Virginia hired Bronco Mendenhall because he can not only coach defense at a high level. He can also motivate his players to play at a level above themselves. Virginia’s defense plays so hard that it’s genuinely fun to watch. They always get four or five guys to the ball. When they make a play they celebrate like it was the first time they’ve ever made a big play, too. The best thing about college sports is watching young men and women have a ton of fun playing the game and giving their full effort. UVA does that and they’ve gone from 2-10 to six wins and a bowl game in one year. Bronco deserves a lot of credit for getting them to that point.
The defense is what leads this team even though the offense has made a lot of big plays in their wins. Mike London did a pretty good job of recruiting on defense even though his recruiting didn’t translate into wins. Bronco came in and took what he had and put his best guys on the field. He didn’t shy away from playing young guys if they were his best option. That’s helped him this year as he only has three seniors in his two-deep.
The defensive line is a strong unit for the Hoos with former 5-star Andrew Brown leading the way at left end. Brown has the size of a defensive tackle but he’s plenty quick enough to play end in their 3-4. While Brown gets the attention, Eli Hanback is the guy that stood out to me at nose tackle. Hanback is big at 305 pounds but he moves extremely well and he’s extremely disruptive. For the last few years we all watched DeAngelo Brown blow up plays and allow other guys to make plays. Hanbeck does the same thing but he gets in on a lot of tackles also.
UVA is really good against the pass but they do have some struggles versus the run. Teams run the ball a lot more than they pass against them but they’re about average when it come to yards per carry. The linebackers haven’t been as good as you might want at filling holes and stuffing run plays. Run stuffs is a stat that I’ve really relied on a lot this year and I expected UVA to have a ton of them from linebackers with how much teams are running the ball. That’s not the case with UofL actually having better numbers between Stacy Thomas (who has missed multiple games), James Hearns, and Trevon Young all having more runs stuffs than the top UVA player.
Micah Kiser is one of my favorite players in the country for some of the things he does off the field but he’s one of the best linebackers in the country, also. Kiser might not be a high draft pick next year but he’s exactly what you want for your team. He’s super productive and he makes the type of impact plays that you need from the leader of your defense. Kiser is on pace for double digit tackles for loss for the third straight year and he should end up with well over 100 tackles again. He just makes plays and he should be a guy Louisville looks to scheme for.
Louisville really has to be on the lookout for Chris Peace at the weakside outside linebacker spot. UVA runs a true 3-4 and Peace leads the team in tackles for loss on the season. Jordan Mack is the embodiment of everything you read in the first paragraph. Mack came in as a freshman last year and he was given the opportunity to play. This season he’s been the exact player they’ve needed to turn the corner on defense. Mack plays full speed on every play and does all of those things that don’t show up on the stat sheet that you absolutely need guys to do. Mack is also a good example of a guy who acts before he thinks but still stays within the scheme. It’s something UofL has lacked this year with guys being a step or two slow all the time because they’re instincts aren’t there yet.
I was really impressed with the secondary for UVA when I watched their games. They play the ball very well and they really get after it in run support. Juan Thornhill is a converted safety but he stands out as the best cover guy even though he’s their number two corner. Thornhill and Bryce hall have 17 PBUs between them and that close coverage they provide also helps them curb big plays after the catch. Louisville kinda forces you to play zone because Lamar Jackson can take off at any moment, but Mendenhall might just go the other route and bring a bunch of pressure instead. That would put these guys in man coverage and they have held their own this year.
The safety spots are where UVA is at their best in my opinion. Brenton Nelson has been a revelation at strong safety as a freshman and he plays the game like Jordan Mack does. It’s a million miles an hour for Nelson and he has made a lot of plays for this defense. He has four interceptions on the season and he gets in on a lot of tackles.
Quin Blanding is the star for Virginia’s defense. This is the fourth year that I’ve written about Blanding and I can’t think of a more consistent player in the country over those four years. He should end up with his fourth straight year with 100 plus tackles and this year he is making more plays in the box. Lamar hasn’t been slowed down much this year but if Mendenhall does elect to bring a lot of pressure I think that Blanding could be a big factor when it comes to containing Lamar if he gets out of the pocket or breaks free on a read option run. Wake Forest had some success with Jessie Bates playing inside to outside and chasing Lamar down. I could see Blanding doing the same.