With two transfers and a pair of freshmen added to the mix, Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall went into last season feeling better about the depth on the defensive line than at any point since he landed in Charlottesville in 2016.
Neither transfer panned out, which played a role in forcing the freshmen into starting roles. By the end of the season, injuries had taken a toll and Virginia went into the Belk Bowl with just three healthy defensive linemen.
This season, there are no transfers to speak of in the trenches, but the Cavaliers return last fall’s top six linemen and the addition of two highly touted freshmen again have the Cavaliers hopeful about fielding a healthy rotation.
“We have a lot of experience and depth, and a lot of young guys who will be able to play with the experience they gain here in camp,” senior Eli Hanback said. “We’ll have the ability to play more than three guys. As long as everyone stays healthy and upholds the standard, we’ll be able to rotate guys.”
Hanback (6-4, 300) is the elder statesman of the group. He can play end or nose tackle in Virginia’s 3-4 scheme, and he has appeared in 38 straight games since 2016.
“I haven’t gone without my nicks and bruises,” said Hanback, referencing a broken thumb two years ago that left him playing in a mini cast. “I’ve been blessed to not be seriously hurt. That’s rare, because the trenches are tough and a lot of guys get banged up.”
Hanback leads all current Cavaliers with 36 career starts. Senior cornerback Bryce Hall is next with 33, followed by inside linebacker Jordan Mack with 31.
“He’s tough and he’s durable,” Mendenhall said of Hanback. “We talk about being consistent and durable and productive, and Eli is exactly that. He’s zero drama.”
Defensive ends Mandy Alonso (6-2, 280) and Richard Burney (6-4, 275) are also back after finishing last season on injured reserve. Burney was Virginia’s most disruptive lineman during the first three games of last season before an undisclosed medical condition left him on the shelf for the rest of the year.
Alonso’s best game last season came with Pittsburgh in town in early November, but he suffered a dislocated kneecap, which required surgery just two weeks later and left him on the sideline for the rest of the year.
“I was definitely in a big shock and frustrated, but things happen and I had to move on,” Alonso said. “It was pretty intense rehab. I had surgery, and almost as soon as I got back, I was just focused on bending my knee. Then it was progressing to field work and everything else.”
End Aaron Faumui (6-1, 285) appeared in 12 games last season and started four. He missed the Belk Bowl with an illness.
Nose tackle Jordan Redmond (6-0, 290) appeared in eight games with five starts and was named a midseason All-American by ESPN.
They’re joined by sophomore Tommy Christ (6-5, 280), who saw limited action last fall, freshman Jowon Briggs (6-1, 295), who Mendenhall said is already working with the starters, and fellow first-year Ben Smiley (6-4, 260) — a defensive end from the 757.
That much depth playing in front of a veteran group of linebackers gives the Cavaliers hope that they can hold teams to fewer than the 147.5 rushing yards a game they gave up last season.
“I think we can be a very good front seven,” Hanback said. “There are a lot of strong, fast dudes who have all played together. In the offseason, we focused on mindset, assignment fundamentals and techniques. Stopping the run is tough, so it’s mostly a mindset thing.”
Virginia opens the season Aug. 31 at Pittsburgh, which hung 254 rushing yards on the Cavaliers in its 23-13 win last fall in Scott Stadium.