Defense Preview: Young, talented unit aims to dial up pressure
Tenuta's audacious blitzing schemes excite Cavalier defenders
Last year featured a tale of two defenses for Virginia. There was the defense that was fourth in the ACC and No. 28 in the nation in total defense at 353.3 yards per game. Then there was the defense that allowed 28.9 points per game, ranking No. 71 in the nation. Reconciling those two sides of the defense will go a long way toward deciding what kind of year this will be for the Cavaliers.
To spearhead that development, Virginia brings in new defensive coordinator John Tenuta, who served last season as the defensive coordinator at NC State. He is known for a defense predicated on creating pressure and turnovers through blitzes, and it already has his players excited.
“He likes to dial up the pressure and that’s something that a defensive end loves; linebackers love it, too,” senior defensive end Jake Snyder said. “He’s going to get after the quarterback and create turnovers and that makes it fun for us to turn it up and get after it.”
It may take some time for Tenuta to fully implement his system, as he is inheriting a defense with just two starting seniors in Snyder and tackle Brent Urban. Both Snyder and Urban have extensive experience at Virginia, and they will be tasked with accelerating the development of their fellow defensive linemen, sophomores defensive end Eli Harold and tackle David Dean. Both played in the majority of the Cavaliers’ games last year but must adapt to new terminology and defensive looks.
“You come in as a freshman, and you think you’ve got all this learned, and all of a sudden it’s switched up on you,” Snyder said. “[For] a guy like Eli … it’s going to be kind of overload, to have two different schemes in the same year, so I try to help them out … I’m kind of helping bring them along, but at the same time, they did a great job at grasping it.”
Tenuta hopes to blitz effectively this year, and he will rely heavily on his linebackers to get past opposing offensive lines. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, their two top linebackers from last year, LaRoy Reynolds and Steve Greer, both graduated in the spring. Replacing their output — Greer ranks No. 6 in Virginia history in tackles — will be crucial.
“It’s tough to replace guys like that,” Snyder said. “They’re tremendous competitors, they’re tremendous players, and any time you lose senior leaders like that, it’s tough to replace them. That being said, we’ve got some great linebackers coming in, and they’ve already done a good job stepping in and filling those shoes and making plays.”
Junior Henry Coley started eight games last year and will start at middle linebacker. Junior Daquan Romero will join him on the weak side, while sophomore Demeitre Brim will line up on the strong side. Romero appeared in all 12 games last season but started just four times, and Brim saw limited action in his first year in Charlottesville. He has made strides in the offseason, and Tenuta has been impressed with his development so far in training camp.
The secondary performed admirably last year, ranking No. 33 in pass defense, but they will be even more taxed in the new defense. Cornerbacks and safeties will be expected to not only cover but also to blitz. Virginia’s returning players are young — mostly juniors and sophomores — but they have game experience. Junior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson is the unequivocal star of the group, as he earned an All-ACC honorable mention in 2012 and should be the secondary’s centerpiece.
The competition for second cornerback has been more contentious. Junior DreQuan Hoskey started 10 games last year, but he has battled sophomore Maurice Canady for the starting role throughout camp. Hoskey is listed at the top of the depth chart going into opening weekend, but Canady will see heavy action throughout the year, most likely as the third cornerback in the team’s nickel package.
Juniors Brandon Phelps and Anthony Harris each started all 12 games last year at safety, and both return this year at the top of the depth chart. Though they saw the majority of action for the Cavaliers last year, they combined for just a single interception. Virginia as a whole mustered a dismal 0.3 interceptions per game in 2012, tied for second-worst in the nation. Holding onto the balls they defend could heavily impact the team’s scoring prevention, and the players are satisfied in their progression.
“Right away, you can see the difference out there in practice,” Harris said. “Guys know what they’re actually looking at, they know what offenses are doing, they know formations, they’ve grown that much; we’ve all grown that much. Just branching away from knowing what we’re supposed to be doing as an individual [to] what we’re doing as a team, and what the offense is trying to do to us.”
That secondary and the entire defense will be tested immediately against Brigham Young. The Cougars boast a potent receiving threat in senior wide receiver Cody Hoffman, and will look to use a read-option offense under sophomore quarterback Taysom Hill. With the depth chart now set, the challenge for Virginia will be finding specific ways to apply it to BYU.
“I think if you ask the coordinators, we put in everything that they wanted to see put in,” coach Mike London said. “What’s important is then curtailing what we do and then trying to fit that to the game plan of what we anticipate BYU to do … Hopefully there will be some things that we do that they’ve never seen.”