Virginia Football Stars & Sleepers: Defensive Stars

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Following a stellar offseason, Mandy Alonso broke the strength and conditioning rock ahead of 2021 Fall Camp. ~ Photo courtesy of Virginia Athletics

The “super senior” designation is given to those players who chose to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility given by the NCAA because of COVID-19. Virginia football’s 2021 defense includes six super seniors, boosting the experience and depth at almost every position. Coach Bronco Mendenhall made it clear, though, that the expectations for these returning players are high.

“I wanted to see them take a step forward, but I think more importantly they wanted to see themselves take a step forward,” Mendenhall said. “And with all the progress in their first four years they were part of, they didn’t like the finish last year and they didn’t like the circumstances in which it finished. So they were asked and it was presented, don’t come back unless you’re passionate about this program improving, you improving, and really mean and want to come back. It wasn’t a chance just to be a placeholder year. To their credit, they’ve worked really hard. Great experience for us coming back, and increased commitment, which is great.”

All six super seniors are expected to play significant minutes for the Cavaliers. I’ve pegged three – defensive lineman Mandy Alonso, safety Joey Blount, and cornerback Nick Grant – to be “stars” on a defense looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2020.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Mandy Alonso caught UVA Director of Football Development & Performance Shawn Griswold’s eye this offseason. His reward? Breaking the strength and conditioning rock prior to the beginning of Fall Camp.

“You talk about a dude that’s come back with a purpose, that dude’s come back with a purpose since February 8th is when we really started,” Griswold told CBS 19 in this report. “That guy has every single day has been consistent, he’s here every day, he leads, you can just tell by looking at him that dude is in good shape.”

The Miami (FL) native has been a consistently solid performer on Virginia’s defensive line throughout his career. Forty-three games played in four years, including 27 starts. Eighty-four career tackles – the total has increased each year – as well as 13.5 career tackles for loss and six career sacks.

Alonso’s highest Pro Football Focus grades came in the 2019 season, when he earned his first overall season defense grade over 70 (71.4). Alonso recorded four grades over 70 his junior season, including one over 80. The overall grade dipped to 66.8 last season, largely because Alonso scored less than 60 in each of his first four games. He rebounded in his final six outings, receiving six PFF overall defense grades of over 60, including one over 70 and another over 80 (at Miami).

Alonso’s offseason work has solidified his spot as the leader of the Cavalier defensive line in 2021. How much this will translate in terms of increased production remains to be seen, but with solid performers surrounding him such as Aaron Faumui, Adeeb Atariwa, and Jahmeer Carter, we’ll get a chance to find out.

INSIDE LINEBACKER

Nick Jackson impressed as a true freshman in 2019, becoming a valuable reserve for the Hoos before taking off in 2020, when he finished second in the ACC and sixth in the nation in tackles with 105. The 6’1”, 240-pound junior was second in the ACC last season with 5.5 solo tackles per game. At season’s end, he was only one of two Hoos named 2020 All-ACC performers, earning a Third Team nod while Charles Snowden took home Second Team honors (the Hoos also had three honorable mentions).

Nick Jackson is the lone Cavalier on the 2021 Preseason All-ACC team. ~ Photo courtesy Virginia Athletics Media Relations/Jim Daves

Virginia’s only 2021 Preseason All-ACC selection, Jackson heads into his junior season with high expectations. Despite last year’s excellent performance, the standout inside linebacker has room to grow. His overall tackling (86.6) and rush defense (77.5) grades from Pro Football Focus were impressive, but his pass rush grade was 72.2 and his coverage grade was 49.4. I look for Jackson to improve all around and to step up not just with another stellar season, but as a leader on this Virginia football team.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER

Noah Taylor averaged almost a tackle-for-loss per game, notched three sacks and seven quarterback hurries, and returned an interception 85 yards for a touchdown in a home win over Louisville in 2020. Yet, it did not seem as though the speedy 6’5”, 235-pound outside linebacker had the same on-field impact he did the previous season, when he led the team in TFLs with 13.5 but had lower per-game tackle numbers than he had in 2020.

The aggressive spark Taylor seemed to provide the UVA defense throughout 2019 seemed to be missing in 2020. Injuries certainly could have taken a toll, as Linebackers Coach Kelly Poppinga noted that the dynamic defender dealt with ailments throughout the season. Taylor also found himself more in coverage situations and less in pass rush plays. He was involved in 137 pass rushing plays and 156 coverage plays last season, compared to 203 pass rush plays and 181 coverage plays in 2019.

In 2021, Virginia will need Taylor to regain the 2019 form. Coming off a strong offseason in which he has become one of the team’s leaders, if healthy I see Taylor returning to his sophomore season self and being a big part of this Cavalier defense.

SAFETY

Joey Blount, an All-ACC Third team pick in 2019, was fantastic in UVA’s 2020 season opening win over Duke, totaling seven tackles, a tackle-for-loss, a forced fumble, a pass breakup and an interception. The 6’2”, 195-pound senior followed up with nine solo tackles and one sack against Clemson in Week 2. Blount seemed poised to perhaps turn in his best season in a Cavalier uniform.

A big-time 2020 campaign was not meant to be, however. Blount suffered an injury against Clemson and wound up missing four games in total, as well as most of the loss to Wake Forest in Week 5. He decided to return to Charlottesville for one more year, and for the first time in his career was able to have a complete offseason in the weight room. The news that he was wearing a boot early in camp is notable and somewhat concerning given his injury history. The injury does not appear serious, though.

Last Friday (August 20), Mendenhall noted the impact Blount has from his free safety spot as the quarterback of the defense.

“Great quarterbacks, everyone else is better when they’re there, because of their communication, because of their poise, because of their productivity,” Mendenhall said. “Joey, when he’s there (at free safety), the other 10 line up better, they play more confidently, and there’s a different, I would just say, swagger or confidence with the way they carry themselves.”

CORNERBACK

Super senior Nick Grant gets the nod as the “star” of this group, but I’m anxious to see what Louisville grad-transfer Anthony Johnson will do. The 6’1”, 195-pound junior has an air of confidence about him this Fall Camp, and the coaches have been impressed. He also has had good coverage grades according to Pro Football Focus. In 94 coverage snaps as a freshman, he earned a 84.2 grade from PFF. His highest coverage snap count came in 2019, when he had 294 coverage snaps and earned a 73.3 grade. I’m interested to see how he and fellow grad-transfer Josh Hayes, who is currently out with an injury but expected back by the opener, perform. Both players have just as good of an opportunity to capture starting corner jobs as the Cavalier returnees in my opinion.

Nick Grant attempts to intercept a pass from Virginia Tech quarterback Braxton Burmeister in the first half of the Virginia – Virginia Tech NCAA college football game in Blacksburg Va., Saturday December 12 2020. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP, Pool)

While Johnson could emerge, I think Grant will be a solid, steady presence as one of the starting corners. The 6’3” super senior saw his run defense and tacking grades dip from 2019 to 2020 by almost four points and 20 points, respectively, so he needs to clean up those areas, but he improved his coverage grade from 59.1 in 2019 to 63 in 2020 and his overall defense grade from 60 to 63.7. Grant, who has started 24 straight games at corner for the Hoos, seems the best bet to be a reliable, dependable corner in 2021.

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