Tuesday, August 31, 2010

season preview: the defense

Gotta tell ya, this one's a lot more fun to write than the offense. Anyone who's being honest with themselves knows there's no way in earth's recorded history that an offense with the following....
- major-league offensive-line issues
- a leading returning rusher with 73 yards
- one proven receiver
- a quarterback with an interception boogeyman
- the third new scheme in three years

....is suddenly going to rise from the ashes of the bottom 15 offenses in the country to respectability. Improve it may, but it's still going to be a long, difficult slog of a couple years before you see a real, performance-driven offense at UVA.

So it'll have to be the defense that keeps this team in the hunt. This, it is equipped to do. A scheme change is the story of the year here as well, and many fans are excited about the 4-3, but it's not going to pay instant dividends. It does, however, have the personnel to make the change a lot smoother.


The starters: #56 Cam Johnson, #96 Nick Jenkins, #59 John-Kevin Dolce, #92 Zane Parr
The backups: #58 Jeremiah Mathis, #93 Will Hill, #94 Matt Conrath, #90 Jake Snyder

With a new defense that calls for an extra lineman, you'd expect a little hodge-podge. But Mike London has found a way not to make a mess of the depth chart. The line runs a little thin on playing experience behind the starters, but this is one of those positions where physical talent can make up in a big way for inexperience.

So I'm not worried about the effects of the 4-3 on the line. Nick Jenkins, for example, has always been a defensive tackle. When you boil it down, there aren't many options for a DT post-snap: stunt right, stunt left, or just hit the MFer in front of you really hard. Jenkins was a solid nose tackle in the 3-4. With the line having four big dudes on it all the time instead of some of the time, he'll see marginally fewer double teams, which can't hurt.

The tackle position will basically see a rotation of three players. Conrath is listed as a backup only because you can't list three starters here, and he'll see just as much time as the other two. Dolce is interesting. A physical specimen who outgrew linebacker but has a sort of magnetic attraction between himself and a dropped-back passer, Groh gave him a shot at DT in pass-rush situations to boost the pressure on the quarterback. It must have been a good idea, because London kept it going. But. It doesn't matter if he can push a semi truck on its side, he still gives up 50 pounds to the guys he's going against. If I were an offensive coordinator, one of the first things I'd do is order my linemen to double team Dolce, push him into next week, and run at the ensuing chasm that opens up. And do that until it stops working. Dolce's task will be to make sure it never works, or he'll end up back in the role of a pass-rush specialist.

As for the ends, technically Cam Johnson is a converted linebacker, but he hasn't done any actual linebacker stuff like covering tight ends and reading play-fakes for like a year and a half. Being a defensive end is little more than a change of the nameplate on the office door. Johnson is a natural pass-rusher. And Zane Parr was overshadowed last year by Nate Collins and Conrath, but his role increased as the year went on and his apprenticeship is complete.

All in all, this is largely what a defensive line should look like. It's better than a lot of lines in the ACC. What it's missing is the kind of DE that leaves tank tracks on offensive tackles because they accidentally got between him and the quarterback, but it's also bereft of weak points.


The starters: #9 Laroy Reynolds, #53 Steve Greer, #26 Ausar Walcott
The backups: #57 Darnell Carter, #52 Aaron Taliaferro, #55 Jared Detrick

This is where it gets weird. The 4-3 and graduation combined to shake up the linebacking corps something fierce. The result is two former safeties in the starting lineup here, and a lot of former doghouse guys getting a new place in the two-deep.

Most encouraging is the apparent emergence of Taliaferro. People are concerned, and rightly so, that the team's leading tackler would suddenly be in an even fight for his job with a guy who played for exactly six plays in 2009. Greer is a proven performer, though. Unlike with the quarterback battle, I think this is a positive indicator on Taliaferro rather than a negative one on Greer. There's no good reason for Greer to have regressed, so it's a safe bet he didn't.

The outside, though, that's where things get weird. Really, I have no idea what to expect. For the players themselves - Reynolds and Walcott, specifically, the move is something close to a career-saver. Walcott was one of the bigger pickups of the 2008 class, and at safety, he was stuck behind a bunch of major-leaguers who have two more years left. And in Reynolds case, well: most people have nasty words for Groh for burning a lot of redshirts on last year's class. I push back about that, because some of that was perfectly justifiable and some of it was at least defensible. Reynolds, though, was certainly one of the more questionable decisions; his redshirt should have stayed firmly in place. Like Walcott, the move to linebacker frees up a lot of future playing time.

The backups on the outside, Detrick and Carter, were unable to break into what rotation there was in the past couple years. Detrick actually managed to redshirt last season in what would have been his junior year and I basically just realized I need to update the depth chart for that dammit. He's now a redshirt junior. Anyway, Reynolds and Walcott are totally untried at this position, but they don't have much less experience here than their backups. What comes of the outside linebackers, we'll see: it wouldn't surprise to see either the ex-safety underclassmen or the always-linebacker upperclassmen get a grip on the position. I don't know who'll turn out to be the better linebackers, but either way someone had better separate themselves.


The starters: #19 Ras-I Dowling, #13 Chase Minnifield, #7 Corey Mosley, #4 Rodney McLeod
The backups: #28 Devin Wallace, #43 Mike Parker, #23 Dom Joseph, #1 Trey Womack

Best secondary in the ACC? Earlier I nominated UNC for that honor, but that was before we knew that almost their entire defense is suddenly the world's best scout team. Clemson's still pretty damn good, but anyway. UVA. This is a top secondary.

It starts with Ras-I Dowling, a legit first-round NFL prospect. UVA fans hoping for a wildly productive year out of Dowling will probably be disappointed: teams with either zero good receivers or two will avoid Dowling like the plague and try and pick on Chase Minnifield. Odds are this won't work well. Minnifield is a talented guy in his own right, and all the work he's likely to see this year should be just what he needs to develop into the guy that offenses avoid in 2011.

Corey Mosley is a quality safety, but the leader and playmaker on defense is McLeod. It was impossible to keep him off the field as a freshman, and he's one of those guys that always shows up around the ball. Especially when it's on the ground; McLeod isn't a ball-hawker, his strength is in run support, and his presence will go a long, long way to cover up any mistakes made by the unproven OLBs.

Unlike on the D-line, where there's a rotation, and at linebacker where there aren't set starters yet, the backups in the secondary really are second-stringers. And yet they're some of the guys earning the most praise from the coaching staff. Sophomore Wallace is the only one who hasn't seen much time on the field, but he and Parker will get their share this year as nickel corners. Joseph got on the field a lot last year and acquitted himself very well; I don't worry about a step down in performance should he need to replace a starter. And Womack has been one of the best special-teamers the past couple years. That kind of ability should translate well if he's called on.

But: depth. OMG OMG OMG. Especially at safety, where there are exactly zero scholarship players after those listed on the two-deep. At corner you've got two true freshmen in true freshmen Pablo Alvarez and Rijo Walker, who are true freshmen. That's better, but not by much. In between games, the eight two-deepers in the secondary should be wrapped in three layers of bubble wrap and stored at room temperature so as to ensure no breakages. By their powers combined, the D-line and secondary should make it very, very tough to pass against the UVA defense, but near-perfect health is required in the defensive backfield.

The pressure is on.....

.....Chase Minnifield. Dowling is kind of a given, in that teams aren't likely to bother taking their chances with him. It'll be a good year for the secondary if Minnifield has more picks than Dowling, because he'll have more opportunity to and it'll encourage teams to throw more Dowling's way, which won't work either.

.....John-Kevin Dolce. This will be a much more legit defensive line if Dolce can be a real actual defensive tackle at 255 pounds. Rotating three players through two spots without regard to down and distance would go a long way toward keeping them fresh at one of the field's most demanding positions. This unfortunately smacks of the kind of thing that we'll look backwards at in November and realize in retrospect it obviously wasn't going to work out. August has a way of clouding the mind with visions of gumdrop rainbows.

.....the offense. It keeps coming back to that, doesn't it? The pattern last year was positively maddening. The defense was one of the better groups in the conference and kept the team in the game until they got tired because the offense kept going three and out. Game after game this would happen. There's no reason to think that this won't also be the problem this year, until the offense starts producing points.

Realistic best-case scenario:

Dolce proves capable of not being pushed back 10 yards every time a play is run at him, DEs Parr and Johnson show the expected career progression that goes with a promotion to starter, and the line is - if not quite terrorizing - at least stout. The two young ex-safeties emerge by early October as the answers at outside linebacker, and the Greer/Taliaferro platoon results in two strong Mike 'backers who can stay fresh as the game wears on. Marginal improvement in the offense is enough to keep the defense from tiring in the third quarter and games that would have morphed into blowouts in 2009 remain winnable in 2010.

Realistic worst-case scenario:

Injuries decimate the secondary, and by November, when the season is already largely a lost cause, the presence of a walk-on or two in a starting role make big plays by opposing offenses commonplace. Nobody really grabs hold of the OLB spots, and while the middle is still reasonably solid, 2011 sees yet another battle for playing time at Sam and Will. The defensive line wears as the season goes on, made worse by yet another crummy offense that forces the defense to play far more snaps than most in the conference. A three-win season ensues.

Now that you've seen all this, what do I think?

The minimum expectation for the season is 2-10. Why 2-10? VMI and Eastern Michigan are horrible, and a loss to either one (not out of the question once the topic of William & Mary is brought up, but still) would be disastrous. But I still think 4-8 is the most likely record. The pessimism is centered mainly on the offensive line and the offensive talent that's either pretty mediocre or largely unproven.

Besides VMI and EMU, the next most winnable games on the schedule are Richmond, Duke, and Maryland. Maryland and Duke don't impress me at all, and Richmond isn't a I-AA national title contender anymore. Duke's defense has probably regressed, and Maryland still has Friedgen, which means they still have that "we're better than all those teams that beat us so we don't really need to improve" attitude. And their defense is a mess too.

Outside of that, it's hard to find any wins, or it was when UNC's football team was actually eligible to play football games. If we're getting to 6-6, UNC will be the next victim; Chapel Hill is a mess right now, and who knows how that'll affect their season? But 7-5 and bowl eligibility? Well, the following teams will kill us: USC, GT, FSU, Miami, and VT. Five losses in the bucket. That leaves Boston College, against which there's a slim chance. That game's in Boston, so cut that slim chance in half. But it's a chance: BC's passing game was downgraded from miserable to hopeless when Colin Larmond tore up his knee, so they're a very one-dimensional team that unfortunately for us still knows how to play defense.

So 7-5 is the upper limit of realism; any more than that and we can replace one of the light towers with a giant, laser-eyed, marble statue of Mike London. 2-10 is the lower limit, but be assured, it's about as likely as 7-5. The baseline expectation should be 4-8: it represents an improvement over last year while being realistic about the rate of improvement. 5-7 would represent a clear boost above the status of "obviously worst in ACC" that we enjoy right now, and that'd really be nice. Anything more is either taking advantage of UNC's instant descent into a very long stay in purgatory, or putting the ACC on notice, or both.

No comments: