50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff: A High Ceiling At Linebacker

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Virginia football has had its share of great linebackers through the years. When I think of some of the top linebacker units in Cavalier history, though, I immediately think back to the mid-1990s when Jamie Sharper, who is no. 2 on Virginia’s all-time career tackle list and no. 1 in career solo tackles, and James Farrior, who had 381 career tackles (no. 7 on UVA’s career list), patrolled the field.

Sharper and Farrior teamed with another all-time great, Randy Neal, the first two years they played for the Cavaliers. Neal holds the Virginia record for most solo tackles in a season and led the ACC in tackles in 1993. The dynamic duo then started alongside Skeet Jones in 1995 and Wali Rainer in 1996. Rainer, who currently sits at no. 12 on Virginia’s career tackle list, led an impressive group of linebackers in 1998 that included Byron Thweatt, Donny Green and Yubrenal Isabelle.

Ahmad Brooks, Kai Parham and Darryl Blackstock headlined a talented unit early in Al Groh’s tenure, starting alongside Ray Mann in 2003 and Dennis Haley in 2004. Brooks racked up 117 tackles his freshman year in 2003 and was an All-American in 2004, while Blackstock ranks no. 3 on Virginia’s all-time career sack list and totaled 10 or more sacks in two of his three seasons in Charlottesville (2002, 2004).

More recently, the great Micah Kiser was in Charlottesville when the Bronco Mendenhall era began. Kiser led the ACC in tackles three straight seasons beginning in 2015 and then in 2016 and 2017, the latter two seasons under Mendenhall. Kiser, Chris Peace and Jordan Mack headlined Virginia’s linebackers in 2017, the second year of Bronco Mendenhall’s tenure in Charlottesville.

Virginia football’s 2019 linebacking corps has a lot to prove and a big void left behind by Chris Peace, who led the 2018 Cavaliers in tackles-for-loss and sacks as a starting outside linebacker, but the athleticism, speed, and depth of this unit is impressive, and it’ll be fun to see just how good they can become.

27 – A High Ceiling At Linebacker

Comparing this year’s linebackers with some of the units mentioned above may be a bit premature, but there is good reason for optimism about the position this season. The coaches certainly seem excited.

“I think we’ve done a great job developing and recruiting at the position,” Virginia Co-Defensive Coordinator and Outside Linebacker Coach Kelly Poppinga told media. Check out parts of his interview via CBS 19 Sports by clicking here. “And I think a 3-4 defense, if you don’t have great linebackers you don’t have a great defense.”

“We were talking about this the other day,” he continued. “Even in our time at BYU, this could be, depth-wise, the best we’ve ever had.”

Jordan Mack had over 100 tackles from the Buck position in 2017. After playing Mike last year, he returns to the Buck for his final year in the orange and blue.

Let’s begin with the inside linebacker position, which will feature senior Jordan Mack and either junior Zane Zandier or junior Rob Snyder as starters. All three are expected to see significant action no matter who starts.

Mack started nine games at outside linebacker as a true freshman before moving inside to the Buck position in 2017. He thrived, totaling 114 tackles while playing alongside Kiser in the middle. Mack moved to the Mike position last season and totaled 20 tackles including three for loss in Virginia’s first four games; however, an injury put him on the sidelines for the next four games – NC State, Miami, Duke and UNC. He returned for the final four regular season games plus the bowl game, finishing with 66 tackles (27 solo), six tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, four quarterback hurries and one pass breakup on the season.

Mack has totaled 220 tackles in his Virginia career and needs 87 more to enter the school’s top 15 in career tackles. He has returned to the Buck position that he thrived at in 2017 and has turned in an excellent offseason, earning the “Dirty Dozen” honor for top strength and conditioning marks. A healthy Mack brings quiet leadership, speed and terrific all-around ability in the middle.

The 6’3”, 235-pound Zandier or the 6’2”, 235-pound Snyder will start alongside Mack, but again look for both to receive significant playing time as part of a rock-solid inside linebacker rotation. Zandier appeared in all 13 games last season, earning eight starts, while Snyder played in 12 games, receiving seven starts. Of the two I’d say Zandier, who had 63 tackles (28 solo) with five tackles for loss and two sacks in 2018, appears to be the faster and better athlete overall.

You have to admire Snyder’s grit and toughness, though. He didn’t play the first two seasons of his collegiate career, redshirting as a true freshman before missing all of his second year while recovering from a torn pectoral muscle that required surgery. He didn’t see much time on defense in Virginia’s first four games last season, but when Mack was ruled out after Louisville, Snyder stepped in and totaled 23 tackles (six solo) with a half a tackle for loss. Snyder accumulated his entire 2018 stat line – 53 tackles (21 solo), 1.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack and 1 quarterback hurry – from game five on. Most importantly, he graded out well and the defense didn’t miss a beat despite losing one of its best players.

With any combination of Mack, Snyder or Zandier on the field, Virginia’s inside linebacker position appears to be in good hands. But wait, there’s more, as highly regarded true freshman Nick Jackson is turning heads this preseason as well.

“That guy is opening everybody’s eyes,” Poppinga said of Jackson, a 6’1”, 225-pound freshman who starred at The Lovett School in Atlanta.

Snowden flourished in his first season as a starter, but the 6’7″, 235-pound junior has the talented to break out in a big way in 2019.

At one starting outside linebacker position is 6’7”, 235-pound Charles Snowden, who was named to the preseason 2019 Butkus Award Watch List for the nation’s top linebacker. Snowden flashed his considerable speed, athleticism and range as a true freshman before assuming a starting role in 2018. He started all 13 games for the 8-5 Cavaliers, demonstrating his ability to make plays at and behind the line of scrimmage – eight QB hurries, 7.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks – and in pass coverage, where he had nine pass breakups (second on the team behind Bryce Hall) and two interceptions. Snowden made some “wow” plays last season, and if he builds off that performance I think he could pop up on 2020 NFL Draft lists by the end of this year.

You can expect Snowden to garner more attention from opponents because of his talent but also as Virginia tries to replace Peace. The 6’1”, 240-pound senior has been part of the heart and soul of this Cavalier program, and as mentioned he was productive as well. Sophomore Noah Taylor, who is one of the top contenders to replace Peace in the starting lineup, discussed what he learned from watching the senior leader last year.

“Total effort, learned how to play hard, rush the quarterback, play physical. I learned everything,” Taylor said.

Taylor, who stands 6’5”, and now weighs 220 pounds (up five from the spring) according to Jeff White’s August 16 report, arrived in Charlottesville in January of 2018. Although he played last season, he didn’t see much time with the defense. His physical tools are evident, though, as he possesses excellent speed and acceleration. Moreover, it appears he has taken significant steps since last season ended.

“It just seems like everything is finally paying off, so that’s a really good feeling,” Taylor said this past spring.

One of the difficulties he faced at linebacker early on was “learning how to stop the run,” Taylor said. “That’s been a lot to learn. When I was in high school, I was just focused on pass-rushing. When I came here I didn’t really know how to stop the run. That’s the thing I’ve been working on since I got here.”

Junior Matt Gahm, who at 6’3”, 240 pounds brings physicality and toughness to the outside linebacker spot, is also vying for Peace’s spot. As is the case with the inside linebackers, whoever doesn’t earn the starting spot should still receive significant playing time. Gahm had a solid showing last season, playing in 13 games and finishing with nine tackles (five solo) with 1.5 sacks, two quarterback hurries, and one pass breakup.

Don’t be surprised if some young players rise up the depth chart as well, including true freshmen Hunter Stewart – a 4-star recruit out of Gonzaga (Washington, D.C.) – and D’Sean Perry, a 6’3”, 230-pound linebacker out of Gulliver Prep (Miami, FL), which, coincidentally, is coached by former Virginia linebacker Earl Sims.

Replacing Peace will be difficult, but the returning starters should be able to step in leadership-wise and there are some promising candidates ready to make their mark with their play on the field. It’s hard to envision this linebacker corps not being one of the better units in the ACC. Additionally, I think there is a high ceiling for this group, especially when you consider the defensive line should be vastly improved from a year ago. Will this year’s linebackers reach the level of some of those listed above? While that remains to be seen, this unit should be fun to watch and a strength of the preseason Coastal favorites.

50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff
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