2012 Virginia Preview – Defense
Virginia CB Demetrious Nicholson
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Virginia Cavalier Defense
Preview 2012 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: Coordinator Jim Reid has been busy this offseason trying to revamp a defense that's missing more than half of last season's starters. The first and final lines of defense were hit particularly hard by graduation, with three of the Cavs' four all-stars exhausting their eligibility. It's a good thing that Reid's boss, Mike London, has recruited so well lately, because many of those kids will be asked to support key veterans, such as DT Will Hill and linebackers Steve Greer and LaRoy Reynolds. Defending the pass will be a particular priority for the ‘Hoos, which need to ignite the pass rush and insert three new starters into the secondary. If opposing passers have too much time to survey the field, they're liable to pick apart a defensive backfield breaking in newcomers at cornerback, free safety and strong safety. With London around, the D won't be down for long, but it will be more vulnerable in 2012 than it was in 2011.
Star of the defense: Senior LB Steve Greer
Tackles: Steve Greer, 103
Sacks: Bill Schautz, Steve Greer, 2
Interceptions: Demterious Nicholson, 2
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior DE Jake Snyder
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore CB Demetrious Nicholson
Best pro prospect: Senior LB LaRoy Reynolds
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Greer, 2) Reynolds, 3) Nicholson
Strength of the defense: The linebackers, young legs
Weakness of the defense: Proven pass rushers, rebuilt secondary
It promises to be a very busy offseason for the D-line, which is adjusting to life without three of last year's talented starters, Matt Conrath, Nick Jenkins and Cam Johnson. Thrust into the role of veteran will be junior Jake Snyder , a starter in all but one game a year ago. The top recruit from the 2009 class was unable to step outside of his teammates' shadows, making just 36 tackles, two stops for loss and a sack. However, the staff is confident the 6-4, 275-pounder has the strength and know-how to begin making more big plays.
When senior Bill Schautz returns from the broken leg he suffered last November, it's expected that he'll be first in line to land the starting end spot opposite Snyder. The 6-4, 250-pound former linebacker is an outstanding athlete, with natural pass-rushing skills. Despite coming off the bench for most of 2011, he still managed to collect 28 tackles, 6.5 stops for loss, two sacks and two fumble recoveries.
Battling Schautz for playing time will be 6-7, 280-pound junior Brent Urban who earned his first letter in 2011. The Canadian native plays with good footwork, and has the long wingspan needed to disrupt the quarterback's field of vision.
To further bolster the team's depth at defensive end, the staff has moved senior Ausar Walcott from linebacker. The 6-4, 240-pounder actually started 18 games over the last two seasons, making a career-high 56 tackles in 2010, but the Cavaliers feel his burst and quickness will be even more dangerous closer to the line of scrimmage.
The upcoming season shapes up as a pivotal one for 6-4, 280-pound senior Will Hill , the best of the Cavs' interior linemen. He has just one career start, yet will be a captain for 2012, testament to how he's perceived by his coaches and teammates. Hill showed flashes of his quickness and potential as an integral part of the rotation a year ago, when he chipped in 36 stops, seven tackles for loss and a sack.
The identity of the other tackle is still a little uncertain. At the end of spring, 6-1, 270-pound sophomore Chris Brathwaite held a slight edge for the top spot. He played sparingly before getting hurt last fall, but is so quick off the snap that he gives the line a potential gut-buster charging through the inside. The team also want to see more from 6-1, 285-pound redshirt freshman David Dean , another one the active, high-motor tackles underclassmen looking for playing time.
Watch Out For .... Hill to contend for All-ACC honors. He's one of the leaders on this side of the ball, and is coming off a building block junior season for the Cavaliers. The D is pining for more help from the rebuilt tackles, something No. 93 is determined to provide in his final year of eligibility.
Strength: Athletic ability. Ever since Mike London and his staff came aboard three years ago, the Cavaliers D-line has been noticeably quicker off the snap and into opposing backfields. Of course, Virginia has helped engineer a culture shift by moving qualified linebackers, such as Schautz and Walcott up a level. The tackles are no plodders either, playing with enough quickness to blow up running plays.
Weakness: Pass rushers. Not only was Virginia 90th in sacks a year ago, but its top two pass rushers from that squad are gone. The Cavs harbor no scary edge rushers to pressure the pocket, which could give opposing quarterbacks all day to find an open target.
Outlook: It's rebuilding time for the Virginia front now that three starters are trying their hand at the NFL. The Cavs are going to need to attack this concern with a two-pronged approach. First, the veterans, Hill, Snyder and Schautz, need to deliver the best season of their careers. Next, the kids, like Brathwaite and Dean have to help solidify the line's interior.
With two key starters returning, the corps of linebackers feels as if it can be the backbone of the D. In the middle, the Cavaliers are once again banking on the stead play of 6-2, 225-pound Steve Greer . The senior was a Second Team All-ACC performer in 2012, making a team-high 103 tackles, six stops for loss and two sacks. He diagnoses running plays well, and rarely misses tackles when he locks on to a target in the open field.
Manning weakside will be another seasoned veteran, 6-2, 230-pound senior LaRoy Reynolds. One of four team captains for the upcoming season, he has 24 career starts and three letters on the resume. The former safety has adapted nicely to the second level, using his lateral quickness and closing speed to track down the man with the ball. If Reynolds can build on his best season, which included 88 stops and eight tackles behind the line, he's liable to attract the interest of pro scouts.
The newcomer of the starting lineup is slated to be 6-1, 230-pound Daquan Romero at strongside. Only one year removed from Phoebus (Va.) High School, he had 13 tackles and appeared in 10 games as a rookie. He's tough and explosive, but needs to prove early on that he can handle the rigors and responsibility of being an every-down player so early in his career.
The heir apparent to Greer in the middle is sophomore Henry Coley . Although an injury limited him to just five games in 2011, he started the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and has shown enough to be considered a future anchor from the second level once the seniors graduate. The 6-2, 235-pounder is smart, physical and not easily taken out of the play by opposing blockers.
Watch Out For .... Coley to be considered for a one-year switch to strongside. If coordinator Jim Reid truly wants to get his three best linebackers on the field, wouldn't Coley be a candidate to displace Romero once Greer returns from his offseason knee surgery? The sophomore is the team's top young linebacker, and is versatile enough to make thee temporary move.
Strength: Veteran leadership. In Reynolds and Greer, the Cavaliers boast a pair of heady seniors who've combined to play in 70 games and start 49. Their experience and know-how will pay immeasurable dividends to the young Cavs still feeling their way through this process.
Weakness: Strongside. The drop-off from the two seniors to Romero and his backup, Tucker Windle is considerable. The Cavaliers are hopeful that their projected sophomore starter can get up to speed in a hurry. If he doesn't, opponents will have a weak link in the defense that can be targeted.
Outlook: The Virginia linebackers are good, solid collection of defenders that won't make too many mistakes during the season. With Reynolds being an exception, they're more steady than spectacular, knowing their assignments, and relying on sound fundamentals to help support the run and the pass. It'll be worth watching Coley, who could somehow find his way onto the field in the fall.
In recent years, Virginia has done a very nice job of regrouping when necessary in the defensive backfield. However, the loss of three starters, including All-ACC CB Chase Minnifield will really test the school's resolve. The Cavs' lone returning starter is sophomore Demetrious Nicholson who became the school's first cornerback to start a season opener since 1986. He went on to start every other game, making 60 stops, picking off a pair of throws and breaking up eight passes. While fluid and very quick in his backpedal, at only 5-11 and 165 pounds, he still needs to add some muscle to avoid being bullied in traffic by opposing receivers.
The frontrunner to join Nicholson in the lineup is 6-0, 175-pound sophomore Drequan Hoskey who mostly appeared on special teams in 2011. He has a lot of upside potential as a pass defender, and played well in dime packages versus Florida State last fall, but the learning curve will be a steep one, especially as quarterbacks start avoiding the other side of the field.
Bucking for playing time behind Hoskey is the program's third best corner, 6-0, 175-pound sophomore
Brandon Phelps . One of Virginia's key recruits from the 2011 class, he got on the field for 133 plays as a rookie, making three tackles. He'll be a factor for playing time all year.
The big news at free safety is that 5-10, 185-pound junior Rijo Walker has made the shift from cornerback to fill the void left by Corey Mosley. The move could position him for a breakout year in Charlottesville. While he's only made 15 career tackles, the staff feels he possesses the versatility and cover skills to excel in his new digs. Walker will stick to receivers, but also won't be bashful about stepping up and sticking a ballcarrier on running downs.
Strong safety appears to belong to sophomore Anthony Harris who cut his teeth by making 14 tackles as a backup last season. He'll be the total package once he fills out a wiry, 6-1, 180-pound frame. He's a multi-tooled athlete, with the work ethic and smarts to get exponentially better with more reps. Harris didn't just pull away from the competition in March and April; he put the opening under lock and key.
Watch Out For… the emergence of the underclassmen. Of the 12 defensive backs on the team's post-spring depth chart, 10 are either sophomores or redshirt freshmen. Many were top recruits from 2010 and 2011 who'll now be getting their first good opportunity to showcase their talent at this level.
Strength: Speed. The Cavaliers defensive backs are not very big, but, boy, can they fly. Even the safeties are athletic defenders, sinking fluidly into their hips, and easily going stride for stride with opposing receivers. The reps may not be there yet, but the base athleticism needed to excel in the secondary is in place.
Weakness: Inexperience. After losing three starters and another key backup to graduation, the decline in experience was going to be inevitable. The Cavaliers are going to be painfully young on the last line of defense, which could prove especially costly in early-season games with Penn State and TCU.
Outlook: It's the dawn of a new day for the Virginia secondary, which will be rebuilding on the fly. This is going to be a terrific collection of pass defenders, but when does that happen? With the exception of Walker, the primary players are sophomores, which could result in blown coverages and rocky outings. The good news is that the best quarterbacks on the schedule, Mike Glennon, Bryn Renner and Logan Thomas, won't have to be dealt with until November.
The Cavaliers will be breaking in a new placekicker and punter this season. Gulp. Robert Randolph was erratic as the kicker a year ago, so the team is actually eager to see what redshirt freshman Ian Frye is capable of doing in his first year. At 6-6 and 190 pounds, he's unusually tall for the position, with the leg whip to really drive the ball on field goal attempts and kickoffs.
The favorite to succeed Jimmy Howell at punter is sophomore Alec Vozenilek . While he had a heralded prep career, he has yet to see live action in his first two seasons on campus. Pushing for playing time at both punter and placekicker is junior Drew Jarrett who has some experience in the past handling kickoffs.
The Cavaliers have yet to decide on a punt returner or kick returner, a process that began in the spring and will continue in the summer.
Watch Out For… Frye's development. It won't get discussed much in the offseason, but Frye will be an underrated piece of the 2012 puzzle. Virginia is not strong in the red zone, and plays in plenty of tight games, meaning the accuracy of the kicker could be the difference between wins and losses this season.
Strength: sophomore Khalek Shepherd. Assuming he gets the nod as the kick returner, the 5-8, 185-pound playmaker showed impressive pop on special teams as a rookie. He averaged more than 26 yards on 16 attempts, twice setting up the offense with 48-yard bursts.
Weakness: Uncertainty in the kicking game. The likely kicker is a redshirt freshman. The sophomore punter has no experience. The Cavaliers are going to experience some rough patches on special teams as they introduce two new specialists into the mix.
Outlook: Virginia struggled in this area a year ago, and is likely to do so again in 2012. The Cavaliers aren't above average in any one particular area, a sketchy situation exacerbated by the fact that the punter and placekicker have no prior experience at this level. For a program teetering on the brink of ACC contention, a weak special teams unit could prove costly in key games.
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