Much has been made about the strength of this year's Virginia secondary and it is the safety unit that should be the rock up the middle. Last year, National Defensive Freshman of the Year Quin Blanding and Anthony Harris were 1-2 on the Virginia defense in tackles. That stat speaks not only to college football's move towards more pass-happy offenses, but also to the relative skill of the two players in the passing game, the running game, and in the open field. Anthony Harris has moved on to the NFL, with redshirt junior Kelvin Rainey ready to fill in for what should be a unit that will be heavily relied upon to take some pressure off the raw front seven.
Any conversation about the Virginia safeties begins with Blanding. In just his second season he has already established himself as one of the best free safeties in the country, as he was not only named to the 2015 Preseason All-ACC team, but also named first-team All-American by Athlon Sports and appeared on preseason watch lists for the Bednarik Award, the Bronko Nagurski Award, and the Thorpe Award. Blanding led the Hoos last year with 123 tackles and was tied with Maurice Canady for the team lead in interceptions with three. That number may have been influenced by teams game-planning away from Harris to take advantage of the young Blanding, for which he made them pay. Nevertheless, Blanding figures to be a stalwart in the middle of the field and be the team's key playmaker as the season unfolds.
Rainey will have some big shoes to fill at the strong safety position taking over for Harris, but all indications point to him being ready to make the leap. Coach Mike London praised Rainey this offseason, touting him as one of the most improved and surprising players coming out of the spring. Rainey played in ten games last season, mostly on special teams, and had but only seven tackles. He is a strong kid at 6-1, 200 pounds, and his emergence has freed up Canady to move back to patrolling one of the corners. (Canady was running at strong safety for much of the spring.)
Backing up Rainey, and likely to see a bit of action will be junior Wilfred Wahee. Like Rainey, most of Wahee's action was on special teams last season. Overall, he racked up 21 tackles in 12 games, and was tied for the team in special teams tackles with nine, including a team-leading six on kickoffs, showing his ability in the open field. His best game of the season was the finale against Virginia Tech, where he notched five tackles and forced a fumble.
Also figuring into the mix will be senior Mason Thomas. Thomas played in nine games last season and finished the year with two tackles.
Behind the two-deep are freshmen Juan Thornhill and C.J. Epps. Both stand to redshirt this season, but should either see action due to injury or need on special teams, it is likely to be the three-star Thornhill.
Overall, the safety unit for Virginia is a position of strength. Defensive Coordinator Jon Tenuta should be able to rely on them, led by Blanding, to effectively cover in the passing game should the front seven not get to the quarterback. Additionally, given the playmaking abilities found in these four players, Tenuta could get creative and try to generate some pass rush with a safety blitz here and there.