UVA optimistic about depth at inside LB spots

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 SPORTS) -- Kelly Poppinga acknowledges that, as a former inside linebacker himself, his opinion may be a little biased. But Poppinga, now the co-defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach at Virginia, has high praise for the inside linebacker group the Wahoos will put on the field this fall.

"The 'mike' backer position, if you have a dog there, and a guy that's experienced and a good player, and an NFL player -- which I think there's two to three of those guys that we could put in at any time, at 'mike' backer -- I think that's the makings of a good defense," Poppinga said.

"We were talking about this the other day. Even in our time at BYU, this could be, depth-wise, the best we've ever had."

UVA returns eight of the top 10 tacklers from last year's defense, and that list includes three players who started at least seven games at one of the inside linebacker spots in the Wahoos' 3-4 defense.

Senior Jordan Mack's 66 total tackles and 7.3 tackles per game were both second on the team behind safety Juan Thornhill last season, and most among returning players on the defense. That's despite missing four games with a shoulder injury last fall. Mack's 31 starts are third among active players on the UVA defense, and his 220 career tackles are most on the current roster.

Zane Zandier appeared in all 13 games and started eight last season, while fellow rising junior Robert Snyder played in 12 and started seven. Zandier finished with 63 tackles, while Snyder racked up 53.

"With all the experience we have at the linebacker position, it's kind of like the core of the defense," Zandier said. "So being able to have those leaders and the experienced players that kind of lead, and make sure everybody is in the right spot, and just be physical make plays, it's going to help our defense out a lot."

"I think we've done a great job developing and recruiting at the position," Poppinga said. "And I think a 3-4 defense, if you don't have great linebackers you don't have a great defense."

Mack started seven games at the 'mike' backer, or strong-side inside linebacker spot last fall, plus two at the 'buck' backer spot after first returning from his shoulder injury. Zandier started two games at the 'buck' and six at the 'mike,' including all four while Mack was out. All seven of Snyder's starts came at the 'buck,' including the final three games of the season.

According to Poppinga, those three are being pushed in camp this summer by true freshman Nick Jackson, a three-star recruit from Atlanta.

"That guy is opening everybody's eyes, especially with the scrimmage we had (on Wednesday)," Poppinga said. "Another young guy in the mix, that can find himself in the two-deep. Or shoot, even out with the ones, just depending on what he does."

"We're pushing each other for that starting spot, and pushing each person. We want all of us to be great. All of us have an opportunity to play on Saturdays," said Snyder. "So I feel like with that, you never know when your time is going to come, so I feel with that pressure, every day you've got to bring your best."

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