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2015 Virginia Football Preview: The Defense

Yesterday, we looked at the offense, so today we look at the defense. Obviously, the defense has outplayed the offense during Mike London's tenure. In fact, the Hoos have been a defense oriented team for most of the past 30 years. Is that going to continue this year, despite the early departures of Eli Harold and Max Valles?

Anthony Harris and Quin Blanding will be the leaders of the 2015 Wahoo defense.
Anthony Harris and Quin Blanding will be the leaders of the 2015 Wahoo defense.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

In 2013, the Hoos ranked 14th in the nation in TFLs and 39th in sacks. They were also 8th in nation in 3rd down defense. And yet they were 65th in total defense and 98th in scoring defense. There were a few reasons for this. One was big plays. The Hoos gave up far too many big plays (64 plays of over 20 yards). The second was turnovers. The Hoos didn't generate quite enough TOs. (The terrible offense didn't help, but that's a whole different story.)

In 2014, the Hoos ranked 38th in TFLs and 20th in sacks. They fell to 54th in 3rd down defense. But they ranked 28th in total defense and 32nd in total defense. The roster didn't change much. The only regulars in 2014 who weren't starters in 2013 were DE Mike Moore, DT Donte Wilkins and true freshman FS Quin Blanding.

Obviously, much of the difference between the two years was the development of star players such as Eli Harold and Max Valles. But increased production from Henry Coley, Maurice Canady, David Dean and others was also a big factor. After a full year in Coach Tenuta's system, the players knew where to be and what to do once they got there. For example, Coley's tackle total actually dropped from 2013 to 2014, but his overall play skyrocketed. He increased his sack total from 1 to 8 and he broke up 6 passes, after 0 in 2013. For one thing, opposing offenses ran an average of 6 less plays per game in 2014. For another thing, far more plays were being made before Coley got involved. Guys were making plays all over the field.

Familiarity with a defense is obviously important thing, and it is even moreso for an attacking defense like Tenuta's. When players are attacking without all being on the same page, it is a recipe for disaster. In this case, disaster is 64 plays of over 20 yards in 2013. Again, after a full year in this defense, that dropped to 45 in 2014. Maybe 2 big plays per game doesn't seem like much, but that's a 30% drop. It is not coincidence that the Hoos points allowed in 2014 also dropped by 30% from 2013.

The other place where familiarity with the defense helps is turnovers. The Hoos went from forcing 21 turnovers in 2103 to forcing 29 turnovers in 2014. Again, maybe an extra turnover per game doesn't sound like much, but in this case it is almost a 40% increase. The Hoos completely turned around their turnover margin (-5 in 2014, +5 in 2014).

So, it seems like year 3 of Coach Tenuta could be even better. Many of these guys, after all, now have 2 full years in Tenuta's system. Of course, we must also take into account the number of guys who left. From 2013 to 2014, the Hoos lost 2 starters (Jake Snyder and Brent Urban). This year, the Hoos lose 5 starters (Eli Harold, Henry Coley, DaQuan Romero, Max Valles and Anthony Harris). So, while guys like Maurice Canady, David Dean, Mike Moore and Tim Harris have an extra year in the system, there are a bunch of new guys who don't have that experience.

As we saw in the unit previews, this is especially true at LB. The Hoos may be starting a true freshman at SLB in C.J. Stalker. And the other two LB spots are a redshirt sophomore and a junior, both of whom have seen time almost exclusively on special teams. So while those two have a couple of years in Tenuta's system, they don't have the playing experience that Coley, Romero and Valles had.

Of course, the loss of Eli Harold can't be overstated. Eli was the most talented guy on the Virginia defense, and was the guy the offense needed to account for on every play. Eli was double-teamed on nearly every passing play. And despite that, he led the team with 14.5 TFLs. Right now, the Hoos do not have a talent that can match Eli's play. And that will hurt the team.

Other guys will need to step up. Maybe that will be Trent Corney. Corney is a freak athlete who could be a dominant pass rusher if he can combine his athleticism with some more football IQ. Maybe that will be Andrew Brown. One of the top recruits in the nation last year, Brown had a disappointing, injury plagued year. Reports are that he's come to camp in better shape this year. Brown isn't likely to start against UCLA, but don't be surprised if he's starting before the end of the season. He may simply be too good to keep off the field.

And the guys who do return should improve. Quin Blanding was a Freshman All-American and Defensive Rookie of the Year last year. He led the team in tackles. And he should improve. He improved in leaps and bounds from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. Now, he's not just one of the best players on the defense, he's also one of the leaders of the defense. He's also the "QB of the defense", which means he'll often be the one making defensive calls. Even just a small improvement in Blanding's play will make him one of the best DBs in the nation and will pay huge dividends of the Hoos defense. Blanding, alone, was a big reason for the drop in big plays. He replaced Brandon Phelps, who simply should not have been playing FS.

Another player in the defensive backfield who could improve is Maurice Canady. Reece was the top CB on the team last year and figures to be this year. Last year, Canady had 3 INTs to go along with 12 passes defended. If Canady can turn a few more of those deflections into INTs, he could have a big year, which could push him into the first round of the NFL Draft. NFL teams covet big CBs, and Canady is 6'2" 200 pounds. He'll also benefit from the return of Demetrious Nicholson to the defensive backfield. Tra played just a handful of snaps last year, and yet had 5 tackles and an INT. He's the best cover guy on the team (yes, even over Canady), but he's small and hasn't played much in a year. Nicholson will start out the season as the nickel CB, but will get plenty of run, especially against teams with smaller WRs.

The strength of the Hoos defensively this year is going to be the secondary. Unlike last year, the Hoos do not really have the individual talents to rush the passer. This means that Tenuta will have be creative to generate the QB pressure that he so desires. This will put pressure on the DBs, but those guys will be ready.

Wahoo fans have gotten used to seeing the team in a nickel defense quite a bit, and they should expect to see the Hoos it quite a bit this year again. Playing in a nickel gets an extra experienced guy on the field (probably Nicholson) and removed a newcomer (probably Stalker). It also gets an extra pass rusher, (such as Corney) onto the field, and removes a space-eater (Donte Wilkins).

This year's defense probably won't put up the sack numbers that last year's did. There just isn't the same talent and experience in the front seven. But they have the potential to be just as good as last year, if not better. Coach Tenuta is a master at getting the best out of his defense, and Wahoo fans should have faith that this year will be no different.

Here is our projected depth chart for the UCLA game. The Hoos will likely spend much of this game in the nickel package. This depth chart does not reflect that.

Position

No

Name

DE

32

Mike Moore

43

Trent Corney

DT

55

David Dean

56

Andre Miles-Redmond

DT

93

Andrew Brown

9

Donte Wilkins

DE

34

Kwontie Moore

6

Darrious Carter

SLB

59

Mark Hall

15

C.J. Stalker

MLB

53

Micah Kiser

22

Javoni Simmons

WLB

51

Zach Bradshaw

27

Malcolm Cook

CB

26

Maurice Canady

11

Divante Walker

FS

3

Quin Blanding

16

Mason Thomas

SS

38

Kelvin Rainey

28

Wil Wahee

CB

1

Demetrious Nicholson

5

Tim Harris