Despite having a deep and talented linebacker unit, if the Virginia Cavaliers’ defense performs in 2018, it will be largely on the backs of its smallest players—the defensive backs.
This is a unit that lost the all-time leading tackler in UVA football history in Quin Blanding, but the entire rest of the unit returns. Even with Blanding’s 137 tackles gone, the unit returns two thirds of its total stops. They also return 10 out of the team’s 15 INTs and 30 pass break ups (out of 38 total). Not only is there a lot of talent returning, but there’s a great deal of young talent as well.
Last year, Juan Thornhill began the season at safety and then moved to CB. The previous year, he’d begun the season at CB and moved to safety. Basically, Juan is versatile. With Blanding gone, Thornhill has big shoes to fill. But he’s very capable. As a safety with CB skills, he’ll be an upgrade over Blanding in pass coverage. He’ll be a rather large downgrade in reading plays in front of him and in run support, as those were two things that Quin excelled at. But Blanding was not a great cover-man, whereas Thornhill is. Thornhill’s seven career INTs are one ahead of where Blanding was entering his fourth year. And Thornhill’s 26 pass break-ups are five ahead. The defense will miss Blanding, but it iasn’t as big a drop as you might think.
Here’s what Thornhill can do:
It’s not the greatest view of the play, but Thornhill is in single coverage on the outside and is hanging right on the receiver’s hip. This is pretty much picture perfect defense. The decision to make that throw was a poor one, but it wasn’t a bad throw. It was simply great defense.
Of course, that’s CB play. How will Thornhill do at safety? I don’t have any great examples of him playing the back of a cover-2, because that wasn’t his role. There’s no question he can handle run support, though he’s not going to be as good as Blanding in that role.
Again, this play is a different job than he’ll have this year. The angle is different. He’s coming in from the edge of the defense to make a play on a RB heading into a hole. As a safety, he’ll be asked to plug that hole.
Next to Thornhill isn’t set in stone. The obvious candidate is last year’s ACC Defensive Rookie of the year, Brenton Nelson, who totaled 64 tackles (two for loss), 10 pass break-ups, and four INTs. Not bad for a walk-on to came to Virginia to run track. Nelson is now on a football scholarship and started all 13 games last year.
Nelson is very strong in pass coverage. He’s basically a prototypical cover-2 defender. Here he is in last year’s UCONN game playing deep coverage. He knows where his man is, he turns his head to find the ball, and he plays the ball. Great defense.
There is another candidate for that spot, Chris Moore. Moore is actually listed on the roster as OLB/FS. Moore had 41 stops, three pass break-ups and an INT last year. As you’d expect considering his “position,” he spent much of his time as a nickel DB. The Hoos used several different nickel DBs, depending on opponent and game situation. Moore was recruited as a CB, but probably wasn’t fast enough to play the position full time. He packed on some weight and is now listed at 6’1” 210 (he was 180 as a recruit), which would make him a big DB. But considering his lack of top-end speed, it might make more sense to call him an undersized OLB. Regardless of what you call him, Moore is a player and has impressed during fall camp, after struggling this spring.
Having too much depth at safety is not a bad thing, especially this year. As mentioned in previous previews, the Cavaliers will spend a lot of time in nickel defensive packages. The extra DB is usually a safety. Whether Nelson or Moore start, in nickel packages, Nelson would be the “slot” DB. He has better cover skills than Moore. Moore, though, is better playing downhill.
The CBs are in a similar boat. On one side, Bryce Hall has established himself as one of the top players on this defense. He’s a junior with 20 starts already to his name, together with three career INTs and 16 pass break-ups. At 6’1” 200, he’s also very strong in run support and made 47 tackles last year. Hall’s starting gig is not in question.
Hall excels in man coverage. Here, he reads the receiver’s break, stays right on him and is able to make a play on the ball. Once again, this is great defense.
On the other side, there is competition for the starting spot. The leader, at least coming into camp, was sixth year senior Tim Harris. Harris has generally played well when on the field. But he can’t seem to stay healthy. Last season was the second he missed due to injury, which is why he received a hardship waiver. This year, the problem is that once again, Harris isn’t healthy, having missed almost all of training camp, and that’s provided opportunities for other guys to step in.
The main beneficiary of Harris’ absence is sophomore Darrius Bratton. A year ago, Bratton saw extensive action on special teams last year. He has been getting rave reviews during fall camp. With Harris out, Bratton has been running with the first team. It still seems like Harris is the top choice to play opposite Hall, and if he’s 100% he’ll probably start. But the season is getting pretty close and Harris hasn’t practiced much.
As we saw with LB, there’s just so many options at DB. There’s 15 scholarship players at DB.
Let’s start, again, at safety. There are two other candidates that might end up playing this year. Sophomores Nick Grant and Joey Blount both saw extensive special teams action last year. Blount actually led the team with 10 special teams tackles. Both Grant and Blount have impressed in both spring practice and fall camp. Bronco Mendenhall likes his safeties to be long and rangy, and both of these guys fit the bill. One or both will almost definitely see the field on defense this season.
The final option at safety is Myles Robinson. Readers may remember Robinson from a couple of years ago when he started a few times at CB. He was not a part of the team last season. Robinson is probably a more natural CB than S, and is even listed at CB on the roster. Word is that he’s working out at free safety, even though he’s only 5’11” 190, which is small for Bronco’s safeties. Robinson, though, could be a candidate at that nickel back in the slot. Robinson’s cover skills are outstanding, assuming he’s able to get back in game shape. He may also play some CB if necessary.
That’s six total “playable” safeties. The situation at CB isn’t quite that good, but there’s good depth there. The thing is, there’s no junior like a Chris Moore or a Myles Robinson. There’s a lot of youth. The first CB off the bench (other than Harris/Bratton), is probably redshirt freshman Germane Crowell. Crowell enrolled for spring 2017 and played in three games early last season before suffering an injury. Expect Crowell to be an asset on special teams whether or not he gets onto the field at CB. Crowell’s father (Germane, Sr), for those who don’t know, is sixth all-time in receiving yards for the Hoos and his uncle Angelo is fourth all-time in tackles. Both also had solid, if short, NFL careers.
Crowell is still listed as a redshirt freshman because of the injury he suffered. Still, he has field experience, which is not something any of the other backups can boast. There’s really only one other guy who is ready to see the field and that’s redshirt freshman Heskin (formerly Shawn) Smith. Smith was a very highly regarded WR recruit last year, but seemed to get passed on the depth chart by Terrell Jana. Smith moved to DB in the spring and has enough natural ability to stick there. He’s probably still too raw to play CB this year, but should see some special teams snaps. Redshirt freshman walk-on Donovan Rolle could also see time at either CB or S. He’s a walk-on, but has been noticed and has earned his number. There’s also a pair of true freshman CBs, Jaylon Baker and Joseph White. Baker has more potential, but both are likely redshirt candidates. That is more because of a lack of need than a lack of ability.