Figuring out exactly how sophomore Max Valles will be deployed on the Virginia football team’s defense this year can be a tricky task.
Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta would only reveal that Valles could be “in a lot of positions” even though he’s officially listed as an outside linebacker on the Cavaliers’ roster. Defensive line coach Jappy Oliver’s answer involved the phrase “without giving away too much.” Safety Anthony Harris said the 6-foot-5, 245-pound former high school safety might even cover wide receivers in the slot, if that’s what Tenuta asks of him.
But there’s no hiding Valles could be the linchpin to a defense expected to be the strength of this year’s team.
“Max is our utility guy,” Oliver said this week. “We got him all over the place. He’s just got great versatility. It depends on what package we’re running. It depends on where he’s playing.”
A year ago at this time, Valles was an afterthought — a lightly recruited prospect who spent the previous year at Fork Union Military Academy and appeared in need of another year before making an impact at the college level as a tight end. By the start of the 2013 season, he had been moved to defensive end. When he made his first appearance in the third game of the year, against VMI, he lined up at outside linebacker.
But the trajectory of his career changed on Sep. 28 at Pittsburgh, when Valles had a career-high 2.5 sacks during a dominating defensive performance by Virginia. Though the Cavaliers lost to the Panthers, 14-3, that afternoon, a new weapon had been unearthed.
Still, opponents quickly adjusted, limiting Valles to just 1.5 more sacks over the final eight games of the year. He was, admittedly, a liability against the run and his presence on the field became predictable. But his long arms, elongated torso and pass-rushing ability were undeniable, and it prompted Tenuta to install a hybrid linebacker-defensive end role for his blitz-heavy scheme this year.
The gruff defensive coordinator has made a career out of pressuring offenses and his vision — at least what he’ll reveal at this point — is to have Valles team with defensive end Eli Harold (team high 8.5 sacks in 2013) on passing downs so the Cavaliers have “two guys that we feel can get after the quarterback,” Tenuta said. “That’s what we want to do with them.”
With another year under his belt, Valles believes his position will be about more than simply pass rushing.
“You really never know exactly what we’re going to do because we line up in the same spot every time,” Valles said of his position. “We could be dropping off for pass [coverage]. We could be blitzing, or just playing D-end. Coach Tenuta has a great scheme, so once you know it, it makes a lot more sense. Last year, I knew it, but I wasn’t comfortable yet. But this year, I’m comfortable and I feel like I can contribute a lot more.”
His versatility has already come in handy, although Valles said earlier this month that he didn’t expect to have his hand in the ground outside of goal line situations.
With Virginia expected to frequently use five defensive backs, given how prevalent spread offenses are in college football, Oliver said the defense has remained effective moving defensive end Michael Moore (DeMatha) inside with defensive tackle David Dean (49 tackles in 2013) and lining up Valles at defensive end to create more havoc.
But Valles’s role took on even greater importance this week after Oliver revealed that freshman defensive tackle Andrew Brown, a five-star recruit, recently suffered a shoulder injury. Oliver remains hopeful Brown will be available for Virginia’s season opener against No. 7 UCLA on Aug. 30, but his practice time had already been limited by a turf-toe injury suffered during spring practice.
Virginia still has plenty of depth at defensive tackle with Woodbridge native Donte Wilkins and senior Chris Braithwaite, who the led the team’s defensive line in tackles in 2012 before sitting out last season upon being ruled academically ineligible. Few on the roster, though, have shown the ability to be as dynamic as Valles rushing the passer.
For his part, Valles said he’s up to 245 pounds after initially being listed at 210 pounds in Virginia’s initial depth chart last August. At one point this summer, he weighed 250 pounds, thinking it would help with the rigors of a full regular season.
“But I felt like I was getting fat. I was feeling kind of sluggish,” Valles said.
The Cavaliers can only hope that, otherwise, he can support all the weight being put on his shoulders this fall.