CHARLOTTESVILLE – At its pre-practice meeting Wednesday morning in the McCue Center, Virginia’s defensive line welcomed an illustrious guest: Patrick Kerney.
Kerney, who lettered once in lacrosse and four times in football at UVA, went on to become an All-Pro defensive end during a long NFL career. He returned to Charlottesville this week for an event during which invited guests, including such football alumni as Kerney, Noel LaMontagne and Herman Moore, were given an inside look at head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s program.
In his remarks to the defensive line, Kerney “pretty much just told us that Coach Mendenhall’s messages to us are very real,” redshirt junior Eli Hanback said, “and that they’ll pay dividends down the road and in life. And then he kind of shared his story with us.
“It was really cool of him to come by.”
Later in the morning, Kerney attended the Cavaliers’ practice at Lambeth Field, where he watched closely as assistant coach Vic So’oto put his D-linemen through drills.
What Kerney saw was an extraordinarily inexperienced group. Attrition has cost Virginia several defensive linemen since the end of the 2017 regular season. Several more are currently sidelined for medical reasons, which has meant extra reps for redshirt freshman Tommy Christ and true freshmen Aaron Faumui, Jordan Redmond, Samson Reed and Grant Misch, who recently was moved from linebacker to end.
“We’re a little short [on linemen] now, so they’ve had to play,” said Hanback, who’s heading into his third season as a starter in the 3-4 defense Mendenhall installed after coming to UVA from BYU in December 2015.
Virginia opens the season Sept. 1 against Richmond at Scott Stadium. Projected to start with the 6-4, 300-pound Hanback up front are 6-2, 290-pound sophomore Mandy Alonso and 6-4, 280-pound redshirt junior Richard Burney.
Alonso started four of Virginia’s final five games as a true freshman in 2017. Burney moved from tight end to defensive end before the Military Bowl in December and has impressed at his new position.
Reserves are likely to include the 6-5, 285-pound Christ and several, if not all, of the true freshmen, plus junior Cassius Peat, a 6-3, 280-pound junior-college transfer.
“A lot of young guys,” So’oto, a former NFL player, said after practice Wednesday. “It’s a lot like our first year here” – 2016 – “when I was helping to teach Donte [Wilkins] and Andrew [Brown] and all those guys the defense.”
As the most experienced player on the line, Hanback said, “I’ve had to take on a bigger leadership role, not only in the meeting room but on the field. For me, it’s about making sure [the younger players] know what they’re doing and know their assignments.”
Four of the linemen — Faumui (6-1, 280), Redmond (6-0, 320), Reed (6-2, 265) and Misch (6-4, 240) – have been at UVA for little more than a month.
“I think physically, as any freshmen would, they’ve got to get stronger,” Hanback said. “But they’re learning. They want to learn, they’re getting better, they’re invested.”
So’oto said: “They’re first-years. They make first-year mistakes, they have first-year work ethics and all that. Really, it’s about putting roots down deep every day. They’re bouncing back. They come back every day willing to work and willing to go at it.
“I think they’re all ready to go. It’s just the techniques that they’ve got to get down.”
Hanback said: “If you can play, you’re going to play. We know that freshmen have played here.”
Indeed, 17 true freshmen saw the field last season for the Cavaliers, who finished 6-7. Mendenhall has said he expects to play a comparable number this fall.
UVA’s true freshmen aren’t available for interviews during training camp, so it’s difficult to know exactly what they make of their introduction to college football. Like their older teammates, however, they’re clearly exhausted when they walk off the practice field each day. And the grind of a long season has only begun.
“We’re going to find out who the warriors are,” So’oto said on the sideline Wednesday, challenging his linemen on a hot, humid summer morning.