By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE– During second-half breaks in football games that Virginia leads, it’s not uncommon to see dozens of head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s players dancing as music blasts over the P.A. system.
Defensive lineman Eli Hanback refrains. That’s not his style.
“I love the energy,” Hanback said Tuesday at the McCue Center, “and I know those guys have that type of energy, but I’m not the most emotional person – until the clock hits zero. Then I can start showing some emotion.”
UVA’s coaching staff expects players to approach their training seriously and methodically, and practices are intense. “But I think most of our coaches have a lot of passion for the game,” Hanback said, “and they’re very emotional coaches too, and they love seeing that energy on sideline.”
His position coach is former NFL player Vic So’oto, who’s as demonstrative as Hanback is even-keeled.
“Coach Vic is a very energetic and enthusiastic coach, and he has a lot of passion for the game,” Hanback said. “He projects that at all times. Me, I’m a little more nonchalant. It’s a good ying and yang.”
A 6-4, 300-pound redshirt junior from Hanover County, Hanback is a three-year starter for Virginia, which is No. 25 in the College Football Playoff rankings. He’s put up solid statistics this season – 23 tackles, including three for loss (two of them sacks), two fumble recoveries, two quarterback hurries, one pass breakup – but numbers don’t fully reflect his value to the program.
“Eli is the steady force, the guy that’s always there, that’s going to do things exactly right as far as assignments and execution,” said Kelly Poppinga, the Cavaliers’ co-defensive coordinator. “There’s no drama from him. He just steps up and comes to work every single day. He never gets too excited. He’s always even flow.”
Hanback is “a silent leader,” sophomore safety Joey Blount said, and that’s fine with UVA’s coaches.
The staff knows “every single day,” Mendenhall said, that Hanback is “going to be there and do his job, and he’s going to do it in the rain or the snow, if we’re ahead, if we’re behind, if it’s first down, fourth down, and then he’s going to show up at practice and the weight room. He requires zero maintenance and just does his job every single day at a level that is exemplary.”
In a pivotal Coastal Division game, UVA (6-2 overall, 4-1 ACC) hosts Pittsburgh (4-4, 3-1) at Scott Stadium at 7:30 p.m. Friday. The Wahoos have won three straight games, and their run defense has been superb during that streak. The Panthers, meanwhile, are coming off a 54-45 victory over Duke in which they rushed for 484 yards.
“We have to be able to control the game by stopping the run,” Poppinga said. “This is the biggest challenge we’ve had to this point [in that area].”
UVA held Duke to 58 yards rushing on Oct. 27 and North Carolina to 66 yards last weekend. In each of those wins, Hanback “really stepped up,” Poppinga said, “and so he’s got to continue to do that. This is a huge week for him, especially controlling the interior on the inside.”
The Cavaliers’ base defense is a 3-4, but they’ve rarely shown that look in recent games. They’ve usually lined up with only two linemen, usually Hanback and sophomore Mandy Alonso.
“If we don’t have to take them off the field, we don’t intend to,” Mendenhall said. “Basically, their tongues are hanging out right now, but they’re both capable of that.”
UVA’s third and fourth defensive linemen are true freshmen Aaron Faumui and Jordan Redmond, respectively. The Cavaliers don’t have much depth up front, but “it’s nice to have Eli setting the tone, Mandy learning from him, and then Aaron learning from him, and then Jordan coming along,” Mendenhall said.
Redshirt junior Richard Burney began the season as a starting defensive end, but he played in only three games before being shut down for medical reasons. In Burney’s absence, Hanback said, the “younger guys have really stepped up, and they’ve gotten a lot better as the season’s gone on, and I don’t think they’re really rattled or affected any more by the atmosphere or anything.”
Hanback, a graduate of Patrick Henry High School in Ashland, has played both nose tackle and end at UVA. His position? “Just a defensive lineman,” he said.
As a boy he attended Virginia games at Scott Stadium with his father, Don, a former Bridgewater College football player. Hanback remembers seeing Marques Hagans, who now coaches Virginia’s wide receivers, throw touchdown passes to tight end Heath Miller.
Now he plays in the stadium in whose stands he used to sit. Hanback may one day grow nostalgic about this experience, “but right now it’s like I’m running out on another field to play football again,” he said.
“It’s not any different from when I was playing in high school or middle school or little league. I probably felt different when I [ran out of the tunnel] the first time, but now I’ve done it so much that this is home. This is our stadium.”
Hanback attended Patrick Henry with Chesdin Harrington, now a pitcher on the UVA baseball team. Harrington knew Hanback was a Virginia fan. He also knew the Cavaliers, whose head coach then was Mike London, weren’t recruiting Hanback.
“I’ll give Chesdin a lot of the credit,” Hanback said, “because, honestly, I wasn’t on their radar till he said something about it.”
Harrington took to social media, touting Hanback in a tweet directed to the UVA coaching staff. The next day, a Virginia assistant emailed Hanback and invited him to a camp. A scholarship offer followed, and Hanback committed to the Cavaliers in August 2014.
“I’ve been really blessed with the opportunity I’ve had,” said Hanback, a foreign affairs major who lives with teammates C.J. Stalker and Jake Fieler.
“For one, even getting here, and two, being able to play and start and help my team. Coach Vic always talks about opportunities. When I had my opportunity, I did a good job of showing I could play and help the team. I’ve been trying to do that every year, and I hope to continue that.”
In 2016, Mendenhall’s first season with the Cavaliers, they finished 2-10. Virginia won five of its first six games last season but only one of its final seven. And so nobody in the McCue Center is overly excited about the team’s CFP ranking or its lead in the Coastal Division.
“I think as a team we’re doing a really good job of taking it one game at a time and putting aside the ranking and what happens if we keep winning,” Hanback said. “That stuff, that doesn’t matter right now. All that matters right now is Pitt.
“A lot of our success as a team has come from the fact that that’s how everyone looks at everything. Everyone’s focused on one game at a time. Coach Mendenhall always says we can win as many games as we want to. And I think that comes from just being locked in every week to who our opponent is that week and not looking to the future, not looking at what everyone else is saying about us and patting us on the back. That can go away really fast.”
Most defensive players at UVA complete their college careers without scoring a touchdown. No. 58 is one of the exceptions.
As a redshirt freshman in 2016, after Jordan Mack jarred the ball loose with a highlight-reel sack, Hanback recovered the fumble in the end zone to help Virginia defeat Duke at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Hanback nearly added a second TD in September. Early in the second quarter of Virginia’s win over Ohio in Nashville, Tenn., Burney tackled running back A.J. Ouellette, forcing a fumble. Hanback scooped up the football at the Ohio 20 and took off for the end zone, only to fumble as he approached the goal line. The Bobcats recovered at the 1.
“I saw someone coming to my right, and I went to shift the ball to my other hand,” Hanback said after the game. “I should have put two arms over it. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. But it just fell. It just dropped out of my hands.”
Poppinga, who starred linebacker for BYU, smiled when asked if he ever scored a touchdown in a college game. He came close. In BYU’s 27-22 win over TCU on Nov. 9, 2007, in Provo, Utah, Poppinga intercepted a pass by TCU quarterback Andy Dalton and thought it would be a pick-six.
Alas, after a 22-yard return, Poppinga was tackled on the Horned Frogs’ 3. (BYU scored on the next play.)
“For a D-lineman, that’s impressive,” Poppinga said of Hanback’s big-play résumé.
This will be one of two Friday games this season for UVA, which plays Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on Nov. 23. The starting time for that game has yet to be determined, but Hanback can’t wait to take on Pitt under the lights.
“You saw the atmosphere when we played Miami at night time,” Hanback said, referring to the Cavaliers’ 16-13 win over the then-No. 16 Hurricanes at Scott Stadium last month.
“There’s nothing better than a night game, and a Friday game is like old times [in high school]. It’s Friday Night Lights.”