Virginia football recruiting made a significant leap in 2019. Following the 2018 Belk Bowl, though, head coach Bronco Mendenhall revealed his most significant pickup to date, announcing that 2018 All-ACC First-Team cornerback Bryce Hall had decided to return for his senior season.
Hall had been projected by some as an early round pick in the upcoming 2018 NFL Draft. Coach Mendenhall shared the news following Virginia’s decisive bowl victory over South Carolina last Saturday.
“Bryce is coming back,” Mendenhall said. “Right after our Virginia Tech game, I think it was the following Monday morning, Bryce and I met with Pat Hickman, who is our NFL liason. We submitted his paperwork to get as much feedback as possible. Bryce chose to stay. He’s not satisfied yet with where the team is and he’s not satisfied with where his own performance is and he’s trusting us to help him.”
“I’m very fortunate that he’s coming back,” Mendenhall continued. “I think he’s an exceptional player and exceptional person. He viewed and made the decision very maturely. Listened to all the feedback, and I’m just really proud of him.”
After playing in 12 games as a true freshman in 2016, Hall has started all 26 games during his sophomore and junior campaigns. The Harrisburg (PA) native established career-highs in pass breakups (23 compared to 10 his sophomore season) and tackles (62, including a career-high 39 solo efforts) his junior year, earning significant accolades and creating NFL Draft buzz as a result.
Addressing his decision with media following the Belk Bowl, Hall mentioned wanting to improve physical aspects of his game such as lateral movement and footspeed. More importantly, he wants to play a larger role in helping this Virginia program grow. The Cavaliers finished 2018 with an 8-5 record and recorded its first bowl victory since 2005.
“I think the biggest thing for me is being a leader [in 2019], being more vocal, and bringing everybody along with the vision and trying to help as many people as I can,” said Hall, who credited departing seniors such as Juan Thornhill and Chris Peace with doing the same for him.
Hall’s return bolsters a 2019 Virginia defense that will have to replace 2018 All-ACC First-Team safety Juan Thornhill, 2018 All-ACC outside linebacker Chris Peace, and starting cornerback Tim Harris, who closed out his Cavalier career with interceptions in each of his final two games. Those three players are significant losses; however, those projected to return give reason for the Cavaliers to be confident about next year’s unit.
The Cavaliers will have to find depth in the defensive backfield but are now expected to return two cornerbacks with starting experience next season in Hall and Darrius Bratton. Bratton received five starts as a sophomore this season before giving way to Harris in the starting lineup. Joey Blount (65 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions in 2018) and 2017 ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year Brenton Nelson give the Hoos substantial starting experience and playmaking at safety. Assuming junior Chris Moore, who missed the entire 2018 season, returns, the safety position will be strong at the top to start 2019.
Peace’s departure will have to be addressed, although sophomore linebacker Matt Gahm (9 tackles, 2 quarterback hurries, 1.5 sacks) has shown some promise and sophomore Elliott Brown received some quality experience in the latter part of this season. Sophomore Charles Snowden enjoyed a breakout year at outside linebacker, and the trio of Jordan Mack, Zane Zandier and Rob Snyder give the Hoos an outstanding returning inside linebacker corps.
Virginia struggled with depth on the defensive line all season, although having to throw true freshmen Aaron Faumui (12 games played) and Jordan Redmond (8 games played) into the fire will only help when next year rolls around. The steady Eli Hanback, promising sophomore defensive end Mandy Alonso, redshirt freshman Tommy Christ, who upped his game toward the latter part of this season, are all expected to return on the defensive line. Junior Richard Burney, who began the year as a starter but missed most of the season with an illness, may return as well but is questionable because of his health. Virginia also adds a pair of talented defensive linemen – 2019 Under Armour All-American Jowon Briggs and Chesapeake (VA) standout Ben Smiley III – to the mix.