The defensive revolution

The names that are often mentioned when people think of the Revolutionary War are those of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington or Paul Revere. The oft forgotten name belongs to General Horatio Gates. General Gates’ endeavors and victory in Saratoga marked a turning point in the Revolutionary War for the American side.

Much like General Gates, Virginia’s defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta is often left out of the conversation when fans discuss the Cavaliers’ success.

During last year’s 2–10 performance, Virginia had little to celebrate. In such a tumultuous season, one factor held constant was the team’s young defense, week in and week out. At the time, Tenuta was tasked with preserving and developing the talent on Virginia’s roster.

This year, the key factor in all of Virginia’s four wins has been its tenacious defense, especially the front seven led by junior Eli Harold and senior Henry Coley. Opposing backfields have been tormented by relentless pressure from this unit.

Pressure has been a marquee for a Tenuta-coached defense going back to his days as defensive coordinator at Ohio State. Under Tenuta’s tutelage, key Virginia players like sophomore Max Valles have emerged as impact players. The trio of Harold, Coley and Valles has the logged the lion share of sacks for Virginia this year.

Since Tenuta’s hiring, Virginia juniors Harold and David Dean, as well as younger talents like Valles, have matured. Last year, Valles won a starting job early on the season because of his aggressive pass rushing abilities.

When he entered the team as a freshman, Valles believed his best fit was as tight end. Tenuta thought differently, placing Valles on the opposite side of the ball. He quickly grew into his position on defense and won a starting role on one of the most vaunted defenses in the country. The Cavaliers are now reaping the rewards, as the talented sophomore has notched five sacks on the year and returned an interception for a touchdown. Through the various trials that Virginia faced last year, the presence of players like Valles and Dean provided much needed hope for the Cavaliers.

But like General Gates, Tenuta is not without fault. During his campaign in Saratoga, Gates once faked illness and disregarded General Washington’s order. Rather, Gates marched to Baltimore to lobby the Continental Congress to give him command of the Continental Army as he always felt he was more fit to lead than Washington.

At times during Virginia’s games, the Cavaliers’ defense has laid off the pedal. Tenuta’s aggressive blitzes take a toll on the Cavaliers late in the game as they stop coming or simply become significantly less effective. When this happens, Virginia struggles to get the opposing offense off the field.

Virginia’s secondary continues to show vulnerabilities, with some factors out of Tenuta’s control with the loss of senior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson. Once opposing quarterbacks become comfortable in their own backfields due to the lack of blitzes, the holes in the secondary are glaringly apparent.

When all is said and done, Tenuta’s tenure at Virginia cannot be properly measured by number of sacks his defenses log nor the number of wins Virginia notches. Much like General Gates, Tenuta ought to be remembered in a very idiosyncratic way. He has provided a rock for the rest of the program to build around.

This year may turn out to be a turnaround for the Cavaliers like Saratoga was for the Patriots during the Revolutionary War. But unlike the name of Horatio Gates, I hope fans do not forget the name of Jon Tenuta.

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