99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff

Virginia kicks off in fewer than 20 days.
Eli Hanback preps for practice at Lambeth Field. ~ Kris Wright

When Bronco Mendenhall took over the Virginia football program ahead of the 2016 season, he brought with him a 3-4 defensive scheme that sometimes morphs into other substitution looks. Make no mistake, if you’re playing with a three-man front frequently, you better have someone to anchor that line from the middle.

Mendenhall made that clear during his first spring practices back in 2016.

“When you have a 3-4 defense, the nose tackle is, if not the Most Valuable Player, certainly one of the most valuable players on your entire team,” Mendenhall said

At the time, Mendenhall noted that senior Donte Wilkins was in the program and “hungry for an opportunity” after playing in a reserve role in prior seasons. Wilkins rose to the task and put together a solid senior year, a good enough campaign in fact that one of last season’s big preseason questions surrounded finding his replacement. The Hoos did that and then some.

The “99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series continues.

No. 20 – Eli’s Gold

Richmond native Eli Hanback has said many times in interviews that once UVA offered him a scholarship, committing to the program wasn’t a difficult decision. Hanback grew up a Cavalier fan and routinely came to games at Scott Stadium. Becoming a Hoo himself became a “dream come true” deal for him.

When Hanback first committed to Mike London’s program, his eventual slot wasn’t always clear. Virginia evaluated him as a potential lineman on either side of the ball with him in the 2015 recruiting class. He redshirted that first fall as expected to further grow into his frame.

Once the new coaching staff took over in December of that year, his spot on the defensive line solidified. He caught Mendenhall’s attention in the first several days of those first spring practices, though the new head coach joked at the time that he didn’t even know Hanback’s name during those first impressions. Hanback started 11 of 12 games in 2016 and recorded 36 tackles at defensive end alongside the aforementioned Wilkins.

When Wilkins finished his career, the Cavalier coaches did not immediately turn to Hanback to fill the role, though. In fact, Hanback said last fall that he didn’t take any nose tackle snaps in the spring of 2017. Once the coaching staff further evaluated their first season at UVA, the upcoming roster needs, and Hanback’s strengths, however, they asked him to bulk up and take on the role.

He delivered. Starting all 13 games in 2017, Hanback put up 58 tackles with 5.5 tackles for loss on the season. The linebackers behind him thrived as well so he should get some credit for taking on blocks and double teams to let guys like Micah Kiser and Jordan Mack push their tackle counts well past the 100 mark. That’s a healthy amount of stops for a nose tackle in a three-man front regardless. Not only did it top Wilkins’ output with 47 tackles the year before, it ranked among the better defensive line performances of the last 10 years regardless of scheme.

Take a look at the season’s leading tackler on the defensive line over the last decade:

  • 2008: Alex Field – 48
  • 2009: Nate Collins – 77
  • 2010: Cam Johnson – 53
  • 2011: Matt Conrath – 66
  • 2012: Jake Snyder – 44
  • 2013: Jake Snyder – 55
  • 2014: Max Valles – 55
  • 2015: David Dean – 49
  • 2016: Donte Wilkins – 47
  • 2017: Eli Hanback – 58

That puts Hanback’s season, at least in terms of tackles, third among defensive linemen over the last decade. Perhaps the most impressive part of the year-to-year comparison for Hanback, however, is that many of the other names on that list were seniors for those seasons (2008, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2016). Hanback, on the other hand, produced that big year as as sophomore and has two years remaining with the Wahoos.

It’s a good thing the Cavaliers have Hanback back too. The defensive line remains one of the biggest concerns on the team entering this season, at least in terms of depth. Hanback and rising sophomore Mandy Alonso, after all, are the only two returning players with any experience up front and Alonso has missed some of preseason camp with an injury.

The Hoos converted Richard Burney from tight end to defensive end ahead of the bowl game in December. He’s met the challenge to develop rapidly in that spot so far, but still must prove himself in live game action. They also added a pair of transfers in Cassius Peat and Dylan Thompson, though the latter had yet to report to training camp following summer course work at Ohio State early in practices. That leaves a group of true and redshirt freshmen competing for snaps otherwise.

In other words, Hanback will be looked to as the most experienced voice in the room this fall as a proven player for Mendenhall’s defense.

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