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Virginia Cavaliers Football Previews: Secondary

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Duke v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

We’re wrapping up our look at the Virginia Cavaliers defense this week. Earlier, we looked at the defensive line and the linebackers, and last week we looked at the offensive line and skill position players. Today, we’re here to look at Virginia’s secondaries.

As with the linebackers, the Virginia defense differentiates between the different cornerback and safety positions. At CB, the Hoos show a Boundary Corner (BC) and Field Corner (FC). And at safety, the Hoos have a Free Safety (FS) and a SABRE (which is a great name for a strong safety).

In theory, the FC plays on the wide side of the field and the BC plays on the short side of the field. Of course, that can change from play to play. Usually, either the “best” CB goes wherever the best opposing WR goes, or the CBs stay on one side of the formation. Virginia, generally, does the latter.

The first clip is early in the season against William and Mary. Bryce Hall (at BC) on the QB’s right and Nick Grant (at FC) on the QB’s left. The second clip is from late in the season against Liberty. Now there’s no Hall, which means Grant is the “best” CB out there. But he’s still at FC and on the QB’s left. Heskin Smith is at BC and on the QB’s right. Safe to say that Hall wouldn’t have gotten beaten quite so badly.

Typically, a FS is more of a cover-man and is often the deepest man on the defense. The SS is closer to the line of scrimmage, is bigger and has more run-stopping duties. That isn’t really the case for Virginia. Quin Blanding, for example, played FS, though he’s a prototypical SS. Like CB, the two positions basically note the side of the field. On a given play, they’ll have different duties, but the two positions are somewhat interchangeable.

For example, Joey Blount (at FS) had two sacks in the opener against Pitt. He’s coming off the QB’s right.

And here’s Cross with a sack of Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, from the SABRE spot, coming off the QB’s left. Very similar plays, but from two different spots.

Four different guys started at safety for the Hoos last year. and all four of them started in at least four games. De’Vante Cross and Joey Blount each started at both safety spots. Cross also started three times at CB. Of the four, three return (Chris Moore transferred to Georgia State for his final year). So there’s depth there.

The benefit of all the injuries Virginia suffered in the secondary last year is that many of the younger guys got extended playing time. It hurt the pass defense last year. But it’ll help this year, as many several young guys saw extended reps. They didn’t always look ready, but that experience will serve them well going forward.

Starter: Brenton Nelson (Sr)
Backup: De’Vante Cross (Sr)

Free Safety (FS)
Starter: Joey Blount (Sr)
Backup: D’Angelo Amos (Sr)

There’s no question the defense struggled without Bryce Hall. But Brenton Nelson’s injury hurt almost as much. Nelson is a safety with coverage skills of a CB. In Virginia’s nickel package (which may as well be the base package these days), Nelson moves down to play in the slot, with another safety coming in.

That player will most likely be Cross, who finally seems to have settled in at one position. If you don’t know his story, he started his career at QB, moved to WR, then CB, then S, then back to CB, then back to S again. He seems set at SABRE, and that could be huge for him. Obviously, a guy with so much versatility is a bonus, but Cross has never been able to get fully comfortable at one position. Assuming he stays at one spot all year, it will be exciting to see what he can do there.

Amos is a transfer from JMU, where he was a first team FCS All-American. Last season, he had 53 tackles, 2 INTs, 5 pass breakups, and 3 blocked kicks. He was also the primary PR and ranked eighth in FCS in PR (in 2018, he ranked first). He may get some chances at PR, but Billy Kemp seems to have that spot locked down. Like Cross, Amos can play both CB and S, and he should get plenty of playing time. Don’t be surprised if he’s starting at some point in the season, he’s that good.

Field Corner (FC)
Starter: Nick Grant (Sr)
Backup: Jaylon Baker (So)

Boundary Corner (BC)
Starter: Darrius Bratton (Jr)
Backup: Heskin Smith (Jr)

With no Bryce Hall at CB, we should see even less differentiation between the positions this year. Grant likely still has the title of “best” CB, but Darrius Bratton might’ve been the starter opposite Hall had he not been hurt during training camp last season. Both are bigger CBs with good (but not necessarily outstanding) speed.

Heskin Smith played extensively last year at both CB and S due to all the injuries. He’s the first CB off the bench should either Grant or Bratton be out. Baker also saw a good amount of playing time last season, but looked overwhelmed at times. The experience will be invaluable for both. We could see Amos at CB as well.

Last year, it was injuries that derailed what looked like an elite unit. Darrius Bratton, Bryce Hall and Brenton Nelson were all injured at one point. Losing three top DBs will derail anybody’s season.

Is there more depth this season? It seems like it. All of these depth charts are two-deep with experienced players.

Virginia kicks off in Blacksburg against the Virginia Tech Hokies on Saturday, September 19 at either 3:30 p.m. ET or 7:30 p.m. ET on ABC. Stay tuned to Streaking the Lawn as we bring you all the coverage leading up to this crazy 2020 season we’re about to enjoy!