I did the offense almost two weeks ago. Did I wait this long for the defense because I'm scatterbrained, or because I wanted the title "too-late" to make sense this time? A philosophical mystery.
Anyway, reasons #1 and #2, in whatever order, that UVA went 8-4 in the regular season and earned a Peach Bowl bid, are the cohesiveness of the offensive line, and the entire defense fixing itself. Last year I had serious, and I think legitimate, concerns about Jim Reid. We went 4-8, the defense took like eight steps backward, and this despite the fact that the 4-3 was pitched as a simple scheme that wouldn't need much if any adjustment time. Well, this year, we got those eight steps back. The defense had its stepping-out party against Georgia Tech and then timed its true renaissance to coincide with the emergence of Mike Rocco at quarterback, and the resulting four-game winning streak propelled UVA to its best season in quite some time. Let's see how these position groups did.
The team settled nicely into a six-man rotation that saw each of them earn plenty of time. Cam Johnson played well enough to earn a Senior Bowl invitation and will get his shot at playing on Sundays. His four sacks led the team, and that doesn't look like much of a number, but Johnson was rarely blockable one-on-one and his pressure caused plenty of quarterback mistakes. My lasting impression: watching him ignore a block by Indiana's hapless left tackle and simply absorb the football from quarterback Edwin Wright-Baker. By osmosis, apparently, because the ball was in the quarterback's hands, and then it wasn't, and there was nothing in between.
Also disruptive: Matt Conrath, another likely draft pick. Just ask Duke, who was forced to put up with being terrorized by Johnson because they were tired of being terrorized by Conrath. Nick Jenkins was solid as the one-tech next to Conrath, and Will Hill emerged as a very capable backup. Bill Schautz also played very well; Schautz didn't have the athleticism of some of his linemates but makes up for it with technical near-perfection. In Al Groh's last season he really wanted to find a spot on the field for Schautz and talked him up quite a bit in the preseason; we found out why this year.
This is one-half of the anxiety over next year's defense, because three seniors - Conrath, Jenkins, and Johnson - all graduate. All were extremely important players. At defensive tackle, Hill will be the only player left with significant game experience. However, Justin Renfrow and Chris Brathwaite showed some promise when they had a chance. I particularly like the potential of Brathwaite. Those two will likely have the first shot at replacing Jenkins and Conrath, but don't overlook David Dean, who'll be a redshirt freshman. Of this year's redshirts, Dean is the one most consistently mentioned for making an impression in practices.
At end, Schautz and Jake Snyder are the top two returnees; Snyder was the third man in the DE rotation this year, so there's a little more experience. But is there a pass-rush terror in this group? From here, in January, it doesn't look like it. Brent Urban will start the season the third guy, and of the three, the big Canuck might be the most likely to get to the quarterback regularly. Because of the dearth of pass-rushing freaks, look for true freshman Eli Harold to see the field. Harold was a highly-sought recruit before his senior year on the strength of his potential and blazing athleticism; he rose to the top of the prospect rankings in Virginia (and opened eyes at the Army game) thanks to backing it up with his performance and production this fall.
A large group of freshmen emerges from redshirtland, and there'll be a competition starting in the spring to see who rises on the pecking order. Having a slight leg up on that competition might be Thompson Brown, who didn't actually redshirt - you'll remember him from the Miami game, chasing down Jacory Harris and forcing him to go to his left, against the grain of his throwing arm.
The story for next year on the D-line is really that even though we lose more talent from the middle, we start in a stronger position there in 2012. This should be a stout group against the run; it's a smart bunch with guys like Hill and Schautz that know their assignments very well. The pass rush will be a question mark; it'll be interesting to see how quickly Harold can translate his high school dominance to college success.
Ausar Walcott had an interesting 2011. He began the year as the starting weakside linebacker, was suspended for his role in the JMU party house brouhaha, reinstated and dropped to the very back of the defensive end depth chart, and finally returned to the field as a platooning Sam backer, with Aaron Taliaferro.
Taliaferro had slid over from the middle; neither he nor Steve Greer is very rangy there, but Greer is quicker to diagnose plays and a better tackler. Greer missed the Peach Bowl; his absence was greatly felt, because he's quite a bit ahead of Henry Coley in his development, and it showed. On the weakside, Laroy Reynolds took several steps forward in his development over last year, when his overaggressiveness caused a lot of spectacular plays - some by him and some by the offense. I wouldn't say he looked more comfortable this year (and that's because he was often too comfortable last year) but he clearly had better knowledge of his position. Reynolds made a perfect linebacker play to help seal the Miami win: he diagnosed the play with lightning speed and shed his block equally quickly to wind up in the backfield, making a tackle for loss on fourth down.
Still, there's a lot of room for improvement with this unit. It's not very good in pass coverage, and the athleticism must be upgraded. Reynolds is the only one with much speed. Taliaferro was only average in this area, and Walcott had to lose some offseason weight - I continue to believe his short-lived move to defensive end was mostly a wake-up call rather than a tactical decision. And Coley is either not much more athletic than Greer, or he's slower at diagnosing plays.
Taliaferro is the only graduating player, so there's a lot of hope for some consistency. In fact, it looks as though it'll be an all-senior group, with Greer, Reynolds, and Walcott. Like Schautz, Greer masks his lack of athleticism with smarts, and if Walcott is a diligent worker this offseason in the weight room, the outside backers will be able to cover enough ground to make up for it.
But who are the backups? Coley is on track to replace Greer after next year, so he's a no-brainer - though he will be having Kwontie Moore breathing down his neck starting in August. Daquan Romero spent the year as Reynolds's backup on the weak side, but didn't see many plays. Nevertheless, he's your man. And on the strong side, Caleb Taylor will be first in line behind Walcott.
That's a young group I just listed. A very veteran bunch of starters, but a very green bunch of backups. Burnt offerings to the gods of health are in order.
Hell, what is there to say about Chase Minnifield that hasn't already been said? Nobody wanted to throw at him and he still had three interceptions. I don't mind rehashing his touchdown-saver against FSU, of course, in which he definitely lived up to his name. It was the play of the season. The NFL is calling.
His counterpart, Demetrious Nicholson, certainly had some moments this year. He had no choice - everyone decided to throw at him because when you're offered the choice between picking on the senior who'll be playing in the league next year and picking on the true freshman, 10 out of 10 offensive coordinators choose the latter. Even Ron Prince knows enough to do that - at least, in between third-and-nine draw plays. Given that set of circumstances, Nicholson was outstanding. Oh, sure, he made his share of mistakes, too, but he was far from a disaster. Believe me: I watched freshman cornerbacks at Michigan coached by Greg Robinson. I know what a disaster looks like.
Safety was awfully similar, except maddeningly played by seniors instead of freshmen. Rodney McLeod had three picks against Maryland, and that was cool, and also really annoying because two of them came on fourth down when batting the ball down would've been the better play. Both safeties, McLeod and Corey Mosley, made a habit of getting burned deep against Duke, but they were also good in run support all season long. Fans had much complaints about the safeties giving up big plays, which was justified, but I have a nasty feeling we won't know what we had til it's gone.
Of the starters, we get Nicholson back. Nickel corner Dom Joseph also happens to depart, meaning that someone that we never saw hide or hair of will be the other starter. The top two candidates would be Brandon Phelps and Drequan Hoskey; I suppose it's not totally fair to say we saw nothing of these two, because Phelps played on special teams and Hoskey made a very, very nice play in the end zone to help preserve the FSU win.
Still, it'll make for some nervous moments. It probably doesn't matter who wins the battle to start, because you need three cornerbacks. About four true freshmen will enter in the fall, and in the best-case scenario we'll never see 'em. But it's likely we will.
Safety is even scarier. Rijo Walker will replace Mosley at free safety, so it'll be nice to at least have a veteran. Walker made a crazy-nice interception at Indiana, but we didn't see much more of him as time went on. Walker's backup, at least nominally, is probably Pablo Alvarez, but this is going to be way up for grabs. At strong safety, the likely starter is Anthony Harris; again, though, this could be up for grabs with a ton of freshman-type substances vying for a place in the pecking order.
Overall, this defense will be as good as the secondary lets it be. With three seniors slated to start at linebacker, you have to figure they'll be able to find their way around a football field. And the defensive line has a lot of playable depth that didn't play this year, meaning we should at least be fine, albeit probably not spectacular. But how the secondary will be, I can't say, with the possibilities ranging from "pretty good" to "unwatchable," with unwatchable being the more likely. Only two of the four starters (whoever the starters end up being) have played enough to earn much confidence.
Somebody will have to really break out and surprise people for the defense to be as good or better than it was in 2011. That's really what it boils down to. Possible candidates: Chris Brathwaite, Eli Harold, Anthony Harris, among some others. If I could pick the one I most want it to be, it'd be Harris, so that secondary-induced heart attacks are at a minimum. My actual pick: Brathwaite, a player I've had an inexplicably good feeling about since he was recruited. My bet is that Brathwaite leapfrogs Renfrow and starts to make himself a name as a really nasty, disruptive force on the inside.
In any case, this year's defense was a big improvement, and Jim Reid gets a lot of deserving credit as the coordinator. But this was also a veteran squad, and should have been at least halfway decent. Next year, if the defense stays pretty good, give Reid and the coaching staff a big pat on the back.