BLANK: Building from the bottom up
Coming into Saturday’s game against Duke, you would be hard-pressed to feel optimistic about the state of Virginia’s secondary. Having already lost senior cornerback Tim Harris for the season, Thursday’s injury report piled on — adding sophomore starting cornerback Myles Robinson and his classmate Darious Latimore to the ranks of the unavailable. The group wasn’t one that could afford injuries to begin with, having given up 306 passing yards per game, along with a robust 9.1 yards per pass, while only picking up only two interceptions.
The Cavaliers’ options at cornerback against Duke were severely limited. Sophomore Juan Thornhill, a converted safety; freshman Bryce Hall, owner of one career defensive tackle before Saturday; redshirt freshman Kareem Gibson, who made his college debut two weeks earlier against Connecticut; and junior Kirk Garner, who had primarily been a special teams player before the season, were among the few options coach Bronco Mendenhall had at his disposal to play in the secondary. Furthermore, going up against a Duke offense that had just beaten Notre Dame behind 290 yards and three touchdowns in the air did not ease the challenge facing the Cavalier’s pieced together secondary.
Against all odds, the untested group performed phenomenally. Thornhill and Hall each had four defensive tackles and two interceptions apiece, and the group managed to hold Duke’s redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones to an abysmal 26.2 total quarterback rating on the day, as calculated by ESPN.
Thornhill and Hall weren’t the only back-up players to come through in the clutch. On the offensive end, redshirt freshman tight end Richard Burney found his first career reception on a touchdown pass, and junior kicker Sam Hayward was perfect on four extra points in his football debut. On defense, freshman linebacker Jordan Mack strip-sacked Duke’s Jones in his own end zone during the fourth quarter, and redshirt freshman defensive end Eli Hanback recovered it for the game-sealing touchdown. Even senior defensive lineman Mark Hall — who was the third-string injury replacement for Andrew Brown — had a key batted pass. Up and down the roster, it was the performance of the guys towards the bottom of the depth chart that made the difference in Saturday’s game.
That’s not to knock the more experienced players — who performed well — but Virginia has always been talented at the top of the roster. Mike London’s recruiting classes frequently featured five-star recruits, and numerous Cavaliers have gone pro after leaving Virginia, signaling successful individual stints in Charlottesville. In fact, with 19 guys currently in the NFL, Virginia has more players performing Sunday than the majority of ACC schools, only falling behind powerhouses Florida State, Miami, Clemson and Louisville, in addition to North Carolina’s rising program. Juxtaposing this level of success from top players with so many recent losses, it seems likely that a program-wide turnaround may have to come from the bottom up.
This season, up until the Duke game, much was the same. Coming into Saturday, junior linebacker Micah Kiser led the ACC in tackles per game, with junior safety Quin Blanding coming in second — identical to where they finished the year prior. So while both players played brilliantly against Duke, the Cavaliers were able to pull out a win — after 17-straight road losses — because of the guys lower down the depth chart stepping up.
Admittedly, the Cavaliers faced a Duke offense without multiple starters, and it only will get more challenging against North Carolina, Louisville and Miami in the upcoming weeks. However, after watching Hall jump sky-high for an unthinkable interception mid-blitz, and seeing Mack’s SportsCenter top-10 worthy hit, it is difficult not to feel optimistic that Virginia is starting to get deeper. If that proves to be the case, the Bronco Mendenhall era is off to a promising start.