Virginia only returns two starters to its defensive line. So why are the Hoos a sleeper choice at that position?
Returning defensive end Eli Harold is a big reason. But perhaps even bigger? Depth. As in much, much more of it.
"Our defensive line is loaded," Harold said in an interview with ESPN.com Tuesday. "We’ve got about eight or nine guys who can go in there and play right away."
Contrast that to last season, when depth was in short supply. Harold was in on 806 plays, second-most on defense and practically unheard of for a defensive lineman. He did not recall coming out of the game in the opener against BYU, taking 93 snaps. As a comparison, Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley took 560 snaps and played one more game. Better depth at Clemson means fewer snaps, and fewer snaps means much fresher players on the line -- an absolute must to be effective.
Harold, who ended last season with 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss a year ago, says the Hoos have the best depth they have had in years. Couple that with the new aggressive approach implemented last season, and expectations for the group have grown.
"I’m glad we have depth this year, to allow our athletes to get out in space, rush the passer and also stop the run," Harold said.
David Dean also returns as a starter at tackle. But Harold praised Mike Moore, slated to start at end, and then listed others like Donte Wilkins and Chris Braithwaite, back after sitting out last season. Then, of course, there is highly touted freshman tackle Andrew Brown, who will be expected to have an immediate impact.
"Andrew Brown’s definitely going to help us out this year whether he starts or not," Harold said. "He’s going to play up to 20 plays a game I think. He’s a big, strong guy. He’s one of the strongest guys on the team already. He’s fast, he’s physical, he also has finesse. A guy like that brings a lot to the table. He deserves that highly touted rank he has. We’re expecting a lot out of him, but like I told him, just don’t put too much on yourself. You’re just now learning, so don’t be so hard on yourself."
Harold himself is up to 245 pounds, and says the new strength and conditioning staff has done a great job transforming the players on the roster. He says there is much more leadership too, more players with passion and competitiveness, eager to get the program back to a bowl game. As for individual goals, Harold has set the bar high -- he wants 15 sacks.
A few breathers would be nice, too.