UVa football

Defensive end Mandy Alonso is one of several returnees on Virginia’s defensive line.

CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the University of Virginia defense, the number that consumes them isn’t 10, as in wins. Nor is it total yards or touchdowns or interceptions.

In fact, it’s not even a round number.

“Three-point-five,” UVa outside linebacker Charles Snowden said. “I say it every day, see it all the time. Yes, sir. Personally, I had it in my apartment room this summer. I close my eyes, I see it. When I look at my teammates, I just see 3.5. I see it everywhere.”

Three-point-five. It’s the amount of rushing yards the Cavaliers are comfortable allowing per carry this season.

And it’s not very many.

Only 19 teams in 2018 gave up 3.5 rushing yards per carry or fewer last season — a group led by Clemson (2.51) and Michigan State (2.58). The Cavaliers ranked 70th nationally at 4.34.

When coach Bronco Mendenhall eyes improvement in his 2019 squad, that’s where he looks first.

“It will manifest in run defense and physical play,” he said. “Our result is now approaching the level of our expectations in what we’re used to statistically and also what the yield is. What we have not met yet in terms of expectations is what it sounds, looks and feels like, especially in defending the run and the physical nature of that.”

The 3.5 figure wasn’t pulled out randomly. The Cavaliers study the national metrics.

“We know exactly what numbers lead to an 85% threshold to win,” Mendenhall said. “That’s 10 wins or more. We really don’t pay attention to anything under that. That [3.5] just happens to be one that is a great predictor for us.”

UVa could have the personnel to meet that ambitious goal. The Cavaliers’ front seven is the best it’s been under Mendenhall. Veterans Eli Hanback and Mandy Alonso return along the defensive line, which developed some much-needed depth last season as young players were thrust into action before they were ready.

At linebacker, Snowden, Jordan Mack, Rob Snyder and Zane Zandier all have starting experience.

“All the pieces are there,” Snowden said. “The coaching is there. The mindset is there. There’s nothing left but to do it.”

The 6-foot-7 Snowden has bulked up to about 250 pounds from last year’s listed weight of 225. His aim is to be more physical against opposing ground games — a priority for the entire front seven.

“We have to be,” Mendenhall said. “This will be our best chance to accomplish that in four seasons that I’ve seen. For us to be able to take another step forward as a program we have to be able to take over the interiors. Defensively, we’re still closer than we are offensively.”

The Cavaliers will know where they stand early, thanks to an opener against defending Coastal Division champion Pittsburgh.

“Definitely,” Hanback said. “Pitt’s a team we haven’t beaten since coach Mendenhall’s been here. They’re a blue-collar team that likes to run downhill and get after you. I think that’ll be an awesome test for us for the first game of the season.”

Until then, they’ll keep the magic number at the forefront of their minds. In a football facility loaded with visible cues, the Cavaliers haven’t had to add that one to the walls.

“There aren’t many physical signs around,” Snowden said. “But when one defender sees another? Three-point-five.”

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