By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Several times a day, away from his McCue Center office, assistant coach Kelly Poppinga will stop by Room 215, where the outside linebackers on the University of Virginia football team hold their meetings.
“He’s in there every single time,” Poppinga said.
Poppinga was referring to Chris Peace, who started all 12 games for the Cavaliers as a redshirt sophomore last season. Peace said he spends at least at an hour a day watching videotape. Credit Virginia’s All-America inside linebacker, Micah Kiser, for inspiring him to devote more time to mental preparation.
“Micah’s taught me how to break down film, and it started midway through last season,” Peace said.
Before then, he said, “I just thought I could go out there and play, and that’s not how it works at this level.”
Poppinga said: “I’m really pleased with the work that he’s putting in in the film room, and the questions that he has for me. He’s calling me, he’s texting me all throughout the day just to make sure he’s seeing things the right way and seeing things how we want to call it. I’m happy with the preparation that he’s put in in the film room, in the weight room, and as a leader.”
This is the Wahoos’ second year under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who’s also their defensive coordinator. Virginia previously employed a 4-3 as its base defense. Mendenhall favors a 3-4 in which the outside linebackers are among the marquee players.
Poppinga starred at outside linebacker in this system when Mendenhall coached at BYU. When the defense is functioning at a high level, the outside linebackers set the edge against the run, rack up tackles for loss in the running game, and record sacks in the passing game.
“We didn’t really do any of that last year: set the edge of the defense, have TFLs or sacks,” Poppinga said. “I think we’re way farther ahead this year.”
A graduate of Denbigh High School in Newport News, Peace said he feels “completely different from last year. The most notable thing I’d say is confidence. I feel a lot more confident and just more comfortable.”
The 6-1 Peace, who wears jersey No. 13, is also noticeably bigger than in 2016, when he played at about 230 pounds. Now, after diligently following a diet designed by Randy Bird, Virginia’s director sports nutrition, he weighs 245 and hasn’t lost any speed.
Many of his teammates have bulked up too. The `Hoos finished 2-10 last season, after which Mendenhall told his players changes were needed.
“That was the main message after the season: Everybody has to get bigger and stronger,” Peace recalled. “He didn’t really have to say it. I felt that way through the season. I just felt like sometimes in the run game I was getting thrown around, I guess you could say. Now I don’t feel that way at all.”
Poppinga said: “Chris is way more physical. He tried to be physical last year, but I think he lacked a little strength coming off the [shoulder] injury he had from , and he just lacked size. Now, with another year in the weight room, building that strength, building that size, he’s physical in the run game, physical in his pass rush, and so I’m just anxious to see him play on Saturday and see that all come together.”
At 3:30 p.m., in the season opener for both teams, UVA takes on William & Mary at Scott Stadium.
“The thing about the opener this time is, we’re trying not to make the same mistake we did last year and overlook anybody,” Peace said.
In their first game under Mendenhall, Virginia lost 37-20 to Richmond at Scott Stadium.
“I don’t even know how to describe the feeling,” Peace said. “It was like, `What’s going on here?’ I think we just came out a little too big-headed.”
The Tribe has the Cavaliers’ full attention, Peace said, and the defense has a stronger grasp of Mendenhall’s system.
“There’s a lot more chemistry, a lot more trust,” said Peace, who’s majoring in American Studies, with a concentration in race and ethnicity.
There’s a lot more experience as well. Eight players are back who started at least seven games each on defense for Virginia in 2016. A ninth, cornerback Tim Harris, missed most of last season with an injury but started nine games in 2015.
Asked Monday at John Paul Jones Arena about the defense’s progress, Mendenhall said, “I can’t say I’m ever sure exactly how we’re going to play until I see us play a football game … That’s why you play the games. There’s always some uncertainty.
“But they are more mature, the defensive group, more consistent, and they are more experienced. From practice to practice, I don’t see any way ups, way downs, highs and lows. I see consistent work. The mindset is developing. The execution is developing. They are becoming a group that I really like to coach.”
As for Peace, he’s “kind of the epitome or great representation of where the group is as a whole,” Mendenhall said. “I think he’ll try hard. I think he’s learning how to play his position. I think he’s mastering that in the context of their schemes: what we’re calling and why.”
Peace, a late addition to the Cavaliers’ 2014 recruiting class, was a reserve defensive end as a redshirt freshman in 2015. At a new position in an unfamiliar defense, he made 53 tackles (fifth-most on the team) last season. Peace’s 6.5 tackles for loss ranked third at UVA and included two sacks.
UVA’s other starter at outside linebacker is Malcolm Cook, who because of medical reasons has played in only six games since joining the program in 2013. Backing up Peace and Cook are true freshmen Elliott Brown, Charles Snowden and Matt Gahm.
“I look at Chris as the leader of the group, he sees himself as the leader of the group, and he’s done a great job leading the group,” Poppinga said. “I’m anxious to see how everything comes together Saturday.”
At the end of the spring semester, Peace went home to the Tidewater area, where he trained for about a month with UVA defensive end Andrew Brown. In the mornings they’d put themselves through agility drills on the sand at Virginia Beach. Afternoons usually found them lifting weights, often at Onelife Fitness in Chesapeake.
Peace and Brown have been close friends since their middle school days in Chesapeake.
“That’s my brother,” Peace said last year. “Blood can’t make us any tighter.”
Peace and Brown share an apartment on North Grounds. They’re happy to be living together for the first time, but the arrangement, Peace acknowledged with a smile, has produced a “lot of brotherly arguments. Just little things, like closing the cabinets and who’s going to drive to practice.”
Brown, who played as a true freshman in 2014, is down to his final college season, and he “has a different mindset this year,” Peace said. “Definitely more urgent. He’s been in the film room more, and he’s just been working harder overall.”
Coaches love to see players make such breakthroughs. Poppinga said Peace “figured out about midway through the  season that if he’s going to have any production, he’s going to have to know what’s going to happen before that ball is snapped, based on formations.
“That’s what the great players can do. He’s becoming a smart football player, and it’s been fun to see that developing.”