By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — During their celebrated football careers at the University of Virginia, safety Quin Blanding and linebacker Micah Kiser have made nearly 900 tackles between them, earning All-ACC and All-America honors along the way.
Blanding (479) ranks first in career tackles at UVA, and Kiser (400) is fifth. Replacing their production will be difficult next year, but “I believe we have enough playmakers that are coming back next year to help us be successful on defense,” said Kelly Poppinga, who coaches the Cavaliers’ outside linebackers.
Equally challenging for UVA will be trying to fill the leadership void on defense left by the departures of Kiser and Blanding from the program. Neither one, however, sees that as a major concern.
“The team’s in great hands,” Kiser said. “There’s a lot of great young leaders emerging. Guys like [linebackers] Chris Peace and Jordan Mack I’ve really taken under my wing throughout these years. I’m really proud of them, and I see them doing great things moving forward as well.”
Blanding acknowledged that he and “Micah are the big voices of the defense, but we’ve got a lot of quiet leaders, and I know next year is going to be their opportunity to step up, and they’re going to really shine.”
Kiser, Blanding and quarterback Kurt Benkert are the Cavaliers’ captains, and their college careers will end next week in Annapolis, Maryland. At 1:30 p.m. Thursday, UVA (6-6) meets Navy (6-6) in the Military Bowl at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who’s also the Wahoos’ defensive coordinator, was asked recently about the next generation of leaders in his program.
“That’s part of what’s happening now, the development of that [during the lead-up to the Military Bowl],” Mendenhall said. “It’s really difficult for true leadership to emerge unless there’s a void or a vacuum … Once our older players in the leadership roles leave, that’s when we kind of accelerate that. So it’s grooming now, and then the acceleration happens: kind of the transfer of power when the guys graduate and move on.”
On defense, Virginia’s returning players will include Peace, Mack, lineman Eli Hanback, cornerbacks Bryce Hall and Juan Thornhill, and safety Brenton Nelson, and “we’re going to pass the torch to them, and I know they’re going to do a great job with it,” Blanding said.
Frank Wintrich, UVA’s director of football performance, also praised the leadership potential of the team’s younger players, including true freshmen Joey Blount (safety) and Charles Snowden (outside linebacker) on the defense.
Wintrich said the coaching staff will “invest a lot of our energy this winter in identifying and nurturing those guys into those roles, to develop into the leaders that we need to have an even more successful season next year. Because six [regular-season wins] isn’t enough. We’ve got to keep going and keep growing.”
Peace, a 6-2, 245-pound redshirt junior, will be as experienced as anyone on the defense next year. A two-year starter at outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme Mendenhall installed after taking over at UVA in December 2015, Peace leads the team in tackles for loss (10.5) and sacks (7.5) this season.
He’s fourth on the team in tackles, with 60, and has intercepted a pass and forced two fumbles.
“Production says a lot,” Mendenhall said. “Production usually happens because of the effort and position mastery. He and [senior defensive end] Andrew Brown, I would say, have taken the most significant jumps from a year ago to how they’ve played this year, and I’m really encouraged and excited for him, especially because he’s coming back.”
A graduate of Denbigh High School in Newport News, Peace played at about 230 pounds in 2016, when his 6.5 tackles for loss included two sacks.
“He definitely took a step [this year], especially I think in the pass game, just getting more pressure on the quarterback,” Poppinga said. “I think he’s doing a great job from that standpoint. I do think there’s still some ground he needs to make up in the run game.”
On several plays during the regular season, Poppinga said, Peace was “off one gap,” a lapse that resulted in a long run by the opposing team.
“So we’re continuing to work on our run fits,” Poppinga said, but the strides Peace has made are impressive.
“He’s bigger, he’s faster, he’s stronger from a year ago,” said Poppinga, a former NFL inebacker.
“I’m just glad to see him have some success, because he worked so hard and he’s put so much time and effort in the film room and everything he’s done off the field. It’s been fun for me to watch.”
Peace entered the year with a goal of recording 15 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. He may not hit those marks this season, but he’s pleased with the progress he’s made.
“It’s definitely a step forward,” Peace said. “Next year I’ve just got to work harder.”
The Cavaliers’ other starter at outside linebacker, Malcolm Cook, is expected to move on after graduating in the spring. Among those bidding for more playing time on the outside in 2018 will be Snowden and classmate Elliott Brown. Snowden stands 6-7. Brown, who’s been used primarily on special teams, is 6-6, and like Snowden has yet to fill out his frame.
“I would hope that they would get bigger and stronger,” Poppinga said. “We’ve done some stuff here in these bowl practices with the younger guys, and I definitely see it from Charles. I think Elliott’s probably a little step behind there, but there’s a really bright future for both guys. But the offseason’s going to be huge, and spring ball’s going to be big, and the summer’s going to be big, and I look forward to fall camp for 2018.”
The underclassmen will look to veterans such as Peace for guidance, a role UVA’s coaches expect him to embrace next year.
“I would say between him and Eli and Jordan Mack and Juan and Bryce Hall, guys that have been playing a lot for us the past two seasons, those are the guys that are going to have to step up and teach the younger guys how to do it,” Poppinga said. “I believe we have a good group coming back.”
For another week, however, Kiser and Blanding will continue to lead the Cavaliers’ defense, and Peace’s focus is on the present, not on 2018.
“It’s back there in the back of my mind, but way far back,” he said, smiling. “I haven’t really been thinking about it just yet. It hasn’t hit me.”
Late in the regular season, an ankle injury hindered Peace, who missed multiple practices and often wore a protective boot between games. The break that followed the Nov. 24 regular-season finale “helped a lot,” said Peace, who’s healthy again and eager to try to help Virginia finish on a positive note.
A victory over Navy would secure the first winning season in six years for the `Hoos.
“That would just keep things moving forward, basically be a stepping stone for next year and a good way to send out a lot of these seniors,” Peace said.