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 in a couple weeks with ACC Media Days in Charlotte, North Carolina. Leading up to the event, we’ll feature 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.
Senior defensive lineman Eli Hanback has appeared in every game in each of the past two seasons. Last fall, he was the anchor of a line that helped the Cavaliers hold five opponents to fewer than 70 rushing yards and he’s No. 8 in our countdown of 19 Virginia football players to watch in 2019.
After the Cavaliers ended last season with just a handful of healthy defensive linemen, Hanback will have some help from a pair of sophomores, who saw extensive playing time last year, and a talented freshman class, highlighted by defensive lineman Jowon Briggs, who is the highest-rated recruit head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s staff have landed since arriving on Grounds in 2016.
Tale of the tape» Height: 6-4
» Weight: 300
» Hometown: Ashland, Virginia
» Last season: Hanback started games at defensive end and defensive tackle, and he led all UVa defensive linemen with 46 tackles, three tackles for a loss and two sacks. In a weather-altered game against Ohio in Nashville, he recovered two fumbles, one of which he returned 19 yards.
» Depth at the position: Much like last fall, Hanback’s position each week will depend on the matchup. Where he plays will also depend on which of youngsters develop the quickest — nose tackle Jordan Redmond and defensive end Aaron Faumui (the sophomores mentioned above) or Briggs and fellow first-year Ben Smiley. Ends Mandy Alonso and Richard Burney are both coming off injuries, but they’re expected to be ready by the start of fall camp.
» Number to know: 36. Hanback has 36 career starts since his redshirt freshman season in 2016. He has started all 13 in each of the past two seasons.
» Outlook: Wherever Hanback lines up, he’s going to anchor the line again. He’s not a twitchy guy who is going to make a move and consistently make his way into the backfield, but he’s also a guy that isn’t very easy to move in the running game. This fall, he’ll be one of the ACC’s more tenured defensive linemen, and by the end of the season, his name may be mentioned with some of the conference’s top defensive tackles, such as Tanner Karafa — a Virginia native playing at Boston College — N.C. State’s Larrell Murchison and Florida State’s Marvin Wilson.
New class of leadersOne of the top positions Virginia has to replace this season is the leader of the locker room. Chris Peace, last fall’s most vocal captain, is trying to make the Los Angeles Chargers roster. The bulk of last year’s on-field leaders — Olamide Zaccheaus (Falcons), Jordan Ellis (Bengals) and Juan Thornhill (Chiefs) — are also trying to carve out spots for themselves in the NFL.
The Cavaliers need new leadership to emerge, and entering his fifth season in the program, Hanback is a candidate. He’s one of only five members of the 2015 class still on the roster, joining defensive back Myles Robinson, running back Chris Sharp, tight end Tanner Cowley and Burney. Some members of former head coach Mike London’s final class flourished. Thornhill and Zaccheaus come to mind. Others fizzled out, such as former four-star recruit Jahvoni Simmons, who was supposed to be Virginia’s next big thing at linebacker. He’s entering his redshirt senior season at Hampton University, where he appeared in six games last season.
3.5 yards per attemptIt’s the number on the tip of every defensive player’s tongue and the forefront of every coach’s mind. Virginia’s defense has set a goal this season to hold teams to under 3.5 yards per rushing attempt. Last season, the Cavaliers held opponents to 4.3. The year before that, it was 4.7. Last fall, the 147.5 rushing yards UVa gave up a game ranked No. 4 in the ACC.
This year, the Wahoos expect to build on that. With veterans like Hanback and Alonso and budding stars like Briggs and Smiley on the defensive line, tackling machines Zane Zandier and Jordan Mach at inside linebacker, Charles Snowden coming off the edge and a secondary that is once again full of veterans, they have the pieces to do it.
In the Belk Bowl, the Cavaliers limited South Carolina to 33 rushing yards. If they can repeat that kind of performance a few times this fall, Snowden’s sack numbers will go up, cornerback Bryce Hall’s interception totals will skyrocket and Virginia will be heading to a third-straight bowl game for the first time since 1998-2000, which were the final three seasons of former head coach George Welsh’s time on Grounds.