Returns of Atariwa, Alonso bolster rebuilding Virginia defensive line
Adeeb Atariwa landed at Virginia last summer after JMU, from which he had already graduated in 2019, canceled its fall season.
The 6’3”, 275-pound defensive lineman had a year of eligibility left, and joined JMU teammate D’Angelo Amos in making the jump from the CAA to the ACC.
After a solid year getting snaps in the interior of the UVA 3-4, Atariwa decided to take advantage of the grace year granted by the NCAA to come back for a second final go at it.
The Virginia alums reading this will like hearing Atariwa explain that the reason why wasn’t all about football.
“For me, the end was education. I’m able to pursue my master’s,” said Atariwa, who is working toward completing a master’s degree in systems engineering.
“I’m also able to continue playing football at a high level, and I’m improving, so for me, it was it was a very easy decision. I chose to stay another year, you know, improve my game even further, and have another opportunity for a season while getting my master’s,” Atariwa said.
Atariwa (317 snaps, 70.4 PFF grade in 2020) and a second super senior, Mandy Alonso (544 snaps, 66.8 PFF grade in 2020) account for the bulk of the returning D line snaps from 2020.
The unit does return a total of seven guys who got snaps last season, along with junior Aaron Faumui, who opted out in 2020, but put up big numbers on the line in 2019 (527 snaps, 73.3 PFF grade).
The returnees have made what was toward the end of last year and could have been this year a position of weakness into one that could be a strength for the defensive unit in 2021.
“Going into the Boston College game, I believe we had like five defensive linemen, and to their credit, those five defensive linemen in that game, they showed up in a big way,” D line coach Clint Sintim said. “Now having a little bit more depth, having some younger guys who are mature and getting older, I think it really helps out the cause, and really creates competition. We’re feeding off each other, they’re competing against one another, and they’re just trying to get better. So we’ll be in a good situation overall.”
Virginia ranked fourth in the ACC in sacks (3.2 per game) in 2020, holding steady from 2019 (third, 3.3 per game), and also held steady, at fourth, in rushing defense (138.5 yards per game in 2020; 138.1 yards per game in 2019).
This despite losing Richard Burney (245 snaps, 66.7 PFF grade) in Week 5, Jowon Briggs (305 snaps, 68.4 PFF grade) in Week 7, Nusi Malani (53 snaps, 56.3 PFF grade) in Week 8.
The unit also only got nine snaps in two games from Ben Smiley and 55 snaps in three games from Jordan Redmond.
The rotation was so depleted that offensive lineman Tommy Christ was moved over to D line ahead of the BC game just so that there’d be enough bodies.
It was noticeable in the final two games – the BC game and the loss at Virginia Tech. Boston College backup quarterback Dennis Grosel threw for 520 yards in a 43-32 UVA win, and Tech backup quarterback Braxton Burmeister threw for 212 yards as the Hokies ran for 252 in a 33-15 win.
With depth and experience returning, Sintim said the focus in 2021 is on “being stronger at the point of attack.”
“We want to be better overall as far as pass rush. And then I think just trying to exhibit dominance, because I do think we have the talent to do that,” Sintim said. “It is a process. These things don’t happen overnight. But as long as your mindset is right, and I mean, coming to work every day, ready to go to battle, we’ll be in a good situation at the end of the spring.”
That season-finale loss in Blacksburg is why Alonso came back.
A year earlier, it was Alonso’s sack in the end zone in the final two minutes that forced a fumble, recovered by Eli Hanback, that clinched Virginia’s 39-30 win over the Hokies.
The 2020 finale was never close.
“I just didn’t want to end on that note,” Alonso said. “The way that the team played the way ,that I played, I just, I couldn’t leave UVA like that, and I don’t think that it would set me up for better things in the future. I feel like one more year here would be very memorable for me, and just to appreciate all those experiences and my time here, live it out for one more year.”
Story by Chris Graham