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What will it take for UVA football’s defense to improve under Tony Elliott?

A new-ish scheme should fit the team’s personnel while the true test will come on the recruiting trail.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 04 William & Mary at Virginia Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Previously, we did a deep dive into Brennan Armstrong and the Virginia Cavaliers’ offense, a group that vastly succeeded last year but will still make adjustments. Today, it’s time to evaluate the group that struggled mightily in the 2021 campaign— the UVA defense.

The performance on each side of the ball could not have been more polar opposite. According to Football Outsiders, the Hoos finished 9th in offensive efficiency, 6th in value drive rate, and 22nd in average line yards. Meanwhile, the defense finished 118th in efficiency, 122nd in value drive rate, and 127th in average line yards.

With new head coach Tony Elliott comes a mostly new defensive staff, and therefore a different philosophy and scheme. While the implications are that things improve (I mean, let’s be honest, they can’t get much worse), how much will this come into fruition in 2022? An important question to explore: how much of the defensive struggles were due to poor coaching as opposed to relative lack of talent?

Previous Success

When looking back at the Bronco Mendenhall era, it is important to consider that Nick Howell’s defense was not always as bad as it was in his final year.

What they did in their third year was considerably impressive. First off, previous head coach Mike London left the program in a terrible spot culture-wise, which was displayed by UVA’s 2-10 record in 2016. In the former staff’s first three recruiting classes, Virginia did not add a single four-star or five-star prospect to the roster, yet they produced a top 25 defense by 2018.

So, what made this defense so successful? First off, defensive line coach Vic So’Oto did a tremendous job with the pass rush. He brought a unique energy around that position group and each of his players were fundamentally sound. Virginia averaged about two sacks per game during his tenure, which is league average, but he was at a disadvantage with the roster he was dealt.

But the secondary is what made the difference more than anything else. In 2018, the Hoos had three NFL draft picks on the roster in this position group — Juan Thornhill, Bryce Hall, and Tim Harris. In Howell’s defense, linebackers were particularly aggressive in pursuit of the backfield so having defensive backs that can play in space was vital. The secondary’s dominance allowed Howell and company to do virtually whatever he wanted with his play-calling.

Things Accelerated Downhill Quickly

Virginia’s defensive efficiency ratings went down each year since 2018 to eventually the abysmal marks in 2021.

If we could pinpoint one point in time when things started to decline, it was Hall’s injury during the Miami game in 2019. From the beginning of 2018 through that game, UVA allowed and average of 20.3 points per game. Even during the 2019 season, that number increased to 32.0, and it only got worse afterwards.

Zooming out though, Hall’s injury was part of the larger issue of the declining defense back room. At one point, it was the lifeblood of the team and, not much later, there was difficulty gathering enough healthy bodies to utilize a conventional nickel formation. In the 2019-20 offseason, pretty much all of London’s recruits had graduated and Mendenhall’s lack of recruiting caught up to him. The new batch of defensive backs failed to execute his scheme effectively. Meanwhile, So’Oto took a new opportunity at USC and the defensive front was never the same.

Fast forward to 2021 and the issues only escalated. Howell even switched schemes into a 3-3-5 style but new problems arose, mainly lack of fundamentals and overall intensity. This is when a historic season by a Virginia quarterback was ruined by a bottom tier defense.

Luckily for UVA though, Brennan Armstrong is back for another season and there is still a chance to take advantage of his production. Thus, we introduce a new piece to the puzzle, John Rudzinski.

Rudzinski’s New Defense

Rudzinski was hired from Air Force earlier this offseason to be Elliott’s defensive coordinator. In each of his previous three seasons, his unit finished in the top 50 nationally and top three in the Mountain West in efficiency rating.

Rudzinski’s scheme is similar to Howell’s in that it is base 3-4, meaning that the adjustment period will be smaller for the current group of players. However, the philosophy by which they go about their jobs differ. While previous Virginia teams would feature lengthy linebackers that could cause trouble going downhill against less athletic offensive tackles, Rudzinski is more specific about when he choses to be aggressive. His main point of emphasis is on linebackers that can cover and play in space against offensive weapons that are increasingly faster and quicker. If there’s one thing the Hoos’ defense improves upon next season, it’s open-field tackling.

As far as pass rushing is concerned, Rudzinski’s defenses were very prolific up front at Air Force. Despite not loving to stack the box, the Falcons had one of the most efficient run defenses in the nation and finished with nearly three sacks per game. It is also notable that Clint Sintim will transform from managing the defensive tackles to his more natural role as the linebackers coach. Kevin Downing, who has plenty of experience developing pass rushers, will take over Sintim’s previous role. Playing on the defensive line is a lot about size and strength — things that can’t be taught — but the improvements will come sooner rather than later.

The Bottom Line

Rudzinski has previously put together effective defenses using rosters with less talent than Virginia’s currently features. In 2022, expect the Wahoos’ defense to improve to competency, as they are in a fresh set of hands.

If that unit wants to get back to top 25 level though, it will happen on the recruiting trail. This is where Elliott will be tested as to whether he can take the program to the next level after Mendenhall lifted it off the ground.