Virginia co-defensive coordinator Nick Howell gathered his players early this past spring and laid out exactly what it’s going to take this season for the Cavaliers to be one of the top 10 defenses in the country.
Prominent on the list was holding teams to less than 3.5 yards per carry, and that falls squarely on the shoulders of a very deep group of inside linebackers.
“As inside linebackers, it’s our job on every running play to get to the ball,” Virginia inside linebackers coach Shane Hunter said. “You’ve got to have the mindset to go, go, go and to hit whatever you see.”
Senior Jordan Mack and juniors Zane Zandier and Rob Snyder all return with starting experience in the middle of the Cavaliers’ 3-4 defense. Last season, the trio combined for 182 tackles, and with the addition of freshman Nick Jackson, the inside linebackers are the deepest unit on a defense that returns eight starters.
“We have a lot of guys back, and we’re a confident group,” Zandier said. “We always say the linebackers lead the way on our defense and for our team, just to hold the standard in everything we do.”
In 2016, Mack became the first Virginia freshman to start a game at linebacker since Ahmad Brooks in 2003. He enters his senior season with 31 career starts and 220 career tackles.
In 2017, he started alongside current Los Angeles Rams linebacker Micah Kiser and posted 114 tackles. Last fall, he missed four games with a shoulder injury but still finished second on the team with 66 stops.
“Jordan is athletic, similar to [former UVa linebacker] Malcolm [Cook], but he’s been inside for a few years now and he’s big and strong,” Hunter said.
Mack was a cornerback at Wesleyan High School in Georgia, but after three years of shedding blockers and seeking out collisions, he’s 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds and he’s the unquestioned leader of the front seven.
“He’s a calm dude, and he kind of keeps everything under control,” Zandier said. “The type of athlete he is, it’s fun to play with him.”
Like Mack, Zandier transitioned to linebacker when he arrived on Grounds. He was a wide receiver and safety at Thomas Jefferson High School in Pittsburgh and he had to get used to the physical demands that come with being in the thick of the action on every play.
“All last year was getting used to it. It’s getting used to getting your hands on somebody and having to beat a block on every play instead of being 15 yards back and running up and making a tackle,” said Zandier, who posted 10 tackles in his first career start last season against Ohio. It was the first of eight starts in 2018 for the 6-3, 230-pound former all-state wide receiver.
Virginia co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga liked Zandier at outside linebacker coming out of high school. Hunter always thought he was a natural fit inside.
“He could play either. It was just where did we need him more and where is he going to have the biggest impact on the team?” Hunter said. “He’s just athletic. Being a safety, he knows how to cover, and his nose for the ball is part of how he grew up. He’s from Pittsburgh, and he’s a tough guy.”
Hunter said Snyder (6-2, 240) was pushing Cook for starting reps last spring before an injury slowed him down in fall camp. Snyder still started seven games last fall and showed an innate ability to find the ball.
“Rob is big and physical. He has a great feel for defending the run,” Hunter said. “The other guys haven’t been an inside backer their entire lives. Rob has.”
When it comes to defending the run this season, think of Zandier and Snyder as the tip of the spear.
“Rob and Zane love to hit,” Hunter said. “It’s a natural instinct for them, so they’re really good against the run.”