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Slade, Downing need to rebuild the Virginia defensive line

chris slade
Virginia defensive ends coach Chris Slade. Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

Virginia gave up 225.8 rushing yards per game a year ago, eighth-worst in FBS, and the reason was a lack of anything in terms of fortitude up front.

The new D line staff, Kevin Downing and UVA alum Chris Slade, have their work cut out for them to keep opposing offenses honest.

“We’ve got a long way to go. The one thing I do appreciate is, I really believe the guys are showing up every day trying to get better. I think we’re grasping what we’re doing,” said Downing, who coaches the interior linemen.

New defensive coordinator John Rudzinski, whose defenses at Air Force were annually among the best in the nation under his watch, will go with a mix of three- and four-man fronts, with either a single nose tackle or two defensive tackles surrounded by edge rushers, called “bandits,” who will change up between lining up in a three-point stance and an upright two-point stance.

The defense also struggled to get pressure on opposing QBs in 2021, registering just 19 sacks, 107th among the 130 teams in FBS.

Helping there will be the additions of four transfers – Kam Butler (Miami, Ohio), Andres Fox (Stanford), Paul Akere (Columbia) and Jack Camper (Michigan State).

Butler, a 6’3”, 252-pounder, who had offers from Penn State, Ole Miss, Iowa, West Virginia and Kansas State, was a first-team All-MAC performer in 2021, and had an impressive 79.3 Pro Football Focus grade last season, after recording 53 tackles, 32 QB pressures, eight sacks and three forced fumbles.

Butler will be a fifth-year senior in 2022. He logged 1,894 snaps over four seasons at Miami, including 702 in 2021.

Fox, a 6’4”, 245-pounder who can line up on the end of the line or at outside linebacker, will have two years of eligibility remaining.

As a prep at Mobile (Ala.) Christian School, Fox, who had offers off the transfer portal from Florida State and Maryland, was rated the No. 138 overall prospect in the nation in the Class of 2017, but he struggled to get snaps in his time at Stanford, logging just 312 total snaps over parts of four seasons, including 107 snaps in seven games in 2021.

Akere, a 6’3”, 240-pounder, was a second-team All-Ivy selection in 2021, with five sacks and 25 total QB pressures on 530 snaps and a PFF grade of 75.7.

Camper, a 6’5”, 250-pounder, missed the final 10 games of the Spartans’ 2021 season with an injury. A backup in Michigan State’s first three games, he was on the field for 31 snaps.

Camper saw action on a career-high 249 snaps in 2020, with a Pro Football Focus grade of 59.3, and over portion of four seasons, two cut short by injury, he played 532 snaps, had 15 QB pressures, one sack and 29 tackles.

One other transfer, Chico Bennett Jr., arrived on Grounds last year, but missed the 2021 season after suffering an ACL injury in the spring. Bennett, a 6’4”, 250-pounder, played his first two seasons at Georgia Tech, recording 31 tackles on his 412 snaps over the 2019 and 2020 seasons, with a Pro Football Focus grade in 2020 at 59.1.

He had nine QB pressures on 144 pass-rush snaps in 2020.

Bennett played linebacker at Georgia Tech, but will line up as an edge rusher on the D line in Rudzinski’s defense.

Rudzinski “does a really good job of mixing in coverages, mixing in fronts,” said Slade, a first-team All-America defensive end at Virginia who went on to a nine-year NFL career.

“If you go back and look at Air Force, they were always one of the top teams in the country in terms of defense,” Slade said. “What they did last year, I think they won nine games or 10, and you saw they beat Louisville in the bowl game, and that’s what got my attention, the way he did what he did against Louisville and their quarterback, how they bottled those guys up with not nearly the athleticism, and that’s no disrespect to the Air Force players, but nowhere near the athleticism that Louisville had, but just they got outcoached. And he did a really good job of scheming those guys all year.”

The scheme, to Slade, is “pretty vanilla. Like, we don’t do a lot of zero pressure. I mean, it’s conservative, but it’s aggressive. You’re not going to be running a ton of like six- and seven-man pressures where you’re going be playing zero and leaving guys on an island. It’s got a conservative feel to it, but it’s yet still aggressive,” Slade said.

“We’ll bring some pressure and we’ll do some zone blitzes, but you know, you won’t be holding your breath every single time, just hoping we will make a play,” Slade said. “He’s done a good job with four-man pressure, he believes in lot of four-man pressure and a lot of four-down stuff, which is what he likes, which is good, because we’ve got four guys going after the quarterback. You’ve got to have dudes to rush three guys a lot. We don’t have them. You can do that if you’re in Tuscaloosa.”

Rudzinski’s Air Force defense recorded 37 sacks a year ago, 28th nationally, and the rushing defense allowed opponents a paltry 102.2 yards per game, ninth nationally.

The approach is built on a foundation of utilizing depth and playing as many guys as possible, which means Slade and Downing, who came to Virginia from Navy, have to focus on developing as many guys as possible to get them ready for the wars in the trenches in the fall.

“We understand that we’ve got to be really good on the inside in stopping the run, so then all the things that Coach Rud does to make them very efficient, we can do those things,” Downing said. “But it all starts with stopping the run. And that’s the mindset that Coach Elliott has instilled in our in our football team, a toughness mindset, so that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Downing’s guys in the middle include Aaron Faumui, a 6’1”, 300-pound interior lineman, who had put his name into the transfer portal on Dec. 13, but withdrew from the portal on Jan. 31.

Faumui logged 460 defensive snaps in 2021, with a Pro Football Focus grade of 53.2.

Faumui will be joined on the interior by 6’2”, 315-pound sophomore Jahmeer Carter (496 snaps, 23 tackles, 2 TFLs, 49.4 PFF grade in 2021) atop the depth chart.

Depth at tackle will come from 6’4”, 270-pound sophomore Ben Smiley III (219 snaps, 30.4 PFF grade) and 6’6”, 280-pound redshirt freshman Olasunkonmi Agunloye (204 snaps, 54.0 PFF grade) and Class of 2021 four-star recruit Bryce Carter, a 6’3”, 280-pounder, who only got four snaps this past season, but just based on what the recruiting services thought of him, you’d think he’d be in the mix to earn some two-deep time in the spring.

Another Class of 2021 recruit, Michael Diatta, a 6’5”, 255-pounder, got 35 snaps (with a 59.3 PFF grade) as an interior lineman in his true freshman year in 2021.

“We’re still learning how to play with the type of effort that is going to take for us to be successful,” Downing said. “That’s the big key. We want to play hard. That’s the goal. That’s a non-negotiable for Coach Elliott, and that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to build that the effort to focus on the toughness that it takes to play each and every snap, and learning how to have a windshield wiper mentality. Once I do it, that one’s over, do it again. Once I do it, that one’s over, do it again. So that’s what we’re trying to learn how to do. We’ve got a long way to go.”

Story by Chris Graham

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