Stiff Challenge Awaits Defense in Opener

VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM
David Dean

VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM
David Dean
VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM
Aug. 26, 2014

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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- On the UVa football depth chart released Monday, nine players who started at least seven games apiece in 2013 are listed on defense. And that doesn't count Max Valles or Donte Wilkins, each of whom started four games last season.

The defense's veterans include Anthony Harris, Brandon Phelps, Maurice Canady, Tim Harris, DreQuan Hoskey, Daquan Romero, Henry Coley, David Dean and Eli Harold.

 

 

Coley, a senior middle linebacker, led the Cavaliers in tackles last year. His expectations for the defense in its second season under coordinator Jon Tenuta?

"High," Coley told reporters Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. "That's all I can say. I don't want to quantify it or qualify it or anything. But high expectations."

Tenuta's charges will not have the luxury of easing into the season. Virginia opens Saturday at noon against UCLA, which is ranked No. 7 in the preseason Associated Poll.

"When you're going against one of the top teams in the nation and you're in the spotlight [the] first game, you have a chance to show the world just how good you are," said Dean, a junior defensive tackle.

"I think this is definitely going to be an opportunity to not only show how good we are as a defense and as a unit, but also to show that we can play with elite offenses."

The Bruins, who put up 42 points on Virginia Tech's vaunted defense in the Sun Bowl on New Year's Eve, qualify as such. On offense, they return eight starters from a team that averaged 36.9 points per game in 2013, including Heisman Trophy candidate Brett Hundley.

"They have a great quarterback under center, a very experienced guy who's deadly with his arm and his legs," said Virginia's All-America safety, senior Anthony Harris. "It's going to be a challenge for us this Saturday competing against him, just trying to give him different looks pre-snap to try and throw him off a little bit but not tip our hand early."

With apologies to Florida State's Jameis Winston, Hundley, a 6-3, 227-pound junior, might be the nation's best at his position. In 2013, Hundley passed for 3,071 yards and 24 touchdowns, and he ran for 748 yards and 11 more TDs.

"He's a heck of a player, period," Tenuta said.

The Wahoos are likely to use five defensive backs most of the time UCLA has the ball Saturday. But every defensive player will have to be conscious of where Hundley is on the field.

"Regardless of your scheme and what you're trying to do, you gotta keep him in the pocket," defensive line coach Jappy Oliver said. "There's no question, because he is a dual threat."

Dean said: "Big playmaker. Just gotta contain him and try not to let him kill you with his legs. Make him pick you apart with his arm and try to eliminate big plays from him."

For a defense facing a dual-threat quarterback such as Hundley, Dean said, on "every play of the game it's kind of in the back of your head to stay in your rush lane and not allow him to get loose. The downfall of that could be possibly that we play a little slower and we're kind of more hesitant [about] making moves or doing some things [that might] allow him to get free.

"We can't allow that to happen. We still have to play fast but always be aware of where he is in the pocket."

In 2013, when the `Hoos finished 2-10, they encountered several mobile quarterbacks, among them BYU's Taysom Hill and Oregon's Marcus Mariota. The results were mixed.

In the season-opener, UVa held Hill to 42 yards on 11 carries and pressured him into a 13-for-40 passing day. Not coincidentally, perhaps, the Cavaliers edged the Cougars 19-16 at Scott Stadium.

A week later, however, Mariota gained 122 yards on only four carries, the most memorable of which was a 71-yard TD run less than two minutes into the game. He also completed 14 of 28 passes for 199 yards and two touchdowns in the No. 2 Ducks' 59-10 romp at Scott Stadium.

"A lot of us were young and we were inexperienced [early last season]," Dean said. "But going against those quarterbacks, it kind of set us up to have a better year this year, because we see all the mistakes that we had, and we can look back on those mistakes and learn from that for future games."

Coley, who makes many of the calls for the defense, said Monday that he "was still young a little bit in the mental aspect at the beginning of [last] season. I started to pick it up by the end of the season, just seeing the whole formation and actually making the right calls and actually putting the entire defense in the right position in order to make the right play."

Lapses, the Cavaliers learned last season, can have serious consequences.

"You gotta be locked in," Coley said. "You gotta make sure that the entire defense is locked in for the 60 minutes of play when it comes to playing against teams like this, especially high-powered offenses like the UCLAs of the world."

Harris led the nation with eight interceptions last season, and Harold totaled 15 tackles for loss, including 8.5 sacks. But breakdowns plagued the defense, as the final statistics for Football Bowl Subdivision teams reflected. Virginia ranked 65th nationally in total defense, 67th in passing yards allowed, 74th in rushing defense, 98th in scoring defense and 111th in red zone defense.

The defense's lack of consistency was "very frustrating," Dean said Monday, "and I think that's one of the things we've tried to work on as a unit. This offseason we've focused on trying to eliminate big plays and making sure everyone's taking care of their responsibilities. Because when you eliminate those big plays, then it makes it even harder for the offense to get into the end zone."

Tenuta is well-versed in UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's philosophy, having coached against Mazzone many times in the ACC. In February, Tenuta began breaking down videotape of the Bruins in earnest, and he's been feeding information to his players since then.

"Everything Coach Tenuta has been putting in is very methodical and been based on what [UCLA's] offense does," Dean said. "He's put together this scheme based on the little things he noticed. You can just tell his film work has been top-notch in preparing for this team, and I think the game plan is going to reflect that. As long as we execute the game plan, I think we'll have a good chance."

The `Hoos will start mostly upperclassmen Saturday. An exception will be free safety Quin Blanding, a 6-4, 215-pound true freshman from Virginia Beach who's been with the first team since the first practice this month.

"He's gotten his share of getting yelled at by Coach Tenuta, so he's pretty much broken in with that," Harris said, laughing. "I think he's getting comfortable. He's continuing to learn, and that's what we want to do: continue to build."

In his first season overseeing the Cavaliers' safeties is Mike Archer, and the former LSU head coach is pleased with Blanding's progress.

"Now, how is he going to respond on the 30th, at 12:15 or whatever time he goes on the field, and the first time that Hundley throws the ball or he has to tackle one of their guys?" Archer said. "I don't know. But he's prepared, and I think he's where he should be, and we'll just see how he plays as the season goes on."

Blanding can expect a baptism by fire Saturday. So, of course, can the entire UVa team, especially the defense.

"We're going right into it, Day One, first game," Dean said.