Just call Virginia’s defense the Nasty Bunch

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Charles Snowden (11) leads the Virginia off the field after a fourth-down stop against Duke last season (Photo by John Markon).

My mission was simple. As good as Virginia’s defense was in 2019, could this season’s version be even better?

Personally, it was my thought that the 2020 Cavalier defense could surpass last year’s impressive numbers when UVA was No. 48 nationally in total defense, No. 22 in tackles for loss and No. 6 in quarterback sacks with a school-record 46.

I asked a few UVA coaches and a couple of players whether they agreed with my assessment.

“The expectation is for them to be better than last year’s defense,” Bronco Mendenhall said this week. “From game one all the way through game 13, or game 14, or however many … 12 … whatever the season calls for this year … as many as we can possibly play.”

With as many as 17 players returning with at least one start on their resume, this defense could be really nasty.

Co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga describes it as havoc.

“Havoc is who we want to be,” Poppinga said. “That will continue to be our identity.”

Last season it was the defense that carried the Cavaliers early on, up to about game 7 in Mendenhall’s estimation. That’s when two things happened.

The offense started to catch up and UVA’s defense began to be depleted by injuries, particularly in the secondary. While that was an issue at the time, several players were thrust into key roles earlier than planned, gaining valuable experience.

Guess what? Those guys are back, along with several of the players who were starters before injuries set in.

“I think the defensive players are anxious to reestablish what they can play like with a full and healthy roster, and with the same depth we had at the beginning of last year,” Mendenhall said. “That was really the reason we started strong and played so well early in the season. I think their expectation is to carry it longer that we did a year ago.”

Just look at this lineup:

On the defensive line, there’s sixth-year defensive end Richard Burney with a dozen starts under his belt, and Mandy Alonso on the other end with 18 starts. In the middle is a monster, sophomore nose tackle Jowon Briggs, who has added some serious weight and muscle after gaining seven starts as a true freshman.

UVA was ranked the No. 9 linebacking unit in the nation by Lindy’s national football magazine. The Cavaliers have two extremely versatile outside linebackers in Charles Snowden (27 career starts) and Noah Taylor, who some believe might be the best player on that side of the ball, with 10 starts.

Snowden, at 6-foot-7, has an incredible wing span, and has batted down several passes at the line of scrimmage. He can rush the passer, he can drop back into coverage. Ditto for the 6-5 Taylor, who has speed and hits hard. He made a huge interception in the streak-stopping win over Virginia Tech last season, and has belted a few QBs.

Both of those guys keep opposing offensive coordinators up at night.

Zane Zandier (Photo: UVA Athletics)

Then, on the inside, there’s none other than “ZZ Stop,” Zane Zandier, a middle linebacker who actually thanks coaches for calling his number on the blitz. Zandier is versatile enough to line up anywhere on the field to keep quarterbacks guessing where he’ll be coming from. ZZ Stop, by the way, has 22 career starts. 

Nick Jackson, who came on toward the end last season, has two starts at the other starting inside linebacker start. Rob Snyder, who has six starts at the ILB position, hasn’t returned from injury at this point, but is expected to soon.

Also at inside linebacker, T.C. Harrison, Hunter Stewart, Josh Ahern and D’Sean Perry have shown promise in camp, while Matt Gahm (four starts) and Elliott Brown have performed well on the outside.

In the secondary, experience abounds with Brenton Nelson, arguably the fastest guy on the team, with 30 career starts. At the other safety, there is Joey Blount with 17 starts.

On the corners, there’s Nick Grant (14 starts) and De’Vante Cross, who finally found a home last season and has 15 starts, along with Darrius Bratton (five starts, but missed all of last season after suffering a knee injury in training camp), Heskin Smith, who picked up three starts late last season, and Jaylon Baker (one start).

Sounds like a whole lot of havoc to me.

“I think the sky’s the limit for this defense,” said Snowden. “I know we have the talent and I know we have the want-to, and now it’s just kind of going out there and doing it.”

Snowden said even the younger players that haven’t made names for themselves yet have really stepped up, including Stewart, who transitioned from outside to inside.

“I’ve also loved seeing D’Sean Perry as well,” Snowden said. “He’s really physical and really strong and kind of seeing him grasp the defense now. I’m really excited for those two.”

One of the beautiful things for Howell and Poppinga is having so much experience in the mix.

“With that group of guys coming back, that nucleus of guys allows us to continue on this path and just build upon what we did last year,” Poppinga said. “We are who we are. We want to create pressure.”

They want to create havoc.

Whether they line up in a 3-4, a 4-2-5, a 2-4-5 or a 3-3-5, opposing offenses are going to find it rough going against this experienced group. There are different methods that the defense can use for different personnel, so fans could see only one defensive lineman and five or six linebackers in the game or four or five defensive backs.

Howell’s nature is to be aggressive and Virginia’s defense loves that approach.

Havoc. Enough said.

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