Bennett Jr., UVA’s top returning pass rusher, hopes to rack up sacks under Wahoo legend Slade

By Scott Ratcliffe

Virginia defensive end Chico Bennett speaks at the 2023 ACC Kickoff in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, July 26, 2023. (Photo by Nell Redmond/ACC)

Legendary Virginia defender Chris Slade, now in his second year as graduate defensive end Chico Bennett Jr.’s position coach, knows a thing or two about getting in opposing quarterbacks’ faces.

Bennett, who led the Cavaliers in sacks last season with 7.0, said Slade has helped him out tremendously when it comes to applying the pass rush.

“Don’t try to overthink it. Don’t be a robot,” Bennett said of Slade’s teachings. “When you get comfortable, you get comfortable with the plays. You’re able to rush freely obviously, but of course, within the confines of the defense. Again, yeah, it’s just a feel for it. Everything will come natural, especially when you don’t have to think. You can just play free.”

When UVA’s fall camp begins in just a few more days, one thing is certain — Bennett will be ready to rock and roll.

The 6-foot-4, 252-pounder is gearing up for his final season along with a seasoned, experienced defensive line. Bennett, who started each of the last nine games at the “bandit” position, finished the 2022 season with 34 tackles (17 solo), 4 QB hurries (tied for the team lead), 7.5 tackles for loss, a pair of forced fumbles (also tied for the team lead) and a fumble recovery against Syracuse.

An All-ACC Honorable Mention selection in 2022, all but two of Bennett’s sacks came against ACC competition. It was the highest sack total by a Cavalier in a single season since 2019, when Jordan Mack recorded 7.5. Bennett, who transferred from Georgia Tech after two seasons in Atlanta, looks to put up even bigger numbers in this, his final season of college football.

Slade would love to see improvement across the board from his defensive-ends group in 2023.

“We left a lot of plays on the field,” Slade said of last year’s team total of 30, “so I think this year, our goal is up front to get 25 to 30, just my guys alone as a group. That’s our goal.”

One of Bennett’s biggest games last season came against his former school, when he racked up 7 tackles (4 solo — both season highs) to go with 2 sacks on the Yellow Jackets’ home turf on Oct. 20.

He was named ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week twice in 2022, becoming just the ninth Wahoo lineman to win those honors on multiple occasions in the same season.

Bennett played last season under UVA defensive coordinator John Rudzinski, his third DC in four years. He also credited “Coach Rud” for allowing the defense to play freely and naturally throughout the first year of the coaching transition from Bronco Mendenhall to Tony Elliott.

“It’s a testament to Coach Rud and his philosophy for the defense,” Bennett said. “I think that the biggest thing he wanted to make sure for us as a unit was to just play fast, so he did a good job by just simplifying the defense as a whole and allowing us to just play fast, play reckless and violent, but all in the confines of the game and rules. He has done a good job of that.”

Losing linebacker Nick Jackson (Iowa) and cornerback Fentrell Cypress (Florida State) to the transfer portal were tough blows for the unit, but Bennett understood their decisions to look elsewhere.

“I’m a full supporter,” Bennett said. “You have to do what’s best for you. You’ve got to advocate for yourself. And so with them leaving, selfishly I wish they would have stayed, and I’d be lying if I say I didn’t want them to come back right now, right before camp, because I felt like they still know the playbook.

“But honestly, I respect them and respect the decision all the way through. I mean, I can’t really judge too much because I transferred myself. But I wish them nothing but the best and I know that they’re gonna do great things.”

Bennett said he still keeps in touch with both Cypress and Jackson, adding that he was hoping to bump into Cypress down at ACC Kickoff last week in Charlotte.

“I asked him where he was because I thought he was supposed to be up here,” joked Bennett, “but they had a couple other guys come in, which was understood.”

Virginia defensive end Chico Bennett speaks at the 2023 ACC Kickoff in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, July 26, 2023. (Photo by Nell Redmond/ACC)

Like Bennett, transfers Paul Akere (Columbia) and Kam Butler (Miami-Ohio) have also brought their talents to the Cavalier defensive front. That trio will be playing alongside Aaron Faumui (sixth year), Ben Smiley III (fifth year), Olasunkonmi Agunloye (fourth year) and Jahmeer Carter (fourth year), all of whom have logged tons of reps over their respective Cavalier careers. Elliott is excited to have so much veteran experience and leadership along the D-line.

“What I’ve learned in my experience in the college game is that the game is won in the trenches,” said Elliott. “The best teams that I’ve been around, you had great leadership at quarterback and then you had great leadership along the front, in particular the defensive line.

“So you’re returning a lot of guys with game experience. I think that’s going to help the transition on the outside at corner where we lost some very, very productive guys. You’re not having to reteach, re-install. You’re just having to refine. Hopefully what that’s going to do is going to allow for the transition and the development of the young guys that we’ve brought in.”

Rudzinski is equally impressed — and content — with the amount of snaps that the defensive linemen have logged, and hopes that it will all lead to another productive season on that side of the ball.

“You just look across the board, there’s some experienced guys,” said Coach Rud. “I mean, Kam Butler’s got 2,000 snaps in college football, there’s not many guys that can say that. You’ve got guys like Faumui’s played a lot of ACC football. Jahmeer’s played a lot of ACC football. Chico’s played a lot of ACC football, Ben Smiley — so there are some guys that have played a lot of snaps.

“Now, there’s no equity in that, you hope that that experience pays itself forward. But I know we have guys that are hungry, that did a great job in the weight room, and now it’s for us to continue to work with those guys as more mature guys, graduate-school guys, to have their best body of work and not to rest on their laurels.”

Despite ranking No. 44 nationally in total defense (357.6 yards allowed per game) and No. 49 in scoring defense (24 points allowed per game), Bennett knows that last season didn’t go the way the team would’ve hoped, but he’s confident that the Hoos will only learn and grow from the struggles in 2022.

Photo: UVA Athletics

“I think last year we left some things on the table that we shouldn’t have,” he admitted. “It’s frustrating in the moment, but now looking back we understand that, hey, it wasn’t something that the opposing team did anything spectacular, but it’s more so on us.

“I think with that, we go back, look at the film… the game isn’t perfect. We’re going to make mistakes and that’s going to happen. That’s just how life is in general. Where the defense lacks, the offense will come in and pick up the slack, and vice-versa.”

A sociology major, Bennett will have a couple of homecomings of sorts with a few road trips early in the season. He played his high-school ball at Battle Ground Academy in Franklin, Tenn., not too far from Nashville, where the Hoos will open the season against Tennessee on Sept. 2.

Then, a few weeks later on Sept. 15, Bennett will be back in the DMV area when the Cavaliers travel to Maryland, which is not far from his hometown of Ashburn, Va. He will also get one last crack at Georgia Tech, when the Jackets return to Scott Stadium on Nov. 4.

After the way things ended last season, the Cavaliers are really just thrilled to be back on the field with their brothers, playing the game they love.

“I’m beyond excited to get back,” said Bennett. “Like, hey, we’re in a position where we can go out and show the world that even though we didn’t play the last few games, this is how we bounced back. And I think it’ll be special for everybody to see and it’ll be wonderful, and I’m excited for what the team has to show coming back, and I’m just excited to go out there with my guys.”