The Virginia football team is coming off its first eight-win season since 2011 and a dominant performance in the Belk Bowl against South Carolina. Add to that the Cavaliers’ highest-rated recruiting class since 2014 and it’s easy to see how expectations in Charlottesville are at a level unmatched by any UVa football team in the past decade.
The unofficial transition from summer to fall begins in a couple weeks with ACC Media Days in Charlotte, North Carolina. Leading up to the event, we’ll feature 19 UVa players to watch in 2019. Some are familiar names. Some are new. All are expected to play massive roles in Virginia’s continued rebuild this season.
We’ve reached the top five players to watch this season. Coming in at No. 5 is inside linebacker Jordan Mack, who put up impressive numbers as former Cavalier Micah Kiser’s understudy and enters his senior season as one of the most accomplished linebackers in the ACC.
Mack leads a deep, talented group of linebackers, which helped Virginia rank No. 4 in the conference last fall after surrendering 147.5 rushing yards a game.
Tale of the tape
Hometown: Lithonia, Georgia
Last season: Mack missed four games with a shoulder injury, but he still finished second on the team with 66 tackles and third with six tackles for a loss.
Depth at the position: As long as he’s healthy, Mack will be on the field. He and junior Zane Zandier form a fierce tackling tandem in the middle of the defense. Rob Snyder may earn a few starts and will definitely see some snaps. It’s a long shot that freshman Nick Jackson will see the field, but Dominic Sheppard’s transfer to University of Texas-San Antonio puts him one step closer.
Number to know: 114. As a sophomore in 2017, Mack finished fifth in the ACC with 114 tackles. He joined forces with Kiser (145) and Quin Blanding (137) to make Virginia one of two FBS teams in the country boasting three players with more than 100 tackles. New Mexico State was the other.
Outlook: After he started nine games as a freshman and put up such ridiculous numbers as a sophomore, many believed Mack would emerge last season as the leader of the linebackers. His teammates say he was a leader on the field and in the huddle, but his injury left him playing catch up and he was a bit overshadowed on the field when Charles Snowden burst onto the scene and in the locker room by boisterous former outside linebacker Chris Peace. Snowden’s stature and athleticism are going to turn heads again this year, but Mack is the unquestioned leader of the defensive front seven.
Top of the conference
This season, Mack’s name won’t just be mentioned among the best inside linebackers on Grounds. His name will be tossed about as one of the best in the ACC.
His top competition will be Miami senior Shaquille Quarterman – a three-time All-ACC selection, who posted 14 tackles for a loss and six sacks last season. Redshirt senior Justin Strnad is coming off an honorable mention All-ACC season, in which he led Wake Forest with 105 tackles. Pittsburgh’s Elias Reynolds and Florida State’s Dontavious Jackson are coming off impressive 2018 campaigns, and last season as a redshirt freshman, N.C. State’s Isaiah Moore finished third on the team with 69 tackles and 7.5 tackles for a loss.
Next in line
In April, safety Juan Thornhill (Chiefs) and cornerback Tim Harris (49ers) were the latest Virginia players to hear their names called in the NFL Draft. Mack is among the Cavaliers’ most likely candidates to get the call in the 2020 draft. His nose for the ball is undeniable, he has the size and after playing cornerback in high school, he has the athleticism to get to the ball and the skills make a play on it.
Given that he led the nation with 22 pass breakups and many believed he could have been a first-round pick last year, cornerback Bryce Hall rolls into the season as the most likely Cavalier to walk across the stage in the 2020 draft and get a hug from commissioner Roger Goodell. Given his size and athleticism and the premium put on the position at the next level, quarterback Bryce Perkins can throw his name in the hat with a repeat performance of last season. Snowden could conceivably leave after a big junior season, and seniors Hasise Dubois (WR) and Eli Hanback (DT) are dark horse candidates.