The Virginia football team is coming off its first eight-win season since 2011 and a dominant performance in the Belk Bowl against South Carolina. Add to that the Cavaliers’ highest-rated recruiting class since 2014 and it’s easy to see how expectations in Charlottesville are at a level unmatched by any UVa football team in the past decade.
The unofficial transition from summer to fall begins in a couple weeks with ACC Media Days in Charlotte, North Carolina. Leading up to the event, we’ll feature 19 UVa players to watch in 2019. Some are familiar names. Some are new. All are expected to play massive roles in Virginia’s continued rebuild this season.
Next in the Daily Progress’ countdown of 19 Virginia football players to watch in 2019 is the man who was the Cavaliers’ most disruptive defensive lineman through the first three games of last season, defensive end Richard Burney.
He was unstoppable in the season opener against Richmond and recorded four tackles at Indiana before a mysterious medical condition took him out of action for the final 10 games.
Burney was limited this spring and he didn’t play in the spring game, but his return this season will be a feather in the cap of a defensive line that is quickly transitioning from a liability to a key component of one of the ACC’s up-and-coming defenses.
Tale of the tape
Last season: Burney started the first three games, but after he missed the Louisville game, UVa announced he would miss the rest of the season with an undisclosed medical condition. By the end of the year, he and fellow defensive end Mandy Alonso were on the shelf with injuries.
Depth at the position: If Burney and Alonso can stay healthy, sophomore Aaron Faumui shows growth in year two and freshmen Jowon Biggs and Ben Smiley play up to expectations, Virginia defensive line coach Vic So’oto will have more freedom to allow senior Eli Hanback to join sophomore Jordan Redmond in focusing strictly on nose tackle in the Cavaliers’ 3-4 scheme.
Number to know: 4. Burney has started just four games at defensive end during his career at Virginia. He spent the first three years as a tight end before moving to defense in 2017 just before the Military Bowl.
Outlook: Even if Burney doesn’t return to the form he showed early last season, his presence puts the Cavaliers one step closer to being able to rotate defensive linemen at a fast enough clip to keep them fresh during games and healthy later in the season. Injuries ravaged Virginia’s defensive front last season to the point that by the Belk Bowl, Hanback and Redmond were the only available players who had seen extensive playing time, so the more bodies the better.
Injury plagued career
Injuries have plagued Burney since he stepped on Grounds in 2015. He missed five games that first season. In Virginia’s ACC opener against Duke during his sophomore year, he recorded his first career reception and touchdown catch on the same play. He appeared in eight games that season but an injury suffered against Louisville knocked him out for the final four.
Burney’s healthiest season was 2017 when he made three starts at tight end before moving to defensive end and sharing a tackle for a loss with safety Joey Blount during the Military Bowl.
It’s usually several weeks into a season before most coaching staffs have settled on a defensive line rotation. After it gets thrown into the fire in the season opener at Pittsburgh, Virginia’s defensive front should have a much easier go of it with William & Mary, Florida State and Old Dominion next on the schedule.
The Cavaliers are going to want to have that rotation down by late September because it’s going to be put to the test in back-to-back road trips to Notre Dame and Miami. Notre Dame has a massive offensive line full of veterans. Miami will likely be breaking in a new strong-armed quarterback in Ohio State transfer Tate Martell, which means he’s going to lean heavily on explosive running backs Deejay Dallas and Lorenzo Lingard.