As Memorial Day weekend continues at the unofficial start to summer, Virginia football season creeps closer. In fact, I put up the Countdown Clock on TheSabre.com football message board Friday because kickoff for UVA is now only 97 days away!
With that in mind, we started a series on the site Friday that we’re calling “99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff.” It’s not a list really. The goal is to provide a daily football update from now until kickoff to hopefully drive interest and message board conversation. The first entry looked at the importance level of a fast start to the season. Read it here. The second looked at how early-ending careers are having an impact on the roster. Read it here.
For round three, I wanted to take a look at one of the leading returning players for the Hoos this season.
No. 97 – Are We Taking Jordan Mack For Granted?
Throughout spring practice, I don’t remember much being asked about junior linebacker Jordan Mack even though he’s the team’s leading returning tackler (by a mile) and likely the top candidate to lead the Hoos in tackles this season. In some ways, that’s understandable. With limited media access and time, it’s important to figure out information about emerging players, potential changes at positions, evolving concepts, and, of course, the new quarterback.
Still, are we taking Mack and his importance for this year’s team for granted?
Mack piled up 114 tackles last season, which trailed only long-time stalwarts Micah Kiser and Quin Blanding. Kiser posted 145 tackles in leading the ACC again, while Blanding added 137. So even with those stat-gobblers sharing the defensive field, Mack still cracked 100 stops. He’s the only player to do that during Kiser’s three-year stranglehold on the ACC and Blanding’s four-year run to become the program’s all-time leader in tackles. Anthony Harris, now an NFL safety, is the only other player to surpass 100 tackles playing with Blanding and that was before Kiser also joined the defensive regulars.
Mack made 38 solo stops last season, just 12 fewer than Kiser’s 50. Interestingly, due to getting on the field as a defensive regular as a true freshman, Mack has more tackles through two seasons than Kiser did. Kiser posted 132 tackles in his first two seasons, while Mack finished at 154. The two compare quite favorably as sophomores. Kiser made 117 tackles, 64 of the solo variety, in his second year while Mack made 114, 38 of the solo variety.
Last spring and last summer, a lot of conversation focused on Mack. That’s because he was making the move from skinny true freshman outside linebacker to a beefed up inside linebacker. The intrigue focused on how that transition would go, if Mack would be productive, and how the one-two punch with Kiser would look. It turned out well. Both cracked the 100-tackle line and helped the Hoos make it back to a bowl game. UVA was the only Power 5 team to have a trio with 100+ tackles.
While an outside-inside move isn’t there to spark conversation this offseason, Mack’s role this season may be even more interesting and even more important too. This is the first time in three years that Kiser and Blanding won’t be on the field and that goes beyond the tackle numbers. They helped organize the defense. They helped make changes. They had enough experience to be used in multiple ways.
As far as the linebackers go, Mack – and Chris Peace – now must step further into that world. Mack will anchor the middle of the defense where he’ll likely be flanked by either Malcolm Cook, who got a look at the outside-inside move this spring that Mack made previously, or Rob Snyder, who is making a comeback from an injury that forced him to miss last season. He’s the one that will be making adjustments and relaying changes in there.
Beyond that, there’s the question of productivity. After making 114 tackles last season, you can bet that opposing defensive coordinators will be focused on Mack and how to potentially block or scheme him away from the point of attack. That’s especially true without Kiser, his partner on the interior last season. If teams want to try to wear Virginia down up front due to defensive line depth and then focus on releasing an offensive lineman up to the next level to pick off Mack, are there others in that front seven that can step up? Certainly, Peace should be productive. He’s the second-leading returning tackler with 68 stops a year ago. After that, however, someone up front needs to help Mack if he’s inheriting the type of role it looks like he is in line for this season.
All of which brings the discussion back to the beginning – are we taking Mack’s importance for granted? We know he’s going to be asked to make a lot of tackles in Mendenhall’s schemes. We know he’s likely to move around and not purely be right in the middle for every snap. We know he’ll be asked to make some calls and adjustments in the middle of the defense. What we don’t know is how all that will look without Kiser and Blanding on the field for Virginia.
Mack’s shown that he has the ability to step into a new role quickly and excel. He became the first true freshman at UVA to start a season opener at linebacker since Ahmad Brooks in 2003. He eventually started nine games that season and made some big plays, the most notable being the sack that knocked the ball free and led to a touchdown at Duke in 2016. That game broke UVA’s road losing streak.
Then last season, he showed he can take on a heavier workload and came through in big moments again. In ACC wins against Duke, UNC, and Georgia Tech that pushed the Cavaliers over the bowl line, he tallied 10, 9, and 13 tackles respectively. He also forced a fumble that led to a safety against the Jackets. While the team didn’t come out on top, Mack had 22 combined tackles against Virginia Tech and Navy too.
This season, Mack may need to take the next step up the development ladder as a defensive leader and go-to tackler. If that happens, it will be one piece of the puzzle toward the team’s hopes of bowl eligibility again.