PITTSBURGH — In the week leading up to Saturday’s season opener at Pittsburgh, Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall said the Cavaliers could rotate as many as six defensive linemen.
He wasn’t far off.
Less than a year after ending the 2018 season with just four healthy linemen, Virginia rotated five in the defensive trenches.
As promised, freshman Jowon Briggs got the start at nose tackle with senior Eli Hanback and Mandy Alonso at end. Hanback also saw snaps at nose while Richard Burney and Aaron Faumui rotated in at end.
Alonso deflected an early pass, Burney showed impressive power in stonewalling Pitt running back A.J. Davis at the line of scrimmage on an early second-and-short and Hanback spent more time in the backfield than last season. He notched a tackle for a loss and shared a sack with linebacker Jordan Mack.
Virginia didn’t always go heavy on the defensive line. In fact, much of the time in the first half, the Cavaliers only had two linemen on the field.
Late last season, Virginia debuted its NASCAR package, which includes four outside linebackers on the field and gave South Carolina fits in the Belk Bowl.
Charles Snowden, Noah Taylor, Elliott Brown and Matt Gahm were all on the field for the first two third downs Pitt faced and both times they pressured Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett into an errant throw.
The Panthers got wise to it in the second quarter, though, and began running a hurry up offense to keep Virginia from subbing its linemen out. That allowed Pitt to bully its way down the field on a 14-play scoring and go into halftime with the lead.
Given its lack of large bodies, the Cavaliers’ coaches have to pick and choose when to use the package but Mendenhall said with so much athleticism on the field, its benefits far outweigh the cost.
“It’s speed,” Mendenhall said. “The quarterback hurt us with his legs today, scrambling and keeping a few drives alive, so that helped us.”
Tackle by committee
Virginia caught everyone in Heinz Field off guard Saturday with a surprise lineup on the offensive line.
Six-foot-10 sophomore Ryan Swoboda started the game at left tackle after spending most of the spring and fall at right. Last season’s left tackle, Ryan Nelson, bumped inside to left guard, Air Force transfer Olusegun Oluwatimi manned center and Chris Glaser moved from left to right guard. Last season’s center, Dillon Reinkensmeyer, started at right tackle.
Oluwatimi, Nelson and Glaser stayed pretty constant on the interior of the line, but Virginia regularly rotated its tackles. Reinkensmeyer only played on the right side. Swoboda and Bobby Haskins played on both sides, with Haskins coming in on short yardage downs.
“It’s competition. We’re still working hard to find those best five, the most complementary five and the right players to do the right thing at the right time,” Mendenhall said. “The way we performed in the second half, I was much more pleased than the first. I think we made some progress through rotation and identifying those five.”
» Mendenhall said neither Tavares Kelly nor fellow slot receiver Billy Kemp made the trip Saturday because of a violation of team rules. He expects both to be available Friday against William & Mary. Graduate transfer wide receiver Dejon Brissett also stayed home as he continues his rehab from offseason foot surgery. Mendenhall didn’t have a timeline for his on-field debut.
» Late in the first half, Mack suffered what may be a concussion. He didn’t play in the second half and Mendenhall didn’t have an update as to the severity of the injury.
» Gahm snagged his first career interception in the third quarter.
» Safety Joey Blount’s sack in the third quarter was the first of his career. He recorded another in the fourth.
» Taylor’s blocked punt in the first quarter was Virginia’s first since Snowden blocked one in 2017 against Miami.
» Senior wide receiver Joe Reed’s seven catches were a career high.
» Quarterback Bryce Perkins threw two touchdown passes Saturday. He has now thrown multiple touchdowns in 13 of his 14 career games at UVa.
» Saturday’s attendance in Heinz Field was 47,144.
Ron Counts covers University of Virginia athletics for The Daily Progress. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, (434) 978-7245, or on Twitter @Ron_CDPsports.