With an eye towards next season, Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall orchestrated a “developmental portion” of bowl prep, focusing on first years as well as other young players in the program. December 16 marked the end of this period, and on this day Mendenhall was asked which players had stood out to him during this time.
“We’ve allowed (first year defensive back) Joey Blount to practice a lot,” Mendenhall began. “He’s done a nice job. (First year inside linebacker) Zane Zandier, he’s done a nice job. (First year defensive end) Mandy Alonso. And (redshirt freshman) De’Vante Cross. I would say those are probably the ones that have stood out the most. (First year offensive tackle) Chris Glaser, as well.”
It remains to be seen how much this extra practice time will equate to increased playing time in Virginia’s December 28 Military Bowl matchup with Navy. I certainly don’t expect to see Zandier see substantial playing time in place of Micah Kiser, for example. Still, the Military Bowl would provide plus experience for these players and others returning for next season. Here is a rundown of those young players I’ll be watching out for in Annapolis.
True freshmen defensive ends Mandy Alonso and John Kirven
Mendenhall delivered some surprising news on December 16, announcing that defensive ends Juwan Moye and Steven Wright had been suspended from the team and would be transferring out of the program.
The true sophomore Moye played in 12 games this season, starting five, while Wright, a redshirt sophomore, played in 11 games and started three. The former totaled 18 tackles (7 solo) including 1.5 tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks while the latter had two tackles for loss including one sack. Wright appeared to take a step forward with his on-field performance this season while also garnering early season praise from Mendenhall for his improvement maturity-wise off the field.
The good news is senior end Andrew Brown, sophomore nose tackle Eli Hanback, and Alonso are the projected defensive line starters against Navy. This trio has made up the starting defensive line in three of the previous four games. Brown and Hanback started every game while Alonso came on strong in the final month of the regular season. Georgia Tech was the Miami (FL) native’s first ever collegiate start. He also started against Miami and Virginia Tech, tallying 5 tackles against the Hokies.
“I think he’s comfortable now with the role that he has and the competition he is playing against,” Hanback said of Alonso. “I think just getting into the game, getting used to the speed, getting confident in himself that he is able and has the abilities to compete at this level, even being a freshman.”
Behind the starters is a pool of players with little to no depth, save for sophomore nose tackle James Trucilla, a redshirt sophomore who has played in 12 games but has produced just six total tackles in his career. Sophomore Richard Burney makes the depth chart at right end after moving from offense, where he played tight end the past two seasons. And then there is John Kirven, who has played in 10 straight games at defensive end. The former Woodberry Forest (VA) standout arrived at UVA last summer with only one full season of defensive end experience, but he has been able to work his way into playing time. Kirven is now listed as the primary backup at both end positions heading into the Military Bowl, so Thursday’s contest figures to be a significant opportunity for him. Virginia will need him to play well in what likely will be the most playing time he has seen all season.
“Their progression is huge, Kirven and Mandy,” Hanback said. “Mandy has probably gotten a little more playing time, but I think both of those guys have gotten stronger in the weight room and used to the speed of the game. You can see that in their progression throughout the year. The fact that they are so young and we have them for three more years, that’s going to be huge for our defense and our program, that we’re going to have experience for a long time to come.”
A question for me is if Glaser, who started Virginia’s final two regular season games, will play at all in the Military Bowl. The ACC is considering adopting a rule that would allow a true freshman to play as many as four games and still keep his redshirt. The rule would be retroactive for this season. Well, Glaser has played four games in total. If he plays, he has lost his redshirt. If he doesn’t play and the rule passes, the promising young tackle will have four seasons of eligibility remaining.
As the player who could potentially replace Quin Blanding as the starting free safety next year, I think we will see Blount seeing meaningful snaps. He already has the experience, having played in all 12 games and earning one start. A versatile player, Blount has seen action at safety and cornerback and has also played well on special teams.
Micah Kiser’s listed backup has played in 11 games his first year. Hardly any of that playing time has come at linebacker, however, and he only has three tackles to his credit thus far. It’ll be hard to get Kiser off the field for very long, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Zandier playing some linebacker against Navy.
Coach Mendenhall said on December 16 that Cross had practiced at quarterback during the developmental period. During his early signing day press conference, Mendenhall said Cross’ “home” position moving forward would be wide receiver; however, he added that the Pennsylvania native does provide an option at quarterback. A factor in Cross’ decision to come to Virginia was the opportunity to play quarterback. If he sees a series or two against Navy and plays well, perhaps he can earn a closer look there this spring.
Sharp, who is listed as the third “speed back” behind Daniel Hamm and Jordan Ellis, has shown some nice speed in limited carries. However, he has also fumbled twice, including a lost fumble against Virginia Tech. I do like the pop he adds to the running game … he just needs to show he can take care of the football and perhaps he can earn more playing time moving forward.
Staying at running back, I’m also interested to see if true freshmen Lamont Atkins and PK Kier see some meaningful snaps against Navy.