Defensive lineman Eli Hanback may not receive the outside attention that some of Virginia football’s senior and redshirt senior players garner. There is no question, though, that the Ashland (VA) native and lifelong Cavalier fan has been an essential building block in the program’s resurgence under head coach Bronco Mendenhall.
The former BYU head coach accepted the same role at UVA in December of 2015, and Hanback, who redshirted as a true freshman in 2015, was among those players who welcomed the changes Mendenhall wanted to instill in the program. Four years later, Hanback and other senior and redshirt senior players are now labeled by Mendenhall as “pioneers” of a program that just captured the Commonwealth Cup for the first time in 15 years and Coastal Division title for the first time ever.
Mendenhall has complimented Hanback many times in his first four seasons as head coach, praising his work ethic and consistency on and off the field. Symbolic to how highly regarded Hanback is within the program, junior defensive end Mandy Alonso said defensive line coach Vic So’oto implored his players to “[beat Virginia Tech] for number 58.”
“I just try to be consistent, do my job, and give effort because Coach Mendenhall is will before skill,” Hanback answered when asked what he has tried to do in his time at UVA. “So if there is one thing we can instill in the young guys, it’s to work, to outwork the other team and everything else will come.”
Alonso describes Hanback as “like the old guy in the room. I wouldn’t say a father figure, but he’s like the old head in the D-line room. He keeps everybody concentrated. He’s more of a do-your-job type guy. When everybody’s getting riled up, he’s like, ‘Come on. Let’s do our job. Let’s get it done.’ He does it consistently.”
Hanback has been reliable (Mendenhall mentioned earlier this season that he consistently grades out the highest among all defensive players), productive, and remarkably durable in his time at his dream school. Since redshirting in 2015, Hanback has played in every single game for the Hoos, starting 46 of 50 games according to his VirginiaSports.com profile. He has also been versatile, alternating between nose tackle and defensive end throughout his time in Charlottesville.
Perhaps saving his best football for last, Hanback has turned in an excellent redshirt senior campaign. With two more games still to play he has already established career-highs in tackles for loss (8.5) and sacks (4.5). He has a career low 31 tackles; however, his ability to successfully play his role has enabled other Cavalier defensive linemen to make plays.
Hanback has flourished the latter half of this season especially, tallying 23 tackles, six tackles for loss including three sacks, and two fumble recoveries in Virginia’s last six games. UVA won five of its last six games, including all four November contests, to capture the ACC Coastal Division crown. Hanback fell on Virginia Tech quarterback Hendon Hooker’s fourth-quarter fumble for a touchdown, for all intents and purposes clinching the win over the Hokies.
“How about Eli Hanback being the final touchdown,” Mendenhall said in his postgame press conference. “There’s never been a moment where he faltered or wavered [or been] anything other than resolute. That can’t be scripted any better. I mean, there’s a movie that ought to happy about that.”
“It was awesome,” Alonso said of Hanback’s fumble recovery. Alonso was responsible for sack and forcing the Hendon Hooker fumble in the end zone. “It was just like a present for him. Like a going away party.”
Being part of the team that defeated Virginia Tech for the first time since 2015 “means the world to me,” said Hanback. “The absolute world.”
Mendenhall Moved By Players’ Postgame Gesture
Virginia football enjoyed its sweetest breaking the rock ceremony to date last Friday, when the Hoos defeated Virginia Tech for the first time in 15 years to capture the Coastal. The postgame tradition typically includes Bronco Mendenhall selecting a player or coach – defensive coordinator Nick Howell was the first coach to do the honors following UVA’s win over Duke in October – to wield the program’s sledgehammer and break the rock. Cavalier players didn’t give Mendenhall the chance to make the selection following the 2019 Commonwealth Clash. They wanted their head coach to break this rock.
Junior outside linebacker Charles Snowden handed the sledgehammer to Mendenhall, who would later call the gesture as “the ultimate compliment” in his postgame press conference. Mendenhall needed a moment to gather himself before doing the honors.
— Virginia Football (@UVAFootball) November 29, 2019
Alonso hinted postgame – and Snowden essentially said the same during a teleconference on Monday – that players discussed the idea of having Coach Mendenhall break the rock ahead of the Commonwealth Clash. They wanted to acknowledge the success Mendenhall has orchestrated in the past four seasons. Virginia has increased its win total each year, will be headed to a bowl game for the third straight season, ended “The Streak” against Virginia Tech and is headed to the ACC Championship.
“A couple of us, we were talking before the game, whoever is called out to break the rock they should let Bronco Mendenhall break it just because of his change of the program and the whole turnaround,” Alonso said. “He did this. We were the players out there, but he was the main guy who made this all happen.”
Two of the program’s “pioneers” were in full agreement with the decision.
“It was amazing,” said wide receiver Hasise Dubois said. “We wanted him to break the rock because he is the first coach in a while to beat Virginia Tech, so why not? A lot of people had good games, but that’s not what we’re worried about. Coach Mendenhall coached us through this and everything, so we wanted him to break the rock.”
“I was actually still outside when they broke the rock,” Hanback noted before adding, “but I came in and I heard Coach Mendenhall did it and there is no other person more deserving. Coach Mendenhall came in and took a not good program and turned it into this. We bought in and we believed in him, so he deserves it.”
“In that moment, it just felt so right,” Snowden said during his ACC teleconference. “He’d been our leader since day one. He’s gotten us here. Sacrificed so much for us.”
“Noah [Taylor] had a great game,” Snowden continued. “Eli had a great game. Bryce obviously had a great game. In terms of wrapping up this regular season, nobody deserved it more than Coach Mendenhall.”
All-ACC Honors Announced
In case you missed it, the 2019 All-ACC selections have been revealed. Four UVA players earned All-ACC first, second, or third-team honors, including Virginia’s Joe Reed (1st-team all-purpose, 1st-team specialist), quarterback Bryce Perkins (2nd-team), linebacker Jordan Mack (3rd-team), and safety Joey Blount (3rd-team).
Perkins was runner-up to Clemson running back Travis Etienne for ACC Player of the Year and ACC Offensive Player of the Year honors.
Six more Hoos earned All-ACC Honorable Mention honors – senior wide receiver Hasise Dubois, center Olusegun Oluwatimi, defensive end Eli Hanback, linebackers Charles Snowden and Zane Zandier, and placekicker Brian Delaney.
Of UVA’s selections, I was surprised Dubois did not make at least third team honors. He has been outstanding as a senior, establishing career-highs in receptions (55), yards (849), average yards per catch (15.4) and yards per game (70.8). He consistently made tough grabs for the Hoos. I don’t think the 6’3”, 215-pound senior was snubbed necessarily. Dubois being an honorable mention pick, though, speaks to how deep the receiver class is in the conference.
In case you’re wondering about UVA’s opponent on Saturday, the Clemson Tigers boast 16 players on the All-ACC first, second or third teams. In addition to Etienne, quarterback Trevor Lawrence, wide receiver Tee Higgins, offensive tackle Tremayne Anchrum, offensive guard John Simpson, linebacker Isaiah Simmons, cornerback A.J. Terrell and safety Tanner Muse made the first team. Offensive guard Gage Cervenka, center Sean Pollard, defensive tackle Tyler Davis and cornerback Derion Kendrick made the second team. Offensive tackle Jackson Carman, defensive end Xavier Thomas, defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney and safety K’Von Wallace earned third team honors.
Three more Tigers, including wide receivers Justyn Ross and Amari Rodgers as well as defensive end Justin Foster, earned honorable mention honors.
Quotes from UVA players following the Virginia Tech game and during Monday’s teleconference …
Alonso on how last year’s close loss to Virginia Tech helped the Hoos pull out the win this year
“It made it personal for everybody,” Alonso said. “I wanted to go out there and make the difference I couldn’t make last year.”
Dubois on how far Virginia has come in four years under Coach Mendenhall
“Honestly, I’m speechless for it,” Dubois said. “We’ve just been battling through season to season to season, from a 2-10 season to 9-3 and going to the ACC Championship. It’s just a surreal feeling.”
Starting left guard Ryan Nelson on how the Virginia offense line was able to turn things around in the second half against Virginia Tech. The Hokies forced six UVA punts from the end of the first quarter through the early part of the third.
“I don’t think they had our number, it was just the fact that, our 1/11th, we’d have one guy miss something,” Nelson said. “It eventually got to the point where we were like, we need to fix this. We fixed it and dominated.”
Nelson on the impact of the Virginia fans against Virginia Tech.
“Our fans showed out today, so it was great,” Nelson said. “And then there were times when their fans were super loud. For me being able to shut their fans was probably a greater thing.”
Hanback on the turnaround of the offensive line the latter half of the season. (Quote courtesy of the ACC)
“I think they really took that criticism hard,” Hanback said. “I think they made it a personal mission of theirs to improve in all aspects of their game. I just think they really locked in. Every day after practice, those guys are doing extra work on their fundamentals and technique. I think that showed up in the last couple weeks since then. They’re protecting Bryce at a very high level. We’re doing a very good job running the ball. I think they really just made it a focus to do more than what has been asked of them. I think that’s helped them a great deal.
Perkins, Snowden and Hanback on the challenge of playing in the ACC Championship and/or playing Clemson, which is arguably the top team in the country. (Quotes courtesy of the ACC)
“They’re great at causing havoc, getting pressure,” Perkins said of Clemson’s defense. “One way or another, they’ll blitz this side and then they’ll blitz this side. It’s always making teams uncomfortable, making quarterbacks uncomfortable in the backfield, turnovers like that. They do a great job of causing havoc. We’re going to have to come in prepared and ready for it. This week is going to be definitely important as far as game planning and film watching to make sure we’re in the best situation to handle different and various types of pressures that they bring.”
Playing against arguably the best team in the country, Hanback said, “Yeah, it’s a challenge. It’s an opportunity, a great opportunity ahead of us, a great challenge.”
Playing in the ACC Championship game is “huge to me,” Snowden said. “As a guy, I came in with only one scholarship offer at the University of Virginia. No other ACC schools thought I could play in the ACC. So now to have gone from that to being the champions of our division, to be able to play for an ACC championship, I just kind of look back and reflect, really appreciate how far I’ve come.”