Poppinga preaches Havoc as UVA defense readies to dominate

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga expects a lot more Havoc from his unit in 2020 (Photo: UVA Athletics).

Havoc has become the favorite word in Virginia’s defensive vocabulary, and with good reason.

Last season, the Cavaliers ranked No. 6 in the nation in quarterback sacks, crushing the school record with a total of 46. Opposing passers must have stayed up nights worried about how they were going to deal with UVA’s pass rush.

Note to ACC quarterbacks: you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga’s eyes light up anytime you mention blitzing. The same holds true for Nick Howell, who loves aggressive defensive play-calling.

With essentially nine starters returning on a defense that finished No. 48 nationally in total defense a year ago, and 17 players who started at least one game in UVA’s Coastal Division championship season, Howell and Poppinga have to be psyched about this defensive squad’s possibilities.

The more players returning with experience, the more coaches can do, the more they can create chaos for opposing offenses.

I remember sitting in on a George Welsh/Rick Lantz conversation once back in the ‘90s, and the two were laughing about some of the ACC’s opposing offenses being so confused when going up against Virginia’s defense.

“They don’t have a clue what we’re doing or how to stop it,” Welsh chuckled in a rare candid moment. Lantz laughed out loud in a Dr. Evil-esque manner.

I wonder if Poppinga and Howell share the same thoughts. Bronco, too. Afterall, he’s a defense-first guy.

“We want to create Havoc,” Poppinga said. “Havoc is who we want to be and what we believe we have to do to help us be successful as a team, and so that will continue to be our identity.”

Havoc includes blitz packages, which can be more exotic coming from Mendenhall’s 3-4 base defensive alignment. But Virginia is so much more in terms of multiplicity on that side of the football, which makes identifying or even guessing that blitz UVA’s coaches have dialed up challenging at the least.

It’s not only blitzing, but twists and stunts, that allow the Cavaliers to pillage opposing backfields and passing pockets.

Virginia has been a multiple defense and will continue to be similar, but Poppinga hinted that he and the rest of the defensive staff have added some new wrinkles for this season. Nothing that most fans will recognize, but subtle additions that will only make offenses work harder to be successful.

“If we continue to do things the same way, then teams will pick up on that and it will be easy to scout us out, and so there’ll be different, new wrinkles that we picked up in the offseason that we’re practicing now,” Poppinga said. “I continue to see us being aggressive, that’s kind of Coach Howell’s nature.”

We’ve witnessed Howell’s nature the past couple of seasons, where often his mission statement to his players is as simple as cornbread: “Sic ‘em.”

Not only was UVA No. 6 nationally in QB sacks last season, but No. 22 in tackles for loss (99, or 7.1 per game). With so many experienced players returning on defense, 32.5 of those 46 sacks return, which totals more than Virginia’s entire 2018 season and 95 other FBS teams.

“We’ll be in 3-4, we’ll be in a 4-2-5, we could be in a 3-3-5,” Poppinga said. “There’s multiplicity of different ways that we can put in different personnels. There’s going to be times, like you guys saw last year, where we’d have one D-lineman in and five or six linebackers in, or four or five DBs.”

Don’t be surprised if junior outside linebacker Noah Taylor plays a much larger role that a year ago. At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, and with great speed for a linebacker, Taylor provides a rare combination that allows him to get into pass coverage and rush the passer.

“He’s an intelligent player,” Poppinga said of Taylor. “He has done a really good job of putting on size and strength from year one to now. I think he came in at 180 pounds and now he’s close to 230 (he was 215 last season). The versatility he can provide for us from playing outside ‘backer, the inside ‘backer, the defensive end, safety, the corner — I mean, you guys will see him lined up up everywhere this year, honestly.

“The versatility that he brings, a guy that can run like he can, and as big and tall as he is, and just how smart he is, I think that’s probably his best strength is his intelligence that he can bring to the field.”

Also at outside linebacker, but who is versatile enough to play in various spots, is senior Charles Snowden.

“The success that he’s had in the past two years draw attention to him,” Poppinga said. “It’s always nice to have guys coming off opposite edges. The offense can’t block both of those guys at the same time. They’ve got to decide who they want to go after.

“So that’s the beauty of having a 3-4 defense and you have two guys that are very multiple in what they can do. Are they both going to blitz? Are they both going to drop? Is one going to blitz? Is one going to drop? I would say what Noah did last year what Charles has done in the past — a team can’t go into the game and say, ‘Hey, we’re going at No. 14 here, we’re going at No. 11 here.’ I think they’re going to have to scheme it up play-by-play. They’re not going to be able to just say, ‘We’re going to run away from No. 11 the whole game,’ because if they do that, then Noah’s going to be right there. That’s the beauty of 3-4 defense.”

Imagine all the possibilities with so many players returning to the defense. The defensive line is probably the deepest it has been in years, the linebacking corps is deep as well. The secondary is a little thinner than a year ago, but still returns quality experience.

Here is where Virginia finished in the national defensive rankings last year, minus the sacks, total defense and tackles for loss already pointed out in this article:

Scoring defense — No. 62, giving up 27.10 points per game. UVA gave up 47 TDs, skewed a bit by the lopsided loss to Clemson in the ACC Championship game. To finish in the top 15 in the country in this category, a team had to yield 30 or less TDs.

Rushing defense — No. 40, giving up 138 yards per game and 23 TDs on the ground.

Team passing efficiency defense — No. 74, surrendering 23 TDs through the air, several of which came after UVA’s secondary was riddled by injuries.

Red Zone defense — No. 70.

Interceptions — No. 31, picking off 12 passes and returning two for touchdowns.

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