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Junior DE Eli Harold headlines tough front seven for Virginia

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Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Virginia defensive end Eli Harold has recorded three sacks so far in 2014.

BYU is gaining notice as a team that could finish unbeaten and Cougars junior quarterback Taysom Hill is gaining momentum as a Heisman contender, but all that could come to an abrupt halt against Virginia on Saturday.

The Cavaliers (2-1) are coming in off an upset victory over Louisville, and their only loss came to UCLA in a game in which the Bruins scored three defensive touchdowns and won 28-20.

Virginia is the only team in the nation with three players who have at least three sacks: junior defensive end Eli Harold (6-foot-4, 250 pounds), senior middle linebacker Henry Coley (6-2, 245) and sophomore outside linebacker Max Valles (6-5, 240). The Cavs also have a true star in senior strong safety Anthony Harris (6-1, 185), whose job is made easier by a fast and aggressive front seven.

"Your best pass defense is your pass rush, your pass rushers," Virginia coach Mike London told reporters, "and I believe Max and Eli do an outstanding job of providing that."

The Cavaliers' front seven has the attention of BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall.

"I think their front seven is really skilled," Mendenhall said at his weekly news conference Monday. "They're fast, athletic and tough, and they certainly gave us all we could handle a year ago and most of them are still there."

UVa beat BYU 19-16 last season, one of just two games that the Cavs won last season.

Harold is the main guy to watch. He was a consensus national top-100 prospect out of high school in Virginia Beach, Va., and played in all 12 games in 2013 as a true freshman. He began to blossom last season, finishing with a team-high 8.5 sacks in coordinator Jon Tenuta's blitz-happy scheme.

He has three sacks this season; Coley and Valles have 3.5 each. All three will be focused on stopping Hill (6-2, 232), who is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation; he has accounted for 1,045 total yards and 10 touchdowns. Hill was 10th nationally last season in total offense (329.4 yards per game) and has improved greatly as a passer in the past 12 months.

Harold said that when he and Valles line up on the same side, opposing offenses are in trouble.

"It's awesome," he told the Charlottesville (Va.) Daily Progress. "Max, me and him, our speed complements each other. Whether the offensive coordinator's keying on Max or me, you can't block both of us. If you slide-protect one way, then it's a one-on-one with that guy. You can't always shut two guys down, so that makes it easier for our D-line to be more successful."

As mobile as Hill is, BYU's offensive line has allowed 11 sacks this season. That should worry Mendenhall -- and Hill. Virginia's offense is mediocre, so if the Cavs are going to beat the Cougars for the second season in a row, it will be because of the defense.

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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