Thursday, August 29, 2013

season preview: defense and everything else

Once again the formalities are dispensed with.

-- Defensive line

The starters:

#90 - Jake Snyder
#99 - Brent Urban
#55 - David Dean
#7 - Eli Harold

The reserves:

#32 - Mike Moore
#93 - Donte Wilkins
#56 - Andre Miles-Redmond
#43 - Trent Corney

Like the offensive line, the defensive side of the trenches is displaying cracks in the depth with an overabundance of freshmen in the two-deep.  Defensive tackle is specifically the culprit; five scholarship DTs currently exist on the roster, and since two are true freshmen, one was going to have to be on the two-deep regardless.  That turned out to be Donte Wilkins, who beat out Tyrell Chavis in camp despite Chavis being a year older thanks to his FUMA-shirt.  (Small note: Wilkins has changed the spelling of his name from Donta to Donte.)

There's good reason to think the starting two on the inside should be stout.  Brent Urban has developed very well, and David Dean started to appear on the field in the second half of last year and was impressive in his limited time.  However, the coaches have already been open about their plans to sometimes move Mike Moore inside to play tackle.  Moore's another one who looked good as a freshman last year, so in some ways it's an avenue to get their four most athletic linemen on the field at once; however, it's also a vote of small confidence in the backups at DT.

Really, end is where the athletes are.  Moore is one.  Jake Snyder is really more of a tackle playing end; he'll probably spend most of his time on the strong side, taking on tight ends and stuffing the run.  The guy everyone will be looking at, though, is his opposite side, Eli Harold.  Weighing in at 230 pounds (a gain of 10 from last year) he's got to take a big step forward.  Harold is a speed rusher through and through, and he's got to improve on his two sacks from last year.  That's a harsh level of expectations for a true sophomore, but the pass rush is otherwise pretty anemic, and Harold's athleticism makes him the prime candidate to fix that.

Speaking of athleticism - passing downs could be interesting if the coaches decide to put Harold and his backup, Trent Corney, on the field at the same time.  The book on Corney has been the same ever since he was recruited: freaky athlete, all the polish of 50-grit sandpaper.  Without watching Corney specifically on each play it would be tough to know just how far his technique has advanced, but we ought to get a pretty good approximation simply by how much he's on the field.  He's the only lineman whose speed can approach Harold's, and he's probably stronger.  He'll play as much as his learning allows him to.

Truth is, last year's production out of the D-line was low, and a great deal of what production there was got academically suspended from the school.  Getting Chris Brathwaite back would've been tremendous for the DT depth.  The defense was still pretty good, but there were also two senior linebackers that don't exist any more either.  However, one of the areas where Mike London has done his best recruiting is on the D-line - no coincidence there, he's a D-line coach.  That talent is starting to mature, so if they start to really show up this year, they're right on schedule.  Notice I said "start to."  Let's not expect these guys to suddenly become destroyers of men.  Even Urban, a senior, would be on schedule if he had just this one really good year, due to his rawness upon arrival.

Still, it's within reason to want to see some numbers go up.  Now that Harold is playing in a starting role and not backing anyone up, he ought to be able to scrape together five sacks this year.  Nobody even had four last year.  Jake Snyder had a good year last year and frankly I'll take exactly that this year, too, which numbers-wise was 44 tackles, 5.5 for loss, and 2.5 sacks.  I'm not sure what goals I'd set for the DTs - stay healthy, mainly, for the same reason as the O-line has to.

-- Linebackers

The starters:

#42 - Demeitre Brim
#44 - Henry Coley
#13 - Daquan Romero

The reserves:

#51 - Zach Bradshaw
#34 - Kwontie Moore
#29 - D.J. Hill

Postseason, one thing that might serve as a caution when interpreting the production of the defensive line is the production of the linebackers.  If the D-line does a great job of stuffing the line, the linebackers we have ought to be good enough to cannibalize the production and look a lot better themselves.  That's partly why the D-line from last year looks unproductive in the tackles department.

This looks like a relatively inexperienced group, since it only returns one starter and that one missed a third of the season last year, on suspension.  It's more experienced than it seems, though.  Henry Coley is the daddy of the group, as a redshirt junior, but he's been in and out of the lineup each of the past two seasons - once on injury, once on suspension.  However, the coaches think highly enough of his knowledge of the defense to give him a permanent move to the middle; in the past he's played both on the inside and outside.

Demeitre Brim was a special teams monster last year; I completely forget which game but the play sticks out in my head, in which Brim raced from the other side of the field and ran down a kick returner who was about two steps from housing yet another offering.  The defense then held, and I considered the four points worth Brim's redshirt.  The man's got speed.  Now we'll get the chance to see how that translates to defense.

The last starter is the one I have the best hopes for, though.  That's Daquan Romero, who stepped in as a starter last year when Coley was suspended and averaged 6.25 tackles in those four games.  Projected over the season that would have been 75 tackles.  Would I take that kind of production out of a true sophomore linebacker in his first year of starting?  All day long, man.  Romero's been playing with the defensive units since he was a true freshman, and made the best of his turn to start.  Now that the weakside job permanently belongs to him, he has a chance to really be the star of the unit.

On the second-string, the second-biggest surprise of the depth chart release was probably seeing Zach Bradshaw in ahead of Mark Hall.  I'm not sure what that means for Hall - could be the first sign of him being passed up - but should I be surprised?  As a high-schooler, Bradshaw gave the impression of a guy who possessed a ton of football sense that he used to magnify his athleticism.  Kwontie Moore kind of floated on and off the depth chart as a freshman last year and now occupies a more permanent place; his development should also be fun to watch.  D.J. Hill did a nice job at times filling in last year and knows the right place to be, but his athleticism is overshadowed by most of the rest of the unit.  As a backup, he's less like the other two, whose stars are on the rise, and more like a Cody Wallace where you don't hold your breath when he comes in but you don't plan on him Wally Pipping anyone either.

I think we'll see good things here.  More so than any other unit I'm a little bit irrationally exuberant about the linebackers.  I'm exuberant about the running backs, yes, but not irrationally.  Brim put some playmaking skills on display on an otherwise awful special teams unit, and Romero is poised for a breakthrough.  There's a ton of athleticism on the second line, too.  Steve Greer and Laroy Reynolds will be missed.... but probably not for long, and that's no slight on those two.

-- Defensive backs

Cornerback starters:

#1 - Demetrious Nicholson
#22 - DreQuan Hoskey

Cornerback reserves:

#26 - Maurice Canady
#5 - Tim Harris

Safety starters:

#8 - Anthony Harris
#21 - Brandon Phelps

Safety reserves:

#38 - Kelvin Rainey
#27 - Rijo Walker

Let's start off with one assertion: Just because Maurice Canady is listed as a backup does not mean his playing time will be minimal.  I just want to get that out there because now that there's no quarterback to argue over, one of the most common complaints on message boards is that Canady isn't starting.**  It doesn't matter.  Between rotations and the nickel defense, the third cornerback is basically a starter.  Canady was the only cornerback to intercept a pass last year, and he did it twice (accounting for half the team's INTs) which is the source of much of the angst.  One thing that doesn't always occur to folks is that both of those picks were over the middle - which is to say that being the nickel corner directly put Canady in position to make those interceptions.

Besides, Hoskey's, you know, pretty good.  Fast, too - the Hoskey play that stands out is the game-saver against Florida State two years ago.  Exactly what a good, fast, and reasonably instinctual cornerback needs to do.

Neither of them are the star of the secondary, though.  That honor goes to Demetrious Nicholson, a starter since Day 1.  Nicholson has rarely ever looked out of place, not even as a freshman, and his 15 pass breakups last year is an excellent stat.  The one real blemish: Nicholson didn't register a single interception last year.  That needs to change.  A cornerback of Nicholson's stature, coming into his junior year with 25 starts under his belt - three, four, or five INTs should be the expectation.  He never comes off the field - his official bio notes that he's been on the field for over 97% of the defensive snaps the past two years - so there is ample opportunity.  The turnover margin last year was pretty bad, and little to no interception production was a big part of that.  Nicholson has to be the one to turn that around.

In one of the ACC team previews - might've been the Wake Forest one - I mentioned that a sign of a good safety is when the team plays good defense and yet the safety has a ton of tackles.  That's sort of the corollary to the theory that it's a sign of a bad defense when the safeties lead the team in tackles.  UVA's defense was #4 in the conference last year in yards per play, and Anthony Harris had 87 tackles (and incidentally, one of the team's INTs) - the conclusion is another big positive in the secondary.  I think Harris is ahead of Brandon Phelps, but Phelps's development has also been encouraging.

Plus, I like having Rijo Walker as a safety (ha) blanket.  Walker has also been a career backup, but he might be UVA's best such player right now.  The interesting player: Kelvin Rainey, who has leapfrogged a whole bunch of other contenders to appear as the backup to Harris at strong safety.  There are three sophomores on the roster - Kyrrel Latimer, Mason Thomas, and Anthony Cooper - and Rainey's placement bodes ill for all three of them, particulary Cooper, whose star was a lot brighter at this time last year.

Besides Canady on the second string (if you can call it that), Tim Harris shares the fourth cornerback spot with Divante Walker, both apparently moving ahead, for now, of Kirk Garner and C.J. Moore.  This was going to be Wil Wahee until a season-ending knee injury.

Most of the expectations for this unit this season will probably be heaped on Nicholson.  Comes with being the star.  But more so than any of the other defensive units, this is a mature group.  Four juniors starting, and a rare senior backup.  The secondary will be a strength this year, particularly if it produces some turnovers.

**It also makes me want to slap people when they say they can't understand why the coaches won't start Canady when they - the keyboard coaches - can so obviously see what a better playmaker Canady is.  There must be something about observing players in practice, the film room, the weight room, and the locker room every day that makes coaches always make the wrong decisions.


So.  The problem with everything I just wrote, yesterday and today, is that it really doesn't do this season justice.  This year is as close to a brand-new start as you can get without a wholesale head coaching change.  Everything but the head coach has changed.  There's someone new in charge of all three units - offense, defense, and special teams.  There's a new quarterback.  With Steve Greer gone, there's a new quarterback on defense, too, a job which falls to Henry Coley, or perhaps Ant Harris.  The man in charge as the same, so technically it's the same regime, same uniforms, same players mostly since we didn't see the coaching-change exodus, and there's little change in the recruiting philosophy.  But look back 15 or 20 years and you'd have a hard time finding a team that has so much that's brand-new without changing the head coach too.

It's tempting to read this as a vote of no confidence in London, particularly the hiring of Tom O'Brien; there's even historical precedent in the form of Littlepage hiring Gregg Brandon.  However, we're three years into the London regime.  This is year four.  A full vote of no confidence would simply have come in the form of "you're fired."  While the staff changes are an indication that the previous group wasn't working, it's also a message: London can do this, but he needs a little help.

Of course, they're not going to do this twice.  The next time there needs to be a change, the head coach goes too.  That's why I think it's inaccurate to say there aren't any expectations whatsoever.  There are now three and a half years' worth of London recruits in the program.  The best of the bunch from the heralded 2011 class are now upperclassmen.  Guys like Darius Jennings, Demetrious Nicholson, Dominique Terrell, Brandon Phelps, Daquan Romero - they've gone from being the future to the present.  They're the team now.  London brought them in, they came with a pedigree - they have to produce.

The schedule, naturally, is not doing any favors.  The ACC schedule is rough; we were the unlucky Coastal team to draw Clemson, and the Coastal itself is much deeper than the Atlantic.  BYU, not an instate I-AA team, opens the slate, and just when it was already going to be difficult to find wins, the brass decided to add Oregon as well.  Nasty.

London is essentially being given five years, which is enough time to churn through and make the entire team his own recruits, but year four can't be a mess.  Last year was a mess.  This team has to at least look good.  And that's where special teams come in.

There's no separate special teams preview, but maybe there should be.  That unit sabotaged the season last year.  No getting around that.  I looked for it and couldn't find it, but I'm sure at some point last year, or after the end of it, I averred that we would've gone bowling if we'd just had average special teams play.  I think that's still true.  This year, the schedule is too tough, a bowl game is too important, and, simply put, we cannot have the special teams losing games for us.  That's why they went out and hired an actual special teams coach.  If, say, we end up 5-7 and not 6-6, and one of those losses is by less than a touchdown because the special teams gave up a 100-yard KR?  No.  No margin for error here.

The schedule breaks down like so: we should expect to beat VMI, Ball State, Pitt, Maryland, and maybe Duke.  (And I'm sort of out on a limb in having a much lower opinion of Pitt than most pundits and keyboard analysts.)  So that's four, maybe five wins.  We probably lose to Oregon, Clemson, and on the road at UNC.  This means we need to find one or two wins among BYU, GT, Miami, and VT.  Win half those games, probably.  Not easy.  I could be wrong about Pitt.  You see what I mean about no margin for error.

A poor season - 4-8, a bad-looking, bumbling 5-7 - and London is on notice.  Worse, everyone will be talking about London being on notice, and suddenly he'll be recruiting into a headwind.  Go 6-6, or even, saints preserve us, 7-5, and London can brag to recruits about going bowling in a rebuilding year against such a hard schedule (Oregon!) and just wait til we actually aren't rebuilding anymore and UVA will be on everyone's breakout list in 2014.  What a difference a single win makes.  We're the toast of the town if we can do it.  If not, the only toast will be Mike London's butt.

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