasn’t made much forward progress during a career that once held so much promise. One of the prize recruits in the heralded 2002 class, he struggled to make the transition from prep school stud to college standout. Though he is gregarious and bright, he hasn’t demonstrated the technique or work habits to excel at this level. Nor does he have much of a mean streak. The result has been a mediocre career that includes just 81 tackles in 36 games. He’s played exclusively at defensive end, where his lack of mobility and explosiveness have hampered him. Nose tackle may end up being a better fit for his set of skills. “Kwake” is still a big, strong dude, and there’s reason to believe his senior season will be his best.

While the other two are playing the position for the first time, Carter is a natural-born nose tackle. He’s built like a bowling ball. Too roly-poly at times, he seems to have his weight under control. Groh says Carter is closer to 300 pounds after maxing out at around 380 while at Fork Union Military Academy a few years ago. After redshirting in 2003, he saw limited action behind Hoffman last season but averaged a tackle every 7.06 plays, the second-best rate on the team. He broke his left hand last week and has missed several practices, though Groh says “he’ll be back here shortly.”

Defensive End

1) Brennan Schmidt (Sr., 6-3, 269)

1) Chris Long (So., 6-4, 265)

2) Vince Redd (So., 6-6, 265)

2) Allen Billyk (So., 6-4, 267)

3) Chris Johnson (So., 6-3, 265)

3) Jeffrey Fitzgerald (Fr., 6-3, 245)

Brennan Schmidt

First, I better point out that these are the “official” weights listed for each player in the media guide. Thankfully, they’re way off. Schmidt is up to 290 pounds. Long is about 285, Redd is 290 and Johnson is around 280. Billyk and Fitzgerald also are bigger than their listed weights, thanks to a summer of training tables and Evan Marcus workouts.

Schmidt has done well as an undersized but tenacious end, starting every game in his career (39) and recording 224 tackles. Still, he’s been pushed around at times by opposing tackles, who often have outweighed him by 40 pounds or more. He also had to play through several injuries last season, limiting his productiveness. But Schmidt may be ready for a big senior season. He underwent successful surgeries on his left shoulder and right thumb, and managed to put on 20 pounds in what he calls “a new growth spurt.” He says he feels great with the extra weight and is ready to take on those big tackles, a must in UVa’s scheme since the ends line up directly across from the tackles in the base defense.

Chris Long

Long also looks ready to take on the world following a sensational spring that included three sacks in the spring game. Slowed by mononucleosis as a true freshman, Howie’s son has a Howie-like physique and a similar work ethic and drive. Everyone is anointing Long a star of the future, but it’s important to temper that optimism with a few facts. Long is just two years removed from throwing around 170-pound linemen in a small private school league, and he has just five career tackles in college. In other words, he still has a lot to learn and a lot to prove. Groh may have been making that point last Saturday when he took away Long’s orange jersey for a practice.

Vince Redd

Like Long, Redd, Billyk and Johnson all ought to be able to make some sort of impact as sophomores. Johnson started the last four games in 2004, but he fell back with a subpar spring and some academic issues (since resolved). Groh says Johnson has progressed nicely during training camp, but he’ll have to earn his spot on the two-deep. Billyk, solid and steady, is a strong candidate for playing time. After outgrowing the outside linebacker position, Redd also has shown plenty of potential as an end during training camp. His technique is raw – I’ve seen him fall down frequently during pass-rush drills – but he looks a lot like Chris Canty on the field, and that’s a good thing.

The Last Word

Allen Billyk

There are reasons to be excited about Virginia’s defensive line, but also reasons to be nervous. Five of the top eight linemen are sophomores. Schmidt is the only proven playmaker. Darden’s headaches are cause for concern. So is the durability of Robinson and Carter.

The Cavaliers should be solid up front against the run, as they were last year. If the linemen don’t rack up tackles themselves, they should at least be able to tie up blockers and free Ahmad Brooks and Kai Parham to make plays. This will only be a dominant unit, however, if a few linemen prove they can get into the backfield and rush the passer. Long is the most likely to fill that role, but the line may be a year or two away from being something special.

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