Home UVA Football Preview: ‘Hoos should be strong in the trenches, where it matters
Sports

UVA Football Preview: ‘Hoos should be strong in the trenches, where it matters

uva football
Photo: UVA Athletics

I’ve been disappointing people who follow UVA Football and want me to say that 2024 is going to be another down year, and I get it, because I’m the go-to guy when things are down.

I don’t think things are down going into the 2024 season, and the reason why: I like the O and D lines.

If you’re good in the trenches, you’re going to win games, bottom line.

A good O line is the key to gaining yards on the ground, keeps the QBs upright and healthy.

A good D line puts the opponent in second- and third-and-longs, and gets pressure on the QB on those downs, forces punts, creates turnovers.

The lines have been big question marks in the first two years of the Tony Elliott era at Virginia.

They should be positions of strength in Year 3.

Offensive line

uva offensive line
Photo: UVA Athletics

Terry Heffernan took over as O line coach ahead of the 2023 spring practice, and his focus at the outset was on getting to know his guys and implementing his approach to offensive-line play.

With fall camp getting under way later this month, Heffernan has had two springs and a season to get his system in place, and he has a lot coming back from his 2023 unit, plus key additions from the transfer portal, to work with going into 2024.

The one limitation on the line in the spring was injuries to projected starters Brian Stevens, McKale Boley and Ty Furnish, but Heffernan did his best to spin the injuries as opportunities for younger guys to get reps that they might not have gotten if the veterans were around.

“There’s a ton of opportunity out there, and it’s about competition,” Heffernan said. “We didn’t play well enough as an offensive line to say, we’re gonna roll this unit out. Right now, we are far, far, far from naming starters. We’ve got a ton of competition amongst the guys that are going to show us who’s gonna go out in the field first in the opener.”

That’s good coach-speak, but, OK, let’s be real, Stevens, who, in 2023, played 869 snaps, with a 77.1 Pro Football Focus grade, is the starter at center, and you can write his name on the card with a Sharpie.

Stevens’ PFF grade was tops on the unit, and on 473 pass dropbacks, he allowed a starters-low one sack and nine total QB pressures.

With Stevens back at center, Virginia will have seven guys from its 2023 O line who got at least 100 snaps.

The left side of the line will return left guard Noah Josey (870 snaps, three sacks, 23 QB pressures, 63.5 PFF grade) and Boley (847 snaps, two sacks, 18 QB pressures, 62.8 PFF grade) at left tackle.

The right side returns Furnish (772 snaps, four sacks, 28 QB pressures, 47.9 PFF grade) at right guard, and three guys who split the snaps at right tackle – Blake Steen (466 snaps, six snaps, 18 QB pressures, 52.2 PFF grade), Ugonna Nnanna (382 snaps, eight sacks, 17 QB pressures, 41.7 PFF grade) and Jimmy Christ (146 snaps, one sack, eight QB pressures, 41.6 PFF grade).

The transfer portal brought in depth in the form of Drake Metcalf, a transfer from Central Florida by way of Stanford, where he played for two seasons under Heffernan.

Metcalf has primarily played at center in his three college seasons, logging 200 snaps at center at Central Florida in 2023 – allowing one sack and two total QB pressures on 90 pass dropbacks, with a 63.0 PFF grade.

Having another guy who can play at center – Stevens started the last 10 games in 2023 at center, taking over for Furnish, who started at center in the first two games of the season – is great for depth.

A second portal pickup, Dartmouth grad transfer Ethan Sipe, logged 672 snaps at right tackle over the past two seasons, and allowed just three sacks on 282 pass dropbacks, with a PFF grade of 69.6 in 2023.

Defensive line

uva defensive line
Photo: UVA Athletics

Virginia should be strong on the D line heading into the fall, with coach Tony Elliott having success by keeping the guys he wanted to return on the roster for the 2024 season.

The biggest in-house additions, if you will, were edge rushers Chico Bennett, Kam Butler and Ben Smiley, and defensive tackle Jahmeer Carter, who will all compete as grad students in 2024.

The oldest of the group is Butler, who transferred to UVA from Miami (Ohio) in 2022 for what was then expected to be a single grad season, which turned into two years when the NCAA granted Virginia seniors an extra year of eligibility following the tragic events of Nov. 13, 2022, the night that three members of the football team – Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry – were shot to death by a UVA student.

That second extra year for Butler became a third when his 2023 season was cut short by a shoulder and pectoral muscle injury, and he was granted a very rare seventh year.

“People call me old man, just, grandpa, whatever you can think of that’s just something you call an old person, but everyone thinks Tone (sixth-year senior safety Antonio Clary) is older than me, so I’ve been riding with that,” Butler said in an interview during spring camp. “But yeah, I’m just happy to be here for another year. I mean, like I said earlier, I’m trying to play football as long as possible, so when the third year came up, it was kind of a no-brainer, honestly.”

In 2023, Butler was on the field for 212 snaps, and he recorded 23 tackles, 11 QB pressures, 3.5 sacks and had a 69.5 Pro Football Focus grade.

Bennett will be a relative youngster, only a sixth-year senior in the 2024 season. Bennett, who missed the 2021 season at UVA with an ACL injury after transferring from Georgia Tech, where he’d played two seasons at linebacker, had to battle through a freak knee injury at the end of training camp to get on the field, and ended up getting 556 snaps in 11 games, recording 34 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 28 QB pressures and one sack, and a PFF of 60.1.

Smiley, like Bennett, will also be a sixth-year in 2024. Smiley was in on 387 snaps in 2023, with 15 tackles, eight QB pressures and two sacks, and a 51.0 PFF grade.

Carter, a defensive tackle, will be a fifth-year senior in 2024. In 2023, Carter was on the field for 557 snaps, with 35 tackles, eight QB pressures and one sack, and a PFF grade of 60.4.

Three other D line guys with 99+ snaps in 2023 return: senior defensive tackle Michael Diatta (311 snaps, 13 tackles, five QB pressures, one sack, 51.4 PFF grade), sophomore edge rusher Mekhi Buchanan (171 snaps, 13 tackles, four QB pressures, 51.4 PFF grade), senior defensive tackle Bryce Carter (150 snaps, six tackles, three QB pressures, two sacks, 60.7 PFF grade) and sophomore defensive tackle Jason Hammond (99 snaps, three tackles, one QB pressure, 58.8 PFF grade).

The returning guys, grizzled vets, given their age and experience, should make the UVA D line a position group of strength next fall.

“Coach Elliott challenged me, you know, and I accepted the challenge, to build competitive depth,” defensive tackles coach Keith Downing said. “Really good defensive lines, and Coach Elliott has been around some of the best, and played against some of the best, they play multiple guys. Because, you know, you gotta be able to finish in the fourth quarter, which is something that we’re trying to do. And it’s hard when you got interior D linemen, you know, got to play that many snaps, it’s hard for them to go rush to quarterback, it’s hard for them to stop the run. So, we want to build competitive depth.”

The Virginia D line allowed opponents to rush for 184.5 yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry, which, no, not good.

Also not good, and I’m being charitable on this one: just 11 sacks in 12 games.

That one is a point of focus for Downing and for defensive ends coach Chris Slade.

“You can rush the passer a whole lot better when you stop the run, right, so that’s what we got to do,” Downing said. “We understand we got to earn the right to rush the quarterback, we understand we got to improve on that, right. And we accept that challenge, right. But we got to make sure we’re doing a good job of stopping the run.”

The 2022 D line was much more productive on both of the key metrics – allowing 153.2 yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry on the ground, and recording 30 sacks in the 10 games played before the Nov. 13 tragedy.

Those are the goals heading into 2024.

“The expectations are extremely high,” Slade said. “I feel like obviously, being their position coach, I’m somewhat responsible for how productive they are and how they develop, which I enjoy. I embrace it, you know, I want those guys to be better, I want to coach better, I want those guys to do a good job.”

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham, the king of "fringe media," is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].