When Virginia learned that JMU transfers D’Angelo Amos and Adeeb Atariwa had interest in changing schools for a chance to play football this season, it didn’t take long to try to convince the duo to make the short move east. UVA wanted to bolster its depth and adding a pair of veteran players to an already experienced defense was too good pass up.
Amos and Atariwa joined the Cavaliers just before preseason training camp officially began early last month. In Amos, Virginia gained a safety that had played in 44 games with the Dukes, including all 15 games in JMU’s run to the FCS title game in 2017. In Atariwa, the Hoos got a defensive lineman that appeared in 39 career games, including 13 games in 2017. Until the Dukes fell in the championship, they had won 26 straight games. Both players had significant roles in the program’s 14-2 record and run back to the title game in 2019 as well. Amos finished with 57 tackles and 2 interceptions, while Atariwa tallied 52 tackles with 13 tackles for loss
Experience in high stakes, high pressure games is an attractive quality when you’re on the transfer market.
“If you look at their background, these guys have played in like 15- and 16-game seasons with playoffs. I think the more you play football, I really don’t think it matters what level it’s at,” UVA co-defensive coordinator Nick Howell said. “Those guys have had a tradition of expecting to win so that’s good and I think they’ve also played in important games that mean a lot.”
It didn’t take long too see how that experience could translate. Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said in late August, just a few short weeks after adding the JMU duo, that both had carved out a spot in the defense. He made it clear that both players still needed to get fully up to speed, but that they fit the defense.
“They’re both already in the rotation,” Mendenhall said in late August. “They came at positions, right, when you’re considering a graduate transfer, most of us, there’s a need immediately. And so we have an immediate need at both positions, and they’ve both proven to be capable. Now, it’s just how fast we can get them up to speed. … But capable, really good fits, I love who both of them are and they’ve been prepared well.”
During his career with JMU, Amos piled up 135 tackles, 11 pass breakups with 2 interceptions, 3 fumble recoveries, and 1 forced fumble. He had 2 sacks from the secondary as well. He also made a mark on special teams with 5 punt return touchdowns and 4 blocked kicks. He was an AFCA first-team All-American in 2019. Amos has made enough of an impression could be in the starting lineup when the Hoos open the season.
Atariwa had 87 tackles at JMU with 16.5 tackles for loss. He also had 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, and a blocked kick. Last season, he made 15 starts at nose guard but that came in a different scheme for the FCS defense. At 6’3” and 280 pounds, he might shift around in Virginia’s variations up front.
Regardless of how or when Amos and Atariwa see the field for UVA, though, Howell gets the sense that they will try to make the most of it. Both players had 3 tackles against West Virginia in a narrow loss last season and Amos totaled 7 stops against NC State in 2018; they also had 6 tackles each in the FCS title game in 2019.
“I think a that level, in my opinion, which I think it’s natural, if you’re a good athlete and you’re a true competitor, you want a shot at playing against better competition,” Howell said. “So this is proving grounds for them as well like ‘hey this is my shot and I can show what I can do.’ So I think they’ve got a lot of good stuff going for them. I think the biggest thing for them coming in here is just learning what a Coach Mendenhall culture is like in terms of playing really hard all the time – Coach Mendenhall is good at putting physical stress on guys and I don’t think it’s normal so they’ve had to adapt to that, but I think they’re in good shape.”
While the JMU duo brings a ton of playing knowledge to the table, they’re joining a defensive group with a lot of collective playing time in hand too. Up front with Atariwa, the Hoos feature sixth year Richard Burney, senior Mandy Alonso, and sophomore Jowon Briggs, who had 7 starts as a true freshman a year ago, among others. In the linebacker group, there are multiple players with proven production in seniors Charles Snowden, Zane Zandier, Matt Gahm, and Rob Snyder plus junior Noah Taylor. In the secondary, senior Nick Grant started every game at corner last fall while senior safeties Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson have multiple seasons of experience. Plus, senior De’Vante Cross has logged time in multiple spots.
The veteran vibe to the defense pairs up with a lot of versatility to make UVA tricky to prepare for each week. The Wahoos can show you a standard 3-4 base defense or sub looks that can run anywhere from a 2-4-5 to a 3-3-5 to even a 2-3-6 in certain situations. Within those rotating schemes, there’s the possibility to move parts around too. It’s definitely notable at linebacker, for example, where Snowden and Taylor could be pass rushers or zone coverage options on any snap. The Cavaliers send their secondary on blitzes at times, run some twists up front, and do a variety of things to move players around.
“There’s a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things,” Howell said. “I think it forces an offense to account for everybody all the time with the different things that we do. I would say, I’m not an offensive coordinator, but I would venture to say when they watch us there are quite a few things that you have to be ready for in your preparation.”
One reason the Hoos can mix it up so much is that they often move players around early in their careers as part of the slotting and development process. That’s helpful this fall in particular. The ongoing pandemic has brought up the term ‘cross training’ regularly during the preseason because teams, Virginia included, have prepared players for more than one position. That’s not too different than any year with UVA, though.
Howell said that’s certainly true for his position group. He’s in charge of the secondary.
“I think it’s been pretty similar,” he said. “In the secondary, always you’re looking to put your best players on the field so you’re always in the secondary I believe going to have a safety that can play corner or a corner that can play safety. So I would say it’s been fairly normal. You like to keep guys in the same position all the time and get some consistency to where there can be more success.”
Nick Howell on UVA’s secondary gaining experience last fall when Bryce Hall and Brenton Nelson were among players lost to injury: “We have guys who have played. Those guys that have played, they have to play better than we played a year ago. You’re hoping that a year’s time, the experience they had on the field, the offseason training, the mental preparation, the fall camp, – we’re hoping that the guys play better than we played at the end of last season and that’s going to be necessary for us to be good.”
More On Linebackers
Two of Virginia’s most productive players last season paired up as linebackers. Now Zandier and Snowden are among the senior leaders for the defense.
Zandier led the team in tackles with 108 stops, including 12.5 tackles for loss and 5 sacks. He also had an interception that he returned for a touchdown against ODU and 5 pass breakups. Those stats are nice, but Zandier’s style of play is important too in Howell’s mind. He gives UVA an edge thanks to hard hits and consistent pursuit of the ball.
“Zane’s not always doing the right thing (laughs), but he’s always going really hard,” Howell said. “As long as we hold the edge, meaning we don’t let the ball get around us, Zane’s going to run inside out and try to hit you. He does have a physical edge and presence. Our guys really respect that. We try to get all of our guys to do that. There is a presence, it is necessary, and we rely on him for that.”
Snowden, meanwhile, has been elected as a captain for this season. His leadership has been noted repeatedly by teammates this offseason. Statistically, he finished third on the team lasts season with 72 tackles. That included 11 tackles for loss with 5 sacks, 11 quarterback hurries, 4 pass breakups, and a fumble recovery.
The numbers are not what gets Howell’s attention the most. Snowden’s versatility gets that honor. For example, when secondary injuries mounted last season, UVA was able to use Snowden in dropped coverage more after having him in a heavy pass pressure mode earlier in the year.
“Honestly, I haven’t looked at his numbers completely but one thing I do know about our defense is it’s a really team-oriented defense so when you look at sacks or coverage or whatever, we’re asking those guys to do quite a lot of different things,” Howell said. “It’s not like he’s just rushing the passer on every down or dropping every down. Within his role, he does some good stuff. Big, tall guy, gets in windows, can get to the quarterback, and can do a lot of stuff so he has tremendous value for sure.”
Advantage Goes To … ?
With many venues not allowing or limiting fan attendance in college football right now, the usual home field advantage in terms of crowd energy isn’t there. A reporter asked Howell if that would help the road team be able to execute better than in normal seasons, but he wasn’t sure that fewer fans would automatically favor one team over another. UVA has posted a 12-1 record at home the past two seasons.
“I’m not sure what that’s going to be like. To say that it’s different for the home team and not different for the away team, I don’t think that will be accurate. I think You’re going to have to generate intensity on your own,” Howell said. “Just when I’m watching on TV, I’m watching the NBA in their little bubble and that kind of looks like it’s purest form of basketball right now where dudes are really scrapping and playing extremely hard. … I think both teams are going to have to adjust to that. I think really it comes down to concentrating on your assignment, playing really, really well together, and not worrying about the outlying factors.”