99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff

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Virginia kicks off football season in fewer than 60 days.
Eli Hanback returns as the most experienced player on UVA’s defensive line. ~ Kris Wright

Several times so far during the “99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series, an entry has piggy-backed on a theme introduced by Athlon Sports. Two previous articles looked at ACC coaching rankings and potential wild card players for the upcoming season. This time around, Athlon put together a list of 50 of college football’s “most underrated” players.

A Virginia player made the Athlon list already, but that’s a good jumping off point for the latest entry in the “99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series.

No. 57 – Underrated Hoos

The Athlon Sports list acknowledged that “underrated” can have varying definitions and ultimately featured players on its list as “50 players that deserve more overall attention” going into the 2018 season. Click here to read all 50 where the article penned Bryce Hall as one of the picks.

Hall makes sense as a selection. Entering his junior season, he’s already logged 20 starts in his career. That included all 13 games a year ago. Athlon Sports named him a first-team All-ACC Freshman in 2016 when he tallied 25 tackles and two interceptions. Hall followed that up last season with 47 tackles and one interception among 10 passes defended. He’s got strong ball skills to challenge passes in the air, but also the frame and physical presence at 6’1” and 200 pounds to disrupt potential connections at the point of attack while adding support in run defense. Plus, he’s likely got his best two seasons ahead of him.

As Athlon noted, Hall likely isn’t underrated by many UVA fans but also isn’t a well known name beyond ACC opponents. Maybe that changes if the Hoos can make it to back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 2004 and 2005.

While Hall is a logical choice for Athlon’s list, the point of piggy-backing on these types of articles is to pull in some other Cavaliers that could have fit. And any time you’re talking about underrated or overlooked players, the trenches is a good place to start.

On the defensive side of the ball, Eli Hanback certainly could be considered. At 6’4” and 305 pounds, he’s hard to miss. He enters his junior season at Virginia with 24 starts over the past two seasons. The only game he didn’t start came in his first college game as a redshirt freshman against Richmond. Since then, Hanback has become a regular presence up front for the Wahoos.

This season, Hanback will be a vital piece of the puzzle for the defense. The Cavaliers lack much experience on the defensive line and there were critical depth chart concerns before a pair of transfers and incoming freshmen were scheduled to arrive. Hanback can play any of the three positions in Bronco Mendenhall’s scheme and is a solid block-eater to keep the linebackers clean to pursue. He also grew as a player last season to be able to make his own tackles as he finished with 58 stops in 2017.

It will be important for Hanback to continue his development in his upperclass years. Opposing defenses are likely going to give him more attention in the game plan and blocking schemes until some other less proven players step up to absorb some of that O-Line attention. If he moves along the curve like he has in the early part of his playing experience, then he could emerge as a player that get more attention from outside observers too.

On the offensive side, senior Jake Fieler could have been a pick for underrated from the offensive line. He’s started 15 games the past two seasons, including all 13 games a year ago. Beyond the starts, however, is where Fieler could be considered underrated. He started four games at center and nine games at right guard in 2017, but also logged some time at left guard. That versatility has played a huge role in the rebuilding overhaul of the offensive line since Mendenhall arrived.

Fieler’s versatility also provides significant options for the upcoming 2018 campaign. If the Hoos choose to start him at center, that likely bumps Dillon Reinkensmeyer over to left guard. He started twice there last season and then picked up the other nine starts at center when Fieler kicked over to guard. That domino likely would push either Chris Glaser, Ryan Nelson, or both into a reserve role to provide depth at tackle. If the 6’6”, 315-pound Fieler starts at guard like he did nine times in 2017, that brings redshirt freshman Tyler Fannin into the equation as the potential starter at center and it could create depth chart ripples for R.J. Proctor and Ben Knutson at guard.

None of those options or discussions would even be on the table without Fieler’s development over the last two seasons, though. He improved from someone who lost his starting job in his college debut against Richmond in 2016 and struggled with some pass protection techniques that season into an every-game starter with enough trust to shift around the line throughout 2017. Throw in the stats with 34 knockdown blocks last season and he’s a player that probably hasn’t gotten enough attention in his UVA career to date.

What about you? Who would you consider underrated on the roster for Virginia?

The “99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series has discussed much more. The previous articles are below. Click away.

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2 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. Kris-

    You must have read my comments on your article about the defensive line. As I said, the NT in Bronco’s defensive strategy is the key because he has always focused on stopping the run first and they key to that is taking both A gaps away from the opposition and tying up two OL (center and a guard). From there it spreads to the two DE’s who tie up guards and tackles so that the four LB’s can roam free to tackle the RB’s our cover them on pass routes. If Eli continues improving, he will be the consummate NT for Bronco’s defense.

    1. That was Chris Horne’s entry, but Hanback is likely to get a lot more attention this year both from opponents and in print I think. Virginia fans know that a good nose that can take on double teams or be disruptive at the point of attack is key in a three-man front – Chris Long thrived when he had someone along side him that let him get free in Al Groh’s 3-4 scheme. Linebackers like Jon Copper were able to diagnose and make tackles from the middle when the line could help keep the lanes clean from second-level blocks. And so on. If Hanback can continue along his development curve at a good clip, he’ll be a huge cog for the final two seasons of his eligibility.

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