Our position-by-position breakdown continues with the Virginia Cavaliers’ safeties. One name has been touted ad infinitum thus far season, but who will be there to support him?
Any discussion of the safeties begins with Quin Blanding. According to 247 sports composite rankings, Blanding is the second best recruit the Hoos have landed since they began keeping track in 1997. Eugene Monroe is No. 1, in case you were wondering.
With an already-long list of accolades in his career, Blanding led the ACC in tackles as a freshman and was named the National Defensive Rookie of the Year by Scout.com. He has been named to the All-ACC team three times already, including twice to the first team. He’s almost definitely going to finish his career as the all-time leader in tackles for the Hoos, as he’s just 77 tackles behind Jamie Sharper. (Sharper, though, has a commanding lead in solo tackles.) If he repeats last season’s total tackles, he would move into the top five all-time in tackles in FBS history (since 2000). Impressive stuff.
Blanding does have some weaknesses, however. He is much better coming forward to make a tackle than he is in pass coverage, which makes him at his best when paired with a strong coverage safety. It is not surprising that his best season came as a freshman when he was paired with Anthony Harris, a very good coverage safety who allowed Blanding to focus on his role as a tackling machine. Blanding teamed with Kelvin Rainey the past two seasons. Unlike Harris, Rainey was a negative in pass coverage. That forced Blanding to play free safety in addition to cleaning up tackles underneath.
For the secondary to have success this season, the coaching staff must find a capable safety with strong cover skills who can allow Blanding to better play to his strengths.
Here is the roster breakdown for the safeties this year:
FS: Quin Blanding (Sr), Myles Robinson (Jr), Chris Moore (So), Brenton Nelson (RS Fr)
SS: Juan Thornhill (Jr), Nick Grant (So), CJ Epps (So), Joey Blount (Fr)
Both Robinson and Thornhill have previously played CB and may end up moving back and forth between the two positions. In fact, that duo were the starting CBs in the season opener last year. Both moved to S during spring practice, in part because cross-training those two gives the coaching staff more flexibility with the DBs.
Last year, the Hoos spent a lot of time in a 3-3-5 nickel defense, and even started some games in that formation. That will likely continue this year, and the versatility of Thornhill and Robinson makes them ideal nickel back candidates. Robinson has better pure cover skills, while Thornhill is bigger and more capable of playing up near the line of scrimmage.
Blanding is obviously one starter. Next to him is very much up in the air. It could be Thornhill, with Robinson slotted at the nickel. But I’m going out on a limb and going with redshirt freshman Nick Grant. He really impressed the coaching staff in the spring, and he has the size they want in their DBs. He also has very strong coverage skills after playing CB in high school. Grant started alongside Blanding during spring practice. In this projection, Thornhill would likely move to nickel and Robinson would be the first safety off the bench.
Chris Moore is another candidate to watch. He has good size and earned good playing time last season. He even started the season finale against Virginia Tech as the nickel DB. For now, Moore is likely Blanding’s understudy, as he’s a closer fit to what Blanding brings than the other guys mentioned.
Here is my projected depth chart for safeties. This only includes two positions, which mimics the depth chart we’ll see from the coaches.
2017 Safeties Projected Depth Chart
|Position||First Team||Second Team|
|Position||First Team||Second Team|
|FS||Quin Blanding||Chris Moore|
|SS||Nick Grant||Juan Thornhill|
As mentioned above, Thornhill and Robinson could easily swap places. And don’t be too surprised if one of those guys starts ahead of Grant. Or, frankly, if one of those guys is back at CB once the season begins.
When in that 3-3-5 package, expect to see either Thornhill or Robinson as the extra DB. With their combination of physical play and coverage skills, they are perfect for the position. However, in certain situations (such as 3rd and long), or against certain opponents, Bronco may elect to go with a more traditional CB as the extra DB. As we’ll see in a couple of weeks, the Hoos are lot lacking for options at CB either.
Losing a talent like Blanding is obviously going to hurt the defense. But with guys like Grant and Moore already reaching the 2-deep as sophomores, it seems like the safety position is in good hands.
Next year, Thornhill and Robinson will be seniors, Grant and Moore will be juniors and there’ll be a few underclassmen as well. Although those guys are still unknowns, there’s plenty time for them to develop before they’ll really be needed. This unit should be a team strength for the foreseeable future.