Second half of last week's ridiculously-too-early preview of next year's football team. This is the more optimistic half, which isn't saying much.
This is a tale of two positions, really. Defensive tackle is probably in pretty good shape. It's not deep; this past season, UVA was forced to turn to walk-on Greg Gallop for non-garbage-time snaps, with predictable results. There is much potential, though. Chris Brathwaite, who broke out in 2012 and ought to have been poised for a big year before having to leave school, is enrolled again, and will return. (After seeing what Brent Urban did this year, at first I was all "man, it's too bad they didn't get to play together this season" and then I was all "what would we have done, go 4-8?") Brathwaite, if the promise of 2012 wasn't his peak, could be a monster player.
So could Andrew Brown, who is also enrolled and will participate in spring practice and is a lock not to redshirt. He can't; the depth chart doesn't allow it. David Dean, who'll be a junior, presents another breakout candidate. If all goes well, UVA just may have a really, really nasty three-man rotation. And they'd be backed up by Donte Wilkins, who earned snaps as a true freshman last year - partly due, again, to the depth chart, but the experience should pay off at least a little.
Notice a lot of coulds and maybes, though. Brathwaite, with 10 TFLs in 2012, is the closest we've got to a sure thing, and he'll be almost two years between games by the time he gets back on the field. Brown is a recruit with colossal potential, but he's a true freshman. And have I mentioned the lack of depth? UVA goes three deep at DT, and that's all. The expected performance range for this unit is from basement to ceiling. At least something on this team has a high ceiling, but if they can't live up to it, picking up the slack could be hard.
At defensive end, there's little to be excited about - Eli Harold and that's about it. Harold, if he continues his upward development as a pass rusher, should be a terrific one, but how much he can hold up against the run is (at best) up for debate - he's listed at 230. The rest of the DE corps is absolutely loaded with question marks. Trent Corney probably isn't going to contribute more than situational pass rushing, though if he accelerates his development he does have the size to be the strong-side DE we completely lack. Michael Moore very badly needed a redshirt season - he didn't get it, and his development is way behind schedule as a result. Marco Jones has been held back by injury. Jack English has some possibility as a SDE, but he's a redshirt freshman and isn't a total lock to stay at DE.
With no help to be expected in the freshman class, the DE situation looks perilous. There's about one-half of a proven quantity: Harold, with demonstrated pass-rush skills but little yet to show against the run. There's nobody else who's done anything of note. Jake Snyder will be missed more than anyone knows, I think, unless something clicks with Moore, Jones, Corney, or English. All have the size to fill Snyder's SDE shoes, but likely, not yet the knowledge.
Here, UVA returns two very productive veterans. Henry Coley and Daquan Romero were 1-2 on the team in tackles, exactly what you want out of your linebackers. And Romero did so while playing with a shoulder injury. Defensive tackle has the highest potential ceiling on the team, but these guys make the linebacker position the most likely to actually reach the ceiling. Which itself is pretty high.
After that, though, you have to go down to 13th on the tackle list to find another linebacker, and that's Max Valles, technically a Sam linebacker but really more of a stand-up defensive end, in the game to find the quarterback rather than cover a tight end or diagnose a screen pass. The next real linebacker was Demeitre Brim at 15th on the list, with only 18 tackles.
So, much depends on what Jon Tenuta wants to do with this position, but I find it hard to believe he'd have turned to Valles - despite Valles's speed - if he felt he had a true multidimensional threat for the third spot. Brim will be in his junior season, and he'll be an option, along with Mark Hall and Zach Bradshaw, each of whom saw a few snaps. The coaches hinted they'd have played Bradshaw more if he hadn't been hurt, so I'd tentatively wager on him as the top non-Valles option to start with.
Should anyone go down with injury, D.J. Hill should be able to step in; he's a clear step down, but he's capable and can handle the job either inside or outside. It's also going to be a make-or-break season for Kwontie Moore - another player who should have redshirted, but didn't. Part of his problem is being stuck behind productive players so far his whole career, but that just puts another point on the list of reasons why he should've redshirted.
I think it's fair to expect a productive season out of this unit, mainly thanks to having two experienced seniors in Coley and Romero, but they'll also be asked to do a lot. With a likely weakness at DE, the 'backers will have to get to the edge quickly and consistently. They have the ability to, particularly Romero, who made snuffing out screen plays his specialty in 2013. There's depth here, too, at least in the raw numbers, so the only major question is how the unit will be used by Tenuta.
No depth problems here. UVA loses one player - senior safety Rijo Walker. 15 scholarship players will return and four more will join them (and Mike London continues to gleefully recruit more) meaning that, barring attrition, at least 19 players will vie for four spots on the field. And ironically, they're all pretty much locked down already, meaning we have a lot of languishing scholarships.
Your cornerbacks are Demetrious Nicholson, Maurice Canady, and Drequan Hoskey. That's the lineup, barring injury. Tim Harris and Divante Walker got some time in the rotation, with the path partly cleared by Nicholson's injury last year. And I will say this: probably the top place on the field for any defense to include some personnel flexibility is by going to a nickel package, so you want a little extra playable depth there in order to feel comfortable with three cornerbacks on the field.
That said, if nobody gets hurt, there'll be a lot of guys riding the pine and not getting reps in practice. The same holds true for safety, where Anthony Harris is a returning all-American if you ask the right people, and Brandon Phelps has at least somewhat of a grasp on the free safety position. I would never, ever have said "don't recruit Quin Blanding" and his addition to the secondary is a welcome one - he may, if reality matches the hype, push Phelps for playing time. But there are also some players getting absolutely buried here, too. Anthony Cooper hasn't been heard from, and one wonders what role Malcolm Cook will have this year, too.
Performance-wise, expect a good year. I don't know how much I should qualify that statement, but there's talent in this secondary. I don't expect Harris to repeat his 8-INT performance, as that sort of thing is damn near impossible to replicate, but if he gets just half that it'd be solid. We've got the requisite three starting cornerbacks, as well as way more depth than necessary at both safety and corner, and probably the only drama in terms of personnel will be whether Phelps hangs on to his starting job or whether someone like Cook or Blanding makes a strong push for it.
Some football-related news deserves some football-related coverage. First is the decommitment of Will Richardson to NC State, not 24 hours after his official visit apparently went so well that he was "as solid as [he's] ever been," other schools were "out of the question", and other dishonest and now-useless quotes lifted from the various recruiting articles.
Teenagers are by nature capricious and not especially forward-thinking people, but Richardson's decision strikes me as little different than Brad Henson's fly-by-night switch to UNC. Henson stated he kept everything secret at the request of UNC's coaches because "that just causes problems," by which he meant he didn't have the guts to face Mike London with his decision. Richardson is apparently cut from the same cloth. One of his hosts was Andrew Brown, and it would be fun to see if Brown remembers being lied to the next time UVA faces NC State (c'mon, do you think Richardson ever mentioned NC State to any of his hosts?), but that won't be until 2018. Brown will be gone by then, unless he redshirts, which he won't. (Let's hear it for ACC scheduling! NC State is like 150 miles away and might as well be Utah State for all the 2014 class will know of the conference.)
Speaking of scheduling, that came out, much earlier than in previous years, so at least the conference finally got its shit together in that regard. Yes, it's a tough schedule. Some very strongly held opinions of mine as pertain to that issue:
-- Mike London is in his fifth year of coaching, and therefore "but it's a tough schedule!" holds no water. The whole Coastal is full of beatable, middling-good to middling-bad teams. If you can't be competitive in your fifth year, you don't belong. So it's time to show us the money.
-- The nonconference schedule is challenging, but not overwhelming. Or such would be the case if we weren't coming off a 2-10 season. Nevertheless, calls to back out of the UCLA game are indefensible. UCLA was 6-8 the season before that was scheduled. "Hey, sorry, we think we'll probably lose to you guys, so we don't want to play it anymore," is a really shit reason to weasel out of a game. Besides, we could play Somalia State four times and if we don't fix what happened in the conference portion of the schedule we'll still go 4-8. We need to concern ourselves with what's happening against the teams we measure ourselves against and line up in the standings against rather than whining about not getting to play four different VMIs.
-- Assuming nothing happens in field hockey or soccer, our game against Louisville in mid-September will be that school's first-ever contest in the ACC. That's not an opinion, it's a fact, but it's kind of a neat one (and would be even neater if we weren't going to get beat by 30.)
-- Virginia Tech got their special little fellatio from the conference again. That setup where they play Saturday-bye-Thursday-Thursday-Saturday. Nobody else in the conference gets this deal, ever. Not the defending Coastal Conference champs, not the defending Orange Bowl champs, not the defending national champs, not anyone. VT lobbies for this and the conference gives it to them. It makes them come off like total assholes for bitching the way they did about having to play Thursday after a Saturday game the way about half of all ACC Thursday night games are. Littlepage needs to lobby for a bye week before their game (and none for Tech) every year Tech gets handed their scheduling present.