For the first time in three seasons, the Virginia football team will have a new leading tackler this fall. That’s because senior linebacker Micah Kiser finished his career No. 5 all-time at UVA with 411 tackles, while leading the ACC each of the last three seasons in stops.
With that in mind, part of Virginia’s spring practice time has been used to recreate the linebacker corps without Kiser in the fold. The Cavaliers do return two of the team’s four leading tacklers in the linebacker group with Jordan Mack (114 stops) and Chris Peace (68 stops) available on the inside and outside of the 3-4 base scheme. Peace, however, has missed spring practice with a hamstring injury.
The biggest move of the spring shifted Malcolm Cook, a sixth-year senior after missing 2016 with a heart condition, from the outside to the inside. Cook appeared in nine games last season, missing the Boise State, Duke, UNC, and Boston College games due to injury. He ended up with 46 tackles and two sacks.
UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said evaluations are ongoing to figure out the best way to shape the defense so the Cook move may or may not be permanent. (Fans discussed Cook’s move in this message board thread earlier in the spring.)
”We’re still deciding if we like it,” Mendenhall said. ”Each new season, we try to find the best 11 players and the best combination of the best 11 that can be out there. It looked like to us going into spring that could get our best 11 players on the field at the same time. We’re still assessing it.”
While Cook is a familiar face on the inside, Virginia has a couple of young players working there as well. Sophomore Zane Zandier is one candidate there after appearing in 12 of 13 games last season as a true freshman, mostly on special teams. He played receiver and defensive back at Thomas Jefferson High School in Pennsylvania, but Mendenhall believes the move to inside linebacker is a good spot for him.
“Progressing. The move to inside backer has been slower and more methodical than he would have liked and that we would have liked. However, it is a good spot for him and he is progressing and developing,” Mendenhall said.
Another player trying to carve out a role on the interior is Rob Snyder, who missed last season with a torn pectoral muscle. The redshirt sophomore played linebacker and tight end at Collins High School in Georgia where he earned all-state honors as a senior with 154 tackles. Upperclassmen Dominic Sheppard, Mikey McDonald, Reed Kellam, and C.J. Stalker are listed on the roster at the inside linebacker position as well.
On the outside, Peace’s absence this spring has opened up an opportunity for sophomore Matt Gahm. He has picked up some first team reps on defense after playing in seven games last season as a true freshman, mostly on special teams. Gahm earned honorable mention all-state recognition at Highland Park High School in Texas after making 109 tackles as a senior.
“Matt is an effort player that is really disciplined,” Mendenhall said. “He’s diligent. He’s disciplined and he’s trust-worthy and he does exactly what you ask at the speed you ask him to do it. That’s earned trust with us over time because of that.”
While Zandier and Gahm are bidding for bigger roles than their first fall, another member of that true freshman class is trying to build on his opportunity from last season. Charles Snowden appeared in 10 of 13 games last season and made 13 tackles. That included a pair of attention-getting plays against Duke and North Carolina. Against the Blue Devils, he made a key third down sack late in the game and against UNC, he teamed up with Elliott Brown for a tackle for loss at another key moment.
Snowden, a rangy 6’7” backer, is versatile enough to play at either outside spot depending on how the defensive personnel shakes out.
“There’s as much potential as length,” Mendenhall said. “He has range. He proved to be able to make critical plays when he had opportunities a year ago. That’s intrigued us to give him an opportunity. He could be at the SAM spot or the WILL spot based on what the best 11 look like. We like him in terms of discipline, responsibility, and ability as well.”
Other players include the aforementioned Brown, Gladimir Paul, Colin Dixon, Dre Bryant, and Chris Moore in the hybrid role he played last season. True freshman Noah Taylor, a January enrollee, is listed at linebacker as well but he has gotten some work in the secondary this spring. Taylor is listed at at 6’5” and 200 pounds on the roster.
“He’s capable of developing into a quality outside linebacker,” Mendenhall said. “Right now his knowledge of the game and his ability to run and change direction and make plays allows us to consider him in the secondary until then. That’s been a bright spot.”
Bryce Perkins Still Leads QB Race
When Virginia began spring practice in late March, newly enrolled transfer Bryce Perkins opened as the starter due to his experience at Arizona Western Community College and his work during winter conditioning with the Cavaliers. Perkins came to UVA after leading the Matadors to the 2017 NJCAA Championship Game in a season where he passed for 1,311 yards and seven touchdowns. He also rushed for 353 yards and four touchdowns.
Mendenhall and his coaching staff want to move the offense toward quarterbacks with more mobility and Perkins is a natural fit there. The staff also wants an offense where the quarterback can be a threat to run or pass, sometimes on the same play with run-pass options (RPOs). All of those concepts are in the works this month at UVA.
With that in mind, it’s not too surprising to hear that Perkins remains the leader in the competition to be the starter in the fall. The Hoos are past the halfway point of spring drills and practice wraps up on Saturday, April 28.
“I’ll give the same answer as going into the spring. We have a junior college player that’s come in at quarterback. His name is Bryce Perkins. Bryce currently is our starting quarterback,” Mendenhall said during Thursday’s ACC teleconference. “We have competition for the number two and three spots between Brennan Armstrong who is a true first year player and Lindell Stone who is coming into his second year. Depth is being established at that position. I like the direction we’re going. And so if we were to say today, it would be Bryce. But, again, we still have an entire week of spring practice, an entire summer and fall camp. Then we get to game week. But as of today, that’s who it is.”
One thing Virginia likes about Perkins is his ability to make potentially bad plays into good ones or good plays into great ones thanks to top shelf athleticism. At 6’3” and 215 pounds, he’s shown both a big burst through openings and straight-line speed in spring practices. He has the ability to uncork some laser throws as well. Plus, Perkins has some escapability when things break down around him.
Of course, offensive line coach Garett Tujague doesn’t want his unit thinking that means good enough is good enough and that Perkins can just erase any mistakes they make.
“That’s a terrible mindset,” Tujague said. “We have a job. It comes in this type of football of beating that one-on-one block or that two-on-two block. So if you win, there’s 9% of the 11 guys that won. If we get another guy to do that, we’re at 18%. The more guys we get to win that one-on-one battle, the greater percentage for success. We all have to do our job. There should never be a mindset of ‘oh he’ll fix it’.”
- Virginia junior Richard Burney moved from tight end to defensive end ahead of the Military Bowl last season and he’s remained there this spring. The Cavaliers have thin numbers on the defensive line and Mendenhall said earlier in spring practice that Burney has made as much progress as anyone this spring and “exceeded expectations” so far.
- The NCAA’s Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved several rules changes that had been proposed by the NCAA Football Rules Committee. One big change is on kickoffs where any fair catch called between the goal line and 25-yard line will be treated as a touchback that moves the ball to the 25-yard line (just like touchbacks in the end zone).
The idea is to reduce sky kick strategies and high-risk collisions with an eye on player safety. More rules information can be read at this link.Mendenhall said he likes the intent to improve player safety, but isn’t certain that the rule will help. As for the strategy side of the equation, the coaches are exploring how the rule change might impact UVA and talented returner Joe Reed, who had two kickoff returns for touchdown last season.
“We’re still in the exploring, researching, and innovation stage of how might it effect us, what strategies might be employed to keep the ball away from our returner like we have, and how the rule change might effect us,” Mendenhall said. “I would say we’re still in the fact-finding and discovery phase with a solution pending. I’m sure that will come and it will be clear. But I don’t have an exact answer yet.”
- Mendenhall said the program is testing strength numbers more frequently and that “there is growth, progress, and strength gains that are happening at a level that haven’t happened in my first two years here, just through emphasis.” UVA hired Shawn Griswold as its new Director of Football Development and Performance this offseason.