Virginia’s coaches shared the need for increased production from their outside linebackers earlier this season.
Charles Snowden embraced the challenge, playing his two most productive games of the year against Wake Forest and Miami.
As the outside linebackers improve, the inside linebackers remain steady.
The coaches like what they’ve seen from that group — namely Nick Jackson and Zane Zandier — all fall.
“Our inside linebackers right now have played at the highest level of anyone on our defense,” UVa head coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
“Nick’s jump from last year to this year has been the most significant jump up of any player on our team this year. We knew he was consistent. We knew he was solid. We knew what he was capable of a year ago. We didn’t know he be as fast, as dynamic and as physical and as good a tackler.”
Both Jackson and Zandier sit in the top 40 nationally in tackles per game, combining for 20 stops per contest.
Jackson finished the loss to Miami with 16 tackles, including one tackle for loss and half a sack. Zandier ended the game with 10 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack. The duo made plays all over the field, as has been typical this season.
Tackling at every position will be crucial against North Carolina.
The Tar Heels check in at No. 12 nationally in passing yards per completion. Dynamic receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome can blow by defenders running routes, and they’re extremely dangerous once they bring in receptions.
At running back, the team’s two-headed monster of Michael Carter and Devonte Williams form one of the best backfields in college football.
UNC averages 249 rushing yards per game, which is good for the 12th best mark nationally. The Tar Heels average an impressive 5.74 yards per carry, and they’ve scored 15 touchdowns on the ground.
Quarterback Sam Howell draws plenty of well-deserved headlines, but the team’s rushing attack flies under the national radar despite being among the most productive and dynamic groups in the nation.
For UVa to pull an upset Saturday, it needs to tackle well and stop the run.
“Their running backs have run through pretty much everybody in terms of breaking tackles,” Virginia defensive coordinator Nick Howell said.
Howell’s talking points during interviews rarely wander to the extremely detailed.
He wants the Cavaliers to take care of the fundamentals. Winning requires checking off the defensive basics. That means communicating and executing well every week, starting with tackling.
A year ago, the Cavaliers struggled to bring down UNC’s playmakers. A tremendous effort from Bryce Perkins and the offense helped Virginia outlast North Carolina in a shootout, winning 38-31. UNC surpassed 500 yards of total offense in the loss, throwing for 353 yards while adding 186 on the ground.
With an inconsistent offense this fall, a shootout might not be in Virginia’s best interest. A sound defensive showing against an elite offense gives the Wahoos their best shot at winning.
“We played some things good and some things not good, but you have a reference point so when you go out there you’ve seen what they can do,” Howell said of last year’s game against UNC. “They’re obviously a year better, and they’ve got improvement, but our guys are familiar with the scheme. Anytime you don’t play anything well it grabs your attention for an entire offseason. I look forward to our guys being prepared and playing well.”
Seeing UNC’s scheme a season ago helps the Cavaliers.
Virginia’s defense should be well prepared. If the Wahoos can execute efficiently, they might be able to match last week’s quality showing against a high-powered Miami offense.
Replicating the good defensive showing starts with tackling and slowing UNC’s ground game. That job sits squarely on the shoulders of Jackson and Zandier. That’s good news for UVa.