The last two seasons have sent the Virginia football team’s defensive line down two different roads. In 2018, injuries wiped out most of the depth with experience so the coaches turned to varying sub packages featuring linebackers and defensive backs instead. In 2019, with fewer injuries and more experienced options, the Hoos were able to rotate more bodies in on the defensive line and that gave the team more options.
Regardless of what challenges it has faced however, the defensive line group has been a source of excitement for Cavalier fans. From the players to the position coach Vic So’oto, the unit brought energy and passion every time the players stepped on the field. They call themselves the “silverbacks” because of the way they approach and attack the game. With the impact they left and role they played in the program’s culture change in the past couple of seasons, this nickname was warranted and quite fitting.
3-year production – defensive line
- 2017: 58 solo tackles, 90 assists, 20.5 TFL, 7 sacks, 5 QB hits, 0 fumbles recovered, 1 fumble forced
- 2018: 42 solo tackles, 70 assists, 11.5 TFL, 6 sacks, 9 QB hits, 2 fumbles recovered, 2 fumbles forced
- 2019: 51 solo tackles, 84 assists, 28.5 TFL, 12.5 sacks, 17 QB hits, 4 fumbles recovered, 1 fumble forced
- 3-year average: 50.3 solo tackles, 81.3 assisted tackles, 20.2 TFL, 8.5 sacks, 2 fumbles recovered, 1.3 fumbles forced
- 2017: Andrew Brown, 18 solo tackles, 28 assists, 10.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 3 QB hits, 1 fumble forced
- 2018: Eli Hanback, 18 solo tackles, 28 assists, 3 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 QB hits, 2 fumbles recovered
- 2019: Eli Hanback, 15 solo tackles, 21 assists, 8.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 3 QB hits, 2 fumbles recovered
From So’oto’s promotion from graduate assistant to defensive line coach back in 2017, this group has been a staple of consistency for the Hoos. It is clear that they were a major part of the turnaround of the Virginia program. The linemen helped set the tone on the defensive side of the ball, and their goal was to make it difficult on the opposing offenses from the first to the final snap of the game.
Andrew Brown turned around his career in Charlottesville early in the Bronco Mendenhall era. The mindset and mentality he developed did not fade when he was drafted in the fifth round by the Cincinnati Bengals. It’s simply carried forward from group to group.
The main stewards of the defensive line’s focus and mentality during that time have been So’oto and Eli Hanback. Through a combination of So’oto and Hanback’s leadership, you can find an explanation for the havoc the defensive line wreaked and the unit’s growing consistency this past season. The next challenge can be found with those two names too.
2020 Virginia football look ahead
The defensive line will have to stay on track this season without their former coach and their steady leader. So’oto agreed to become the defensive line coach at Southern California, while Hanback has finished his career and has pro hopes. That does not mean the silverback mentality and the mindset established for this unit has to leave too.
The Hoos will be looking toward seniors Mandy Alonso and Richard Burney, who was granted a sixth year medical hardship waiver, to lead the way. A promising young group in the classes behind them are also expected to continue its development.
Alonso made his presence felt last season with his ability to disrupt opponents in the backfield as he totaled 6.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 3 QB hits, 2 fumbles recovered, and a fumble forced. That forced fumble may be the most notable play from the Cavaliers’ entire season as it led to Hanback recovering Hendon Hooker’s fumble in the end zone for a touchdown, sealing Virginia’s first victory over Virginia Tech since 2003. Alonso, like Hanback, has the ability to float inside and outside on the line.
Burney returned to the lineup after getting just three games in 2018 to have a productive 2019. He started 6 games and posted 21 tackles with 1 sack and 1 pass breakup.
Another key player will be the only other upperclassman in the mix. Junior Aaron Faumui will try to build off of an impressive sophomore campaign. Last season, Faumui amassed 13 solo tackles, 20 assists, 8 TFL, 4 sacks, and 5 QB hits. If he can find a way to produce even more next year, this would be huge for the Hoos on the defensive side of the ball.
From there, some young players on the roster will have to carve out roles for new coach Clint Sintim, who returned to UVA to take over the defensive line duties. Sophomore Jowon Briggs made 7 starts last year as a true freshman and tallied 19 tackles. He should only get better after getting time in the system and the winter strength and conditioning program. Sophomore Samson Reed, sophomore Jordan Redmond, and redshirt freshman Ben Smiley will try to work into the conversation as well. Redmond logged 5 starts as a true freshman in 2018, but played in just 3 games last season and redshirted.