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Tackling weak points

When Virginia coach George Welsh vowed to "reinvent the corporation," his moves included shuffling his assistant coaches and moving a wideout to starting cornerback.

But if one thing still looks the same, it's a front seven comprised of talented and experienced linebackers and capable defensive tackles who plan on reestablishing the Cavalier run defense among the nation's finest.

Virginia returns two starting linebackers, senior captains Byron Thweatt and Yubrenal Isabelle, who will bring a wealth of experience to the defense. While holes have been left in the defensive line and secondary following last season, the linebacking corps remains relatively intact and looks to redirect a defense that gave up nine touchdowns to Illinois in the Bowl in December.

"We still remember it," Thweatt said of the devastating 63-21 loss. "It inspires us to go out and work harder than ever. We use that bowl as a motivational tool."

A potential All-American this season, Thweatt has started every game of his Virginia career. Although he could barely use one arm for most of last season thanks to a lingering shoulder stinger, Thweatt has amassed 262 career tackles, placing him 15th all-time at Virginia.

"Thweatt should be our spiritual leader," Cavalier coach George Welsh said. "So we're going to depend on him for a great performance on the practice field and in games. He's there to keep the defense together."

With Thweatt on the outside, Isabelle will hold down the inside in his second season as a starter. Isabelle was a terror in the middle last year, leading the team with 8.7 tackles per game and piling up a total of 78 despite missing two games.

At the other outside linebacker spot, sophomore Angelo Crowell - the younger brother of former Virginia star wideout Germane Crowell - is penciled in as the starter after a solid season as a true freshman and a stellar spring. Appearing in 11 games and starting one, Crowell led Cavalier reserves last year with 34 tackles.

"Angelo is a tremendous athlete," Thweatt said. "He's fast, he's strong and he wants to learn the game. You got a guy that young, he's going to be great by his senior year."

Behind the starters, the depth at linebacker is superb. Senior Donny Green was an academic casualty last year. But he's a returning as a former starter who had 85 tackles in 1998. Juniors Earl Sims and William Clark have experience as well and true freshmen Raymond Mann and Dennis Haley are two of Virginia's top recruits.

In front of the linebackers, junior defensive tackle Monsanto Pope returns after going down with a knee injury in the season opener last year and missing six games. Junior George Stanley is projected to start alongside Pope, aided by sophomore Colin McWeeny.

"I think we could be one of the top defenses in the ACC," Thweatt said. "We've got the right athletes in the right positions, and we have the coaches who can get us in the right direction."

But while the Cavalier players sound confident, Welsh isn't so sure.

"Offensively, we have a chance to be a pretty good football team," Welsh said. "Defensively, though, I still say there's a lot of holes. You look down the organizational chart and there's a lot of freshmen, sophomores and juniors."


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