Eli Hanback

Senior defensive tackle Eli Hanback, center, is the key to Virginia’s interior defense, having started 36 games since 2016.

CHARLOTTESVILLE –Eli Hanback has lined up next to 11 different defensive linemen in his Virginia career. During that time, Hanback hasn’t missed a football game, playing in all 38 contests the past three seasons.

“He’s gone so far playing basically every snap of every game and not being hurt and being super durable. It’s honestly amazing,” junior defensive end Mandy Alonso said. “And at the level he plays? It’s crazy.”

Hanback, a former Patrick Henry High School standout, has played the most games of anyone on UVA’s team, making 140 tackles and 4 ½ sacks. Around him, injuries and other issues have had defensive linemen rotating in and out of games, in and out of practices, and on and off the roster.

“I guess it is rare,” said Hanback, who praised the strength and training staffs at Virginia. “Playing in the trenches is tough and a lot of guys get banged up. I’ve just managed to be OK.”

Mostly, he did play with a cast protecting a broken thumb for part of his sophomore year and has battled through other, less public bumps and bruises. He’s done it while anchoring a veritable MASH unit around him.

Alonso played in the first nine games last season before suffering a season-ending lower leg injury. Senior Richard Burney moved to defensive end from tight end after the 2017 season, then started the first three games of last year before having to shut it down for the season for undisclosed medical reasons.

Jordan Redmond and Aaron Faumui both got their chances to play major roles as true freshmen.

And through it all, there was Hanback, 6 feet and 300 pounds of dependability.

“He’s durable,” UVA defensive line coach Vic So’oto said Tuesday. “He’s reliable. Reliable not only being on the field but being in his gap and doing what he’s supposed to do. And then he’s just consistent. You get the same dude whether it’s the first day of camp, last day of spring, or the bowl game, it’s the same guy. He just comes out and works.”

This fall, for the first time since Bronco Mendenhall as coach took over before the 2016 season, So’Oto has a two-deep of experienced options. Hanback, Alonso, Burney, Famui, Redmond and sophomore Tommy Christ have all proven they’re ready to contribute on game days.

That’s important because one of Mendenhall’s primary goals this season is to improve the run defense. The Cavaliers ranked fourth in the ACC in rushing yards allowed per game, yielding just 147.5. But Mendenhall hasn’t focused on that number.

UVA allowed 4.3 yards per carry last season, and that’s where the coaching staff has challenged the defense to improve. The goal this year is to get that mark under 3.5.

Mendenhall said studying results going back to his 11 years at BYU revealed that giving up 3.5 yards per rush or fewer is one of the best indicators of victory for his programs.

“This will be our best chance to accomplish that in our four seasons,” Mendenhall said. “For us to be able to take another step forward as a program we have to be able to take over the interiors.”

Mendenhall’s first three teams didn’t rotate much defensively, particularly on the defensive line, but So’oto said that decision was based on their personnel, not a preference. This year, in addition to having more competition in practice for playing time, UVA hopes to play more defensive linemen during games, keeping everyone fresher.

It also should help keep the defensive line from wearing down late in the season, something that appeared to happen in the final two regular season games last year, overtime losses at Georgia Tech and rival Virginia Tech.

Another year in a college weight lifting program has the defensive line bigger as well. UVA’s top six defensive linemen average 6-2 and 285 pounds.

“The strength and size is different. The experience is different,” Mendenhall said. “So it’s really the first time that, besides our starting three, you could go deeper than that and feel pretty confident.”

In fact, So’oto can only see one drawback to his players’ development.

“There’s a lot less space in our meeting room now,” he joked.

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