Thursday, August 28, 2008

season preview: defense

I really feel like watching at least some of that South Carolina-NC State game (that's right, I'm actually depriving myself of real, actual football so that I can get this stuff posted, just for you.) So it will be a toss-up as to whether the USC game preview goes up tomorrow morning or tomorrow afternoon. Leaning toward afternoon so these season previews, which I really did spend some time on, don't get shoved to the bottom, unread and unloved. In that vein, by the way, here is the link to the offense preview.


Let’s squash any misplaced over-optimism right now, once and for all: At absolutely no point during this year will the defensive line be better than it was last year. Chris Long was a destroyer of offenses. The line could have been made up of Chris Long and two cotton candy statues and I would have called it a 5 out of 5. Jeffrey Fitzgerald was not a cotton candy statue, and he is also gone. When the defense trots out against USC, the three biggest guys in blue will all be different players than last year.

And freshmen abound. At either the first or second spot on the depth chart, there is a redshirt freshman at each position. Notably, there is Matt Conrath (#94) slated to start at one of the ends. This was going to be Sean Gottschalk’s (#99) spot, but he has not been consistently practicing due to an “undisclosed health issue.” He may be Wally Pipp’d right out of a starting job, because Conrath has been lighting up the newspaper articles and message boards with his play this fall. Long himself had terrific things to say about Conrath, and that was without even seeing him in a game. There’s a great deal more experience with the rest of the starters; Alex Field (#93) on the other end and Nate Collins (#98) in the middle were the top reserves and played in every game last year. Collins is an exceptional athlete overall; the guy actually played some quarterback in high school and acquitted himself well for a 270 pounder. (He’s bigger now.) But Groh likes redshirt freshman Nick Jenkins (#96), too, and we could see a lot of Jenkins this year. Last year Collins rotated with Allen Billyk and got about 35-40% of the snaps, and a similar rotation may be in the cards, with Collins taking over Billyk’s role.

So there’s really plenty of reason to believe that this line will perform quite well. Chris Long was one of those rare players who could change a game by himself from the trenches, and none of these guys are that level. But they’re good players in their own right. Counterintuitively, the 3-4 system demands better line play than the 4-3; because there are fewer of them, it’s harder to cover up poor play. A weak defensive tackle can be helped out by the stronger one in a 4-3, but if the 3-4 nose tackle is no good, the linebackers can’t help until the play is already four yards downfield. That’s why Groh rotates nose tackles more frequently than the ends. Yes, the starting ends were dominant last year, but they’re not this year, and Groh’s still looking for that near-even split of playing time at tackle. Fortunately, this looks like a group that can handle itself.

Rating: 3 out of 5.


Always the stars of an Al Groh defense. Like the tight ends, just fire up the conveyor belt and bring on the next great Wahoo linebacker. This year, it’s Clint Sintim (#51), who is the defensive half of our preseason all-ACC selections. His side of the field will be damn near impossible for teams to run on, because next to him is Jon Copper (#54). Oh, and then there’s Copper’s fellow inside ‘backer, Antonio Appleby (#58). These three have started every game together since the beginning of the 2006 season. By their powers combined they are awesome – the best linebacking corps in the ACC, and that’s only three of four. The other outside spot will be manned by either Denzel Burrell (#45) or Aaron Clark (#41). Probably both, actually. Burrell is a junior and Clark is a senior, and both have similar waited-for-their-turn stories because in front of them was Jermaine Dias, who was a three-year starter at that spot.

Expect there to be rotation at all linebacker spots, because otherwise the conveyor belt will come to a screeching halt. If you call Clark the starter, then all four starters are seniors, and suddenly Denzel Burrell will find himself the graybeard of the bunch. There’s only one other junior linebacker, which is Darren Childs (#49), who’s got all of five plays under his belt. Jared Detrick (#55) and John-Kevin Dolce (#59) are the other backups, and only Detrick has anything you could call experience – he got into 11 games last year as a true freshman. These guys will rotate into the game so Groh can get a look for next year.

Rating: 4 out of 5. The only Butkus Watchlist guy is Sintim, but Copper is the leading tackler.


Another position of strength, especially at corner. Vic Hall (#4) and Ras-I Dowling (#19) make up one of the better tandems in the conference. This is mainly due to potential more than past performance because unlike linebacker, there are no seniors in the two-deep at corner. Hall is one of the team’s best athletes. Dowling was a true freshman last year and had the kind of season where the coaches almost feel forced to put him in more and more. He earned last year’s Bill Dudley Award as UVA’s best first-year player, and scraped up a couple all-freshman honors in the conference and the nation, too. Dowling’s got a bit of a leg injury, which could put Dom Joseph (#23) on the field some against USC, but he’s still listed at the top of the depth chart. (By contrast, Gottschalk doesn’t appear.)

At safety, there’s Byron Glaspy (#22) and then questions. Glaspy has two years of starting experience under his belt, which is nice. Brandon Woods (#17) has two years of special teams coverage play under his belt, which is cause for a few questions. But he and Glaspy are the only two upperclassmen playing safety. This isn’t really as huge a deal as I’m melodramatically making it sound, because he’ll be helped immensely by playing next to a guy as experienced as Glaspy, and it’s not as easy for an offense to exploit a weakness at safety (if Woods turns out to be one.)

The depth here is pretty young. Besides Joseph, there’s Chase Minnifield (#31). Minnifield has the Pro Bowl bloodlines; his father, Frank, was a long-time cornerback for the Cleveland Browns. Both those two are redshirt freshmen; the rest of the secondary depth chart are sophomores. Experience is thin after the starting four, and even the starting four aren’t as experienced as you’d like.

Rating: 3 out of 5, but the potential exists for a boost, if Dowling and Hall maximize their athletic ability and stay healthy.


It’s Jimmy Howell (#8). He’s the only guy on scholarship. Um, John Thornton (#4) lives on the Lawn, so, awesome for him. But he won’t be doing any actual punting.


DE Matt Conrath
NT Nick Jenkins
CB Dom Joseph
CB Chase Minnifield


Defense had better be the strength of this team, because it’s sure not likely to be the offense. The offense has pieces to the puzzle, but just as many question marks. On defense there are only two new starters once you get past the line, and that line itself isn’t bad either. The offense is poorly equipped to make any dramatic comebacks that require scoring more than once, so the defense cannot let the team get into any holes. They should be very strong against the run, and even a little bit of a pass rush would give the corners all they need to keep opponents’ passing games in check. Last year, most games were pretty low scoring – this defense even frustrated the flashy Texas Tech offense – and that looks to continue this year.

No comments: