In the first four years of Bronco Mendenhall’s tenure as head football coach at Virginia, the Cavaliers increased their win total each year from 2-10 in 2016, to 6-7 in 2017, to 8-5 in 2018, to a 9-4 run in 2019 that included an ACC Coastal title and a trip to the Orange Bowl. In 2020, that stretch of continued improvement came to an end as the Hoos went 5-5 and ended the season with a disappointing loss against Virginia Tech. With a brand new season right around the corner and UVA looking to continue to establish a winning football program, it is time to preview the 2021 Virginia Cavaliers football season. In this four part series, we will break down the UVA offense, defense, special teams, and schedule.
Note: This is part two of the four-part analysis of the 2021 Virginia football season. Check out part one here. Be sure to stay tuned for parts three and four arriving later this week.
Statistically, the Virginia defense had a dismal 2020 season. The Cavalier defense gave up an average of 442.9 yards per game (10th in the ACC), 6.4 yards per play (14th in the ACC), and 29.6 points per game (9th in the ACC). UVA also allowed 304 passing yards per game (last in the ACC) and the Virginia defense was last in the ACC defensive efficiency.
However, there were some bright spots for last year’s defense. The Hoos were 4th in the ACC in rushing yards allowed per game and 6th in sacks with a season total of 32 and 6th in interceptions with a total of 11.
For the most part, though, the 2020 football season was one to forget for the Cavalier defense and there are a number of returning players who are eager to get a fresh start and right the ship in 2021. The good news is that the Cavaliers bring back a very experienced defensive group that features talented veterans to lead every major position group.
The UVA defensive line was severely depleted in 2020 due to injuries, Covid opt-outs, as well as the departure of star defensive tackle Jowon Briggs, who transferred to Cincinnati. Fortunately, Virginia has a fair amount of depth on the defensive line this season. Mandy Alonso is back this season after starting nine of UVA’s ten games in 2020 and recording two sacks and four tackles for loss. Senior Adeeb Atariwa, who transferred from JMU before the 2020 season, recorded two sacks last year in six starts. Junior Aaron Faumui, who opted out of the 2020 season, started nine games in his first two seasons and had a season-high seven tackles in Virginia’s victory over Virginia Tech in 2019. In addition to these veteran leaders, Jahmeer Carter and Nusi Malani are both sophomores who played significant snaps and had promising starts to their careers last year and freshman Bryce Carter is the highest ranked player in UVA’s incoming recruiting class.
The linebacker core has always been an area of strength in the Bronco Mendenhall era. Highly decorated players such as Micah Kiser, Chris Peace, Zane Zandier, Jordan Mack, and Charles Snowden have led highly successful linebacking groups in years past. With the departures of Charles Snowden, Zane Zandier, Robb Snyder, and Matt Gahm, linebacker is a slight question mark heading into this season. However, UVA does bring back Noah Taylor and Nick Jackson to lead a group of young, but talented, linebackers.
Noah Taylor, who was named to the senior bowl watch list, recorded one interception, one forced fumble, three sacks, and 44 tackles last year. Taylor’s combination of strength and speed makes him a formidable pass rusher, run stopper, and capable of dropping into coverage. Junior Nick Jackson was named third team All-ACC and ranked No. 2 in the ACC with 10.5 tackles per game and No. 6 nationally with 105 total tackles. Jackson was also named to the preseason watch list for the Butkus Award, awarded to the best linebacker in the country. The Hoos also return Elliot Brown, a senior who appeared in all ten games last season, to help lead the linebackers. There are many promising but unproven linebackers on the roster, including T.C. Harrison, Josh Ahern, and Hunter Steward, any of whom could be primed for a breakout season.
The UVA secondary was routinely torched on the long ball in 2020, but this position group was also ravaged by a slew of injuries which left the remaining athletes playing out of their normal positions. Besides the departures of D’Angelo Amos and Brenton Nelson, UVA returns a great deal of depth and experience to the defensive backs unit in 2021. Senior cornerback Nick Grant recorded two interceptions, one forced fumble, and 31 tackles in 2020. Joey Blount, a senior safety, was an All-ACC performer in 2019 and, despite missing considerable time with an injury, managed to record one interception, one forced fumble, and a sack last year. Senior Darrius Bratton is back at cornerback after appearing in nine of UVA’s ten games last year. Another senior, safety De’Vante Cross, returns for a sixth season at UVA after starting all ten games in 2020 and tallying 29 tackles, two interceptions, one sack, and six passes defended. Junior Antonio Clary started three games last year and made seven tackles and recovered a fumble in UVA’s win over Louisville. Finally, Anthony Johnson is a transfer from Louisville who is immediately eligible to play for the Cavaliers. Johnson had 42 tackles and two interceptions during his time at Louisville.
The 2021 Virginia defensive unit has a dangerous combination of talent, experience, and depth, not to mention a massive chip on their shoulder to prove the doubters wrong after a less than ideal 2020 season. Look out for the Havoc Hoos to return in force in 2021.