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Virginia looks to get more productivity out of its veteran defensive front

Chris Graham
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 last week. “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.

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].