Virginia Football Stars & Sleepers: Defensive Sleepers

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Safety Antonio Clary, pictured here speaking with Wide Receivers Coach Marques Hagans, is one of my defensive “sleeper” picks for Virginia football in 2021. ~ Photo courtesy of Virginia Athletics Media Relations

Last week, I examined the potential “Offensive Sleepers” on Virginia football’s 2021 team. Today’s “sleeper” focus is a defensive unit that is counting on Super Seniors and grad-transfers to bounce back from a subpar 2020 campaign. While experienced players will be at the forefront of the defensive line and in the defensive backfield, there still is room for “sleepers” to emerge with standout performances.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Virginia football was dealt several significant blows on the defensive line over in 2020, and by season’s end the depth at the position was thin. Projected starter Aaron Faumui, who enjoyed a breakout season in 2019, opted out because of COVID-19. Another starting defensive end, Richard Burney, had his final season as a Cavalier cut short due to a medical condition. Starting nose Jowon Briggs left the program during the season last November. As was the case last year, Virginia appears solid depth-wise heading into 2021.

Seniors Mandy Alonso and Adeeb Atariwa, Faumui, and sophomore nose Jahmeer Carter give the Hoos a nice 4-man rotation. What will be interesting to watch is who will emerge to provide depth behind these four players. My “sleeper” pick in this regard is a player who received a taste of major college football as a true freshman last season, sophomore Nusi Malani.

The 6’6”, 275-pound Malani played in seven games in 2020, finishing with three tackles. He missed the final two games of the season because of injury suffered in the Abilene Christian game. Prior to that game he was starting to see his workload increase, and in his final full game of the year – Louisville – he played the most snaps (25) of his young career. Malani performed well in the increased role, scoring his highest overall defense grade (65.2), rush defense grade (67.6) and tackle grade (72.8) of the season (all grades per Pro Football Focus).

Malani dealt with injuries in high school and then toward the end of last year, but if healthy, he brings size, energy, and has a high motor.

INSIDE LINEBACKER

The term “sleeper” is probably not the correct label for redshirt sophomore Hunter Stewart. After all, this will be the Alexandria (VA) native’s third year in the program, and last season he played in all 10 games (mostly special teams). Put it this way … most fans should know who Stewart is, as he has been considered one of the prime contenders to start beside Jackson since the spring.

By all accounts, Stewart is well on his way to take that starting role when the Hoos take on William & Mary in the 2021 season opener. A heralded recruit out of WCAC program Gonzaga (D.C.), Stewart has good speed and athleticism. He has trained at both inside and outside linebacker since arriving at UVA, but I like how his physical skills translate to the inside and believe he could be a good fit alongside Jackson. The opportunity is here for the redshirt sophomore to have a major impact on the Cavalier defense, so let’s see if he’s ready for it.

Some other inside linebackers I’m eyeing include …

– Redshirt freshman Sam Brady. Brady has all the physical tools and has a year in the program under his belt. Brady could be considered a “sleeper” at either linebacker position in my opinion. It will be interesting to see where the staff settles on him position-wise.

– I’ve been on the West Weeks bandwagon since he committed to UVA last year. He is working closely with Nick Jackson this preseason camp, and Linebackers Coach Kelly Poppinga noted how the talented true freshman graded out extremely well the first day of camp, which is certainly a good sign if he is called upon to play. My gut says he will play special teams primarily and learn from Jackson while developing his size and strength (similar to the role Zane Zandier played his first year, when he was backup to Micah Kiser).

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER

Like Hunter Stewart, the opportunity has arrived for senior Elliott Brown to make his mark on the Virginia defense. And like Stewart, Coach Mendenhall stated last week that Brown has the inside track to start at outside linebacker opposite Noah Taylor. Brown has great size at 6’5”, 240 pounds, and solid speed and athleticism. The coaches are training him at inside linebacker too, so Brown seems in line to be a significant part of the linebacker rotation in some form. What his upside is and can he hold off younger players are some questions I have as we head into the season.

Coach Poppinga rattled off a long list of names who appear to be in the mix at outside linebacker spot. Surprisingly, neither redshirt sophomore D’Sean Perry nor redshirt freshman Jonathan Horton were named, although both players have impressive size and physical and athletic traits. One of those two players would have been my sleeper picks for 2021. I think the best-case scenario is for Brown, redshirt junior TC Harrison, or Perry or Horton to emerge at outside linebacker, allowing the newcomers more time to develop physically. Newcomers are making headway, though, including Mike Green, James Jackson and Josh McCarron.

So who exactly is the “sleeper” here at outside linebacker? Of the first-year players, Mike Green seems the most impressive from a physical, strength standpoint. He looks the part of a major college player right now. I love his athleticism and versatility, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him emerge, but my sleeper pick right now is James Jackson. Jackson, who enrolled on Grounds this past February, showed flashes this past spring and was mentioned by Poppinga as being in the linebacker rotation already. He could be a hybrid linebacker/safety in the mold of Chris Moore, so it will be interesting to see how he is used specifically, but I think the spring football experience and extra time in the weight room could help him make an immediate impact.

SAFETY

Antonio Clary played as a true freshman in 2019 but missed the latter part of the year with a knee injury. He played significant snaps – 277, according to Pro Football Focus – in eight games in 2020. The 6’0”, 200-pound junior graded out well in terms of tackling (81.1) and rush defense (77.2), but didn’t grade so well in coverage, finishing with a 53.7 mark.

Clary has continued to impress with his physicality, earning a “ball hawk” description from starting senior safety Joey Blount. Both Blount and new Safeties Coach Shane Hunter praised the Florida native’s physical brand of football. Pass defense is an area he needs to improve, but being another year removed from the knee injury is significant, and Coach Hunter noted how Clary has worked hard to improve his drops. If the pass defense improves, Clary could surprise with a standout 2021 performance.

Senior Coen King, who last season showed improvement over the course of what was his first year of significant playing time on defense, and young players Donovan Johnson (redshirt freshman), Langston Long (true freshman) and Jonas Sanker (true freshman) are ones I’m keeping an eye on as well. The 6’2”, 215-pound Long was recruited as a linebacker but has been moved to safety, providing more size at the position, while Sanker has impressed the coaches with his athleticism and play in camp.

CORNERBACK

The primary competitors for the two starting cornerback spots are returning Cavalier seniors Nick Grant and Darrius Bratton, as well as graduate transfers Anthony Johnson and Josh Hayes. Johnson has been a great fit so far in terms of his personality and play, while Bratton seems to be returning to the form he showed prior to a torn ACL suffered in Fall Camp 2019. Either one of these players could be primed to break out.

In terms of potential sleepers, with the upperclassmen depth that could be in place it could be a challenge for some up-and-coming players to emerge. However, I did take notice of redshirt freshman Dave Herard making a pair of interceptions on one of the preseason camp highlight videos put out by Virginia Football.

Herard is a 6’0”, 195-pound redshirt freshman out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. A multisport standout in high school, he suffered a knee injury during his senior basketball season. Not surprisingly, he redshirted his first year at UVA, but he should be at or near 100% health heading into this season. Quarterback was among the positions he played in high school. A gifted athlete, he starred as a football player and on the basketball court.

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