Thursday, January 20, 2011

too-late review, too-early preview: defense

I meant to do this last Thursday, but I was in no mood to bother. It is the follow-up from the same article on the offense. The defense. A mirror image of the offense: bad when it was supposed to be good. So bad that the year wasn't even out before a not-insignificant portion of UVA fans were calling for Jim Reid's head before the season even ended. Any illusions that this might not be the worst defense in the conference were shattered by Duke's 55-point performance in early November.

So...what went down:


This year....

The unit definitely felt the growing pains of the switch to the 4-3. Al Groh's 3-4 generally required the line to simply occupy space while the linebackers made plays. It occasionally utilized a pass-rushing defensive end, but the sackmasters were usually outside linebackers unless the DE was named Chris Long. Under the gun to make some plays of their own, the line fell short of expectations.

Nick Jenkins played a very stout defensive tackle, but the other tackle position was manned by John-Kevin Dolce more often than not. This was fine in pass-rush situations: Dolce had the moves to get around slower-moving guards, and was able to get to the quarterback at times. The pinnacle of achievement in this regard was his leaving a Jacory Harris-shaped impression in the Scott Stadium turf and knocking the Miami starter out of the game. Dolce, however, weighs less than 250 pounds. In the single most questionable slotting decision by a UVA coach that I've ever seen, Dolce was frequently placed in the role of run-stopper, which he was totally unequipped to handle. That would have required an extra 35-40 pounds. It was silly to think he'd do anything but end up in the secondary when taking on a run-blocking, 300-pound offensive guard. Dolce was the kind of guy you really want to get on the field, and Groh bounced him around until finding him a niche as a pass-rushing nose tackle, which worked fairly well. As a regular, first-down DT? That's just setting him up to fail. I sound like I'm bashing Dolce, but I'm not: he should never have been playing that position in 2010. As for the third member of the rotation, Matt Conrath moved over from defensive end, and struggled with the transition.

Zane Parr and Cam Johnson had people excited about the potential of the defensive ends, particularly Johnson. Having pass-coverage duties removed by getting him off the linebacking corps was a boon to his pass-rushing, and he was able to get his share of sacks. Parr didn't progress from 2009 to 2010 - his decision to leave for the NFL was a surprise and a half.

Next year....

Parr and Dolce will depart, leaving Jenkins in the middle, Johnson on the end, and Matt Conrath to handle expanded duties as a full-time starter. Jenkins is a quality tackle, and hopes are high for Johnson. Conrath showed enough potential early in his career that there's reason to believe he'll be a decent player too; simply by virtue of being tackle-sized, he'll be an improvement over Dolce on first and second down.

Jake Snyder and Billy Schautz will compete for the nod as the other starter at end; I'd give the edge to Snyder, the younger brother of receiver Matt. Jeremiah Mathis would have been right there in the mix, but he's a permanent member of the offense these days. There will be need for a third tackle - you really need a rotation of three full-time players there - and the battle should be interesting between Will Hill, Chris Brathwaite, and Brent Urban. Hill has the advantage of some field time. Only one will be fully in the mix, barring injury; for most of the time we only saw three tackles in 2010 and that probably won't change. The same is true at end, where the "loser" of the Snyder/Schautz battle will be first in line to be first off the bench. However, the 2011 recruiting class is so crammed full of defensive ends that it wouldn't surprise at all to see one of them get some significant playing time.


This year....

The group started out fast. Literally. Two-thirds of the starters were safeties during the Groh era. Groh wanted size; London demands speed, so there were a lot of players moving closer to the line of scrimmage. The outside linebackers were two of them. Laroy Reynolds, playing the strong side, showed an ability early on to fly to the ball, and energized the defense with some big plays. Problem was, he flew too hard at times and was woefully out of position as offenses played upon his tendency to go with the first thing he saw. On the other side, Ausar Walcott was less of a big play-maker, but also less of a risk to end up in the wrong area code.

There were a lot of position shifts as the season went on, too. The middle started off as a rotation between Aaron Taliaferro and Steve Greer - a surprise, because Greer was the team's leading tackler the year before. Midway through the year, Taliaferro switched places with backup strong-sider Darnell Carter, and Carter took over the job with Greer continuing to platoon in at times. Ultimately, though, the coaches never quite found the right formula at linebacker, and the unit ended up being a liability.

Next year....

A lot of that, uhh, liabilitude, came from playing a new position. Just by having a year to grow up in the position, Reynolds and Walcott should be better. Reynolds in particular is a hard-working type, and both have the athleticism to be successful. Still, it's a roll of the dice. They'll be better, but how much better is probably one of 2011's biggest mysteries after "who's the quarterback?"

Carter graduates, and Taliaferro will probably stay on the outside, meaning the job in the middle ends up back in Greer's hands. This is probably for the best. Greer is a bright player with a ton of football sense, which is why he started as a true freshman for Groh despite being undersized. I'm not optimistic about Jared Detrick's chances of being asked back as a fifth-year senior, so other than Taliaferro the backup positions are fairly wide open. Outside of the four already mentioned, I think Tucker Windle has the best chance of seeing the field next, but ultimately, the linebacking corps - both the personnel and the performance - is the team's biggest question after the quarterbacks.


This year....

Life is never fair. What should have been a great year at cornerback turned into a mess, especially for one Ras-I Dowling. Dowling had a chance to go pro and be drafted high, but he came back to improve his draft stock and was good enough to start the season on Mel Kiper's Big Board Thing. Injuries of various types, all season long, kept him off the field except for a few plays.

That meant the number one corner was Chase Minnifield, who had a terrific season when he wasn't injured his own self. Minnifield was definitely the defense's MVP, reeling in six interceptions. For most of the season he played opposite Devin Wallace, who......was a complete disaster. Wallace's coverage was mediocre and his tackling was unwatchable. On the occasions when Minnifield was out, Mike Parker stepped in, and he was about as bad.

Safety was a problem area too, a major step back from 2009. Corey Mosley managed to irritate half the fanbase by being good at nothing but trash-talking - a few suggested he not be brought back for a fifth year, it was that ugly sometimes. (Unlikely, I think: the secondary is too thin to be not renewing anyone's scholarship back there.) Rodney McLeod had a few injury issues of his own and it looked all season like he never recovered from them 100%.

Next year....

The secondary will still be feeling the effects of London's decision to practically empty it out to fill the linebacking corps. Parker, Dowling, and Trey Womack graduate, and spring practice won't have enough scholarship players for a two-deep unless Javanti Sparrow makes an earlier-than-expected return. (Probably not til fall, though.) You'll probably hear Drequan Hoskey's name in April quite a bit - a lightning-fast walk-on with some flashes of potential at corner. Pablo Alvarez is listed at corner for now, but safety seems likely to be in his future. Like, spring ball future. Rijo Walker will have every opportunity in the world to prove he belongs on the field.

He'd better make the most of it, because the cavalry arrives in the fall. Freshman cornerbacks have disaster potential at times, but two of the country's best will be in Charlottesville. Brandon Phelps and Demetrious Nicholson are likely to get on the field sooner rather than later. With such a small group of players, this is the area most likely to see some true freshmen make an impact.

Minnifield will be terrific assuming he can avoid the Dowling bug, but Devin Wallace must improve - or somebody like Walker or Nicholson must get up to speed quickly - or teams will just never bother throwing to Minnifield's side.

Overall, the best thing that can be said about 2011 is that there's nowhere to go but up. Even a slightly better defense would have resulted in a win over Duke and a 5-7 season, which sounds a lot better than 4-8 and the Coastal cellar. Four starters depart, but that includes Dowling, who didn't start much, and the other three positions - DE, DT, and MLB - have good potential to see upgrades with the insertion of new starters. The system was radically new - it was as if a team that ran a spread offense for a decade had tried to install a pro-style, drop-back system with the same personnel. A realistic expectation would be mediocrity or sub-mediocrity instead of the unwatchable horror that was 2010. In the ACC, that's good enough to get bowl-eligible.


Because tomorrow will be the GT game preview, there's no time for a full news post like I wanted, so here's a half news post:

- Jared Green is Audi 5000. 'Tis the season for attrition. It's the kind of thing you hate to see - Green represented UVA well and flashed some potential on the field - but it was more or less totally expected. I had Green as the fourth-most likely of the potential fifth-years to not be back next year. No way of knowing whether the decision is Green's or the coaches, but the result is the same.

For those keeping score at home, that puts us at 65 scholarships, leaving guaranteed room for 20. Anywhere from four to seven more won't make it to the fall.

- Supposedly there's a Dookie out there with a sense of humor. It's on the Internet, so it's a fact. And his brainchild - a flowchart, because flowcharts are really a very underrated humor medium - was passed around the ACC Roundtable, and verily it maketh us laugh. The verdict: funny because true.

- Gobbler Country is less than pleased about VT's recruiting class. I like it. Actually, VT's class doesn't suck. Ours is better, though, and poised to improve in the coming weeks.

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