If you Google the name Nick Jackson, one of the first entries that pops up is a pro wrestling tag team called “The Young Bucks.” While that duo doesn’t feature UVA’s Nick Jackson, the moniker easily fits anyway. A rising sophomore in the Virginia football program, he’s one of the up-and-coming linebackers for the Hoos.
Jackson played in all 14 games last year with two starts, including the Orange Bowl game against Florida. He finished with 28 tackles in limited action backing up senior Jordan Mack until Mack was forced to sit out with an injury in the postseason. In the two games against Clemson and Florida, Jackson tallied 13 of those tackles.
That experience gives Jackson a shot at starting at inside linebacker, particularly with no spring practices this past semester. Zane Zandier and Rob Snyder, a pair of seniors, and fellow underclassmen like Josh Ahern and T.C. Harrison are other plays that could be in the mix there according to UVA co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga, who held a video call for media members Tuesday.
“Nick would be definitely a guy that’s fighting for one of the starting positions. … There’s a bunch of guys battling for that position” Poppinga said. “Nick, with the game experience he got last year, that’s invaluable. He’s way farther ahead than T.C. and Josh because he got way more game experience going back to the Florida game and really starting with the Louisville game. … All that has really prepared him for this season. He’s had a great offseason. Players send us videos of different things that they’re doing and he sent us a video of his workout the other day and I was blown away. I was impressed. He looks great. He’s moving great. He looks like a man on a mission right now.”
The only way Poppinga and company can see the players right now, of course, is through video clips. The University remains closed after moving to online classes following spring break due to the coronavirus pandemic. That nixed spring practice and the NCAA allowed for limited time for video meetings while the sports world remains on hold.
For Virginia, Bronco Mendenhall has shaped that allowable time into team-wide meetings in the morning followed by position meetings. That allows the coaches to review film of past games with players and to quiz them on various things like coverages or defensive adjustments.
Beyond that, the Cavalier coaches have had players send them workout video clips to show the types of strength and conditioning efforts going on away from the program. That’s one area that Jackson has made impression on Poppinga.
“I’ve seen videos of Nick Jackson pushing cars and doing all these different crazy workouts,” Poppinga said. “On the field, the work I saw the other day, I’d have to go with him. I’ve seen a lot of really cool stuff over the last couple of months of guys sending us videos of what they’ve done, but he’s been a repeated guy that I’ve seen multiple videos where I’ve been impressed with him. I’m really anxious to see him apply all the hard work he’s done when he gets back and see where that’s taken him.”
Of course, it may not be much of a surprise to some observers to hear that Jackson is putting in the development work. Like Mack before him, he’s a Georgia recruit that came to Charlottesville with plenty of praise attached from high school coaches and others that had seen him play. He made 95 tackles as a senior at The Lovett School and added 26 catches for 3 touchdowns on offense.
A three-star recruit in most services, Jackson showed a lot of potential that could be developed by defensive coaches at Virginia. Poppinga likes what he’s seen so far in that regard.
“Nick is still trying to figure out on the field what exactly he is going to be. He is very smart, very intelligent,” Poppinga said. “I would say kind of like the Micah Kiser type of guy as far as being really smart and understanding the defense. He doesn’t have the bulk or the leadership or presence that Micah had, but I would like to see what Micah looked like coming out of his freshman year, what type of presence and leadership he had. I think that’s going to be gained with Nick as he continues to get game experience, gains confidence, and gains respect from the team. I believe he’s going to turn into a very valuable leader for us as long as he continues to do the right things that he’s been doing the last few months.”
Tall And Less Lean
While Jackson is trying to work his way into a more regular role, a pair of outside linebackers already carved out a niche with the UVA defense. Senior Charles Snowden and junior Noah Taylor logged 24 starts between them last season for the ACC Coastal Division champs.
Snowden and Taylor represent a pair of tall bookends in the Hoos’ 3-4 scheme. Snowden is listed at 6’7”, while Taylor checks in at 6’5”. Poppinga said he generally likes outside linebackers to be in the range of 235 to 245 pounds in Virginia’s scheme – Snowden was barely there in being listed at 235 last season, while Taylor was on the roster at 215. Their height spread that weight out even more.
Both are making strides this offseason in adding some additional size and muscle to those frames, though. That could spell more headaches for opponents. Snowden posted 72 tackles with 5 sacks last season, while Taylor tallied 57 stops with 7 sacks and 2 interceptions.
“With Charles, I think he could be 260 and we’d still think he would look really skinny,” Poppinga said. “With him, I don’t want Charles to get too big too fast because I want him to still be able to move with that weight and get accustomed to moving with that weight. The 243 to 245 range that he’s in right now, he says he feels like he still can move really well with that, which is good, it means he’s gaining good weight, it means that he’s not gaining it too fast. This season, if he can stay in that 245 to 250 range, I’d be really excited about that.”
“With Noah, I think anywhere from 230 to 235 – if he’s in that range right there,” Poppinga continued. “I think what that’s going to allow them to do is help them set the edge on offensive tackles and tight ends better than what they did the year before. Which, they did good, but they can be great and they could totally dominate the edge in the ACC. Then when it comes to pass rushing, not always be a finesse guy but have some power behind that as well.”
UVA bases its ideal playing weights – and things like 9 to 13% body fat for outside linebackers – after successful NFL players at those positions. With a full-time nutritionist helping tailor plans to individuals, it helps the student-athletes try to hit and maintain those numbers. So while Poppinga said the program anticipates linebackers could lose around 5 pounds during a season, he is hopeful that the additional bulk and muscle could help Snowden and Taylor absorb more of the long-term wear and tear that football takes on the body.
“This is a physical game and your body gets beaten up over time,” Poppinga said. “The more size and strength you have the more pounding you’re going to be able to take as the season goes on. I just think it will help them take the beating of what the game does to them over time. These guys that are phenomenal athletes, now put this size and strength on them and the combination I think is just going to be a lethal combination for them as outside backers in our scheme.”
More Gains For Virginia
While the linebackers have impressed Poppinga, who handles the outside linebackers as his position group, a defensive lineman has also made some big strides this spring. Jowon Briggs, a four-star recruit that played in 13 games with 7 starts last season, also has added some size and strength over the first five months of the year.
Briggs was listed at 6’1” and 295 pounds last season on the roster, but lost some weight during the season. He still ended up with 19 tackles with a 1 sack as he provided snaps on the interior for the Hoos. If he maintains his current workout gains, however, he could be 15 pounds or more bigger and stronger than he played as a true freshman. Add to that the fact that he’s a coachable player that should develop and you have a potential rising star for the Wahoos.
“Jowon Briggs looks great right now,” Poppinga said. “He played last season. He lost a lot of weight – got below 290, in the 280s. He’s like 310 right now. On a video screen, he looks massive. He just fills that thing up. We were actually talking about in our meeting this morning, the defensive staff meeting, and went holy smokes, this guy is looking ginormous. Obviously, the kid is very talented, very strong, very cerebral, very smart kid. That game experience as a true freshman last year is very valuable for him going into this season. Now what it comes down to for Jowon, he’s going to have to make a lot more plays. That’s the bottom line. He’s got to make more plays and he’s going to do that based on knowing the defense better than what he knew last year. That’s for sure going to happen. … I have no doubt he’s going to make major strides this year and I think he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with on that front line.”
UVA Co-Defensive Coordinator Kelly Poppinga on the outside linebackers so far this offseason:
“Things are continuing to progress. Guys are getting bigger, faster, stronger as they’re away from us. Coach Griz and his staff have done I think as good of a job as you possibly could do to help these guys continue to progress. Seeing Charles and Noah through the Zoom calls and how big they’re getting, Matt Gahm as well, the strides that they’re making as they’re away has been something that shows me the commitment to our team, which is awesome. It doesn’t matter if you’re here on Grounds or if you’re at your home, being committed to the cause is what’s important to us and I think those guys have shown it by the numbers they’re putting out right now.”
Teaching From Afar
With video calls allowed by the NCAA and a set meeting schedule outlined by Mendenhall, the position coaches have had to figure out how to best use the technology to help the players from afar. For Poppinga with the outside linebackers, that’s meant a lot of old film.
The Cavaliers dig back to the 2017 and 2018 seasons in addition to last year’s film as part of their training in lieu of spring practices. That allows the players to see what corrections can be made to areas of concern, while also giving context to what successful plays within the scheme look like.
The biggest missing element, of course, is the ability to put their own reps on film running specific play calls. In order to try to bridge that gap a little bit, Poppinga devised a workout plan for the players to at least mimic the movements and footwork needed for certain calls.
“With the outside backers, what I’ve done is I’ve made a script of their movements that they would make in a game,” Poppinga said. “If there was some type of drop they would do in coverage, if there was some type of pass rush move that we would make, or if there was some type of shuffle, the crossover to shuffle we do, fold as we call it, all I did was I made a list. There’s 12 to 14, I can’t remember exactly, of different types of movements that we’d make in a game. I sent a script out to them and they’d run 12 plays in a quarter and they’d do four quarters with about 45 seconds in between each play. So there’s a different movement in there. That’s one of the things that we’ve done just making sure they’re getting those movement patterns down without practice. That’s been pretty effective. Guys have liked it and they’ve responded well to that.”