By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The University of Virginia football team opened spring practice Tuesday morning, and linebacker Max Valles was there, along with defensive end Eli Harold.

But they were spectators, each having left the program early to pursue an NFL career. From the sideline, Valles and Harold watched as a young corps of linebackers practiced together for the first time.

In 2014, defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, who also coached the linebackers, started Valles on the strong side, Daquan Romero on the weak side, and Henry Coley in the middle, and they combined for 218 tackles, including 33 for loss. Valles led the team with nine sacks, and Coley was second with eight.

Tenuta still oversees the defense, but he’s traded positional responsibilities with Mike Archer, who coached the safeties last season. It’s a good thing Tenuta and Archer are such close friends, because Romero and Coley were seniors last season, so they’re gone too.

“We’re the most inexperienced part [of the defense],” said Archer, who joined UVa head coach Mike London’s staff in January 2014.

The linebackers with whom Archer is now working? They have one career start among them, and that was by Zach Bradshaw as a true freshman in 2013.

“I look at that as a challenge,” Archer said.

The depth chart may evolve over the spring, but on Tuesday the starting linebackers were Micah Kiser in the middle, Bradshaw on the strong side, and C.J. Stalker on the weak side.

Kiser will be a redshirt sophomore in the fall, Bradshaw a junior. Stalker is a freshman who enrolled at UVa in January. The second-team linebackers Tuesday were Caanan Brown (middle), Jordan Jackson (weak side) and Mark Hall (strong side).

Brown and Jackson are freshmen who redshirted last season. Hall will be a redshirt junior in the fall.

It’s fair to say, Archer acknowledged, that the defense’s performance this season will hinge in large part on the play of the linebackers.

“There’s no question,” Archer said.

Elsewhere on defense, there are more veterans. Back on the line are such players as Mike Moore, David Dean, Andrew Brown, Donte Wilkins, Trent Corney and Kwontie Moore. Returning players in the secondary include Demetrious Nicholson, Tim Harris, Divante Walker, Maurice Canady, Quin Blanding and Wilfred Wahee.

“We’ve got experience up front, and we’ve got some guys on the back end that have played a lot of football,” Archer said.

“The number of games that the linebackers have played is not a lot. But that’s college football. You gotta get the next guy ready to go.”

This challenge is one with which Archer is comfortable. For much of his long coaching career, he’s worked with linebackers, including stints with UVa (1991 and ’92), Kentucky (1993-95) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (1996-2002).

“He’s a guy that coached [James] Harrison and [Joey] Porter,” said Kiser, a graduate of Gilman School in Baltimore. “I’m a Ravens fan, so I know all those Steelers guys. He knows his stuff. I’m just trying to learn as much and be a sponge and be the best that I can be.”

When he arrived at UVa last year, Archer said, he and Tenuta talked about putting Archer with the linebackers. They decided it made more sense in the short term to have Archer replace Anthony Poindexter as safeties coach. But Tenuta prefers working with the secondary, so they switched positions this year.

“It’s different, so it’s fun,” Archer said. “It’s no big deal. It doesn’t change the way you coach. It’s just coaching different people.”

Hall has appeared in 21 games for the Cavaliers, the most of anyone in Archer’s group. Bradshaw has played in 17 and Kiser in 12. All three have been used primarily on special teams, but they understand Tenuta’s defensive philosophy.

On the No. 1 defense, it “was noticeable today [that Kiser and Bradshaw] know what they’re doing,” Archer said Tuesday. “They know to make the calls.”

The same was true for Hall, whose brother, Devon, is a redshirt freshman guard on the UVa men’s basketball team.

Mark Hall’s been here,” Archer said. “He’s been in the system. He’s listened to Jon for two years, so he understands.”

The 6-2, 225-pound Stalker, by contrast, faces a steep learning curve. But the Cavaliers are confident he can handle it.

“He’s had an opportunity to step in right away, and so far he’s shown that he’s got the skill set and he’s got the smarts to do it,” London said.

Stalker, who hopes to become an orthopedic surgeon, is “a smart kid, and he hustles hard,” Kiser said. “He’s going to be really good here.”

At Lakota West High School outside Cincinnati, Stalker was an all-state selection. He chose UVa over Cincinnati, Indiana, Kentucky and Louisville.

“He’s got a good fundamental background,” Archer said. “He was well-coached in high school. When I speak to him, he understands football concepts. He’s like Quin in that sense. Now, I don’t want to put him in that class [as a player] yet. We’ll see over time. But I have no problem with playing a freshman, and the fact that he’s here in the spring is a big plus.”

Stalker may not be only newcomer to play linebacker for the Wahoos in the fall. Dominic Sheppard and Eric Gallon, recruits who will enroll at UVa this summer, are candidates to play as true freshmen, too, Archer said.

Kiser and Bradshaw, who’s from Damascus, Md., came in together in the summer of 2013, and they’re roommates and close friends. They watched the older linebackers closely, especially Coley and Romero, in preparation for this season.

“We’ve been waiting our turn, and now we’ve got it,” said Kiser, who’s listed at 6-2, 235 pounds.

One of Kiser’s greatest attributes is his intelligence, “so that’s something I’ve always used, to try to learn everything and take notes all the time,” he said.

“It helps a lot,” Archer said. “You’d like him to run 4.5 [seconds in the 40-yard dash], but he doesn’t. You’d like him to be 6-4 and 240 pounds. He’s not. But what you can do [as a player] is, you can understand what your strengths and weaknesses are, and then understand the preparation, and understand what you’re supposed to do, and know what to do and do it fast.

“There’s a lot of guys that look like Greek gods who can’t take the picture. They can’t snap the picture and know where to go.”

In his first stint as a UVa assistant, Archer recalled, he coached a linebacker named Eugene Rodgers, a junior-college transfer. Rodgers, less than imposing physically, was nonetheless an excellent player.

“When he walked in my office the first time I went, `We went to junior college for this guy?’ ” Archer said, laughing. “But the guy just had that ability. He could see things and he knew where to go and he did it. And he was productive. It doesn’t have to be flashy. Just get the job done.”

Virginia took full advantage of the 6-5, 240-pound Valles’ versatility last season. In the 4-3 base scheme, he lined up at strong-side linebacker. In passing situations, when Tenuta used five defensive backs, Valles moved to end.

Hall (6-2, 240) will have an opportunity to fill that role this season.

“He’s not Max,” Archer said. “I don’t want to compare him to Max, because Max is going to be playing in the NFL. But they’re similar in the sense that Mark can rush the passer. He can do it from a two-point [stance], and he can do it from a three-point.

“When we put the sub-package in Thursday, Mark will be with the down guys. He’ll be rushing. He’ll do the Max role in some packages, because you can drop him, you can rush him, etcetera.

“Mark did that last year, so he’s got some experience.”

On the spring roster, Cory Jones and Chris Peace, freshmen who redshirted last season, are listed as linebackers, but they worked at defensive end Tuesday. Peace could end up back at linebacker, Archer said.

MARK YOUR CALENDAR: The `Hoos will practice 15 times this spring. The team’s practice Saturday at Scott Stadium will be open to the public. It’s scheduled to start at 10:30 a.m. and last about two hours.

The annual Orange-Blue spring game will be Saturday, April 18, at Scott Stadium. Admission and parking are free. The gates will open at 4 p.m., with the game to start at 6 p.m.

NEW ROLE: After two seasons on London’s staff, Tom O’Brien retired in January, and Archer has taken over as associate head coach.

Archer, a former head coach at LSU, knows well the demands of running a major-college program.

His new position is “more administrative,” Archer said, “to help Mike with some of the things on and off the field … Just helping him with the administrative details of practice and organization and academics.

“It’s a very broad scope. I’m a communicator. I communicate to people. That’s one of my strengths, I think. When I was a head coach, maybe we didn’t win enough games, but people knew what they were supposed to do and when they were supposed to do it. And I think that’s important. When you sit in that chair, if everybody’s on the same page, then there’s no screw-ups.”

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