Editor’s note: This is Part 1 in an 8 part series breaking down the 2018 Virginia football team, position by position.
Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall is assured that if he had to guess the date that Dylan Thompson would be on Grounds, he’d be wrong. The graduate transfer still has to finish and pass a summer class at Ohio State that is going into training camp before he can join the Cavaliers.
Thompson is a very important reinforcement on Virginia’s defensive line, which will rely on several unproven players. And with Thompson’s arrival date not yet set and incomer Cassius Peat only just getting to Charlottesville two weeks ago, the players they will have won’t have much time to get up to speed.
“I’ve had enough experience with summer school classes and transfers where, I’d love to say what date, but no matter what I say, I’ll be wrong,” Mendenhall said. “It might be earlier, it might be later. It’ll be soon, pending completion and passing. I’ve learned that lesson, too.”
Eli Hanback and Mandy Alonso will be the two main returners on the defensive line. At the ACC Kickoff in Charlotte, Mendenhall noted that Hanback’s presence has been a point of consistency in a position group that’s lacked it. He’s the top returner, having posted 94 tackles in his first two seasons, along with 10 tackles for a loss and one pick-six.
But there isn’t any certainty with the group on the field because there isn’t much dependent depth. Mendenhall might’ve been pleased with fielding a current roster of 124 players, but the real goal will be developing the question marks for the first line of defense. Alonso and Hanback are the start and end of 2017 contributors on the roster this year.
“You have a reliable person right there,” Alonso said of Hanback. “He consistently does what he needs to do. At least I don’t have to worry about his gap being messed up or anything.”
Richard Burney is technically another returner, but up until the bowl game last season, he hadn’t played a single game on defense. His only in-game experience is getting torn up by Navy’s triple-option offense in the Military Bowl. The coaching staff is happy with his development, but like much of the defensive line, there’s no track record of performance on Saturdays.
Thompson spent four years at Ohio State and was on the field for around 10 snaps. Peat was at three different schools, struggled with academics and injuries, and played in only a small handful of games.
With so much of the depth at defensive line decimated from last season, Virginia is turning toward players that don’t have a track record of success, and hoping they find it this season.
Said Mendenhall: “It’s nice to have extra bodies.”
» Returners: DE Richard Burney, DE Mandy Alonso, DT Eli Hanback
» Key losses: DE Andrew Brown, DE John Kirven, DT James Trucilla, DE Juwon Moye, DE Steven Wright
» Newcomers: DE Cassius Peat, DT Dylan Thompson, DE Samson Reed, DT Jordan Redmond, DT Aaron Faumui
» Top of the hill: Sophomore defensive end Mandy Alonso was one of 17 true freshmen to see playing time for Virginia last season. He moved up the depth chart throughout the season and become a starter against Georgia Tech. He recorded his first sack in his hometown against Miami, and had 14 tackles overall. Alonso said in the spring that there’s a little bit more pressure without as many defensive linemen remaining in the program. And depending on how much he’s developed, he’ll go from a surprise starter last season to a vitally important piece at defensive end this season.