Virginia Football Notes: Defense’s ‘Next Man Up’ Mentality Proving Beneficial

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Virginia football’s starting defense for the 2020 season opener included seven seniors, a junior outside linebacker who started all of last season, and a sophomore defensive tackle who started seven of 13 games played as a true freshman in 2019.

Virginia Starting Defense, Duke

Defensive Line: Mandy Alonso (56 defensive snaps played in the game), Richard Burney (47), Jowon Briggs (36)

Linebackers: Nick Jackson (75), Zane Zandier (73), Noah Taylor (67), Charles Snowden (58)

Defensive Backs: Joey Blount (75), De’Vante Cross (75), Brenton Nelson (69), Nick Grant (65)

Ten players saw action in a reserve role versus the Blue Devils, including graduate transfer safety D’Angelo Amos (61), senior outside linebacker Matt Gahm (28), graduate transfer defensive lineman Adeeb Atariwa (24), junior cornerback Darrius Bratton (17), true freshman defensive lineman Jahmeer Carter (16), redshirt freshman inside linebacker Josh Ahern (13), sophomore defensive back Coen King (10), senior outside linebacker Elliott Brown (7), sophomore safety Antonio Clary and junior cornerback Heskin Smith.

Six defensive players who started the opener were in the starting lineup for the Hoos against Boston College. This is a glimpse into how hard the defense has been hit with injuries throughout 2020.

Virginia Starting Defense, Boston College

Defensive Line: Alonso (59 defensive snaps played in the game), Atariwa (44), Jordan Redmond (20)

Linebackers: Gahm (63), Brown (63), Jackson (62), Zandier (62)

Defensive Backs: Blount (68), King (68), Cross (68), Grant (57)

Eight reserves played in the victory over the Eagles, led by Amos (35), junior defensive lineman Tommy Christ (21), redshirt freshman linebacker Hunter Stewart (17), senior linebacker Rob Snyder (12), Clary (11), Bratton (11), true freshman defensive lineman Su Agunloye (5) and redshirt freshman outside linebacker D’Sean Perry (2).

Christ, who began his career on defense before moving to the offensive line last season, shifted back to defense to provide necessary depth. Redmond emerged on the defensive line in the Abilene Christian game after not playing all of last year and the first seven games of 2020.

The Cavalier defense has been depleted, not because of the pandemic – although there appears to have been some COVID-19-related losses in the BC game – but because of other health issues and attrition.

– Virginia lost its starting safeties Blount and Nelson during the Wake Forest game (game four). Blount played a major role against the Eagles, but Nelson remains sidelined and will be out for Virginia Tech according to defensive coordinator Nick Howell.

– Starting outside linebacker and team captain Charles Snowden suffered an ankle injury against Abilene Christian (game eight) and is out for the year.

– Burney, a sixth-year senior captain, was declared out for the season after the Miami game (game five) because of a medical condition. Fellow starter Jowon Briggs left the program after the Louisville game (game seven). He is transferring to play for his hometown school, Cincinnati. Additionally, redshirt freshman cornerback Fentrell Cypress II played in the Wake Forest game but hasn’t been seen since, and true freshman defensive lineman Nusi Malani was injured against Abilene Christian and missed the BC game. Malani played in seven games before suffering the injury.

Starting outside linebacker Noah Taylor and Jahmeer Carter were sidelined for the Boston College game, likely due to COVID-19 protocols, although this has not been confirmed. Everyone knew Snowden would be out, but Taylor’s absence was a surprise … as much as anything can be a surprise in this season.

“Probably at the highest level that I’ve ever experienced,” Mendenhall said when asked about his team needing to have the ‘next man up’ mentality this year. “And you never know at what position or what’s going to happen on a given week. Our coaches do the very best they can to put the next player up in position, prepare them diligently to make up ground and be ready. And that’s what happened this past week and it’s been happening most of the year.”

Virginia football outside linebacker Matt Gahm had a sack late in last year’s win over Virginia Tech. The Hokies will see a lot more of Gahm this year, as he is slated to start in place of Charles Snowden for a second straight game. ~ Photo by Mike Ingalls

With Snowden and Taylor sidelined, reliable rotation player Matt Gahm took advantage of his added responsibilities and finished with five tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, a pass breakup and a forced fumble in the win over the Eagles. Seldom-used senior Elliott Brown played 63 snaps, the most he has played in any game in his four years in Charlottesville.

“He did a nice job,” Mendenhall said of Brown. “He was fast, he was athletic, he did affect the quarterback. Sometimes those things matter more than what you see on the stat sheet, but really excited for him to have this chance to contribute at the level he is. And to play this week again in a similar role. It just goes back to, we have kind of another concept that matters to us when we ask simply our players to always stay ready, so they don’t have to get ready. And that way they’re ready when called on, and he has been ready and didn’t have to get ready because if he was getting ready then he wouldn’t have been able to play or play effectively, and he did. A lot of times it’s hard to stay ready when you’re not in the spotlight, but that’s life. There’s many, many families that aren’t in the spotlight and they’re just staying ready to do the best they can. And so, I think it transfers really well.”

There is good news heading into the Commonwealth Cup, as Taylor and Carter are practicing and appear to be a go for Saturday, defensive coordinator Nick Howell said on Wednesday (December 9). Carter’s 6’2”, 315-pound frame will help take up space against Virginia Tech’s vaunted running attack, while the dynamic Taylor will move back into the starting lineup to play opposite Matt Gahm at outside linebacker. Players such as Christ and Redmond and Elliott Brown received valuable reps against Boston College, so they should be ready to provide depth in Blacksburg this weekend.

Bissinger Emerges

The Virginia offense has been fortunate in terms of injuries, although starting guard Dillon Reinkensmeyer was injured against Louisville and is out for the season. UVA offensive line coach Garett Tujague inserted redshirt sophomore Joe Bissinger into Reinkensmeyer’s place. The transition has appeared seamless so far. The fact that the Houston (TX) native was a significant part of the rotation before Reinkensmeyer’s injury is a reason why.

“Joe’s role was growing even before Dillon’s injury,” Mendenhall said. “He’s just been workmanlike, and steady, and consistent, and physical and tough and day after day after day, and with that comes confidence with that comes trust, with that comes an increased role so again that was already happening prior to Dillon’s injury. Joe was just again he’s been prepared and was preparing this whole time. As the opportunity for more snaps arrived, he didn’t have to now all of a sudden get ready, because he’s already been ready. Again, it’s kind of another thread on the theme of Elliott Brown, where players are working and working and working and when opportunity comes, they’re ready and then folks ask, ‘where did he come from’. He came from about two or three years ago, just working every day. That’s where he came from.”

Bissinger spoke to Mendenhall’s mantra of players always staying “ready, so you don’t have to get ready.”

“I think, as coach was saying earlier, we do as a team a very good job of just staying ready instead of having to get ready,” said Bissinger, who played the most offensive snaps (73) of any game in his college career against Boston College. He responded by earning his highest Pro Football Focus overall offense grade (65.4) and highest run blocking grade (66.4) of the season.

“I think in practice, the repetitions … we all take countless repetitions before the games,” Bissinger continued. “Dillon was just a phenomenal mentor, a great friend of mine, and I think that he’s one of the best leaders on our team. He’s been there for a very long time and he does a great job still of helping us out, getting ready for any game we play.”

Notables & Quotables

– Offensive coordinator Robert Anae said on Wednesday (December 9) that wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. is practicing, so presumably he will be able to play versus Virginia Tech. The 6’7”, 200-pound true freshman exited the Boston College game in the second half following a hit to the back of his head.

Wide receiver Ra’Shaun Henry has not had the type of contribution he was probably expecting for Virginia this season, but he seems to be improving each week and turned in a nice performance against Boston College. ~ Photo by Jim Daves, Virginia Athletics Media Relations

– Graduate transfer wide receiver Ra’Shaun Henry had the best game of his short Cavalier career against BC, hauling in three receptions for 95 yards with a 47-yard touchdown reception. The timing of the 6’3”, 190-pound Henry’s emergence could prove significant for the Hoos. He discussed how he is preparing to play in his first-ever matchup with Virginia Tech.

“This week is just about a hundred percent everything, whether that’s lining up right, no drops in practice,” Henry said. “I’ve just got to prepare very hard, continue to keep working each and every day.”

– Don’t be surprised if Virginia Tech focuses on stopping quarterback Brennan Armstrong in the run-game, which could open things up for running backs Shane Simpson, Wayne Taulapapa and Ronnie Walker Jr. Do-everything performer Keytaon Thompson may see some more plays at running back as well, and in my opinion could be an X-factor against the Hokies. He certainly has stepped up as an effective rushing option for the Cavaliers this season. Last week, the 6’4”, 215-pound Thompson had nine rushes for 86 yards and two scores in the win over BC.

“He’s an athlete, man,” Henry said of Thompson. The duo is part of a six-man graduate transfer class that also includes Shane Simpson, tight end Tony Poljan, defensive lineman Adeeb Atariwa and safety D’Angelo Amos. “He’s a football player in my eyes. Whenever he has the ball, something exciting can happen and you have to be aware of that.”

Of UVA’s grad-transfer class, Mendenhall said: “When we bring in a graduate transfer, we expect him to start, contribute immediately and have a great academic experience here at UVA. If a graduate transfer comes in and they don’t start, that’s not meeting expectations on our part or the players part. If they’re not exceptional in the classroom, that would be the same. I can address at least the on-field performance and I think we are accurate in almost every case right now, of the grad transfers we brought in. Again, we target them because of a need, or deficiency, or depth or some immediate need, and this year I think our staff did a really nice job, those players have really helped us.”

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