2013 Virginia Football Previews: The Defense

New Defensive Coordinator Jon Tenuta coaches up the young guys. - Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

New defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta is known for a hyper-aggressive defense that is hell-bent on getting pressure on the QB. But on a team with just 2 seniors, both of whom play on the DL, it may take some time to get the players up to speed on a new scheme. If Tenuta is successful, he's going to have to get every ounce out of

Defense Preview

At a glance, last year's defense wasn't bad. As a team, the Hoos finished 28th in the nation in total defense. That breaks down to 44th in rushing defense and 33rd in pass defense. They were 51st in pass efficiency defense. Of course, on the field all that matters is points, and the Hoos finished 70th in the nation in scoring defense. (All ranks courtesy ncaa.org.)

But when you look a bit closer, the numbers begin to look a bit...scary. The Hoos were 98th in the country in sacks. They were 77th in TFLs. And, worst of all, they were 111th in turnover margin. They were also inconsistent, giving up just 16 points to Penn State a week before giving up 56 points to Georgia Tech. They gave up 27 to TCU and then 44 to Louisiana Tech and 42 to Duke (DUKE!). Just 6 points allowed to NCSU was followed by 40 to Miami and 37 to UNC. As you'd expect, in games when the Hoos gave up over 35 points, the Hoos finished 1-4.

After the season, defensive coordinator Jim Reid was let go. In his place, the Hoos hired former Wahoo Jon Tenuta. Tenuta has been defensive coordinator at Marshall, Kansas State, Ohio State, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame and NCSU, so clearly he's got plenty of experience. He held the position at NCSU until last season, when he was let go along with head coach Tom O'Brien (who is also now at UVA). Tenuta has also been a DB coach, LB coach and DL coach, so he's well versed in all the defensive positions. For the Hoos, Tenuta will coach the LBs. Last year, Vincent Brown coached the LBs, but he's moved on the DL. The Hoos didn't have a true DL coach last year, Mike London handled them. That is no longer the case, although London is still heavily involved with the DL.

Tenuta has long been known for an aggressive defense. He likes to bring pressure, and he likes to blitz. He'll bring pressure from anywhere. He'd probably rush the passer himself if given the chance (although he was a DB when he played for the Hoos in the late 70s). Historically, his defenses have been good at generating pressure. Last season, his NCSU defense was 7th in the nation in TFLs and 27th in sacks. They also forced 24 turnovers (the Hoos forced just 12). Let's take a look at those same numbers for some of Tenuta's defenses. Only years he was defensive coordinator are included.

Year

School

Sacks/Game (rank)

TFLs/Game (rank)

Turnovers Forced

2012

NCSU

2.54 (27)

7.62 (9)

24

2009

Notre Dame

1.58 (89)

6 (48)

19

2007

Georgia Tech

3.69 (1)

8.62 (4)

20

2006

Georgia Tech

2.57 (N/A)

6.28 (N/A)

25

2005

Georgia Tech

3 (N/A)

7.67 (N/A)

29

2004

Georgia Tech

3.16 (N/A)

9.08

17

(Note: Ranks are only available from 2007 through the present.)

Compare the above with the Hoos during the Mike London/Jim Reid era.

Year

School

Sacks/Game (rank)

TFLs/Game (rank)

Turnovers Forced

2012

Virginia

1.42 (89)

5.42 (77)

12

2011

Virginia

1.54 (90)

6.85 (28)

21

2010

Virginia

1.58 (88)

5.92 (57)

16

Those numbers for the Virginia defense are a bit depressing. Especially the sack numbers. One of the things fans were excited about when Coach London was hired was the end of the 3-4 defense from Coach Groh. But the numbers above show that the 4-3 hasn't been successful.

Obviously, it is hard to compare defenses without knowing the talent on both teams. But it isn't like Jenuta's defense had all-world talents. His leading sack guys at Georgia Tech were names like Vance Walker, Phillip Wheeler, and Gerris Wilkinson. Not exactly household names. The top sack guy for the Hoos under London has been Cam Johnson. Arguably as talented as any of the guys Tenuta has coached. There were 4 players on NCSU's defense last year with more sacks than anybody on Virginia's defense.

So, can Tenuta improve those numbers? It certainly appears so, from his track record. Tenuta's defenses aren't always great at stopping the offense from gaining yards. But they tend to be better at stopping the offense from generating points, which is the ultimate goal. And, by being aggressive and forcing turnovers, they can often generate points on their own.

Now, we'll take a look at the units and the individual talent that Tenuta and his staff have to work with.

Defensive Line

The Hoos lost arguably their best DL when DT Chris Brathwaite was declared academically ineligible. He's working hard to get back onto the team and the field, but will miss this season. With Braithwaite out, the Hoos best interior lineman is senior Brent Urban. Urban has just 2 sacks and 5 TFLs in his career. Brathwaite bettered those numbers last season. Replacing Brathwaite in the starting lineup will be sophomore David Dean. Dean, in limited action, had 1 sack last year.

Neither Urban nor Dean is as dynamic as Brathwaite, but both looked good in spring practice. Urban, in particular, has really worked hard to become a more dynamic player. He's also worked hard to become a team leader for the defense. The ability of the two players to get penetration into the backfield will go a long way towards determining the success of our defense.

Behind the starters, there is little depth. Other than those two, there isn't a single player on the Virginia roster who has taken a snap at DT. The two primary backups are redshirt freshman Andre Miles-Redmond and walk-on junior Greg Gallop. Other players expected to play DT are sophomores Mike Moore and Marco Jones (both listed at DE) and true freshmen Donta Wilkins and Tyrell Chavis. Moore is the only one of the group who's seen the field at all, but his action was all at DE or special teams.

Expectations for Wilkins and Chavis are high. Wilkins has a high motor and great size for a DT. Chavis spent a season at FUMA, which often means a more developed young player. Chavis also has great size. Still, neither of them them are likely ready to be impact players right now.

At the end position, there is more experience, but still not a lot. The starters are senior Jake Snyder and sophomore Eli Harold. Snyder has 3.5 sacks and 10 TFLs in his career, while Harold racked up 2 sacks and 7 TFLs last year. Harold, in particular, is going to be expected to generate a lot of pressure this year. He's the most talented of all the DLs and he looked good last season.

Behind the starters, the primary backups are Moore and sophomore Trent Corney. Corney is probably the most athletic player on the team, one of the fastest guys on the team at 250 pounds. He's also a member of the UVA track and field team. He's fast and strong. He's also incredibly raw. He'll be at his best when he's given a simple job such as "go hit the guy with the ball". Other DEs expected to get snaps are Jones and junior Stephen Lawe. Lawe is entering his 4th year in the program and has yet to see the field.

Tenuta's defense uses a lot of different methods to pressure the offense. This includes a variety of different stunts and zone blitzes. This makes playing DL more complicated and gives those guys more to think about. They must all be on the same page, or the results can be disastrous. All of the DEs, in particular, are going to spend some time working in a flat zone. For a guy like Harold or Corney, the athleticism is unquestionably there, but when is the last time Eli Harold played pass defense? For a guy like Snyder or Lawe, we're left to wonder if they have the quickness to handle that job.

The DL has a lot of potential with guys like Harold, Moore, Wilkins and Dean. But it is largely untested and those guys will need to get up to speed quickly. Things look brighter next year, with almost everybody coming back, the hopeful return of Brathwaite and 5-star DT Andrew Brown coming into the fold. 2014 could be a big year for this unit.

Linebackers

The LBs are the heart and soul of a Jon Tenuta defense. This is probably why he's also coaching the LBs. Tenuta uses his LBs in every way imaginable. He'll blitz multiple LBs at once. He'll use run blitzes, pass blitzes, delayed blitzes, inside blitzes, outside blitzes and probably some other blitzes that don't even have names. But he'll also use his LBs in coverage. Sometimes all of them at once. Linebackers may be asked to cover a TE man-to-man, or to cover a deep zone or to shadow a mobile QB. All of our LBs are going to spend time this year doing everything a defensive player can possibly do.

Sadly, the Hoos lost two very good LBs last year when LaRoy Reynolds and Steve Greer graduated. In their place, the Hoos have a lot of talented guys, but no real stars. The starters are expected to be Demeitre Brim (strong side), Henry Coley (middle) and Daquan Romero (weak-side). In Tenuta's defense, there often isn't a difference between the strong and weak side OLBs. At least, not in terms of what they'll do on a given play.

Coley started last season as the OLB opposite Reynolds. Romero took over for him after Coley was suspended for the last 4 games of the season. Brim played well on special teams and saw limited action at LB. Those 3 guys are all very athletic, talented and capable. The issue is whether or not they can pick up Tenuta's scheme in time to put it on the field in September.

Once again, there isn't much depth behind the starters. On the strong side, redshirt freshman Mark Hall looks to be the primary backup. On the weak side, the primary backup is junior D.J. Hill and in the middle it's sophomore Kwontie Moore. Hill played extensive reps last year while Reynolds was hurt and played well. Moore played on special teams last year. It is likely that these 6 players will take almost all of the LB reps.

Once again, the question regarding the LBs isn't the physical aspects of the position. All of these guys are athletic enough to handle the job. But playing LB for Coach Tenuta is about so much more than running and hitting. It's about knowing where to be, it's about knowing where everybody else is supposed to be, and it's about doing the right thing regardless of what the offense is doing. If the play calls for you to blitz, you've gotta go. One thing that LBs often say about playing in this type of aggressive defense is that it is more fun. Reading and reaction sometimes gets boring. The attacking defense makes the LBs (and defenders in general) feel as though they are in control, and they like that.

This group could be very good. But they could also struggle quite a bit. One thing to look forward to is that the entire group returns next year. Again, 2014 could be a big year for this unit.

Defensive Backs

As with the LBs, DBs in Tenuta's defense are asked to do a lot. A CB may be covering an outside receiver man-to-man on one play, and then rushing the QB on the next play. They may be in a 2-deep zone one play and a Quarters zone (4-deep) the next play. They may be in cover-0 (all man coverage) or a cover-1 (single safety deep). There is almost no telling what Tenuta will call in any situation, and that is what makes his defenses successful.

DB is the deepest unit on the Hoos defense. The starters are all juniors and all are entering their 3rd year on the field. Behind them, there are a number of experienced players as well as talented youngsters.

At CB, one starter is junior preseason All-ACC candidate Demetrious ‘Tra' Nicholson. Nicholson is the type of CB that Coach Tenuta loves, because he can pretty much remove the opposition's best WR from the game all by himself. That really opens up the possibilities on the other side of the field. The 2nd starting CB will be either junior DreQuan Hoskey or sophomore Maurice Canady. Hoskey has the inside track, and is the more experienced player. He's got serious quicks, and that speed gives him an advantage over Canady. But Canady isn't slow and he's bigger and more physical. It may well be a game-by-game decision depending on matchups. Regardless of who starts, the other player will be the nickel CB and will see plenty of action. And regardless of who starts, it will likely be Hoskey who plays on the inside in the package package.

Other CBs who will see action are redshirt freshman Wil Wahee and Divante Walker, plus true freshmen Tim Harris and Kirk Garner. Harris, in particular, is a big-time talent. He's the biggest CB on the roster, and should see action right away at CB. Wahee moved over from S in the spring.

Much like OLB, there is often little difference in what is asked from the two safeties in Tenuta's defense. They may be in zone coverage or man coverage. They may be in the box or back in the secondary. They will also rush the passer.

The starters are Anthony 'Ant' Harris and Brandon Phelps. Neither performed all that well last year, as they combined for just 1 TFL, 1 forced fumble, 1 INT and just 6 passes defended, while playing almost all of the safety snaps. This year, they will have to perform better, or they'll find themselves on the bench (hopefully).

Phelps was a CB coming out of HS, and was moved to S prior to last season. Last year he spent a lot of time at SS, which didn't really fit his skillset. As I said, there isn't a ton of difference between the two safety positions in this scheme, but still Phelps is a better fit at FS. He brings very good cover skills to the S position, and could be used to cover a TE or RB. Harris is bigger and has the ability to step into the box in run support. Harris is also a big hitter.

Hopefully, this duo has learned over the past year and will play better. At times, their instincts were wrong. But that should develop with experience, and they both now have a full year under their belts.

Behind the starters are senior Rijo Walker and redshirt freshman Kelvin Rainey (both coverted CBs). Those two are the primary backups. Other guys expected to see time are sophomores Anthony Cooper, Mason Thomas and Kyrell Latimer. And finally, true freshman Malcolm Cook has the talent to see the field right away. However, he may end up redshirting just because of the depth ahead of him. Cooper played as a true freshman last year, mostly on special teams. But he's a very talented kid who could work his way onto the field at safety if the starters falter.

The secondary is going to be the strength of this defense. The aggressive defense will put a lot of pressure on this unit, and we will see breakdowns. There may be blown coverages that lead to big plays. There will be missed tackles that lead to big plays. But the secondary will also have more than just 3 interceptions. In fact, Nicholson should beat that on his own. He's one of the best cover men in the nation, and had zero INTs, despite being tied for first in the ACC last year with 15 passes defensed. It should be near impossible to get your hands on that many passes and not pick one off.

Once again, the entire unit returns for next year, and with guys like Tim Harris and Malcolm Cook getting potentially their feet wet, and then adding a player like Quin Blanding to the fold next year, the secondary could be among the nation's best in 2014. Are you beginning to see a theme here?

Conclusion

The Virginia defense has all the pieces in place to be a very good unit. However, those pieces are incredibly young and inexperienced. With a new coaching staff and entirely new defensive scheme, the young guys have a steep learning curve. And with two very good teams coming to Charlottesville over the first two weeks of the season, the young guys are going to have to climb that curve very quickly.

It is possible that the defense will improve their sack and turnover totals, and yet be worse than they were last year. After all, if you can keep the offense from picking up yards, you're well on your way to stopping them from producing points. And 28th in the nation in total defense is going to be pretty tough to beat.

With almost everybody returning next season, and two of the top 10 recruits in the nation, this defense could be very good next year. Scary good. This year, however, will be a bit of a work in progress.

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