Youth defines defensive unit
Dearth of returning starters from ACC’s third-ranked lineup will force team’s young talent to mature quickly
For most, college is a time to gain wisdom by making the mistakes that accompany youth and independence. But for coach Mike London, defensive coordinator Jim Reid and the Virginia defense, miscues stemming from inexperience could ruin a drive, a game or even a season if not properly checked.
With just four starters returning from a unit that ranked third in the ACC in total defense in 2011, London and Reid must trust talented youngsters to mature rapidly, mesh with established veterans and mitigate the growing pains that so often spell doom for young squads.
“When you play so many young guys, you know you’re going to improve,” Reid said. “But we have to get to a level to be able to win early … and we’re working hard in that direction.”
Promise on the line
Several battle-hardened veterans remain to steer the Cavaliers to another successful season on defense, including a few key upperclassmen on the defensive line.
Though junior defensive end Jake Snyder is the only returning starter on the defensive line after star Cam Johnson was taken in the seventh round by the San Francisco 49ers, the line has shown so much promise in camp that senior linebacker and team leader Steve Greer called the pass rush “one of the most exciting things about our defense.”
It all starts with Snyder and senior Bill Schautz on the ends. Snyder led all Cavalier defensive ends in 2011 with 36 tackles and Schautz chipped in with 2.0 sacks. Both have impressed in camp against standout offensive tackles senior Oday Aboushi and junior Morgan Moses.
Further bolstering the stable of Virginia pass rushers is the conversion of speedy senior Ausar Walcott from linebacker to end. Meanwhile, freshmen Eli Harold and Mike Moore have raised eyebrows with their explosiveness off the line, prodding Reid to dub defensive end “the one position that has played very well for us this preseason.”
Senior defensive tackle and captain Will Hill and junior counterpart Brent Urban lead the middle of the line, though a smattering of other veterans and young guns will vie for game action. Hill established himself as a force against the run last season, finishing with 7.0 tackles for loss.
“I’m very confident in the rest of the D-line and myself to just continue what we did last year,” Hill said. “Our D-line is really focused and ready for a great year.”
A rock in the middle
Any discussion of the heart of the Cavalier defense begins and ends with Greer. The de facto quarterback of the defense, Greer was the team’s leading tackler from a year ago with 103. Greer will start Saturday’s game against Richmond after a conspicuous absence in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Auburn last December. Auburn gashed the shorthanded Virginia defense for 273 rush yards in a 43-24 victory, further fueling a now-healthy Greer’s 2012 mission to dominate in his final year.
“It was real tough sitting out [the Chick-fil-A Bowl],” Greer said. “It really motivated me to get back. When I was back out there for training camp, it felt so good just to be out there for the guys.”
London praised the veteran’s valuable game knowledge.
“Steve is such a student of the game,” London said. “He’s itching to get back on the field; he’s done well at practice. His leadership is something that we need. He’s a captain. It’s this point of his career that he really wants to do well, and I’m quite sure he will.”
If Greer is the primary catalyst for the Virginia defense, fellow returning starter senior weakside linebacker LaRoy Reynolds is a strong second fiddle. Reynolds trailed only Greer in tackles last season, racking up 88, and has developed an on-field rapport with Greer during the last two seasons.
“It helps that we’ve been playing beside each other for so long,” Greer said. “You kind of know what each … is going to do or what the call is going to be before the ball is even snapped.”
A duo of relatively untested players will complement Greer and Reynolds at weakside linebacker.
Though sophomore Henry Coley will start Saturday following a superb camp, fellow sophomore Daquan Romero has also caught Reid’s attention.
“I imagine that to be an ongoing battle during the year, and it’s a good thing for both [Coley and Romero]; no one gets complacent,” London said.
Nowhere is Virginia’s dearth of experience more evident than in the defensive backfield. The secondary is so young, in fact, that London and Reid have resisted their natural impulse to coach the youngsters through every possible situation.
“When they’re playing and you’re on the sideline, they can’t get used to you being able to tell them what to do, the alignment and what checks to make, while you’re on the field,” London said. “We’ve taken ourselves off the field more and relied on them having to make those decisions.”
The most striking example of the defensive backs’ youth is that Demetrious Nicholson, a true sophomore, has already taken up the mantle of savvy veteran defensive back from the now-departed, distinguished corner Chase Minnifield.
“[Nicholson] is a guy who studies. It’s a trickle-down effect from Chase Minnifield,” London said.
“He understands the role that he has to take now looking around is that he is the guy that’s played in some games now. The other guys look to him as far as that leadership.”
Starting nearly every game opposite Minnifield in 2011, Nicholson endured his share of lumps as a first-year player but was still able to lead the secondary with 60 tackles. In the process he obtained the big-game experience which many of his backfield peers lack.
“He’s probably tired of me by now,” freshman cornerback Maurice Canady said. “We’re roommates, and I ask him everything and he always gives good answers.”
The corner spot opposite Nicholson, the subject of rampant fan speculation and angst in recent months, will feature sophomore Drequan Hoskey. Reid fawned over Hoskey’s performance in both the spring and fall camps, touting the young corner as the team’s “most improved defensive back.”
Behind Hoskey the defense will have to trust talented true freshmen in Canady and C.J. Moore.
Sophomore Anthony Harris will enter the season as Virginia’s pass coverage signal caller at free safety. Reid cited Harris’s intellectual savvy as a cause for comfort for trotting out the first-year starter.
“Anthony Harris has done a marvelous job,” Reid said. “He’s a year ahead mentally of where usually guys are in their second year.”
Converted corner sophomore Brandon Phelps will pair with Harris as the squad’s strong safety.
“We’ve got a good, athletic group that we just have to challenge every day,” Reid said. “We’ve done that, and they’ve accepted the challenge.”
This is the second in a four-part series previewing the 2012 Virginia football team. An analysis of the special teams will run Wednesday, Aug. 29.