The defense is both the source of most of the optimism and most of the pessimism surrounding this team. (Personnel-wise, that is; the notion that Mike London might, at any time, walk to the locker room at halftime with two timeouts in his pocket, having failed to score from the opponent's 35, accounts for a significant portion of the pessimism.) Pessimism because a lot of really talented players departed; optimism, because the defense still has most of the best players on the team, and Jon Tenuta coaching them.
This last is why the scales should tilt toward the optimistic side. There are a couple legitimate holy terrors on this defense, and some newcomers with the usual associated question marks, but also with a couple years of excellent coaching and experience in a scheme that works. Starting with a rock-solid foundation at defensive tackle, this defense should keep the Hoos in most games. I'm about as optimistic as you could ever be about a defense that loses five of its top six tacklers.
Starters: #34 Kwontie Moore, #55 David Dean, #9 Andrew Brown, #32 Mike Moore
Backups: #6 Darrious Carter, #56 Andre Miles-Redmond, #93 Donte Wilkins, #43 Trent Corney
This might be the top pairing of defensive tackles in the league. That statement comes with two caveats: one, David Dean doesn't have the stats to back up that very bold statement, and two, it depends a great deal on Andrew Brown's development. Nonetheless, it's out there. Dean wasn't asked to destroy backfields last year because Eli Harold and Max Valles were doing a great job of that on their own. But his talent has always been plain to see, and now in his senior year, he's expected to be knifing into the backfield with regularity.
Andrew Brown got a few chances to flash his five-star stuff last year, but nothing extensive; this year, his chance is for real. How he performs will go a very long way toward determining the formations. (That is, if he can't be kept off the field, Tenuta will feel very comfortable with a 4-2-5 nickel of four conventional linemen and two linebackers. If Dean is the only consistently dependable DT, the nickel will be more 3-3-5ish, or else Mike Moore will move inside more often.) He won't be doing it alone; you're not fully staffed at DT unless you've got three you can depend on, and Donte Wilkins rounds that out nicely. Wilkins won't pile up the stats, but he can occupy the middle just fine and give Dean and Brown a breather. Fourth tackle Andre Miles-Redmond will see a few snaps scattered around the season, but the bulk of the load and almost all the meaningful snaps will go to the top three.
End is a bit stranger of a situation. Last year's most often-used formation was either a 4-2-5 or a 3-3-5, depending on what you called Max Valles. The staff called him a linebacker. Fine, but if it walks like a defensive end and quacks like a defensive end.... At any rate, Mike Moore was on the field most of the time, nickel formation or not, and playing either a real DE role or more of a three-tech DT. This year I would guess the formations will be a bit more conventional, as the linebacking corps lacks a hyper-athlete suitable for playing with his hand on the ground. Moore is therefore the only really experienced DE and likely to actually play that role in earnest this year.
The other options are a pair of seniors who came highly touted (in different ways) but have yet to make a major contribution. Kwontie Moore was a four-star linebacker who damn well should've redshirted, didn't, grew out of the position, and has had to spend a while behind some unstoppable talents. He's not going to play just because he's listed as a starter; he'll play as much as he shows he should. Same for Trent Corney, another nonsensically burned redshirt whose toutedness was more about his exceptional athletic talents that have never translated into usable football skills. If they do, Corney could remind everyone of Valles.
There won't be the fearsome pass rush that UVA featured last year. There just won't. There's no substitute for being able to bring a freak of nature to flank both sides of the line. Mike Moore is a capable and sometimes dangerous player, but that's not the same as Eli Harold being a threat on every play. Corney is the best chance at providing a big-time edge rush. Otherwise, most of the pressure is going to come right up the middle. Not kidding when I say Dean and Brown have a chance to be the top DT pair in the league, and there are some worthy players at that position in the ACC. Depends on a thing or two, sure, but the chance is there all the same.
Starters: #59 Mark Hall, #53 Micah Kiser, #51 Zach Bradshaw
Backups: #27 Malcolm Cook, #22 Jahvoni Simmons, #15 C.J. Stalker
If you want to find most of the question marks on this defense, you've come to the right place. That's no knock on the players above, it's just the natural thing when all your starters depart and said starters were some of the best players of the position in recent memory. Henry Coley and Daquan Romero, plus Valles in his Darryl Blackstock role, gave UVA a linebacking corps that Al Groh would've been thrilled with.
That's the past, though. How to replace them is the thing. By all accounts, Micah Kiser is ready for the job in the middle. A highly-ranked recruit a couple years ago, Kiser has been apprenticing for this role ever since, and expectations are high. He's not likely to play at the level of senior-year Coley, but he's ready. Zach Bradshaw, too, has been touted as a ready replacement on the weak side.
They'd better be up for it. The answer behind them is: nobody, until you dip into the ranks of the true freshmen. Bradshaw will be getting a very hard push from behind, because C.J. Stalker was an early enrollee this past spring, and has been getting more press than the usual true freshman this fall. Stalker isn't likely to redshirt. Neither is Jahvoni Simmons. The freshman class of linebackers was so deep that there's no way London can resist using some of them, and frankly it might even make sense to.
That leaves the strong side, which was technically what Valles played. Mark Hall is more of a traditional-mold linebacker, capable probably of taking on a tight end's downfield block but unlikely to play a pass-rush-terror role. His backup, at least coming out of the spring, is Malcolm Cook, who weighs 205 pounds. Cook is not a linebacker, he's a moonlighting safety, to be used if the coaches decide the nickel package calls for a third safety rather than a cornerback. Hall might be listed as a starter for the majority of the games, but I expect his snaps to be much more limited than for his compatriots.
Frankly, the productivity of this unit isn't going to be what we were used to these past couple years. It's unrealistic to expect Kiser, Bradshaw, and a bunch of true freshmen to jump right in with the instincts that Coley and Romero had developed. There's reason to believe in the future, though, and reason as well to believe that future might arrive in a couple months rather than a couple years.
Starters: #1 Demetrious Nicholson, #26 Maurice Canady, #38 Kelvin Rainey, #3 Quin Blanding
Backups: #5 Tim Harris, #11 Divante Walker, #28 Wil Wahee, #16 Mason Thomas
As with defensive tackles, you've got a hole in your depth chart if you don't have three cornerbacks. And as with defensive tackles, UVA has three starter-quality guys all lined up. The return of Demetrious Nicholson after a medical redshirt season is a tremendously welcome development. Nicholson spent the first half of last year rehabbing from injury, gave it a shot, and was obviously unready. In one of the better redshirt decisions this staff has made, they decided a full year of rehab and then a full year of healthy football was a better option than trying to work out on a bum wheel.
It's a safe bet, therefore, that he, Canady, and Tim Harris will all be on the field at the same time for a lot of snaps. Harris is probably the odd man out (most of the time) in more traditional formations, but he'll play basically starter's snaps anyway. And he should be ready to take a big step forward; he's been working his way toward a big-time role for a couple years now. Along with fourth corner Divante Walker, who proved a solid option as a backup last year, the cornerback unit is a veteran bunch and top-to-bottom the strongest position on the team.
But they don't have the best player on the team. That's Quin Blanding and there's no argument. Only a sophomore, Blanding had a brilliant debut last year. There's an old heuristic that says if your safeties have the most tackles on the team, your defense sucks. But you can flip that on its head when the defense is among the best in the country at basic defense stuff like stopping the run. Then when your safeties lead the team in tackles, that means you have really frickin' good safeties. Not only did Blanding lead the team by a lot, he was 3rd in the whole damn conference.
His partner in crime, Anthony Harris, has graduated, so UVA promotes Kelvin Rainey to the starting strong safety spot. It's hard to get a read on how he looked last year because Blanding and Harris rarely left the field. I don't recall any major screw-ups, which is nice, but he didn't have much chance to. Rainey is a downgrade from Harris for sure, but that's in the same vein as the linebackers; you just can't immediately and seamlessly replace players that good.
Like last year, though, I don't expect to see much of the backups. Blanding is going to be on the field for every snap that might remotely affect the outcome of a game. On the other hand, Wil Wahee could push Rainey, and the more you see him the more you'll know the coaches are having some indecision. Safeties doesn't need to be rotated the way, say, DTs do.
Blanding alone would make the secondary something for opposing QBs to worry about, but they'll also have those excellent cornerbacks to worry about. If there's anything resembling a pass rush, it'll be an exponential help to the turnover numbers, and Blanding is like having an extra linebacker and running a 4-4-4 defense.
Here's the individual prediction for every scholarship defender on the roster:
#1 - CB Demetrious Nicholson - Assuming he's healthy, and nobody's ever said he isn't, he's top cornerback dog again by mid-October. Probably takes him a few games to really get back up to speed.
#2 - CB Kirk Garner - Hasn't yet caught up to Divante Walker on the depth chart, which is ominous even though Walker is a year older. As the fifth cornerback in the pecking order, will play sporadically.
#3 - FS Quin Blanding - Tackles leader again, probably with even more than last year's total of 123. Will play every snap unless the game is out of reach one way or the other. First-team all-ACC is the goal here - I don't see two other better safeties in the league.
#5 - CB Tim Harris - Third cornerback, which still means basically starters' reps. He needs to get plenty of looks this year because it's his turn next year to draw all the top assignments.
#6 - DE Darrious Carter - His height could give him an edge on Chris Peace as they battle to pick up the scraps of the reps at DE. Those scraps usually come on passing downs where you need someone fresh to just rip it after the QB. I don't think we'll see a lot of Carter, but somewhere along the line he'll do something that keeps him fresh in a lot of minds, similar to Thompson Brown's moment of glory against Miami.
#7 - CB Kareem Gibson - Redshirt if all we're talking about is defense, but just watch him make two special teams tackles this year and cause gnashing of teeth over the redshirt policy.
#9 - DT Andrew Brown - Breakout season the same way his classmate Blanding opened eyes last year. Brown is going to get a lot of chances early as teams decide David Dean is the one they should be double-teaming. He'll make someone pay for it. Nose tackles don't usually have eye-popping numbers, so maybe I should back off a skosh on the breakout season stuff (national media needs to see stats or they don't care) but he's ready to be a force this year.
#11 - CB Divante Walker - He'll be visible. Admittedly, that doesn't sound like a lot, but he's the clear fourth cornerback, which means he'll get quite a bit more playing time than the guys below him on the depth chart, and quite a bit less than the guys above. Don't expect a major impact; if he just keeps receivers in front of him we'll be happy and declare him ready to move up the ladder next year.
#13 - CB Myles Robinson - Redshirt, with the same special teams caveat we give all of London's freshman "don't quite know where we'll put you yet but sign here anyway" athletes.
#15 - LB C.J. Stalker - Stalker will play. I know, trading his best year for his worst. We hardly have a choice. The roster doesn't have six non-true-freshman linebackers. The guy listed behind Stalker on the post-spring depth chart was Jordan Jackson, who left the team. Those aren't likely to be unrelated developments. Truth is, the competition at WLB probably isn't over, and may not be for a few games.
#16 - S Mason Thomas - Is backing up Blanding, therefore garbage time only. Special teamer most of the time.
#21 - FS Juan Thornhill - Redshirt, plus usual caveat. Won't see any time on defense.
#22 - LB Jahvoni Simmons - See Stalker, except that the tea leaves suggest Micah Kiser has a stronger grip on the MLB job, which doesn't give Simmons as much room to operate. Still, he's not redshirting.
#26 - CB Maurice Canady - Will probably lead the team in interceptions, unless Blanding does. He's the most physical of the three starting corners, in contrast to Nicholson's rather technical game, which means Nicholson will generally cover the most dangerous receivers while Canady takes the slot guys and operates closer to the middle of the field.
#27 - LB Malcolm Cook - And by LB we really mean safety that plays closer to the line. I think the position switch is ominous. After he was hyped as all that and a bag of chips, as a safety he should've been able to pass the oft-injured Wil Wahee. Now he's moved to a position where there are way more talented freshmen than you'd expect. I could be wrong. Could be the coaches plan on using him as a third safety in a three-safety nickel package. But Canady can do that pretty well, if you're looking for run support, and has more experience and better cover skills besides. The opinions I've seen seem to think Cook is going to be used heavily. I'm preparing to eat the ol' crow dinner, but I believe otherwise.
#28 - SS Wilfred Wahee - Backup strong safety for now, and if Rainey pans out he'll stay that way. But along with WLB this is one of the more open positions on the defense, and Wahee should be at least as visible as Divante Walker.
#29 - LB Eric Gallon - Redshirt with usual caveat.
#30 - LB Dominic Sheppard - Let's say 50/50 chance he plays, and on defense too. But he's at best a clear third in the freshman-LB pecking order.
#31 - DE Chris Peace - To be honest I think Peace is on his way to bulking up more and becoming more of a strongside DE like Mike Moore. He's fairly short and unless he's just super-lightning-quick he'll be overwhelmed by most OTs. Probably going to see him only sporadically, as I don't think he's fully physically developed into the player the coaches have in mind.
#32 - DE Mike Moore - Has dropped 10 or so pounds, a sign the coaches want him to play actual DE and not the tackle-ish role he played in the past. Not going to match Eli Harold's production, but still the likely sack leader on the team.
#34 - DE Kwontie Moore - All the way up to 280 pounds, he's going to take that job that Mike Moore was doing in the past. Ideally can be a run-stopping anchor on one side of the line, but I have no idea how much he'll actually play because nobody outside the coaches has much idea if he's really - finally - ready to contribute.
#36 - LB Gladimir Paul - Redshirt + caveat.
#38 - SS Kelvin Rainey - Has huge shoes to fill, and if you think that means matching Anthony Harris's production then he hasn't a prayer. But you would be piling on unreasonable expectations. Rainey should be just fine; even with a push from Wahee and maybe even Cook, I expect him to hold down the job just fine.
#39 - CB Darious Latimore - Sixth cornerback, redshirt freshman - garbage time only.
#43 - DE Trent Corney - He'll play more snaps this year than his previous three years combined, and while he won't be a complete monster, he'll do just enough that his burnt redshirt alone is enough for a fresh run on the goods at Charlottesville Torch & Pitchfork.
#47 - LB Tucker Gamble - Likely to be passed up by the newly-arrived freshman class.
#51 - LB Zach Bradshaw - Will dogfight with C.J. Stalker to hold down the WLB spot. I'm not fool enough to try and handicap that race, because I could easily see a platoon lasting all season. I could just as easily see one or the other clearly pulling ahead.
#53 - LB Micah Kiser - On the other hand, I think Kiser becomes a fixture, and the leading tackler not named Blanding.
#54 - LB Cory Jones - Hard to see where his role is this year. His best shot is in a Valles-like role, but we'd've heard by now if he was making any noise along those lines. Very few snaps available.
#55 - DT David Dean - For UVA's defense to be at its best, Dean can't just occupy blockers, he needs to be able to slash and rip past them. He's the marquee player in the front seven and has to play like it. Has a respectable chance at first-team all-ACC, especially if Brown blows up too, though the competition is reasonably strong.
#56 - DT Andre Miles-Redmond - He's the fourth DT, so there is some playing time available. He got into all of two games last year; he won't be an every-game player but he'll see more than two.
#57 - DT James Trucilla - Redshirt, and no caveat even.
#58 - DT Eli Hanback - Ditto.
#59 - LB Mark Hall - "Starting strong-side linebacker" doesn't mean what it means on most teams. Hall is likely to be a running-down player and be the first guy off the field on passing downs. He'll play and be visible, but he'll play less than some so-called backups.
#93 - DT Donte Wilkins - Third DT who will play about half as much as Brown and Dean. He'll be a regular and a solid one, though unlikely to set off fireworks.
#94 - DE Naji Abdullah - Redshirt.
#96 - DE Steven Wright - Ditto.
That's a wrap on the season preview. This week there'll be a UCLA preview, and I do have a full-blown ACC preview cooking, but it'll have to wait til next week.