Over the first four years of the Bronco Mendenhall era, defensive lineman Eli Hanback became a consistent fixture on the defensive line. He played in every game the past four years and started all but four of them. With Hanback now finished with his career, the Cavaliers are looking for another steady hand up front.
UVA co-defensive coordinator said he hopes senior Richard Burney can step in and fill some of that role. Burney, like Hanback, has been in the program throughout the Mendenhall era. He had multiple seasons cut short (2015, 2016 for injuries and 2018 for medical reasons), however, and received a medical hardship waiver that granted him a sixth year.
That gives him a chance to follow up a solid 2019 season where he logged six starts and 21 tackles. That was the first full season for Burney on the defensive line – he moved to the position for a bowl game in 2017 and then got just three games in at the start of the 2018 season – so Howell thinks he has a chance to really build on that experience with the extra year.
“I would hope that this being his senior year, he’s had a full season in, he’s that big strong guy that can play that 4i for us,” Howell said. “We’re going to need him to have some of that presence that Eli had in terms of every down consistency. That’s what I expect from Burney and that’s what he knows we’ve got to have out of him. I think as he has a year’s experience, I absolutely think he’ll play better.”
The 4i spot in a 3-4 defense puts the defensive end on the inside eye of the offensive tackle, which helps control the B gap. In coordination with other defenders, this helps free up linebackers in the middle of the field to control the run game or to move in space. That’s a simplified explanation, but a player that lines up in that spot needs to be consistent with positioning and eat up blocks as part of the job description.
Burney checked in at 6’4” and 275 pounds on the UVA roster so he’s got the muscle and the frame to handle multiple spots and techniques up front. Last season, according to the Pro Football Focus grading system, Burney was a steady player that logged above average overall grades in five games and a below average mark in just one. As Howell noted, Burney came on at the end of the season. He posted three above average grades in the final six games and his two highest grades of the season among the last five. His best of the season came against Florida in the Bowl game, a contest where he matched his season high for snaps.
That late season surge provides some optimism for his senior season with the Hoos.
“If I were to evaluate Burney, I would say he was one of the guys that probably made the biggest jump from season’s start to season’s end,” Howell said. “He did some really, really nice things at the end of the year physically.”
Early in preseason practices last season, a battle was brewing for a starting cornerback job between Nick Grant and Darrius Bratton with Mendenhall calling it a neck-and-neck race at one point. Unfortunately for Bratton, his shot at the job ended before the season even began. Bratton tore his ACL midway through August.
The Cavaliers expect him to be back at full strength by the start of the season, though. In fact, he had made a lot of progress in rehabilitation ahead of spring practice. Howell, who said he talks to Bratton almost every day, said the corner looked good and was running full speed before the University moved classes to remote learning for the rest of the semester and cancelled spring practice. He’s continuing his physical therapy work through Zoom video calls currently.
Howell said the Hoos are excited about having him back this season even though he would have been limited during spring practices.
“Darrius is doing well. I see him on a daily basis,” Howell said. “Before we left, he was I would say ahead of schedule. He was running full speed. He’s big and strong. He was still in progress [with rehabilitation] – we weren’t going to give him any reps in spring ball. If any, it would have been limited, no contact for sure. The end goal was to have Darrius completely ready and healthy for the season.”
The Sack Attack
Bratton will be joining a defense that still features a lot of familiar faces in the rotation despite mainstays like Hanback, Jordan Mack, and Bryce Hall wrapping up their careers. Mandy Alonso, Zane Zandier, Joey Blount, and Brenton Nelson are just a few of the names that have seen extended action now with the defense and will be back for another season.
That could bode well for the sack attack. The Cavaliers piled up 46 sacks in 2019, which tied for seventh in the nation. That didn’t come from just one player. In fact, Virginia had 17 players contribute to the total. The defense did lose its sack leader in Jordan Mack, who had 7.5 to his credit, but the Hoos bring back four players that tallied 4 sacks or more (Noah Taylor 7, Zandier/Charles Snowden 5, and Aaron Faumui 4).
UVA mixes up schemes and calls to try to maximize the skill sets of the players in the rotation at the time and that ended up spreading the wealth statistically in the sack category a year ago.
“I would say for us to continue on that path, it’s creating the right havoc but also at the right time and being able to complement those things,” Howell said. “Some more drop type coverages, some more mediumly aggressive type things, and then some super aggressive things that all look very similar and trying to get those dialed up at the right time. We still have a lot of the same kids.”
More On Armstrong
One thing that experienced defense has seen a lot more than any of Virginia’s fanbase at this point is the play of Brennan Armstrong, the likely starter at quarterback. Armstrong backed up Bryce Perkins the last two seasons and took a lot of reps against the first team defense in scouting and practice situations.
Like other comments have revealed this spring, Howell pointed out Armstrong’s intangibles like confidence and an even-keel demeanor as strengths. He compared Armstrong’s competitiveness to Juan Thornhill, who played in the secondary where Howell’s position duties overlap. Howell also singled at the young QB’s decision-making as a trait to watch.
“I don’t think he’ll hold the football long,” Howell said. “In the run game, he’ll be different than Bryce in terms of I don’t think he can take it 70 by himself and hurdle people and do all that kind of stuff, but he’s really decisive. He does look to run as well. He’s a quick decision maker, that’s what I think his strength is. If I were to say two things about Brennan, there’s kind of a moxie, swagger, confidence about him and then he’s a really quick decision maker. You see Brennan make mistakes, it doesn’t bother him. I think he sees this as a game and has fun playing it. He doesn’t get shook up very much.”