After 3 games, it is clear: The Virginia Cavaliers defense is VERY VERY VERY good. And, as Tiki mentioned in his Louisville game recap, there are multiple players that not only make the defense tick, but could argue that they are the the unit's best player.
We discussed who we'd pick as the defensive MVP so far. Our focus was on the following 3 players:
Eli Harold - 12 tackles, 5 for loss, 3 sacks, 1 fumble forced, 1 fumble recovered
Henry Coley - 29 tackles, 6 for loss, 3.5 sacks, 3 passes broken up, 2 fumbles forced
Max Valles - 14 tackles, 2.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks, 4 passes broken up, 1 fumble forced
Combined, those are some scary stats. Forgive us for focusing on the team's formidable front 7; it says a lot about them, when a guy like Anthony Harris (who led the ACC in interceptions last year and is coming off ACC Player of the Week honors) didn't get one of our votes.
Here's our discussion:
Drew Goodman: Picking a defensive MVP for this team is like choosing between perfect 10 models... it's a great problem to have, because you can't go wrong either way. The biggest difference between this year's UVa squad and the last two is that in 2012-13 the Wahoos were boys, and this year, they have become men.
Nobody personifies the transition more than middle linebacker Henry Coley. Coley had a rough start to his career, with a tough outing the in the Chick Fil A Bowl, and a 2012 season where he was mistakenly slotted at outside linebacker, but he has bounced back in a huge way. We saw his potential at "mike" linebacker last fall, and he has raised his game to an entirely different level so far this season. Even if he does not always make the tackle, it seems like he is in on every play. He is our most sure tackler , and is rarely out of position. Coley is ready to go every game, and makes sure that his teammates share the same mindset.
Matt Trogdon: I agree with Drew on Coley. As Jeff White noted, he's been a statistical beast so far. He leads the team in tackles and TFL, and he's tied for the lead in sacks. He's also forced two fumbles. He's a man on a mission.
Moreover, Coley's stepping up from a leadership perspective. He texted Coach London late Saturday night saying he wanted to conduct a players-only meeting. During the meeting he reminded his teammates of the need to stay hungry. If Virginia ends up having a memorable season, the tale of "Coley's meeting" will go down in lore next to Joe Harris's fateful visit to Tony Bennett's house.
Paul "Tiki" Guttman: Well I'm going to stick to my guns and say Eli Harold. Sure, Coley has the stats, and absolutely Coley is playing very well right now. But Eli has turned himself into an all-around DE. He can't be blocked one-on-one. Even mobile QBs can't outrun him. His 5 TFLs have gone for most lost yardage than Coley's 6.5 and his 3 sacks have gone for more lost yardage than Coley or Valles' 3.5 sacks.
Coley is absolutely playing out of his mind right now, and maybe is playing better than Harold. But, like I said in my postgame, Harold is the guy who OCs are scared of. Harold is the guy QBs are having nightamres of. Harold still hasn't reached his full potential. There's going to be a point, maybe this year and maybe next year, when Harold does reach that potential. And we're all going to be amazed.
Paul Wiley: I was preaching the gospel of Max Valles last year. This year, he's shown all the same physical gifts with a major step forward in the mental parts of his game. Eli Harold is definitely the terror of the defense, and Coley is almost certainly the steady motor that gets the other parts moving. But Valles can be an X factor in every game. Lining him up behind Harold puts that side of the offensive line at a major speed matchup disadvantage. Lining him up opposite Harold lets Tenuta close a vice on the opposing backfield. For a guy that's only in his second year playing college defense, I see a ton of promise for the future in a guy who's already playing great in the present.
Brian Leung: I second everything that Wiley just said. Valles is everywhere, and when coupled with Harold, the two are just about untouchable. Valles's 6-5 frame is part of what makes him so potent, and we got to see that in the Louisville game. Coley and Harold are great, no doubt about that, but if Valles is on, this defense is kicked up to the next level. If he's not, then the defense may just be your everyday above-average defense. So I guess that's the x-factor that Wiley's talking about.
Brian Schwartz: My first instinct was say Eli Harold. As Tiki noted, he must terrify opposing defenses. He's made big plays for us all year (and for his whole career)...while also fulfilling the quieter roles of occupying blockers for the rest of the line. And jeez he is fast.
But I am actually going to go with Coley. First of all, because of the obvious statistical reasons - 3.5 sacks and 29 total tackles (!) in 3 games - he is everywhere! But I really love the leadership he showed, calling that meeting Saturday night and urging the team to maintain focus on what lies ahead. That type of attitude may have been given lip service in the past, but now I get the sense that the team means business.
What say you guys? Who is the most valuable player of this most valuable unit?