The Virginia football team is coming off its first eight-win season since 2011 and a dominant performance in the Belk Bowl against South Carolina. Add to that the Cavaliers’ highest-rated recruiting class since 2014 and it’s easy to see how expectations in Charlottesville are at a level unmatched by any UVa football team in the past decade.
The unofficial transition from summer to fall begins this week with ACC Media Days in Charlotte, North Carolina. Leading up to the event, we’re featuring 19 UVa players to watch in 2019. Some are familiar names. Some are new. All are expected to play massive roles in Virginia’s continued rebuild this season.
We’ve made the long journey to the top three Cavaliers to watch this season. Coming in at No. 3 is last season’s breakout star and one of the defensive returners expected to take the biggest step this season, junior linebacker Charles Snowden.
He spent much of his adolescence on the basketball court and only played a couple years of football in high school, but Snowden may be Virginia’s top linebacker in pass coverage and he’s emerging as a pass-rushing threat off the edge.
Tale of the tape
Hometown: Silver Spring, Maryland
Last season: Snowden started all 13 games opposite Chris Peace, and he finished just behind the elder Cavalier with 61 tackles. He also added 7.5 tackles for a loss and two interceptions, and he was named ACC linebacker of the week with eight tackles, a sack, an interception and two pass breakups against Louisville.
Depth at the position: If he’s healthy, Snowden will be on the field. The question is who will start opposite him, fellow third-year Elliott Brown or sophomore Noah Taylor? Whichever doesn’t will join Matt Gahm as the primary backups. Freshman Hunter Stewart (6-3, 220) came in with impressive measurables, and he’s a dark horse candidate for playing time.
Number to know: 9. Snowden led all NCAA Division I linebackers last season with nine pass breakups and 11 passes defended.
Outlook: Last fall, Snowden emerged as a star. This season, he’s one of the most intriguing returners in the ACC and he has a chance to show scouts how legitimate of an NFL prospect he is. His length and ability to operate in space, which was honed from years on the basketball court, make him a nightmare in pass defense. As he continues to add bulk to his athletic frame, he’ll evolve into more of a threat as a pass rusher. With an impressive junior season, there’s a very real possibility he could hear his name called in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Snowden is a prototype for Virginia’s personnel department. He’s certainly not the first basketball player UVa Director of Player Personnel Justin Anderson has helped turn into a star on the football field, but his athleticism on the court became an example for what the Cavaliers are looking for in a linebacker.
The amount of explosion and mobility required for a power forward to block shots and rebound and defend smaller, quicker opponents just seems to translate to the position. Brown was an all-county basketball player at Flowers High School. Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall went to see middle linebacker Zane Zandier take the court in high school and said he played like a football player.
“This isn’t going to be a popular opinion, but basketball players are better athletes than football players,” Anderson said. “There’s a skill set there that we’re looking for.”
Is Virginia LBU?
Virginia has a rich tradition at linebacker. From Jamie Sharper (1993-96), who still owns Virginia’s record for most solo tackles in a career (295), to Micah Kiser, whose 145 stops in 2017 rank No. 2 on the single-season chart. Angelo Crowell’s (1999-02) 155 tackles in 2002 still stand as the single-season record.
Clint Sintim (2005-07) is No. 2 on the Cavaliers’ career sack list with 29, followed by Darryl Blackstock’s (2002-04) 27. Virginia’s sack leader Chris Slade (40) — a defensive end in college — even went on to success in the NFL as a linebacker. Ahmad Brooks (2003-05) and James Farrior (1993-96) had impressive NFL careers, and, like Kiser, Jon Copper (2005-08) led the Wahoos in tackles three years in a row.
Snowden joins Zandier and Jordan Mack as the most likely candidates to add their names to list of Virginia’s great linebackers.