Looking at each of the last three Virginia football teams, you can find one, if not multiple, of its main leaders and contributors in the linebacker group. Micah Kiser and Jordan Mack just are just a pair of examples.
Kiser won the Campbell Trophy, while Mack was a finalist for the same award. The Campbell Trophy recognizes the best football scholar-athlete in the nation for his combined academic success, football performance, and exemplary leadership.
Overall, the role the linebackers have played in turning around this program is hard to fully sum up. One of these members is even credited with creating the phrase that started this drastic change: “The New Standard.” Chris Peace’s creation will now forever be a part of Cavalier football lore and so will the work the other linebackers put in on and off the field.
3-year production – linebackers
- 2017: 153 solo tackles, 248 assists, 34 TFL, 19.5 sacks, 6 QB hits, 1 interception, 2 fumble recoveries, 5 fumbles forced
- 2018: 145 solo tackles, 197 assists, 34 TFL, 18 sacks, 31 QB hits, 3 interceptions, 1 fumble recovery, 3 fumbles forced
- 2019: 189 solo tackles, 207 assists, 53 TFL, 27 sacks, 28 QB hits, 4 interceptions, 1 fumble recovery, 3 fumbles forced
- 3-year average: 162.3 solo tackles, 217.3 assists, 40.3 TFL, 21.3 sacks, 21.7 QB hits, 2.7 interceptions, 1.3 fumble recoveries, 3.7 fumbles forced
- 2017: Micah Kiser, 50 solo tackles, 95 assists, 9.5 TFL, 5 sacks, 2 QB hits, 2 fumble recoveries
- 2018: Chris Peace, 31 solo tackles, 34 assists, 11.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks, 12 QB hits, 2 fumbles forced
- 2019: Zane Zandier, 49 solo tackles, 59 assists, 12.5 TFL, 5 sacks, 1 interception
Kiser’s 2017 campaign with 145 total tackles will go down as one of the more impressive individual seasons in school history. He did more than just make a lot of tackles on Saturdays, though. Winner of the William V. Campbell Trophy or the “Academic Heisman”, Kiser was a model student of the game and in the classroom. He showed younger guys in the linebacker room that there was more to football than just showing up and playing.
Kiser and Peace’s work ethic and mentalities were contagious and set the foundation for the 2019 group to prepare and play in a manner that would lead to them to an eye-opening 27 sacks this past season. These 27 sacks accounted for nearly 60 percent of the defense’s 46 sacks on the season. Those 46 sacks gave the Hoos a top 10 finish in total team sacks in the entire FBS last season (7th nationally).
The group was elite at getting into opponent backfields and making plays there. The linebackers’ TFL and sacks were the most that group had totaled in the Bronco Mendenhall era and beyond. This dominant play made it difficult to choose just one leading producer for the 2019 season in the list above. While Zandier was chosen based on his impressive number of tackles and TFL, there were other linebackers that had years that would have given them the leading producer spot in seasons before the Mendenhall era.
Some could call the 2019 linebackers a three-headed monster with Zandier, Mack, and Charles Snowden. Snowden really came into his own last season with 72 total tackles, 11 TFL, 5 sacks, 9 QB hits, and a fumble recovery. Mack had a strong season following his shortened 2018 campaign the season before despite battling injuries again. Mack finished 2019 with 69 total tackles, 8.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks, 10 QB hits, and 2 fumbles forced.
2020 Virginia football look ahead
The Virginia linebackers have left their mark each of the last three seasons. They will look to do this once again next year, but they will have to do it without one of their leaders from the last few seasons. Mack’s time with the program is over as he will be looking to be drafted in the NFL Draft later this month. His departure leaves a hole on the field and in the locker room as he was one of the team’s unquestioned leaders.
In his place, the Hoos will look to Zandier and Snowden to step up in the leadership department, while producing at the same level they did last season. It likely will be hard for them to improve on their 2019 production by that much since they put up such strong numbers.
Virginia will need senior Matt Gahm, junior Noah Taylor, and sophomore Nick Jackson to take the next step in their respective developments alongside that duo. Gahm and Taylor split time at the outside spot opposite of Snowden last season.
Gahm grabbed an interception in the season opener at Pitt and notched a big sack in the closing moments of the Virginia Tech win. He had 36 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, and 3 pass breakups in 2019. Taylor was a key member of this group last season too and made his presence felt with his ability to cause problems in opposing backfields, something this group prides itself on. He had 57 total tackles, 13.5 TFL, 7 sacks, 6 QB hits, and a fumble forced last season. The Cavaliers will need more of numbers like that this season.
Looking on the inside where Mack leaves his starting spot, Jackson, a sophomore comes in with apprenticeship experience for this defense. Last season, he played in all 14 games and started two of them as Mack’s primary backup. While his numbers were not all that flashy, that experience this early in his career should be useful as he looks to show a lot of growth this season. Watch for him to potentially make the jump in production that Snowden did from 2018 to 2019.
The inside spots also will have senior Rob Snyder and redshirt freshman Josh Ahern back as well. Snyder played in 12 games with 7 starts in 2018 and appeared in the first four games of 2019 before an injury ended his season. He’s a solid, experienced player in the middle. Ahern retained his redshirt last season as a true freshman, but he appear in three games.
Other players that will try to break into the conversation include T.C. Harrison (sophomore, listed at ILB), D’Sean Perry (redshirt freshman, listed at OLB) and Hunter Stewart (redshirt freshman, listed at OLB). Incoming freshmen recruited at linebacker include four star Brandon Williams and three star Jonathan Horton, both out of Louisiana, and three star Sam Brady out of North Carolina.