Preview 2009 - Defense
- 2009 CFN Virginia Preview | 2009 Virginia Offense
- 2009 Virginia Defense | 2009 Virginia Depth Chart
- 2008 Virginia Preview | 2007 Virginia Preview | 2006 Virginia Preview
What you need to know: Enough is enough. After three straight years of 100th or lower in total offense, Mike Groh is gone as the offensive coordinator, replaced by veteran Gregg Brandon. He brings with him a no-huddle, up-tempo spread attack that figures to be far less predictable than what fans have grown accustomed to in recent years. The coach has hurdles to success, namely a green receiving corps and an average offensive line, but he’ll also have some interesting options at his disposal. Dual-threat QB Jameel Sewell returns from a one-year hiatus, looking to recapture the form he had toward the end of 2007. He’s in an interesting battle with Vic Hall, the do-it-all athlete, who’s better known for his work in the secondary and on special teams. RB Mikell Simpson, like Sewell, was getting hot in 2007, and has the all-purpose potential to finish his career with a flurry.
of the defense: Senior LB Clint Sintim
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DE Alex Field
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore CB Ras-I Dowling
Best pro prospect: Sintim
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Sintim, 2) Senior LB Jon Copper, 3) Senior LB Antonio
Strength of the defense: The linebackers, run defense
Weakness of the defense: Rebuilt defensive line, the secondary
Projected Starters: The big news up front is that former nose tackle Nate Collins is shifting outside to end in an attempt to get the team’s three best linemen on the field at the same time. A three-time letterwinner, the senior possesses the necessary speed, motor, and lateral quickness to make the transition and be an effective player in space. Sharing time in the middle last season, he had a career-high 36 tackles, four tackles for loss, and three passes broken up.
The bookend to Collins will be 6-7, 269-pound sophomore Matt Conrath, who’s on his way to becoming an all-star in this conference. In his first year as the replacement to Chris Long, he pitched in 35 tackles, eight tackles for loss, four sacks, and three pass breakups. Yeah, there are issues with his technique, but that’ll come with more snaps, and his long arms and get-off alone could be enough to double his production this fall.
With Collins relocating, 6-3, 285-pound sophomore Nick Jenkins has nose tackle all to himself. A nimble athlete for his size, he slides well down the line, yet also has the upper body strength and toughness to take on multiple blockers. In his debut, he showed some positive flashes once he got into the starting rotation, making 25 stops and three tackles for loss.
Projected Top Reserves: In terms a pure two-gap run-stopper at the nose, Virginia is likely to turn to 6-4, 290-pound redshirt freshman Buddy Ruff for depth. While he won’t be expected to make many plays up field, like Jenkins, he does have the bulk and the power to occupy blockers and cut off running lanes.
Not unlike Conrath, 6-6, 267-pound sophomore Zane Parr is a another long and physical defensive end, with enough quickness to make plays for minus yards. More than just a pass rusher, he also has the raw power and upper body strength to be a factor in run defense.
Watch Out For ... the Collins experiment to work. No, he doesn’t necessarily look the part the way Conrath does, but he’s an outstanding athlete, with enough savvy to make the shift look shrewd. He has a natural lean around the edge, and might actually from not having to grapple any longer on the inside.
Strength: Front-line experience. The 2008 season has made a huge difference in the resumes of Conrath, Jenkins, and Collins. All three linemen played at least 400 snaps a year ago, which pushed the fast forward button on their development. A young trio last summer, they return in 2009 with a decent amount of collective experience.
Weakness: Pressure. The fact that Virginia had a respectable amount of sacks in 2008 had more to do with the linebackers, who have all graduated. The Cavs need to generate more pocket pressure the traditional way, making inroads off the edge and taking some heat off the back eight.
Outlook: Similar to the offensive line, which has a lot of returning players, the defensive line will be good, but will rarely approach greatness. The three starters are quality players, though Conrath has the ingredients to be a whole lot more in his second season of action.
Projected Starters: Considering the importance of the linebackers in a 3-4, Virginia will be hurting after losing Clint Sintim, Jon Copper, and Antonio Appleby, last year’s top three tacklers. The returning player with the most experience is 6-4, 230-pound senior Denzell Burrell, who spent the offseason trying to lock down one of the outside jobs. A big hitter and a stout run defender, he got in on a career-high 597 plays last year, making 48 stops and breaking up four passes. He has an edge, but must still watch his back.
At the other outside spot will be 6-5, 250-pound senior Aaron Clark. He had beaten out Burrell for a job last fall, but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener with USC. Although he hadn’t done much outside of special teams in his first three seasons, there’s hope he can provide a steadying influence and the occasional stop behind the line.
The closest thing to a safe bet on the inside will be 6-2, 218-pound redshirt freshman Steve Greer, who is closing in on one of the jobs. Still too light for the position, he has the right work ethic and instincts to overcome his size in the early going. A very smart player, he’s already showing a knack for analyzing plays and taking the right angles to reach his target.
The veteran influence on the inside will be provided by 6-1, 233-pound senior Darren Childs, a seasoned player coming off his first letter with the program. He made the most of his six appearances a year ago, earning a pair of starts and making 20 stops. He won’t be on any postseason all-star lists, but he’s also not going to be out worked.
Projected Top Reserves: Barely a step behind Clark in the battle for an outside job is 6-4, 220-pound sophomore Cam Johnson, one of just five true freshmen to play in 2008. He had seven tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss, but more important, flattened the learning curve with his six appearances. A dynamic all-around athlete, it’s only a matter of time before he’s one of the fixtures of this unit.
Also climbing the ladder in a short period of time is 6-4, 220-pound redshirt freshman Bill Schautz, who’s making a strong case to be the first inside linebacker off the bench. Known more as a quarterback at the prep level, he’s making a smooth adjustment, showing great range and the instincts to make plenty of plays over the next four seasons.
Watch Out For ... a very fluid situation in the summer. Very little is set in stone at this stage of the offseason, meaning the competition will be intense in August and just about every job is going to be up for grabs right up until the opener.
Strength: Senior leadership. Considering all of the graduations, the ‘Hoos have a surprising number of veterans in place to vie for starting jobs and help mentor some of the younger players. In a year of transition, the experience of Childs, Clark, and Burrell will wind up being an underrated luxury.
Weakness: Legitimate playmakers. Unlike a year ago, when Sintim was everywhere for the D, there are no obvious all-stars capable of wreaking havoc in the backfield and creating turnovers. This defense needs those types of disruptive forces on the second level, but so far, no one has stepped up and assumed the role.
Outlook: This is going to be a marginal group of linebackers that has to step up big-time. There’s a lack of star power and a decided slant toward seniors, who’ve struggled to crack the lineup for a reason. In a best case scenario, Johnson, Schautz, and some of the other kids will get enough snaps to feel excited about 2010.
Projected Starters: With experienced players littered throughout the defensive backfield, it figures to be the strength of the defense, if not the entire program. Only Byron Glaspy is gone, meaning the staff is going to have plenty of options and depth. The star of the unit will once again be 6-2, 200-pound junior Ras-I Dowling, a reigning All-ACC second team cornerback. He has the size, speed, and experience to really begin elevating the level of his play to a point where early entry into the NFL Draft becomes a consideration. He started the final nine games in 2008, making 43 tackles, five tackles for loss, three interceptions, and 11 pass breakups.
Returning to the program and joining Dowling at cornerback will be 6-2, 204-pound senior Chris Cook, who was not enrolled at the program in 2008. He was, however, on campus the previous three years, starting 19 games and gradually becoming one of the program’s best all-around defensive backs. He has a unique and desirable combination, blending the speed and hips of a corner with the physicality and pop of a safety.
With the team’s depth at cornerback, Virginia has decided to relocate 5-10, 180-pound sophomore Rodney McLeod to safety. The rookie of the year in 2008, he was one of just five true freshmen to letter, playing in nickel packages over the final nine games and making 17 stops. While not the ideal size for the position, he plays much bigger than his frame and has an advanced football IQ.
Once 5-10, 197-pound sophomore Corey Mosley cracked the lineup at safety last September, there was no getting rid of him. And there probably won’t be for the next three years. Despite being raw, he acquitted himself rather well, finishing with 46 tackles and getting better as the season progressed. A terrific all-around athlete, he plays the game fast and ferociously.
Projected Top Reserves: The frontrunner to be the first cornerback off the bench is 6-0, 192-pound sophomore Chase Minnifield, another of the young letterwinners from 2008. He played in all 12 games, even starting a pair, and finished with 25 tackles, two interceptions, and four pass breakups. The son of former Pro Bowl corner Frank Minnifield, he shows keen instincts in pass defense for an underclassman.
The veteran among the backup safeties will be 6-2, 211-pound senior Brandon Woods, who’s played a ton football at Virginia and started the first three games of 2008. Better served as an insurance policy and a special teams contributor, he brings plenty of know-how, physicality, and ball skills to the second unit.
Watch Out For ... Vic Hall’s final destination. A cornerback by trade, what happens if Hall doesn’t win the starting cornerback job? He has to be on the field somewhere, which could mean a return to defense, where he has two dozen career starts and made 59 tackles a year ago.
Strength: Depth. How many programs can jettison one of their best corners to offense and still be loaded? The Cavs can. Not only are they set with the first unit, but the backups are a collection of solid players, who have either started in the past or will at some point in the near future.
Weakness: Turnovers. The personnel is in place, but the picks have yet to follow. In fact, the Cavaliers were a dreary ninth in the ACC in interceptions last season, a result they’re hoping doesn’t become a trend in 2009.
Outlook: Virginia has question marks just about everywhere on the roster. The secondary isn’t going to be one of them. After being good a year ago, the Cavs have a chance to be among the ACC’s tightest units, boasting quality and quantity at cornerback and safety. The group is young, fast, and on the verge of becoming one of the league’s pleasant surprises this fall.
Projected Starters: Now that Yannick Reyering has left the program for medical reasons, there’s a two-way battle for the placekicker job currently being led by sophomore Robert Randolph. He took over midway through his freshman year and hit 3-of-4 field goals and all six of his extra point attempts. A more accurate and consistent kicker, he’s got an edge on sophomore Chris Hinkebein, who’s been erratic despite having the stronger leg.
The punter will once again be Jimmy Howell, one of just five true freshmen to play last season. A 6-6, 238-pound boomer, he only scratched the surface with last year’s 39-yard average. He gets enough hang time to support the coverage team and limit big returns.
Sophomore Chase Minnifield and senior Vic Hall return as the team’s most experienced return men. While Minnifield averaged a respectable 23.3 yards on kickoffs, Hall could only muster 6.4 yards on punts.
Watch Out For ... the impact of Ron Prince’s return to Charlottesville. After an unsuccessful stint as the Kansas State head coach, he’s back at his former employer, looking to revamp a special teams unit that struggled throughout last season.
Strength: Powell. While the distance can be better and will improve over time, his ability to loft the ball high into the air was a boon to the coverage team. The Cavaliers were 16th nationally in punt return yardage defense, allowing a little more than five yards an attempt.
Weakness: The return game. The offense can use all the help it can get, which the return specialists failed to do last fall. Virginia was 92nd nationally in punt returns and 70th on kickoffs, rarely breaking free for a long gainer.
Outlook: Just how much of an impact Prince has in his return to the Commonwealth will depend heavily on how well Randolph kicks. Everything else is fixable, but if the Cavs are inconsistent in the kicking game, they’re going to lose the close ones that will be necessary for a serious run at bowl eligibility.