DOUGHERTY: The Virginia secondary is a No Fly Zone

Suffocating play from the back end of the defense fuels the Cavaliers’ success

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Junior cornerback Bryce Hall has been one of the breakout stars of college football this season.

Christina Anton | Cavalier Daily

In their 2013-14 Super Bowl-winning season, the Seattle Seahawks rumbled through the NFL behind arguably one of the best secondary units in league history. Nicknamed the “Legion of Boom,” the foursome of Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas III, Kam Chancellor and Byron Maxwell terrorized opposing quarterbacks with smothering play against their receivers. They proved to be all too much for then-Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning to handle in Super Bowl XLVIII, holding his record-setting offense to just eight points in a 43-8 blowout win.

Reminiscent of the Legion of Boom, another dominant ball-hawking squad is brewing in Virginia football’s defensive backfield.

The Cavalier secondary has been the catalyst for the team’s unexpected success this season. Picked to finish last in the ACC Coastal before the season by the conference’s poll, Virginia has silenced doubters with two overpowering defensive victories against Miami and Duke in the past two weeks.

There were very few moments in both games where opposing quarterbacks didn’t look lost against Virginia’s coverage.

A recent victim of Virginia’s “No Fly Zone” was Duke junior quarterback Daniel Jones, who has recently shown up in the first round of several 2019 NFL Draft Big Boards after a great start to the season. Once Duke’s running game stalled, Jones could not muster anything through the air for most of the first half. Once he finally got into a rhythm, he lofted a deep pass to the end zone that senior Virginia strong safety Juan Thornhill read and picked off.

It was the second-consecutive week that Thornhill took away a deep ball, with his interceptions against Miami sparking Virginia’s shocking upset of the Hurricanes. He seems to have a hand on just about every deep ball opposing quarterbacks have dialed up.

Later in Saturday’s game, Jones suffered the same fate against junior Cavalier cornerback Bryce Hall, who picked off a pass on the sideline to stall a Blue Devil drive. 

Big plays on the ball have become a thing of habit for Hall, who ranks first in the ACC and second in the entire FBS in passes defended. Thornhill joins him atop the national leaderboards, hauling in the second most interceptions in the country with four.

Coming into this season, Coach Bronco Mendenhall knew he had two studs in the making in Hall and Thornhill based on their solid play last season. What makes this unit special, however, is sheer depth beyond the two stalwarts.

In particular, sophomore free safety Joey Blount has surged to one of Virginia’s most reliable defenders. Working in tandem with Thornhill, Blount hasn’t stuffed the stat sheet like his counterpart — but that’s partly because no one wants to risk throwing at him.

Against Miami, Blount was graded as the top free safety in the FBS that week per Pro Football Focus’ scoring system. Soon after, the publication named him to its Mid-Season All-ACC Team, praising his efforts against the Hurricanes as a major factor. His 31-yard interception return against Miami was a giant momentum shifter in a game marred by turnovers.

A trio of effective tacklers in sophomores Brenton Nelson and Darrius Bratton and senior Tim Harris support Hall in the cornerback position. Nelson took over Harris’s starting role last season after Harris’s season ended with an injury in the opener, and earned ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year for his breakout performance. He has made big plays all over the field this year, including five tackles in Virginia’s 27-3 rout of Louisville in the ACC opener.

It has not been an easy road back from injury for sixth-year senior Harris with early-season struggles, but he has played a hand in Virginia’s last two wins, registering six tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss and a pass breakup between the games. And much like Blount, Bratton has enjoyed a nice breakout season as his role in the secondary has increased.

As a unit, these six defensive backs have been a driving force towards Virginia’s hot start to the season. As if the Cavaliers’ individual play hasn’t been scary enough for opposing offenses, Mendenhall is now finding a way to bring almost all of them at the field at once.

Against Duke Oct. 20, the Cavaliers ran a defensive package that senior linebacker Chris Peace labelled “Speed,” which included five defensive backs and only two defensive tackles up front, along with four of Virginia’s talented linebackers.. This allowed Hall, Thornhill, Blount, Nelson and Harris to patrol the backfield in tandem, and render Jones ineffective at finding an open route. Jones was forced to use his legs to fight for first downs, and Virginia’s front six quickly adjusted to completely shut down his attack.

In all, Jones was completed only 22 of his 40 passes for one touchdown and two interceptions.

The play of Virginia’s own Legion of Boom has shown the great talent Mendenhall and his staff have developed and their ability to fit defensive schemes to their skillsets. However, key intangibles have also played a major role in the unit’s dominance.

For one, the group limits mental mistakes that lead to back-breaking penalties. Virginia is tied for committing the 19th fewest penalties per game in the FBS with an average of 4.8. In prior years, penalties on plays that would have been big third-down stops allowed opponents to sustain drives against the Cavaliers, tiring out the secondary over the game. Against Duke, Virginia only had two defensive penalties — one of which being a personal foul on Hall that he redeemed later in the drive with a pivotal pass breakup.

That redemption play highlights the other intangible Virginia’s secondary has shown — pure heart.

Where Virginia teams in prior years may have given up on plays and shown a lack of hustle, Cavalier defensive backs have shown relentless fight this year to keep opponents off the scoreboard.

When Virginia played Miami, the Hurricanes finally seemed to break through their offensive struggles when freshman running back Travis Homer burst down the sideline for a big rushing a gain. What looked like a momentum shifting touchdown was stopped by Hall, who came from out of the television frame — at over 22 miles per hour — to wrap Homer down before the 10-yard line. Miami later settled for a field goal on the drive.

After the Duke game, Hall was given the honor of “breaking the rock,” a player of the game tradition the team started this season after every win. He continues to exemplify the resilience and toughness reflected by the entire secondary unit, which — layered on that talent — has helped vault Virginia into the Coastal contender conversation.

Like the 2013-2014 Seahawks, the Virginia football team’s gritty identity is reflected in its own Legion of Boom — a talented, deep group of players that show exceptional heart and hustle. The Cavaliers’ No Fly Zone will only expand as the group continues to grind together — giving opposing quarterbacks nightmares week in and week out.

Alec Dougherty is a Sports Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached by email at a.dougherty@cavalierdaily.com or on Twitter at @aduggs96.

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