Wednesday, August 31, 2011

season preview: defense

Time for the part that makes folks squeamish.  The defense was a strength under Al Groh while the offense bogged down in the mud.  Even so, the 3-4 wasn't popular.  Too much of an "NFL" defense.  Fans got their wish, Mike London instituted the 4-3, simplified everything, and made personnel changes to emphasize speed over size.....and the defense promptly transformed itself into a train wreck.  The 3-4 started to look pretty good again around the time Duke (DUKE) was putting 55 points on the scoreboard.  Things gotta be better this season, right?

Defensive line

The starters: #90 Jake Snyder, #94 Matt Conrath, #96 Nick Jenkins, #56 Cam Johnson
The backups: #99 Brent Urban, #54 Justin Renfrow, #93 Will Hill, #47 Bill Schautz

The question on everyone's mind is going to be: What's the ceiling on what Cam Johnson can do?  Johnson impressed as a true freshman and has been getting better every year of his career....and at the same time has always left the impression he's got more in him.  Johnson put together a solid season last year; kind of quietly, in fact, as he was top five in the conference in tackles for loss and added six sacks.  But the feeling remains that he can do even better.  The numbers are good but Johnson truly dominated only in fits and starts.

With Nick Jenkins it feels like he's the one that's been around forever, even though most of his fellow starting linemates are also seniors.  Jenkins is the steadiest player on the whole team, that's why.  That's what you want out of a nose tackle.  For a defensive tackle, Jenkins (and his next door neighbor on the line, Matt Conrath) is a little undersized, but it's never mattered.  UVA was horrible against the run last year but not, generally, up the middle.  (Unless the coaches were using the woefully undersized John-Kevin Dolce on running downs again.)  The problem was losing contain on the edges and piss-poor tackling; Jenkins and Conrath will see to it that the middle doesn't break.

Maybe the biggest surprise is Justin Renfrow at 6'6" and 300 pounds; that's a bitchin' growth spurt because he was recruited at 6'4" 260.  Guys who put on 40 pounds in two or three years usually started off at like 220.  Renfrow's the only inexperienced player on the interior; the defensive ends are a different story with a pair of sophomores and Bill Schautz, an afterthought of a linebacker who moved to defensive end shortly before Groh left and has given two different coaching staffs something to think about.  Still, Schautz's impressions have been left mostly on the practice field; game time has seen him once again mostly out of the rotation.  Lots of youth in the rotation at defensive end now, and more on the way.  Jake Snyder showed a few things last year but it remains to be seen how he'll hold up to the grind.  Brent Urban has barely stepped on the field.  If Schautz doesn't join the rotation for real this year - in other words, if Urban is the first DE off the bench and some of the freshmen start getting looks too - then he's been passed up pretty much officially, despite the really nice things the coaches are always saying about him.

Best-case: Johnson is, in fact, a complete natural disaster in the backfield and makes all-conference honors.  Conrath demands a double team, freeing up Snyder to look really good opposite Johnson and make bad things happen to good offenses.

Worst-case: Johnson kind of levels off, and Snyder is unproductive.  There are too many good players on the interior for things to fall apart there without the help of the injury fairy, but a lack of productivity from the ends combined with a pretty shaky situation at outside linebacker could leave the defense unbelievably vulnerable outside the hashmarks.

Prediction: The tackles are really too good to envision a major problem there.  Conrath and Jenkins won't dazzle but they'll also be the least of our worries most days.  And Johnson is too good and sounding too motivated to not continue to improve.  At the risk of leaping to hyped-up conclusions, Johnson's stats as a junior were much better than Chris Long's.  So I expect the kind of year that makes NFL scouts take very serious interest.  Johnson's goal should be 10 sacks.  He's good enough to make that happen. 


The starters: #52 Aaron Taliaferro, #53 Steve Greer, #9 Laroy Reynolds
The backups: #26 Ausar Walcott, #44 Henry Coley, #30 Daquan Romero

To be pretty blunt, the play of the linebackers last year contributed probably more than anything else to the defensive struggles.  This was a predictable unit.  Defensive coordinator Jim Reid admitted as much in the offseason.  That combined with a ton of inexperience was a deadly combo.  Things got worse, rather than better, as the season went on, because offensive coordinators were finding easily exploitable tendencies and making the Hoos pay for them.

The poster child for all this was Laroy Reynolds.  Early on he looked great, flying into the backfield and making highlight tackles behind the line.  Later he looked awful, flying into the backfield past the counter play that was being run to take advantage of the fact that he'd be in the backfield and not paying attention to the ball.  The other thing that was perplexing UVA fans was why Steve Greer - who'd led the team in tackles as a true freshman - was suddenly platooning.  It turned out to be a justified complaint when his platoonmate, Aaron Taliaferro, moved outside - and yet still Greer platooned.

This year, the coaches have committed to Greer as the middle linebacker.  That alone should help shore things up.  Greer could use about ten extra pounds (thirty if he has NFL dreams) and isn't fast enough to go sideline-to-sideline but is otherwise tailor-made for the middle linebacker spot in a 4-3.  Smart, moves through the trash well because he knows where he's going, and a sure tackler.  With the aforementioned solidity at defensive tackle, I like how the middle shapes up.

But we'll see about the outside.  Taliaferro's listed as the starter, and he's a decent tackler but a limited mover.  His backup, Ausar Walcott, is much more athletically gifted.  Walcott has done an impressive job of moving up the depth chart after being buried at the bottom of the DE food chain (which was more about sending him a message than where he fit best on the field.)  There's little doubt that Walcott can do things that Taliaferro cannot.

Still, it's really the weak side that brings up the most questions.  Reynolds is at a fork in the road.  As a junior it's time for him to figure things out, but his backup is a true freshman.  Daquan Romero was inserted into the two-deep almost from the very beginning of spring camp, but he might as well have been because there's hardly anyone else.  If not for him it'd be another true freshman instead - the only other non-freshman option is Tucker Windle, who finds himself somewhat out of a job with Walcott's ascension back into the two-deep.  (The cynical point of view on Walcott is that at least part of the reason for putting him back at linebacker is Windle not performing.)

A lot of eyes will be on the linebackers this year, because the unit is the weakest link in the defense.  That's the last sentence you'd ever have expected to hear under Al Groh, but the play of the linebackers - the outside backers especially - will go a long way toward determining whether the defense gets back to a successful level or not.

Best-case: Greer leads the team in tackles and the outside 'backers at least hold down their jobs, with their backups coming in only just enough to get the experience they'll need later when it's their turn.  Reynolds flashed a lot of athleticism last year and a willingness to fly to the ball, but much of it misplaced; he's the biggest X-factor on the defense this year and if he points that athleticism in the right direction, he could challenge Greer for the team tackle lead.

Worst-case: The unit continues to shuffle like it did last year, and only Greer can hold down a steady job with the other two positions seeing multiple starters.  It'll be a bad sign if Henry Coley is forced to move outside; it could mean that Greer is crushing people and showing no sign of ever coming off the field, but it could just as likely mean Coley is needed to help shore up the outside somewhere.

Prediction: I think Greer will flourish this year.  That platoon thing was basically garbage and sapped him of his usefulness.  Given the solid majority of the snaps, I think he'll get back up to 90 or more tackles; 100 should be the goal.  As the year goes on, I expect Walcott's athleticism to trump Taliaferro's experience and I think by the end of the year Walcott will have regained his position as a starter.  As for Reynolds, I'd almost feel more comfortable predicting next year's starting quarterback.  I don't think this unit as a whole will be especially dominant, but Greer should put up good numbers, and with the secondary looking excellent and D-line showing much promise, in this case, "good enough" is good enough.


The starters: #13 Chase Minnifield, #1 Demetrious Nicholson
The backups: #23 Dom Joseph, #22 Drequan Hoskey

You want to know where the star power is; it's right here.  For the second year in a row UVA will very likely have a cornerback taken in the very early stages of the NFL draft.  Chase Minnifield came into his own last year when Ras-I Dowling spent most of the year hurt, and finished with six interceptions.  He's not a secret any more, so teams will probably try and test the other side of the field.

Why?  Because that's the domain of a really skinny, 165-pound true freshman.  That would be scary if it weren't Demetrious Nicholson, a name already almost as familiar to the UVA fanbase as Minnifield.  Nicholson, apparently, plays as good a cornerback as was advertised during his recruitment, because he beat out Rijo Walker for the starting job; Walker was moved to safety as a result.

Normally a freshman cornerback is a big problem.  Trust me, I watched Michigan try that for three years with the worst results imaginable.  It wasn't pretty.  I'm willing to buy in yet again to the hype, though.  Walker was moved to safety not because "he couldn't beat a freshman" but because it offered him a better path to the field; he's a quality player in his own right.  It's encouraging that Nicholson's presence atop the depth chart is the result of winning a legitimate competition and not because there was just nobody else.

The problem will be in the run game, really.  Last year the run support from the secondary suffered because Devin Wallace was a miserable tackler.  At 165 pounds, Nicholson might not be much of an improvement there, and he's going to have just an awful time against bigger receivers.

The nickel corner is Dom Joseph, who'll be the first cornerback off the bench in any situation.  Joseph can play safety, but Walker really is the one that has a future there since Joseph's a senior.  If he has to, Joseph can bounce back and forth, but his main job will be as a cornerback and chances are he'll get plenty of snaps.  If worse comes to worst he's a good insurance policy if Nicholson struggles.

Best-case: Minnifield is the ACC DPOY - yes, he's a legit candidate - and Nicholson has his growing pains at times but also shows just why we were so damn happy to get him on board in the first place.

Worst-case: Nicholson struggles and teams never, ever throw in Minnifield's direction.  Joseph ends up being the quasi-starter if not the outright one.  And the redshirt comes off of Brandon Phelps.

Prediction: Good times.  I think the run support from the cornerbacks will at times be problematic, just because neither is very big, especially Nicholson.  And I think we'll definitely get some freshman moments out of Nicholson.  But I also think he's a legitimately good player and not on the field because nobody else was good enough; after all, if he wasn't ready, Dom Joseph could easily have gotten the starting nod himself.  Hopefully we can keep the redshirt on Brandon Phelps, who has just a ton of potential of his own, and this year and next set us up for the future with a pair of otherworldly corners.  Not that Minnifield is too shabby himself; he's a potential first-round and won't drop past the middle second round if he has the kind of year that he should.


The starters: #4 Rodney McLeod, #7 Corey Mosley
The backups: #28 Anthony Harris, #27 Rijo Walker

Another reason Rijo Walker was moved to safety is oh my god the depth.  Whereas Demetrious Nicholson won his job in a way that gives me the warm and fuzzy, Anthony Harris is on the depth chart because LoVante' Battle just isn't a legitimate option, particularly after being bounced from safety to linebacker and back every offseason.  Not to take away from Harris but if he's on the field this year for anything other than garbage time, problems are happening.  Walker provides at least a threadbare security blanket.

Fortunately, the actual starters offer a lot of promise.  Both are seniors, so the future is shaky, but this year at least we're in good shape as long as they're both healthy.  Rodney McLeod is the better of the two players, but Corey Mosley has been on the field enough to show that he gets it, despite the occasional hotheaded dumb penalty and his annoying penchant for the shoulder-tackle.**

The upside of that is that Mosley loves to bring the wood, and McLeod has some background playing cornerback so his pass coverage skills are a plus.  (Which makes it a little weird that Mosley is the free safety and McLeod the strong safety.  It feels like it ought to be reversed.)  Anyway, McLeod is a better player than he showed last year, having missed a couple games with injury and wasn't right all season.  A healthy McLeod will be a major improvement.  Actually, the way the depth chart shakes out, a healthy McLeod will be a basic necessity.

Best-case: Health all season, and a slightly cooler head from Mosley.

Worst-case: Mosley gets too hotheaded and not only takes dumb, badly-timed penalties, but gets overaggressive and gives up big plays, too, and gets pulled in favor of Walker.  That's another thing that's weird about their positioning, actually: the hothead ought to be the run-supporting strong safety and the cooler customer should be playing free so as to be comfortable being the last line of defense.  Anyway, if we start seeing freshmen trickle onto the field in actual important situations, you'll know to start holding your breath.

Prediction: As with the offensive line, for the sake of my sanity I'll predict health.  Safety play is an amazingly frustrating thing to watch when it goes bad.  No, I don't actually think Mosley will go so crazy as to require benching, but I'm sure he'll do something that makes me crazy at some point in the season.  Even so, this should be a strength of the defense, all things considered.


There you have it: two days' worth of team breakdown.  Time for the ultimate question: what do I think the result of all this is?  What does this season look like when we've come through to the other side?

Last year at this time, this was my take on the upcoming season:

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.

As it turned out, 4-8 was exactly what happened.  I did think we'd beat Duke on the way to that record; I didn't exactly expect Miami to be our ACC victim.

This year, the schedule is friendler.  No trip to USC on the docket.  The OOC sets up very well.  Idaho is garbage.  William & Mary is supposed to be one of the top teams in I-AA ball but if we can't beat them then there's no point analyzing the rest of the season either.  Indiana is going through a coaching change and isn't good.  The toughest test on the OOC most likely is the home game against Southern Miss, a middling C-USA team.  4-0 in the OOC is where this team ought to be, although 3-1 wouldn't come as a shock.

The conference schedule presents a test.  VT, FSU, and UNC are most likely out of our reach, and Miami will be back at full strength before we visit them.  NC State could be sneaky good.  The most winnable games are Maryland, Duke, and, believe it or not, Georgia Tech, which is going through a lot of roster upheaval this season.  (On the other hand, our defense does not match up well with their offense if it's clicking.)

The offense has a lot of shiny toys, but lacks a quarterback to really put that fear of God into the opposition.  The defense almost has to be better this season; there are too many good players like Cam Johnson and Chase Minnifield for it to be garbage like it was last year.  Steve Greer getting more snaps and Rodney McLeod getting more healthy snaps should make for a better time too.

Even so, realism must set in.  This team is still finding its way.  Against teams like FSU there will still be a talent deficit large enough to make a nasty difference on the scoreboard. 

But the schedule, as I said, sets up real friendly-like.  And you can see improvements in places across the board and all over the field.  Not giant ones, not yet, but they exist.  Enough that Heather Dinich is going to eat her words so hard.  The words that placed UVA 12th of 12 in her conference power rankings.  Those words.

And the ones that said "no bowl for Virginia."  I let it slip in the roundtable answers on Sunday, but the answer to the ultimate question is Yes.  I think you know what the question is.  I'm setting this season's base expectations at 6-6.  Going 5-7 would be a disappointment because it either means no improvement at all inside the conference or a nasty slip-up outside of it.  6-6 represents taking care of business in the OOC, and improving within the conference.  This team is never going to be confused with a championship contender, but it doesn't have to be to be called successful.  Getting to a bowl will validate Mike London's recruiting pitch that this is a team on the upswing.  It's been four years since this team played in the postseason, and they will return this season.

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