Defensive report card
Linebackers stand firm, secondary shows improvement
Virginia stands at 2-3 and 1-0 in the ACC following its win against Duke Saturday. Virginia’s most recent victory against the Blue Devils epitomized what the Cavalier defense should be. Virginia forced six turnovers, including five interceptions, en route to a 34-20 victory.
However, the defense has not performed at that level in all five games this season.
Last season, Virginia’s defensive line left much to be desired. Then-junior defensive tackle Donte Wilkins and sophomore defensive end Andrew Brown rarely stepped on the field.
This year, Wilkins, in his final year as a Cavalier, has been able to make more of an impact. He is one of Virginia’s three captains and has been consistent as a tackle, averaging 4.4 tackles per game.
Brown experienced his first true breakout game in the Cavaliers’ loss to Connecticut three weekends ago. Coming out of high school as the Gatorade National Player of the Year, Brown’s junior year has proven to be the year that talent finally comes to fruition. Against the Huskies, Brown tallied six tackles, including 3.5 for loss, tipped a pass and recovered a fumble. Despite his breakout performance, Brown has yet to find a level of consistency and averages 3.8 tackles per game.
Redshirt freshman defensive end Eli Hanback is a new face on the defensive line. Hanback had a daunting first career start against Oregon, but managed to make three tackles against the speedy Ducks. Most notably, the Ashland, Va. native recovered the Duke fumble in the end zone in the final minutes of last Saturday’s win, sealing Virginia’s victory with a touchdown.
Last season, then-sophomore Micah Kiser led the linebackers without much aid from his counterparts. This season, Kiser still leads, but with solid support from the rest of the unit.
Freshman linebacker Jordan Mack made his presence known from the beginning of the season. Mack made a statement in Eugene, Ore. with six tackles, including two for loss and one forced fumble. Against the Blue Devils, Mack tallied eight tackles and made his first SportsCenter appearance with his strip sack of redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones, a play that resulted in a Cavaliers touchdown to push the lead to 14 points.
Senior linebacker Zach Bradshaw has stepped up to the plate in his final season after his 2015 season was cut short with an injury. Bradshaw ranks third on the team with 43 total tackles on the season. Bradshaw has been strong consistently, with his best performance coming against Duke with 12 tackles.
Kiser has been a staple of Virginia’s defense for the last two seasons and has only gotten better in 2016. Kiser leads the team with 58 total tackles, which averages to 11.6 per game. The All-ACC first team player was one of the only defenders to make an impact against Richmond, with 14 tackles, one sack and two fumbles. He has been phenomenal in all five contests, but most notably recorded 18 tackles, including one sack and three broken-up passes against the Blue Devils.
The Virginia secondary was one of the most disappointing units last season, and proved to be much of the same over Virginia’s first couple of contests. Although the Cavaliers are currently ranked 119th nationally in passing defense, giving up 309.6 yards per game, Virginia has shown improvement, collecting seven interceptions so far, compared to four all last season.
Sophomore safety Juan Thornhill is one player who has shown improvement over the course of the season. After making four tackles against the Spiders in the season opener and recording seven tackles against Oregon, Thornhill recorded his first career interception at Connecticut. The Altavista, Va. native missed the Central Michigan game due to injury, but returned to have a breakout performance at Duke, making two interceptions and recording four tackles. Thornhill was named the ACC Defensive Back of the Week after his performance.
Junior safety Quin Blanding is perhaps Virginia’s all-around most talented player, along with Kiser. Blanding has been the most consistent secondary player so far this season. Blanding shared the team lead in what was overall a poor defensive performance against Oregon with nine tackles, and shared the lead again against Connecticut with 11 tackles. Blanding then led the team with 12 tackles against Central Michigan. The Virginia Beach, Va. native recorded his first interception of the season against Duke, which was one of five interceptions for the team.
Overall Grade: C+
While nearly every facet of the defense was clicking in Durham, N.C. against the Blue Devils, it would be improper to neglect to mention the Cavalier defense’s slow starts against Richmond and Oregon. Virginia ranks 109th in total defense, but was 125th after week 2, only ranking ahead of Bowling Green, Texas State and Arkansas State.
However, the defense is fairly young, and has the potential to continue improving with the remainder of the conference schedule. Currently, the defense ranks 80th in scoring defense, allowing 29.8 points per game, even while ceding 81 points in the first two weeks. The Cavaliers will need to continue on their uphill climb if they hope to make an impact against their remaining ACC opponents.