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Clint Sintim looks to rebuild Virginia linebacker corps from the ground up

clint sintim
Virginia linebackers coach Clint Sintim. Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

Clint Sintim, to Nick Jackson, is “a dude,” and by the way he said it, you got a sense of the respect, bordering on reverence, he meant by it.

“He’s been there, he’s been at UVA, he’s been a second-round pick, I mean, he’s been everywhere we all want to go. So, at this point and stage in my career, like, just learning from him and seeing everything that he has to offer, it’s just been unreal and just an honor to learn from him,” said Jackson, a senior inside linebacker, and a “dude” in his own right, Virginia’s leading tackler in 2021, with 117.

Sintim is the program’s new linebackers coach, after coaching defensive ends the past two years on the staff of Bronco Mendenhall.

Linebacker is a unit in progress at Virginia. Jackson returns as the anchor, but the unit lost edge ‘backer Noah Taylor (69 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 19 QB pressures, 4 pass breakups in 2021) and inside ‘backer West Weeks (31 tackles, 1 TFL, 5 PBUs) to the transfer portal.

Both would have been expected to start and contribute big in 2022.

There’s plenty of depth in the position room, just not a lot of experience. Jackson was on the field for 796 snaps last year. Hunter Stewart (37 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 2 sacks, 14 QB pressures) played 338, Josh Ahern (25 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 3 QB pressures) played 241. T

The rest of the returning guys, combined, logged 128 total.

“These guys can play. That’s my impression,” Jackson said. “They’re coming out, and they’re hungry. They’re always asking to watch more film, always asking to get more extra reps, always trying to compete on the field. And they’re hungry, and I like that a lot. They’re trying to compete and keeping me fresh, keeping me on my toes and keeping me competing.”

The focus for the ‘backer group this spring, according to Sintim, a 2009 UVA graduate and 2009 second-round draft pick of the New York Giants, is on the basics.

“I think, you know, first, they’ve got to understand the defense and the playbook. And then they got to be great communicators,” Sintim said. “As a ‘backer, you got to take pride and just the ownership of the defense, getting people lined up, understanding where you fit, and then doing it with a sense of urgency and physicality. So, I’m just trying to reiterate some of those things over and over again. But I’d say the biggest thing is probably communication, and just trying to help get everybody aligned.”

There’s talent among the young guys in the unit. Sophomores Jonathan Horton and Josh McCarron were both four-star prep recruits, and classmate Mike Green brings interesting athleticism – he was signed as wide receiver before switching to linebacker.

And don’t forget Georgia Tech transfer Chico Bennett Jr., who missed last season with a torn ACL after logging 412 snaps over two seasons in Atlanta before making the move to Virginia.

“There’s no depth chart right now. Everyone’s competing. Everyone knows that,” Jackson said. “With a new coaching staff, everything you’ve done in the past, it doesn’t matter who you are, you’ve got to play with a chip on your shoulder, and you’ve got to play with a little bit of edge right now. Everyone’s job is up for grabs. A lot of guys left from last year, too, and a lot of guys are just competing for spots, so everyone’s going harder, and iron sharpens iron. That’s just been fun to see this spring.”

Sintim has been encouraged early on in spring practice by what he has seen from his linebackers.

“I would say, as a group, they’re very smart, you know, they’re smart football players,” Sintim said. “They understand concepts and leveraging, and they’ve been taught pretty well. So, for me, now, it’s just implementing the new defense, putting my spin on certain things, and, you know, trying to get them to do it at a high level, but the intent is there, which is good. You’ve got a group of guys who really, really want to be good at it, and it’s just a matter of giving them pieces to be able to do it, and then doing it at a high level.”

Tackling, lack thereof, was the defining issue for the Virginia defense in 2021, which ranked 13th in the ACC in total defense (466.0 yards per game) and 14th, dead last, in rushing defense (225.8 yards per game, 5.8 yards per carry).

It felt like the front seven – the defensive line and linebackers – were consistently out of place at the snap, not good at seeing plays develop, constantly playing catch up.

Those fundamentals are a point of emphasis this spring.

“We know what we’ve got to get better at, and I think that just starts with the fundamentals,” Jackson said. “You can’t have the big goals until you finish the small goals. So, we’re just getting better at tackling and getting better at our hand placement, striking, all the little details you think about like the big things, but it really goes back to that, so that’s really what we’re focused on.”

“That’s something that Coach Rud is hitting on every day, you know, Coach Elliott is obviously hitting on every day. And then the practice structure is set up where you have to focus on fundamentals, you know, earlier on, and practice footwork, you know, pad level, hand possession, all of those things that ultimately make a good football player,” Sintim said. “We work them, and we drill them. So now, when you do implement the scheme, you’ve got guys who are capable of doing that, so I’m excited about that. I’m kind of building it from the ground up and then watching these guys flourish and, you know, just be ballplayers.”

Story by Chris Graham

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