CHARLOTTESVILLE — Eli Hanback’s dad got him interested in football in the most common, unassuming of ways — spending time in the yard playing catch.
What Don Hanback, former player at Lee-Davis High School and Bridgewater College, held back from his son was that he hoped Eli would take to the sport.
“I had to really pull the reins in on trying not to live vicariously through him,” the elder Hanback said Wednesday, with a laugh. “I exposed him to it, for sure, but I was fully prepared if it wasn’t something he really wanted to do. I just had such a great experience playing sports, that I wanted him to have that, too.”
As it turned out, the son was eager to follow in his father’s footsteps, immediately taking to football. Gifted with athleticism to go with his size, Eli appeared to be a natural for the sport. But Don Hanback knew there was one other component his son would have to be comfortable with to have a future in the game — contact.
“Right from the get-go, I guess the question was, ‘Is he OK hitting?’” said Don Hanback, a counselor in the Richmond area. “Because that’s football. If you don’t want to do that, you need to find something else. He wasn’t afraid to stick his nose in it.”
Eli Hanback, now a junior defensive lineman for Virginia, still isn’t afraid to hit. He remembers playing catch with his father in the backyard and other football lessons he learned from Don. But it’s his father’s off-field impact on his son that most clearly defines the younger Hanback, who starred at Patrick Henry High School.
“He taught me to throw and catch and everything, but the biggest thing my dad has instilled in me is my work-ethic mentality,” Eli Hanback said this week. “When you start something, you always finish it. Never, ever quit.”
Hanback has followed that mantra playing in 35 straight games, every one so far in his U.Va. career, starting 33 of them. This season, with a young and injury-ravaged defensive line, the Cavaliers have asked Hanback to move back and forth between nose tackle and defensive end, something he’s done seamlessly, without complaining and — more impressively — without a dip in production.
For the year, Hanback has 30 tackles, two sacks and two fumble recoveries for a unit that has become one of the best in the conference. Virginia (7-3, 4-2 ACC) ranks second in the league, giving up 19.7 points per game, and is third in total defense and interceptions going into Saturday’s game against Georgia Tech (6-4, 4-3) in Atlanta.
“Without Eli, the defensive line situation would become just in total disarray,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said Wednesday. “[He] is just the epitome of less drama and more work. And he’s just always available. And he’s critical to what we’re doing. And I’m not quite sure what we would do if he wasn’t available.”
Mendenhall went into the season without much depth on the defensive line. Two transfers he recruited haven’t panned out. Cassius Peat, a junior college transfer who began his career at Michigan State, left the program in the preseason because of injury, and Dylan Thompson (Ohio State) has seen only limited snaps after arriving, by his own assessment, out of shape.
Sophomore defensive end Mandy Alonso had been a starter before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Pittsburgh. That’s left true freshman nose tackle Jordan Redmond and defensive end Aaron Famui as the most trusted options to play with Hanback.
Thompson and redshirt freshman Tommy Christ saw increased action since Alonso’s injury.
“Eli is just the steady guy that he is,” U.Va. co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga said this week. “He’s taken more of a leadership role than he usually does. He’s really done a good job with just getting those guys up to speed.”
Poppinga said he’s also seen Hanback elevate his play the past three games, something the team will need against Georgia Tech, which leads the nation in rushing out of its triple-option offense.
“He’s played physical at the point of contact and he’s gotten off blocks and made plays,” Poppinga said. “Early in the season, yeah, he’d be in the right spot, but he wasn’t making any plays. Now, he’s beating blocks and making plays.”
Notes: Mendenhall said sophomore center Dillon Reinkensmeyer has cleared concussion protocol and is expected to play Saturday at Georgia Tech. … Mendenhall said safety Joey Blount (lower extremity) is doubtful.