By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Inspired by the buzz cut one of his fellow defensive linemen unveiled for training camp at the University of Virginia, Eli Hanback decided to get creative with his hair, too.
His facial hair.
Muttonchop sideburns went out of fashion decades ago, but that didn’t deter Hanback, a redshirt sophomore from the Richmond area who out of his football uniform could pass for a mountainous Civil War reenactor.
“It’s a little old school,” Hanback said of his new look. “I saw Jack Powers shaved his head kind of bald, so I was like, `I’ll do something crazy. I can probably grow some good `chops.’ ”
His appearance isn’t the only thing different about the former Patrick Henry High School standout this summer. In 2016, the Cavaliers’ first season under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, Hanback started 11 games at defensive end. He’s now working primarily at nose tackle in Virginia’s base defense, which is a 3-4. (UVA’s starter at nose last season, Donte Wilkins, was a senior.)
“It’s going to be a learning process,” Hanback said, “but I definitely know I can do it, and I’m looking forward to learning it.”
For most of the spring, sophomore Juwan Moye worked with the first-team defense at nose tackle. But Mendenhall, who’s also Virginia’s defensive coordinator, and new defensive line coach Vic So’oto decided early in the summer that changes were in order. Hanback moved inside and Moye replaced him at end. Senior Andrew Brown is a returning starter at the other end.
Of Hanback’s position change, So’oto said: “He’s the tip of the spear, so we want the best and most technique-sound and biggest [lineman at nose tackle].”
Hanback, who stands 6-4, played at about 270 pounds last season, and the 6-3 Moye weighed around 255. They’re both significantly bigger this summer. Hanback weighs about 305 pounds, and Moye is at 285.
Credit their offseason work in director of football performance Frank Wintrich’s strength and conditioning program.
After watching the Cavaliers struggle through a season in which they finished 2-10, Mendenhall said, “I didn’t think our linemen were big enough, were strong enough, were physical enough — I’m talking both sides of the ball — and so it’s been an emphasis in the offseason to add size and strength. And so they did that under our direction. Each player had a specific target of what the weight, what the body composition [should look] like, and then we’ve been working really hard to build them to that point.”
Moye, who was listed as a 235-pounder linebacker when UVA announced its 2016 recruiting class, played in 10 games as a true freshman last season, mostly at defensive end in passing situations.
The line assignments remain fluid, Mendenhall and So’oto said, and the moves may not be permanent for Hanback and Moye.
“We’ll see how it works out,” So’oto said, “but so far, so good.”
Hanback said: “I’ll do whatever [the coaches] want me to do. It’s still football. I like it. I’m still on the D-line.”
Asked this week about Hanback, Mendenhall said, “He’s diligent, he’s capable, he’s understated. He kind of is an under-promise, over-deliver guy … The more he can do, the more he can do for us. That gives us the equivalent of two players, rather than one, because he can play nose and end.”
As training camp approached, the coaching staff’s instructions to Hanback were straightforward: Teach Moye about playing defensive end. The instructions to Moye: Teach Hanback about playing nose tackle.
In many ways, Moye said, the positions are similar. “It’s just a little faster on the inside. You’re dealing with three [blockers] instead of two.”
In the Cavaliers’ nickel package, Hanback comes off the field, and Moye and Brown are the down linemen. Four linebackers and five defensive backs make up the rest of the unit.
Among Moye’s attributes, So’oto said, is his “sudden strength. It’s the same thing Andrew brings: the quickness on those edges. We can have them go outside, go inside, go through [blockers], because they’re big now, too. So Coach Wintrich and his staff did a great job of getting them big and not sacrificing speed.”
Hanback said: “Juwan’s definitely one of the strongest guys on the team, especially on the D-line. I lift with him, and he’s strong as heck. He’s confident, he’s a leader, he wants to get after it. So I don’t think anyone’s worried about him being able to play the end position.”
Moye was not heavily recruited at Parkview High School near Atlanta, but in a little more than a year of college football he’s become a valuable member of the Cavaliers’ defense.
“I’m happy with the progress I’ve made thus far,” Moye said, “but I’m not satisfied.
Like Mendenhall, So’oto emphasizes the importance of knowing how to play multiple positions.
“It just allows you to be more versatile,” Moye said. “It allows you to do a lot of things in the defense. Coach Mendenhall loves to be able to put the best guys on the field, and if you’re a D-lineman and play corner, he’ll put you out there. If you can play corner and you can pass-rush too, he’ll let you pass-rush. It’s just great to be interchangeable. You always have a position on the field.”
So’oto said: “I think ideally we’d want [defensive linemen] that could play all three spots, so the offense doesn’t know who’s playing what and who’s going where. Eli and Juwan are like the first part of that. Once we build this thing, there’ll be guys moving all over the place.”
For Hanback, the transition to nose tackle has gone smoothly, So’oto said, “because he understood the defense. He understood the concepts. He’s a smart kid. He’s a UVA kid, so playing a lot and having a lot of snaps [in 2016] helped another piece of the puzzle come together. It’s invaluable how much experience he got and how much he played.”
So’oto played for Mendenhall at BYU before embarking on an NFL career that included stops in Green Bay, Oakland, Washington, Arizona, New Orleans and Pittsburgh. After going through spring practice as a graduate assistant this season, So’oto was promoted to defensive line coach in June after Ruffin McNeill left to join Oklahoma’s staff.
“We love Coach Vic,” Hanback said. “He takes care of us. He loves us too, and we’re blessed to have him as our position coach. He knows a lot of stuff about the position. He’s played at the highest level you can, and we’re all ready to soak up his teachings and get better.”
Hanback is one of the eight players who started at least seven games apiece on defense for the Cavaliers last season, along with Brown, Quin Blanding, Micah Kiser, Chris Peace, Jordan Mack, Juan Thornhill and Bryce Hall. A ninth player, cornerback Tim Harris, was injured last season but started nine games in 2015.
The `Hoos had to learn a new defense in 2016 — their base under Mendenhall’s predecessor, Mike London, was a 4-3 — and that contributed to their uneven play last fall.
“We know our assignments a lot better than we did this time last year,” Hanback said. “So I think that’s going to help us out a lot. I think this camp is going to be, like Coach Mendenhall says, about playing a lot of football and sharpening the tools we have by playing the game. I’ve seen huge strides from where we were last [summer] to where we are now, physically and mentally.”
Hanback made 36 tackles last season, including 4.5 for loss. His most memorable play, however, was not a tackle. It came Oct. 1 at Wallace Wade Stadium, where Virginia defeated Duke 34-20 to end a 17-game road losing streak.
In the fourth quarter, Mack raced in from his linebacker position to lay a crushing hit on quarterback Daniel Jones. Mack’s sack forced a fumble in the end zone, and Hanback pounced on the ball for a touchdown.
On YouTube, fans have replayed that sequence thousands of times.
“Everyone usually pulls that up to see the hit, but I think it’s kind of funny that in the background, I’m scooping the ball up and scoring,” Hanback said, smiling. “It gives me a laugh, because it’s more about J-Mack. He made the play. I just fell on the ball.”