When players gather around for film sessions this spring at Virginia, the defensive line room will feel spacious. Don’t mistake that with an oasis, though.
The Cavaliers will go through spring practice with just seven players listed at defensive line on the roster. Mandy Alonso and Richard Burney are slated at defensive end. Tommy Christ, John Kirven, and Isaac Buell are listed as defensive linemen. James Trucilla and Eli Hanback are listed at defensive tackle. That’s it. Kirven and Buell are out of practice right now too with injuries.
So when position coach Vic So’oto pulls up the film, there’s no hiding or hoping your clip doesn’t make the cut. No, everyone is getting an extra dose of detailed attention in there.
“We just go through the film and he works on each and every person every play,” Alonso said. “He’ll be on one person for about five minutes. It’s just a long process.”
The thin numbers on the defensive line came through attrition. While the loss of senior Andrew Brown was expected, UVA also saw rising sophomore Christian Brooks give up football for medical reasons. The Cavaliers also lost three other players from the roster when junior Juwan Moye, junior Steven Wright, and sophomore Christian Baumgardner left the program since the end of the 2017 regular season.
Kirven suffered a concussion leading up to the bowl game and has not been cleared to practice again. Buell worked out on the side at Tuesday’s session, but cannot practice in contact drills. That leaves just five bodies to rotate up front in the base 3-4 defensive sets.
Virginia’s coaching staff remains on the hunt for solutions to the depth challenges on the defensive line. Incoming freshmen include Hawaii product Aaron Faumui, Florida product Jordan Redmond, and Hawaii product Samson Reed. Ohio State graduate transfer Dylan Thompson also Tweeted his commitment to the program, but that news has yet to be officially announced by UVA.
“We lost six scholarship players at that spot so we’re right on the verge of that being at a critical nature,” UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “We need young players to come in and play. We’re still looking for grad transfers at that spot. … We have basically a player and a quarter with experience on the defensive line.”
While the coaches scour the landscape for possible transfers or other late additions, the spring workload falls to the quintet of Burney, Christ, Trucilla, Hanback, and Alonso. Outside of Hanback, who has 24 career starts, that’s a group still with a lot of room on the development curve.
Burney switched over from tight end prior to the bowl game and survived the experience, though he didn’t adapt quickly to the new role (the defense as a whole struggled that day obviously). The staff hopes the move works out best for him and the team in the long run. Trucilla has appeared in 13 games with seven total tackles, while Christ redshirted last season.
That leaves Alonso, who appeared in 11 games last season and started four times. All four of those starts came during the final five games of the season, starting with the Georgia Tech contest when he made three tackles and played well in the win that elevated the team to bowl eligibility. Alonso said he believes that experience can help him this spring because he’s been able to look back at those snaps from last season and work on mistakes.
The 6’2”, 290-pounder from Miami thought his freshman year overall went well. He had to earn his way on the field and then stepped into that starting role later in the year.
“It was just a process,” Alonso said. “I came in and I was just battling it out and just working at it. Working in the playbook, working at my technique, and once I got everything in line, everything just worked out and I got on the field.”
Getting on the field, however, isn’t the end goal for Alonso. He made 14 tackles as a true freshman, but he wants to improve on that showing. As a senior at Gulliver Prep in Miami, where he played for former UVA linebacker Earl Sims, he piled up 52 tackles with nine sacks and eight caused fumbles. Almost half of those tackles – 24 total – went for a loss.
He has high expectations for improvement this season at Virginia. He wants to build on what he did last season, get in on more plays overall, and be more productive.
“My expectation is to get better each and every snap,” Alonso said. “I expect myself to do big things this year. If I can’t, it’s going to be on me.”
Alonso feels comfortable at defensive end on the line because it’s similar to the 3-technique position he played in high school while he’s still learning at nose tackle. Regardless, he’s getting work at both positions right now, and one thing is for certain – he’s going to get plenty of chances to work on things this spring.
“We’re real thin right now,” Alonso said. “In practice, we’ve just got to muscle it through and just keep getting more and more reps. If someone drops out, someone drops out, we just keep going.”