Third-year class now the core of UVA's defense

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 SPORTS) -- Virginia outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga has a great appreciation for the third-year players on the Cavaliers' defense.

"Those are the true believers right there, honestly," Poppinga replied to a question about UVA's junior class of defenders.

UVA's 2017 recruiting class was the first to be recruited fully by head coach Bronco Mendenhall and his coaching staff. Those players signed following Mendenhall's first year as head coach of the Cavaliers -- a 2-10 season that ended on a seven-game losing streak.

Heading into the 2019 season, members of that recruiting class can be found all over UVA's first-team defense. Outside linebacker Charles Snowden started all 13 games last year. Inside linebacker Zane Zandier started eight. Defensive lineman Mandy Alonso and defensive back Joey Blount both missed time with injuries last year, but started five games.

"It's still crazy to us," said Snowden. "I can still vividly remember July 5, 2017. First day down here. But it's really cool to see how far we've come, how much we've developed. Because we've gone through so much together.

"So to look to my right and see Zane, look and see Joey out there with me. It's the coolest feeling in my world, because those are some of my best friends."

Blount finished tied for third on the UVA defense with 65 tackles, while Zandier was fifth with 63 and Snowden seventh with 61. Snowden was second on the team in tackles for loss (7 1/2) and quarterback hurries (nine). Blount and Zandier each had five tackles for loss. Snowden finished with 2 1/2 sacks, Zandier had two and Alonso had 1 1/2.

All four of those players are expected to play key roles on the UVA defense this season. Two other third-year outside linebackers, Matt Gahm and Elliott Brown, have been in the mix to replace Chris Peace. Cornerback Darrius Bratton started five games last year, and was in line to replace Tim Harris this season -- but is expected to miss the entire 2019 season with a knee injury.

With just a handful of seniors on defense -- including defensive linemen Eli Hanback and Richard Burney, linebacker Jordan Mack and cornerback Bryce Hall -- those third-year players have become some of UVA's veterans at their positions.

"It's kind of a weird feeling, this off-season, kind of teaching the young guys all the ropes and everything. It feels like yesterday we were coming in as first-years," said Zandier. "I think we've all stepped into that role pretty well, and kind of leading everybody coming up behind us."

"Those suckers took a leap of faith. And I'd say that class, right now, those guys that you just named, those are the leaders of our defense right now, and the leaders of our team," Poppinga said of UVA's third-years. "Those are the guys that have been it from the beginning, and they've bought in from there, and we'll see what steps they can take forward this season."