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Virginia Football: 20 Greatest Defensive Players of All Time

Ben GibsonSenior Analyst IJanuary 10, 2017

Virginia Football: 20 Greatest Defensive Players of All Time

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    We all know that offensive players grab headlines.

    The NFL is known as a quarterback's league.

    Running backs make the explosive plays and wide receivers make the highlight reels.

    Virginia is no exception.

    When asked who are the best players in school history, fans will give you names like Shawn and Herman Moore, Tiki Barber, Bullet Bill Dudley, Thomas Jones, Matt Schaub and maybe even Heath Miller.

    However, Virginia's success has been built around defensive superstars.

    The Cavaliers have put forth not just NFL-caliber talent on defense but Hall of Fame players.

    This article gives the defense its due and counts down the greatest defensive players of the modern era. Since defensive statistics were not recorded until 1978, it is hard to place some of the greats like Jim Bakhtiar in their proper place.

    So, with no disrespect to the older generations, here is a look at the greatest defensive players of the modern era.

20. Kai Parham

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    Kai Parham was not only an important player for the Al Groh era but as a role model for the future.

    Parham, a standout linebacker in Virginia Beach, represented the talent shift in the early recruiting classes under Groh.

    His ability to play both the pass and the run made him not only a vital key to the 3-4 defense but led Virginia to its biggest victories in the 2000s.

    Parham finished his career ninth in career sacks and 10th in career tackles for loss. He may not have had the talent of teammate Ahmad Brooks but he had the discipline and determination that made the most valuable player on the defensive side of the ball.

    Parham's success has provided a key recruiting pipeline for Virginia coach Mike London. By bringing in players from the Hampton Roads/Norfolk/Virginia Beach area, Virginia has the talent to once again emerge as a contender in the ACC.

    With players the caliber of Kai Parham, it is only a matter of time.

19. Ahmad Brooks

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    No one can deny the talent of Ahmad Brooks.

    The Virginia beach product showed his amazing abilities early on with the Cavaliers.

    Brooks could hit players out of their boots and had a great relationship with Prince Anne High School star Kai Parham.

    Those two made the 3-4 Al Groh defense effective.

    However, despite all the impressive numbers, Brooks never fully achieved his out of this world potential.

    As the losses began to mount, Brooks became more undisciplined. He would leave his responsibility to go for big plays.

    He certainly allowed for fireworks on the field, the problem is his mistakes allowed for big plays on the other side as well.

    Brooks ran afoul of coach Groh and was suspended later in his career.

    Still, there is little doubt that Brooks was one of the best pure athletes around. His leaping tackle against Virginia Tech may be one of the most impressive in school history.

    Unfortunately that play was emblematic of Brooks, Virginia was already too far behind and watching the clock roll down. The play was missed by most Virginia fans live because they had already turned off the television in frustration.

    His talent will never be forgotten but his results could have been so much more.

18. Keith McMeans

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    No one was better at picking off the ball than Keith McMeans.

    With 17 interceptions, McMeans led the country in 1987 with nine picks and helped lead Virginia to its glory days in the modern era.

    McMeans was on hand for the "retro game" in 2008 when Virginia paid homage to its great teams of the past and for good reason.

    McMeans was a starter during Virginia's first ACC championship, victory over Clemson, No. 1 ranking and made big plays against great teams like Notre Dame, Penn State and a Steve Spurrier-led Duke team.

    McMeans had to take on some of the best passing attacks around. He faced off against future NFL quarterback Jeff George and although Virginia fell short, his glories far surpass his setbacks.

17. Pat Chester

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    Pat Chester was not just a defensive player, he was a magician.

    Sixteen interceptions alone would be enough to put Chester on this list as an all-time defensive great. His 296 yards after picking them off puts him in an entirely different stratosphere.

    The next closest in terms of career interception yardage is at 209 yards.

    A 97-yard return in 1979 against James Madison is still the single-game record at Virginia and one that will be hard to beat down the line.

    Chester, alongside Stuart Anderson, were the defensive stars of the early 1980s and for good reason. 

    Chester was also Virginia's punt returner and led the ACC in punt return average for two seasons.

    For a team that lacked big plays, Chester was a playmaker that every team needs. He changed momentum in games and definitely made an impact on the image of Virginia football.

16. Chris Canty

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    The height of the Al Groh era was in 2004.

    The Cavaliers reached the Top 10 in the AP and Coaches Poll and were ransacking opponents.

    While the offense under quarterback Marques Hagans was stealing headlines, the defense was really the star of the team.

    Led by senior Chris Canty, the defensive line was making the 3-4 defense look unbeatable.

    In fact, Virginia won the first four games of the season by a combined score of 182-48.

    Canty had 28 combined tackles and at least one tackle for loss in every single one of those games but early on in the Syracuse game he was taken down with an injury that cost him the rest of the season.

    The senior had such promise but the premature end did little to diminish the physical presence and explosiveness Canty had. Canty was a two-time All-ACC second-team player and led the conference in tackles for a defensive lineman for two seasons.

    As a senior it appeared Canty had it all together and although an injury derailed his 2004, he continues to excel in the pros with both the Cowboys and now the Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

    Canty's numbers may not be the same as some other greats on this list, but it was Canty's size and speed that allowed for the opportunities of many Cavalier linebackers.

    In order for a 3-4 to survive, the defensive linemen must deal with a great deal of responsibilities.  No one shouldered that load quite like Canty did.

15. Stuart Anderson

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    It is easy to ignore Virginia football prior to the arrival of George Welsh in the 1980s.

    After all, the Cavaliers had more one-win seasons (two) than winning seasons (one) in the decade prior.

    However, Stuart Anderson made sure that Virginia football was not going to just roll over for opponents.

    Anderson came around right when defensive statistics started to be recorded and he decided to make one for the record books.

    In 1979, Anderson had 24 tackles in one game against the North Carolina State Wolfpack.

    No wonder he is still eighth all-time in career tackles and fifth in career tackles for loss.

    Anderson is the only pre-George Welsh player on this list and he has earned it. It is one thing to put up good numbers when the overall depth and talent present multiple opportunities.

    Anderson was playing on a team that averaged just over three wins per season and yet he was able to play through the frustration and put up numbers that great players afterwards cannot even touch.

    Anderson was drafted in the fourth round and played in the NFL but it was his time at Virginia that makes him a name to be remembered.

14. Wali Rainer

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    Rainer is ninth in school history for career tackles, including marks as the leading tackler in 1997 and 1998 when the Cavaliers went a combined 16-7 and six games of giving up 10 points or less.

    1998 was the year of Rainer, he earned first-team All-ACC honors with the fourth-best tackling season in school history. Coming from a rough background, Rainer took out his frustrations on his opponents and earned himself a fourth-round draft pick where he had some initial success.

    Rainer's impact is more than on the field, he earned the NFL's 2001 Man of the Year Award for his work with the United Way and is still a speaker/mentor to young people after his football career has long ended.

    Rainer approached football with a fire and knew how to make big plays for his team. His hard-hitting and discipline on the pass made him an integral part of the program and a force to be reckoned with.

13. Randy Neal

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    Linebacker Randy Neal was one of the best athletes in Virginia history.

    Neal knew how to hit, he finished seventh in career tackles and in 1993 set the school record for most tackles in a season which still ranks as the third best in school history.

    Some of Neal's records though remain No. 1. His 98 solo tackles in a season and four interceptions returned for touchdowns remain the gold standard for the orange and blue.

    Neal simply knew what to do with the ball when he saw it. His two interceptions returned for touchdowns against archrival Virginia Tech in a 41-38 game remains one of the greatest performances in school history.

    Making great plays is one thing, being able to do it in the toughest moments made Neal not just important but legendary.

12. Charles McDaniel

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    When you take over for a program that many considered to be a "coaching graveyard," it is hard to find talent.

    Virginia coach George Welsh came over from Navy and was eased in his transition by having one of the best linebackers in school history, Charles McDaniel.

    To say McDaniel ran the defense would be an understatement, the No. 2 all-time leading tackler in Virginia history, is one of only two men to ever lead the Cavaliers in tackles for three straight seasons.

    In the last of those three seasons, 1984, Virginia made it to its first-ever bowl game in program history where it defeated Purdue in the Peach Bowl.

    Despite the stellar play of Boilermaker quarterback Jim Everett, the Virginia defense played a vital role in the second half after a batted ball allowed them to break through and put pressure on the Big Ten star.

    Virginia had a program again and Charles McDaniel put in the grunt work to make that possible. For that, he will always be remembered.

11. Mike Frederick

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    Playing alongside Chris Slade, Mike Frederick knew the expectations heaped upon him.

    Virginia was finally becoming a national power and Frederick had huge shoes to fill.

    How did he respond? Well, let us just say he passed the test.

    Frederick is in the top six of tackles for loss, quarterback sacks not only in a career but also a season. His 6'5, 280 lb.-frame made him tough for anyone to handle and no one has really threatened his career tackles for loss since then.

    While he was not a man of many words and lacks the star power of others, his accomplishments speak for themselves.

10. Byron Thweatt

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    So what do you want from a linebacker?

    The ability to hit hard?

    The ability to play coverage?

    The ability to read offenses before the snap?

    Discipline?

    Byron Thweatt had all of this and his numbers just add to the argument that he is one of the best players in school history.

    Thweatt started 47 career games, a school record. Clearly someone say the potential in this intelligent linebacker and he took advantage of the opportunity.

    And 387 tackles later, Thweatt has the third-most tackles in school history. His senior season, Thweatt racked up 125 tackles for the sixth-best performance at Virginia.

    Thweatt's knowledge of the position has helped him after his football career ended for he is now the linebackers coach at the University of Richmond, the alma mater and former coaching gig for current Cavalier coach Mike London.

    Thweatt was part of some of the stingiest defenses in school history but he was more than just a complementary piece. He knew his role and he played it to perfection, being more than a component but a leader.

9. Ray Savage

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    Well when your name is Ray Savage, you are born to be a football player.

    Savage is one of just 11 Cavaliers to have their number retired and one of just six to play solely on the defensive side of the ball.

    Savage is 13th all-time in career tackles and 15th in career tackles for loss. He was a focal point of the 1989 team that won a school-record 10 games and a share of the ACC football championship.

    His efforts earned him All-American honors along the way.

    Savage lived up to his name, he was one of the angriest and intense players around. He knew how to defend the pass while still bringing pressure up the gut.

    His tough play allowed Virginia to reach unparalleled heights under Coach Welsh.

8. Angelo Crowell

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    The Crowell name was well-known before Angelo ever set foot in Charlottesville.

    His older brother, Germane, was a starting wide receiver for the Cavaliers and finished fifth all-time in receptions and receiving yards at Virginia.

    Not to be outdone, younger brother Angelo put up some big numbers himself.

    Crowell is third all-time in career tackles and for good reason, in 2000 and 2001 he combined for 299 tackles.

    No Cavalier has registered more than a season, in fact Crowell holds both the first and second spot for tackles in a season. No other Cavalier appears more than once in the top 10 for that category.

    As a transitional figure, Crowell truly blossomed under new head coach Al Groh, a man that knew a thing or two about linebackers when he was with the New York Giants in the 1980s.

    Crowell's numbers have not even been approached in the recent era. In fact, Steve Greer in 2011 became only the fourth player since Crowell to even reach the 100-tackle plateau.

    While Virginia may not have had the overall success in Crowell's later years, he helped anchor a defense that led to some big victories and provided a blueprint for success in future seasons.

    His numbers alone make him a fixture in Virginia football lore.

7. Patrick Kerney

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    Kerney was told as a young man that he was too skinny to be a football player by his high school coach.

    Not only did he prove him wrong, he became one of the best athletes in school history.

    Kerney's football career speaks for itself. The defensive lineman had 127 tackles and 24 sacks in his three-year career at Virginia. During that time the Cavaliers compiled a 23-12 record, including a 9-3 mark his senior season.

    Kerney was a first-team All-ACC performer and an All-American but missed ACC Defensive Player of the Year to his own teammate Anthony Poindexter.

    Still, Kerney's mark was not just on the gridiron. Originally recruited as a lacrosse player, Kerney was part of the winning tradition down at Klockner Stadium as well.

    He was a wrestling standout in high school and all his hard work resulted in the gym being named after him at his old high school.

    Kerney was a great player but he was an even better worker. He sculpted his body into NFL form and had a long-standing career with the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks where he became the 2007 NFC Defensive Player of the Year.

    Kerney's jersey was retired at Virginia and for good reason. His career sack mark is third all-time for the Cavaliers.

    Not too bad for a scrawny kid from Trenton, New Jersey.

6. Jamie Sharper

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    If Virginia made a tackle in the 1990s, odds are that Jamie Sharper made it.

    Sharper is the all-time leader with 435 total tackles, 295 solo. The next closest Cavalier with that many solo tackles is 256.

    In other words, when hit by Sharper, there was no second effort.

    With four fumbles in a season, Sharper had more than his fair share of game-changing plays. He also finished 14th in school history in career sacks.

    Sharper defined toughness in college and in the pros. In his nine-year NFL career, Sharper only missed eight games when an injury cut short his career.

    As a starter on the Baltimore Raven defense that won the 2001 Super Bowl, Sharper solidified himself as one of the best pure tacklers in school history and a role model for all future Cavaliers.

5. James Farrior

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    James Farrior is a stalwart in football.

    Farrior's career has spanned so long, he actually played against his current head coach of Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Tomlin when Virginia took on William & Mary.

    Farrior played three years at Virginia and is third all-time with 381 career tackles. Along the way he earned ACC consideration for three straight years and even finished seventh on the team in tackles as a freshmen despite zero starts that season.

    As a sophomore in 1994, Farrior had one of the most well-rounded seasons in school history. With 100 tackles, four interceptions, a sack and a blocked punt as the left outside linebacker.

    Yet Farrior found his most success as a middle linebacker where he earned first-team All-ACC honors with 107 tackles and 13.5 tackles for loss.

    His longevity at Virginia has been outdone by his professional career. After being drafted in 1997, Farrior is still a starter for one of the best defensive teams in the NFL.

    Farrior has won two Super Bowl rings with the Steelers and was the 2004 team MVP.

    With 1,411 career tackles, 11 interceptions and 19 forced fumbles, Farrior has more than likely written his own ticket to immortality and the Hall of Fame.  

4. Chris Long

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    Defensive players dream of having their jersey retired.

    Almost none get the honor while they are still playing.

    Chris Long is an iconic figure in Virginia history, so much so that he received a retired jersey before his final regular season game against Virginia Tech.

    Long, living in the shadow of his Hall of Fame father Howie, is not the greatest athlete in school history but he may have had the greatest motor.

    Despite double- and triple-teams his senior season, Long put the team on his back in 2007 and carried them to a Gator Bowl appearance.

    His safety against Maryland is legendary but Long was so much more than a stellar player. He led the team with his work ethic, his determination and it is paying dividends now with the St. Louis Rams in the NFL.

    Long's teams may not have been as successful as others but his impact will last forever.

3. Chris Slade

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    No one knew more about getting to the quarterback than Chris Slade.

    Slade's ability to pound offensive players behind the line of scrimmage helped put Virginia football on the map with coach George Welsh and company. 

    Sure, Herman and Shawn Moore stole the headlines on offense, but Slade anchored a defensive line that put fear into their opponents. It was thanks to those three superstars that Virginia achieved the No. 1 ranking in the country before falling by a field goal to eventual national champion Georgia Tech in the 1990 season.

    His senior year, Slade earned first-team All-American honors and was taken in the second round of the NFL draft. He played in 142 games and made some big plays on the professional level as well, racking up 53.5 sacks and even two touchdowns.

    Slade's 40 career sacks is a mark that few can touch, no other Cavalier has even reached 30. His 56 tackles for loss is also a school record.

    More than that though, Slade represented a generational shift at Virginia. No longer were the Cavaliers "white meat" as infamously characterized by Clemson football.

    Slade's toughness branded a new image of Virginia football and with him they defeated Clemson for the first time in school history and truly made the Cavaliers a nationally recognized program.

2. Ronde Barber

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    In some ways, Ronde has always been the "other" Barber brother.

    His twin brother Tiki was a running back who stole headlines at Virginia and with the New York Giants. In fact, Tiki was taken a round earlier in the 1997 NFL draft and had a quicker start to his professional career.

    Yet, Tiki may never get a call to the Hall of Fame. Ronde is almost a lock for Canton, Ohio.

    Barber is one of the best secondary players in Virginia history. What he lacked in flashiness he made up for in effectiveness.

    Barber is a shutdown cornerback, third all-time in school history for career interceptions and led the ACC in 1994 with eight picks.

    Barber had some of his best performances on the biggest stages and led Virginia to some of the greatest victories in program history.

    Alongside his brother, the Barbers were big stars in Virginia's victory over No. 2 Florida State in 1995. The first ACC loss ever for the Seminoles.

    Virginia also took down the Texas Longhorns at home and humbled running back Ricky Williams.

    Since 1997, Barber has the longest consecutive starting streak in the NFL for non-kickers among all active players. He is the Buccaneers all-time interception leader and the only player in NFL history with at least 25 sacks and 40 interceptions.

    All told, this Super Bowl champion may have made a statement after all. 

1. Anthony Poindexter

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    No one personifies the tragedy of injuries more than Anthony Poindexter.

    There is no doubt, Poindexter was a man among boys in college.

    The hard-hitting safety was a menace to the ACC and a highly-touted first-round pick.

    Watching Poindexter play was a thing of beauty, he seemed to be in on every play, including his iconic stop (with the help of Adrian Burnim) of Warrick Dunn at the end zone to preserve Virginia's big 33-28 victory over Florida State in 1995. Considering he was only a redshirt freshman at the time, the future was bright.

    Poindexter decided to return for his senior season at Virginia and was rewarded with a devastating injury that he was never able to fully recover from. The result may have cost him millions in the NFL but it endeared him to the hearts and minds of Cavalier fans.

    Despite the shortened career, Poindexter was an All-American, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and No. 6 in school history in career interceptions.

    Still, Poindexter's strength was his physical force. The safety still has record marks for 14 assisted tackles in a game and the most fumbles in a career.

    Poindexter punished offensive players and his aura makes him a defensive giant for the Cavaliers.

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