Countdown to College Football Kickoff: Top NFL prospects at Virginia

Sep 14, 2019; Charlottesville, VA, USA; Florida State Seminoles quarterback James Blackman (1) passes the ball as Virginia Cavaliers linebacker Charles Snowden (11) defends in the first half at Scott Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Rob Rang

College football is scheduled to return Saturday, August 29. Each day until then, will be evaluating the rosters of the best teams in college football, including all 64 within the Power Five conferences.

Virginia Cavaliers

Head Coach: Bronco Mendenhall (fourth season)

2019 Record: 9-5

2020 NFL Draft Picks: Joe Reed, WR, Los Angeles Chargers – 5 Round, No. 151 overall

Bryce Hall, CB, New York Jets – 5th Round, No. 158 overall


The Virginia Cavaliers have enjoyed a steady rise since luring Bronco Mendenhall away from BYU, improving their win total each of the past four years, including in 2019 when the team won the ACC’s Coastal Division and qualified for the Orange Bowl.

The turnaround has quietly been one of the most impressive in college football during that time, with Virginia holding steady last year even after losing its best player – reigning All-American cornerback Bryce Hall – to a fractured ankle in a 17-9 loss to Miami in Week Six. That loss put the Cavs at 4-2 on the year just as conference play was getting into full swing. Rather than fold, however, the Cavaliers responded, going 5-1 throughout the rest of the regular season and finishing the year a sparkling 7-0 at Scott Stadium.

With Hall, quarterback dynamic dual-threat quarterback Bryce Perkins and do-it-weapon Joe Reed among Virginia’s standouts who exhausted their eligibility last year, however, it seems likely that Cavaliers will take a step back in 2020.

Plenty of talent returns on the defensive side of the ball, however, and Mississippi State graduate transfer Keytaon Thompson – the Louisiana prep Player of the Year in 2016 – offers a similar skill-set as Perkins, leading to optimism from the Virginia faithful that Mendenhall’s crew will once again outplay expectations.

Featured 2021 NFL Draft Prospect: Charles Snowden III, OLB, 6-6, 235, 4.65, SR

Playing outside linebacker in a traditional 3-4 front typically provides a player with plenty of opportunities to affect the quarterback, though in the case of the imposing Snowden, that has resulted in more pass breakups than sacks.

The long-armed edge rusher enters his senior campaign with 12 career passes defended and “only” nine sacks, though five of them notably came last year when he was named Honorable Mention All-ACC by the league coaches and media.

Snowden’s awareness of passing lanes is not surprisingly given that he played both wide receiver and linebacker in high school, signing with Virginia after hauling in 35 receptions for 630 yards and nine touchdowns on the offensive side of the ball as a senior.

Nevertheless, Mendendhall and his staff viewed Snowden’s best potential attacking quarterbacks, rather than helping them. Providing a peek as to what he would provide with greater strength, Snowden saw action early at Virginia, playing in 10 games and recording 13 tackles, including two for loss and 1.5 sacks as a true freshman.

The rest of country caught on to Snowden in 2018 when he started all 13 games for the Cavaliers, jumping to 62 tackles, including 7.5 for loss and two sacks. As mentioned earlier, Snowden’s awareness of passing lanes was what really stood out, as he simply led all FBS linebackers with 11 pass breakups, including two interceptions.

Opposing quarterbacks wisely began to recognize Snowden’s success in tipping passes at the line and his statistics dropped in this key statistic in 2019 (four PBUs), though Virginia capitalized on their confusion, sending blitzers from virtually every direction and watching their sack total leap from 28 sacks in 2018 (tied for 55 in the country) to 44 last season, ninth overall.

Strengths: Imposing frame with plenty of room left to fill out. Good initial quickness and snap anticipation to challenge the edge and, while lacking top strength at this time, Snowden extends his arm nicely and shows good lateral agility to set the edge and forces backs wide… Galloping strides help him eat up ground in a hurry and Snowden shows at least adequate core flexibility to bend around the edge and close as a pass rusher. Highly alert to the quarterback, sacrificing his rush plans to leap into the air and spike passes to the turf like a volleyball player. Surprisingly fluid when dropping back into coverage, showing agility when flipping his hips to transition. Massive wingspan, which allows him to cloak potential pass-catchers while in coverage, forcing quarterback to look to other options. Shows good hands and body control when the ball is near. 

Generally a reliable open-field tackler who breaks down well and sees what he hits, wrapping his arms securely and driving his legs. Long arms also show up as a tackler, where Snowden has shown a knack for ripping down ballcarriers and lassoing their feet from behind. Good effort laterally and downfield in pursuit. Timing and length just as evident on special teams, where Snowden already has a blocked punt (Miami, 2017) and field goal (Indiana, 2018) to his credit.

Weaknesses: Has a basketball-like frame with spindly limbs. Currently lacks the take-on strength expected at linebacker, struggling to rip himself free once blockers lock on despite his significant arm-length advantage. 

Quicker than he is fast, lacking the explosiveness to scare NFL pass blockers with his speed rushes. Angular frame gives opponents a large target to hit and Snowden’s average core strength and hand play result in his getting sufficiently blocked out of the play far too often. Needs to show more nastiness in his play as a tackler with ballcarriers taking him for a ride, at times, when he does not have a runway to gather momentum.

NFL Player Comparison: Barkevious Mingo, Houston Texans – Snowden is going to be an interesting litmus test for NFL scouts as very few current linebackers in the league possess his unique frame and game, likely making him a polarizing prospect. The 6-5, 235 pound Mingo entered the NFL as the sixth overall pick by Cleveland back in 2013 but has bounced around the league since, with stops in New England, Indianapolis and Seattle prior to joining the Texans as part of the Jadeveon Clowney trade. Snowden’s upside could draw similar excitement from some with others seeing a true ‘tweener.

Current NFL Draft Projection: Second-Third Round

The Top 10 NFL Prospects at Virginia:

1. Charles Snowden III, OLB, 6-6, 235, 4.65, SR

2. Zane Zandier, ILB, 6-2, 230, 4.85, SR

3. Joey Blount, S, 6-0, 190, 4.50, SR

4. Wayne Taulapapa, RB, 5-09, 210, 4.55, JR

5. De'Vante Cross, S, 6-1, 210, 4.60, SR

6. Terrell Jana, WR, 6-0, 190, 4.55, SR

7. Olusegun Oluwatimi, C, 6-3, 305, 5.15, rJR

8. Noah Taylor, OLB, 6-4, 220, 4.65, JR

9. Keytaon Thompson, QB, 6-4, 225, 4.75, SR – Grad-transfer from Mississippi State 

10. Dillon Reinkensmeyer, OL, 6-5, 300, 5.20, rSR

*All 40-yard dash times are estimates