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Defense Ready to Lead the Way for UVA

By Dave Holcomb
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The Cavaliers are returning 15 players who started at least one game on defense in 2019.

Virginia made program and ACC history in 2019 by winning its first ACC Coastal division title. In addition to that first title, the Cavaliers ended their 15-game losing streak against rival Virginia Tech, made their first Orange Bowl and capped off maybe the most impressive streak of all, becoming the seventh and final different team to win the Coastal division in the last seven years.

It’s hard to envision what the Cavaliers will do for an encore in 2019, especially without starting quarterback Bryce Perkins along with three of the team’s top four pass catchers. But Virginia has enough defensive talent returning to make a division title repeat possible.

Because of injuries to top players last year, younger defenders gained valuable experience, particularly in the postseason, playing Clemson in the ACC Championship and Florida in the Orange Bowl. That will only help this coming season, as defeats to those programs have now become teaching moments for 2020.

The Cavaliers are returning 15 players who started at least one game on defense in 2019. That includes Virginia’s top three tacklers -- Zane Zandier, Joey Blount and Charles Snowden. Zandier and Snowden will likely make up a linebacker core that’s one of the best in the ACC this fall.

Zandier, who led the team with 108 total tackles last year, just hits everything up the middle. He finished fourth in tackles and ninth in tackles per game in the ACC.

Snowden and Noah Taylor are expected to be as dominant as Zandier but on the outside as edge rushers. As a sophomore, Taylor led the Cavaliers with 13.5 tackles for loss and finished second on the team with 7.0 sacks. Snowden posted 72 total tackles and 5.0 sacks, which was third-most for Virginia in both categories.

By the end of all their careers, Nick Jackson may prove to be the best linebacker on the Virginia roster. He hasn’t recorded the statistics to make that claim yet, but he played very well as a true freshman last fall. With all the other linebacker talent on the Cavaliers roster, Jackson is a prime breakout candidate for 2020.

Virginia finished third in sacks in the ACC last season but despite the pass rush, the Cavaliers ended the year tied for seventh in takeaways in the conference and owned a minus-3 turnover margin. Virginia only recovered six fumbles in 2019, which was tied for 10th in the ACC. If the Cavaliers pass rush is lethal again, more fumble recoveries seem likely. A more opportunistic defense and/or better turnover ratio could help keep the Cavaliers near the top of the Coastal standings even with a less efficient offense.

Seven Cavaliers defenders picked off 12 passes a year ago, which placed the team in the top half of the conference in interceptions. All seven of those defenders are returning, including free safety Joey Blount, who led the team with three interceptions.

One of the more experienced defenses may be enough for Virginia to win the Coastal as long as the offense doesn’t stand in the team’s way. The Cavaliers will likely turn to sophomore-to-be Brennan Armstrong behind center. He only threw 20 passes a year ago and tossed two interceptions.

That’s not a good sign for the turnover margin, but rather than a run-oriented offense centering around the quarterback, the Virginia offense may simply run through its top two running backs. Rising junior Wayne Taulapapa led Virginia with 12 rushing touchdowns and all Cavaliers runners not named Perkins in rushing yards during 2019. Rising sophomore Mike Hollins only had 21 carries last fall, but in the small sample, he averaged 5.3 yards per carry. Taulapapa and Hollins could make up a dynamic duo to relieve pressure off Armstrong.

Even though several top playmakers left at receiver, Virginia isn’t completely void of talent there either. Rising senior Terrell Jana was one of three Cavaliers with at least 74 receptions last season, and he should rise to be the team’s new top target. There’s inexperience beyond Jana at receiver, but Armstrong should have plenty of time to find targets with Virginia returning seven offensive linemen who made a start last year.

It arguably took a down year in the Coastal for Virginia to win the division with three losses. This preseason, experts are going to stay away from picking Virginia to win the Coastal for that reason and because of the change at quarterback.

But what’s changed in the Coastal since last year? It’s still wide open. Plus, since Bronco Mendenhall became head coach, the Cavaliers have only improved every year. In 2020, their new goal is to become the first repeat division champions in the Coastal since Virginia Tech in 2010 and 2011.

In a division void of an elite program, Virginia possesses the defense to make a title repeat possible.