Continuing our HIGHLY CONTROVERSIAL! series from last week.
Other than a weak pass rush, pretty good. The line managed only 13.5 sacks in 2012, no doubt a contributor to the low turnover margin (making the quarterback go AAAAAH is a great way to get a few now and then.) But there was a great lineup of playable depth at both end and tackle. Will Hill was particularly stout in the middle, and Brent Urban nosed ahead of Justin Renfrow for the starting job next door; Renfrow was solid if unspectacular when on the field, and Chris Brathwaite, despite playing in a reserve role, led the whole line in sacks and TFL. Brathwaite was a feast-or-famine player, susceptible to being encouraged to go exactly the direction the offensive line wanted, but the feasting overtook the famine by the end of the year.
The ends lacked a consistent pass rush threat, but they contributed mightily to UVA's excellent run defense. Jake Snyder, despite his second-on-the-team 2.5 sacks, isn't a pass-rusher, but if we did have a pass-rush threat on the opposite side, Snyder could probably increase his own total too. He did an excellent job chasing down runs to the edge and more than held his ground against opposing tight ends. Ausar Walcott adapted well to the position switch to DE, and though he was more of a quarterback hurrier than sack-collector (that, in fact, was the story of the defensive line all season: generally good enough to generate some pressure but not quite good enough to actually reach the prize) Walcott did a good job learning the nuances of the position and being a more complete defensive end than just a pass-rush specialist. And Eli Harold flashed some of the skills and made some of the plays that made him such a prized recruit, but the truth is he was too small to make a consistent dent in opposing offenses.
But he definitely improved over the course of the year. As did most of the younger players on the line: Brathwaite, Mike Moore, David Dean - which is why I was so disappointed to see Jeff Hanson let go. Hanson, I think, was getting through with some quality lessons. This line didn't make a lot of flashy plays, but they got the job done.
Officially there's no D-line coach on the staff anymore, which is to say that London is going to leave some of the head-coach adminstrative gobbledygoo to Tom O'Brien, and get back into the positional coaching a little bit. London knows what he's doing, so the line ought to continue its upward trajectory.
UVA will lose Hill, Walcott, and Billy Schautz, whose injury-bit self was somewhat missed when a hamstring kept him off the field for half the season; Schautz did come back and had himself a nice game against VT in the finale. Also gone is Brathwaite, who just set himself up next to Jeffrey Fitzgerald in Wahoo lore. If that's any precedent he'll follow one of our departed coaches to some other school and tear it up completely, which is pretty much par for the course as a UVA fan. Brathwaite is going to be a real loss, maybe more so than any of the seniors, and that's really saying something in Hill's case.
It means David Dean will probably play a big role. Dean started to assert himself in the second half of the season and just might push Renfrow for the starting job alongside Urban. At least he's a top candidate for the third spot in the rotation, which is basically as good as being a starter. It'll also be time to start seeing what we have in Vincent Croce and Marco Jones.
On the ends, Snyder will head into his senior year, which gives the Hoos a solid building block on one side. Harold will likely put on some weight, and big things will be expected. Michael Moore is the top candidate to be the first off the bench. Expectations should be big for the entire unit; what we saw this year will hopefully be a minimum.
Other than Henry Coley finding his way to Mike London's doghouse, we had some enviable stability in this unit, culminating in Steve Greer's selection to the all-ACC first team. Here's a fun fact: at the end of this past season, the only active player in the country with more career tackles than Greer was Manti Te'o.
When Greer was out for a brief time, his position in the middle was ably manned by D.J. Hill; likewise, Daquan Romero did a fine job picking up the slack for Coley. Laroy Reynolds, on the weak side, was sometimes the victim of his own overaggressiveness, but for the most part played a very solid season as well. Greer is the star of the group, and he's about as flashy as a mud flap, so there were very few exciting, spectacular moments out of the linebacking corps. But there's not much to complain about, either.
Both Greer and Reynolds are gone, leaving two pretty big holes. And I don't think anyone can say for sure whether Coley will definitely reclaim his starting job. Romero looks ready for one if necessary. Hill is not that far behind, and is versatile enough to play a couple different positions. If it were Romero, Hill, and Coley, that group would probably do a good job continuing the steady play of the last set of linebackers.
But there are some serious athleticism upgrades lurking as well, in the forms of Kwontie Moore and Demeitre Brim. Moore, a middle linebacker all the way, will need some seasoning to fully replace what Greer brought, but he'll be a major step up in the speed department. Just in time for Jon Tenuta and his blitzorama. Brim has serious potential in Tenuta's defense as a weakside pass-rusher as well. Both will push very, very hard for playing time, and let's not leave out Mark Hall, either, who is coming off a redshirt season. UVA also has LaChaston Smith enrolled and ready to go for spring practice, but it is hoped we don't have to dip into the freshman class for answers here.
An absurdly young unit wasn't the federal disaster zone I expected. I wouldn't say they were great. Only four interceptions all year, which puts the Hoos almost at the very bottom of the barrel, and by the way one of those picks belonged to Eli Harold, so really, only three. Other than their lack of turnovers, this was a tough unit to judge because the coaches were protecting them somewhat with their schemes. That soft coverage that everyone hated, for example, was the coaches' way of keeping the safeties out of trouble. It generally worked: only three teams in the country matched or beat UVA's count of 82 pass plays of 10+ yards given up.
Change that number to 40+ yards, though, and you start to see the cracks; UVA was in the bottom half of the country there. Brandon Phelps had some rough introductions to the starting safety job, and Anthony Harris only a few less than Phelps. Those two played most every snap, though; the coaches used Anthony Cooper not much and Rijo Walker (puzzlingly) even less.
Demetrious Nicholson continued his development nicely; he ended the year with 15 PBUs, although not a single interception. He added about 10-15 pounds, which was a very noticeable aid to his tackling. His tackling was crummy in 2011 because he kept getting run over; the extra weight cut down on that considerably. Drequan Hoskey started for most of the year opposite Nicholson, but Maurice Canady put a world of pressure on Hoskey for that job, and his two picks helped make his case.
Not a single player will be lost to graduation, and after 2013, only Walker departs, so the hope is that the secondary grows into one of the ACC's elite. It probably won't be that good in 2013, but it should start to show signs of being a strength.
Jon Tenuta's arrival will have its greatest effect here. Safety blitzes will become part of the repertoire and there should be a lot more press coverage. I think there would've been more press coverage anyway as the staff started putting more weight on these guys' shoulders, but Tenuta will use it much more than Jim Reid would've.
I don't expect much, if any, change to the safeties. Malcolm Cook is highly heralded, but safeties with experience are almost always going to look better than the newcomers. Phelps and Harris shouldn't see much challenge to their positions. Nicholson won't either; it's Hoskey that'll continue to feel the heat from Canady, and don't be the least bit surprised to see Canady move into the starting lineup at some point this calendar year. Two excellent cornerback prospects are coming in the fall, but I think it'll be too tough for them to unseat the incumbents. The only mystery is Canady, and how much field time there'll be for those below the top three and who it might be for.