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.
There was no denying that the deepest unit on the field for the Cavaliers last season was in the secondary. Juan Thornhill was a rising star who could play cornerback or safety, Bryce Hall’s stock at cornerback rose dramatically, Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson were budding stars at safety and Tim Harris brought a lifetime’s worth of experience at corner.
This season, Virginia’s deepest unit is a little closer to the line of scrimmage. Linebackers Charles Snowden, Jordan Mack, Zane Zandier, Rob Snyder, Elliott Brown and Noah Taylor are all poised to harass quarterbacks and hunt down ball carriers, and freshmen Hunter Stewart, Nick Jackson and D’Sean Perry don’t seem too far behind.
Number 12 in our countdown is Zandier, who may be the most intense member of the group and whose nose for the ball is rivaled only by Mack.
Tale of the tape
Last season: Zandier made eight starts, filling in first for an injured Malcolm Cook and then Mack. Zandier finished the year fifth on the team with 63 tackles and added five tackles for a loss and two sacks.
Depth at the position: The most likely starting duo in the middle of the Cavaliers’ 3-4 defense on opening day is Mack and Zandier. After making seven starts last season, Snyder will see plenty of snaps again. Jackson is a dark horse candidate for playing time, especially since Dominic Sheppard, who missed all of last fall with an injury, transferred to Texas-San Antonio.
Number to know: 10. In his first career start last season in a weather-altered game against Ohio in Nashville, Zandier posted a season-high 10 tackles and added 1.5 sacks.
Outlook: Virginia has a longstanding tradition of producing high-end linebackers. From Chris Slade, Jamie Sharper, Randy Neal and James Farrior in the 90s to Byron Thweatt, Ahmad Brooks and Darryl Blackstock in the early 2000s to Steve Greer, Eli Harold and Micah Kiser of the past decade, the list of talented tacklers who have called Scott Stadium home is up there with the best programs in the ACC. Zandier has the athleticism and mentality to add his name to that list. He joins Mack and Blount as the top candidates to end the 2019 season as the Cavaliers’ leading tackler.
Working in the box
Virginia’s coaches have made a habit out of turning wide receivers into athletic outside linebackers (see Charles Snowden and Elliott Brown), but they’ve gone a different route to find their inside linebackers. Both Mack and Zandier played defensive back in high school. Zandier was a safety at Thomas Jefferson High School in Pennsylvania, and Mack was a cornerback at Wesleyan in Georgia.
All those snaps in pass coverage give them a leg up when the ball is in the air. They’re both athletic enough to get to the ball, and they know how to finish when they get there. Mack has totaled 180 tackles the past two seasons despite missing four games last fall with a shoulder injury.
The Cavaliers may have already found the next athletic defensive back they’re going to turn into a linebacker. Freshman Chayce Chalmers (6-2, 210) — an early enrollee — has the frame to make the move, and assuming he can maintain his 4.42-second 40-yard dash speed while carrying about 20 more pounds, he’ll be a nightmare when he does.
Coming of age
On paper, Virginia’s 2019 recruiting class is deserving of all the hype it has received, but it’s going to take a year or two for its true value to be revealed. That was the case for Zandier’s class. He is one of seven members of the 2017 class who emerged last season as regular starters.
The majority were on the defensive side of the ball, including Blount, Snowden and defensive end Mandy Alonso. Offensively, the class produced left tackle Ryan Nelson and left guard Chris Glaser. Several of its members should also move into more prominent roles this season, including running backs PK Kier and LaMont Atkins, offensive linemen Tyler Fannin and Victor Oluwatimi (transfer from Air Force), wide receiver Terrell Jana and linebackers Elliott Brown and Matt Gahm.