Versatility is “everything” to University of Virginia football Co-Defensive Coordinator/Outside Linebackers Coach Kelly Poppinga when evaluating linebacker prospects.
“If the prospect’s not versatile, I don’t recruit ‘em,” Poppinga said during a videoconference interview with media this week. “They have to be able to show on film the same things that we’re going to do with them in our scheme. Versatility to me is this – you look at Noah Taylor, for example. The guy can cover a guy man to man – that’s not just a tight end but also a receiver. The guy can drop into a half and play what a DB plays. He can rush off the edge. He can be our best pass rusher off the edge. He can set the edge as a 5 technique, which is basically a defensive end. That’s basically three positions right there. He’s being able to play a defensive end, a linebacker, and a safety. That’s the versatility that we’re looking at at that SAM backer position.
“The Will backer position, which Charles (Snowden) is becoming more of that, those guys have got to be a dominant edge rusher and they’ve got to be able to drop into space and make plays in space, which Charles has done at a high level over the past two seasons,” Poppinga continued. “It’s the combination of both – not just being a great edge rusher and being able to play in the box, but you’ve got to be able to get out in space, drop into coverage, and be versatile and be able to move and make plays in space. In the game of college football, that’s where the game is being played right now. It’s not being played in this box anymore. It’s played in this big space and, man, sometimes it’s one-on-one with a really great athlete and those guys have to break down and make tackles. I think we have eight, nine, 10 guys that are like that right now.”
Poppinga is speaking specifically about the outside linebacker position, which may be the deepest position on the team in 2020. Snowden, a rising senior, and Taylor, a rising junior, are the returning starters. Rising senior Matt Gahm a vital part of the rotation as well. The trio accounted for 30 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks, 11 pass breakups and three interceptions last season.
Rising sophomore Jairus Satiu and redshirt freshmen D’Sean Perry and Hunter Stewart are the “next guys in line,” Poppinga said. “They’ve all done a great job this offseason.”
Additionally, “I think we have a great class coming in,” Poppinga said. “Jonathan Horton will be a guy that everybody will love. Great personality. And Brandon Williams – smart, tough, physical guy as well. I think the future looks bright. Really bright. I think we have some really good committed guys right now as well that obviously I can’t talk about.”
Virginia has four linebacker commitments in the class of 2021. All four exhibit the versatility Poppinga mentioned. State of Washington 4-star Josh McCarron played defensive end, outside linebacker, wide receiver, tight end and H-back his junior season, when he racked up 30 tackles for loss and 21 sacks. The 6’4”, 215-pound rising senior played mostly around the line of scrimmage last season, but he relishes the opportunity to play outside linebacker at UVA and display more of his skillset.
“They have me at outside linebacker currently,” McCarron said. “I’ve done a ton of chalk-talk with K-Popp and the whole defensive staff. Our defensive coordinator played at UW and he is super aggressive. I think I can help build something special at Virginia. They get after the quarterback, but I will also get to play in space, which is something I want to do.”
Lafayette (Williamsburg, VA) standout Michael Green fits UVA’s outside linebacker mold perfectly. The 6’4”, 210-pound rising senior primarily plays wide receiver and linebacker for the Rams, but he showcases an ability to make plays all over the field. Noah Taylor popped to mind when watching highlights of Green. It’s hard to match Taylor’s length and speed. Green does possess good size and speed, though, and like Taylor seems to have a knack for making plays, whether that’s on defense or special teams.
Christ School (Arden, N.C.) standout Langston Long plays a lot of safety and receiver based on his highlights, but he is being recruited to play linebacker by Virginia. The 6’3”, 215-pound prospect could be a bigger version of Chris Moore, who alternated between safety and linebacker for the Hoos. Given the role he has played in high school, Long will be used to playing in space when he arrives on Grounds.
West Weeks, a 6’2”, 215-pound standout out of Oconee County (Watkinsville, GA), is being recruited as an inside linebacker but has plenty of versatility in his own right. Weeks saw time at quarterback, wide receiver, safety and linebacker his junior season.
Coach Poppinga is bullish on the program’s ability to continue to land top players with the versatility he covets as recruits see the success past players have had and current players are having. Plus, the ability to showcase many talents is likely attractive to many prospects.
“I think the position, and the reason why we’ve been able to recruit well, is because the guys have had success, starting with Chris Peace,” Poppinga said. “They see the success of Charles and the success of Noah, and guys want to be a part of that. As guys continue to have success I think we’ll just continue to get a caliber of player that will help us continue to do better and better each year.”
“The More You Can Do, The More Valuable You Are”
When evaluating Virginia football’s class of 2021, versatility is a common theme among many of the 13 commitments.
In addition to the linebackers mentioned above, Jacob Rodriguez and Jay Woolfolk are prime examples. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall offered Rodriguez and Woolfolk as dual-threat quarterbacks. Rodriguez, though, received interest from some schools as a linebacker. Woolfolk, a star on the baseball diamond and the gridiron, has the skillset and physical mindset to play in the defensive backfield. As quarterbacks, they can both make plays through the air and on the ground.
Malachi Fields, a 6’4”, 200-pound “athlete” prospect out of Monticello High School (Charlottesville, VA), likely will begin his Cavalier career as a wide receiver, but the high school quarterback’s frame and athleticism translates well to numerous positions in college. Georgia lineman Hugh Laughlin was offered by UVA as a defensive lineman. He was recruited by many schools to play offense.
“We have a saying here, ‘The more you can do, the more you can do, and the more you can do, the more valuable you are,’” Mendenhall said while discussing Noah Taylor’s role and ability to perform multiple duties. This sentiment also applies to prospects being able to play multiple positions on the college level.