2013 Virginia Preview – Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - Virginia Cavalier Defense
Preview 2013 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: Not since Chris Long was still an amateur has Virginia had a pass rush capable of disrupting the other guy's offensive gameplan. Enter Jon Tenuta. The well-traveled assistant is returning to his alma mater intent on making the Cavaliers a more aggressive team. Being aggressive is in Tenuta's DNA, from as far back as his days as a defensive back, and now he'll try to pass that gene along to his new pupils. The strength of this D will be in the secondary, where CB Demetrious Nicholson and S Anthony Harris head the return of all four of last year's starters. The pass defense was erratic in 2012, which can partially be attributable to that sagging pass rush. Much will be expected from the linebackers, specifically middle man Henry Coley, and defensive ends Jake Snyder and Eli Harold. Virginia sort of knows what it's going to get from the senior Snyder. Harold, though, is a wild card, a second-year athlete off the edge who came to C'Ville in 2012 as a five-star recruit.
Star of the defense: Junior CB Demetrious Nicholson
Tackles: Anthony Harris, 103
Sacks: Jake Snyder, 2.5
Interceptions: Maurice Canady, 2
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior LB Henry Coley
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DE Eli Harold
Best pro prospect: Nicholson
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Nicholson, 2) Junior SS Anthony Harris, 3) Senior DE Jake Snyder
Strength of the defense: Run stopping, the secondary, third-down D
Weakness of the defense: The pass rush, linebacker, takeaways, red-zone D
The Cavaliers are retooling along the D-line after losing their two best tackles and a pair of productive ends. Someone has to step up at an area that underachieved in 2012. The ends will be looking to 6-4, 270-pound Jake Snyder for guidance in the fall. He's started all but one game over the last two seasons, and brings plenty of intangibles to the huddle, but his production has not matched that of a starting end. Last year, despite playing in a career-high 703 plays, for instance, he only managed 44 tackles, 5.5 stops for loss and 2.5 sacks and four pass breakups.
The emerging star on the other side of the line is second-year sophomore Eli Harold, the five-star gem from the 2012 class. He played plenty last season, despite starting just one game, getting his feet wet with 36 tackles, seven stops for loss and a pair of sacks. At 6-4 and 225 pounds, he has the elite athleticism and quick first step that no other pass rusher on the roster can boast. Harold could be ready to take off in 2013.
Sophomore Mike Moore won't generate nearly as many headlines as Harold, but he, too, lettered as a true freshman in 2012. He appeared in all 12 games, chipping in with 14 tackles and two stops behind the line. At 6-4 and 265 pounds, he has the right frame to backup Snyder as a strongside end.
The losses of tackles Chris Brathwaite and Will Hill were significant blows to the front wall. Looking to pick up some of the slack will be 6-7, 280-pound senior Brent Urban, who has had a very good offseason in Jon Tenuta's attacking scheme. The Canadian native plays with good footwork, and has the long wingspan needed to disrupt the quarterback's field of vision. As a 12-game starter last year, though, he quietly produced just 20 tackles and two sacks.
Battling to become a newcomer in the starting lineup at tackle is 6-1, 280-pound sophomore David Dean, the D's most improved player of the spring. He played sparingly as a rookie, making three tackles and a sack off the bench. The staff hopes his quickness, motor and low center of gravity will lead to disruptive bursts through the gaps of opposing O-lines.
Senior Justin Renfrow, a 6-6, 310-pound reserve, will bring both size and seasoning to the tackle position. He was in on a career-high 167 plays last season, making 11 tackles and earning a letter.
Watch Out For .... Harold to begin flashing signs of an emerging star in the ACC. He played very well in his debut, despite learning on the fly. With a full year and an offseason under his belt, his speed and package of athleticism will translate into the kinds of numbers that turn heads around the league.
Strength: Talent mix. The Cavs have the veterans, Snyder and Urban, who will help guide the kids, Harold, Dean and others. The line features a good combination of players in different stages of their careers, some offering sage leadership, with the rest generating a competitive environment.
Weakness: Proven pass rushers. Not since 2008 has Virginia ranked higher than 68th nationally in sacks. A year ago, the team was 90th, and the lead sacker from that ineffective unit is no longer with the team. Harold as an every-down player ought to help, but the balance of the linemen has become too easy to neutralize.
Outlook: Like too many units on this squad, the D-line is marginal, lacking punch or star power. Although Harold has a high ceiling, he's still learning as a second-year player. The new system encourages being in attack mode, but such a plan might have to be initiated by the back seven. Although Virginia will hold the line against the run, pressure from the front four will remain sporadic.
The graduations of Steve Greer and LaRoy Reynolds have left the Cavaliers adjusting to changes on the second level. To fill the void left by Greer in the middle, 6-2, 235-pound Henry Coley is moving from strongside, where he started eight games in 2012. He's naturally an inside linebacker, so the shift doesn't figure to include a steep learning curve. The junior is smart and physical at the point of contact, making 40 tackles and 4.5 stops for loss before being sidelined due to a suspension.
Taking the lead at Coley's old strongside spot is 6-3, 225-pound sophomore Demeitre Brim. He was on the field for about 20 plays a game last season, making eights stops and forcing two fumbles. He shows good range and closing speed, now needing to add some weight to a long frame that can handle it.
The team's deepest linebacker position will be at weakside, where junior Daquan Romero tops the depth chart. The 6-1, 230-pound saw plenty of action last season, notching 44 tackles and 3.5 stops for loss. He took over at strongside after Coley was suspended in late October, but the staff feels that his skill set is better suited for weakside. Just behind Romero will be 6-0, 220-pound D.J. Hill, an emergency starter against TCU and Louisiana Tech in 2012. He wound up earning a letter, contributing on special teams and making 13 stops.
Backing up Coley in the middle will be 6-2, 250-pound sophomore Kwontie Moore, one of nine true freshmen to make their debuts in 2012. He made four stops, but more important showed the toughness and the physicality that the coaching staff looks for in an inside linebacker.
Watch Out For .... Coley to show that he's learned his lesson. The junior broke team rules last fall, entered Mike London's doghouse and squandered some career momentum. He's back and focused, eager to show why he's the most talented Cavalier of this unit. Coley also appears to have embraced the philosophical changes of the D, which ought to help his cause.
Strength: The measurables. Virginia has made it a habit to recruit and sign linebackers who pass the eye test. Across the board, these defenders are big and fast, versatile athletes who can do a little bit of everything for the staff. The starters average 6-2 and 230 pounds, with room to grow in the summer.
Weakness: Leadership. The Cavs lost plenty with the departures of Greer and Reynolds, and not just in the box score. Gone are two of last year's emotional and physical leaders, leaving behind an average unit of linebackers, comprised of players yet to reach their full potential in uniform.
Outlook: Coley has a modestly high ceiling, assuming he maintains his focus. The rest of the linebackers are largely an average group that won't be attracting the attention of all-league voters. The upcoming campaign will give the team a chance to regroup from the departures of two key players, and gradually prepare younger players for increased roles.
All four starters return to the defensive backfield, lending optimism that Virginia could boast one of the ACC's stingiest pass defenses of 2013. Junior CB Demetrious Nicholson has laid a solid foundation over his first two seasons, earning honorable mention all-league a year ago. The third-year starter broke up 15 passes as a sophomore to go along with 56 tackles. Nicholson is fluid and instinctive in pass coverage, but at only 5-11 and 170 pounds he still needs to pack on a little more girth and muscle in order to prevent getting overmatched by physical wide receivers.
Junior Anthony Harris is becoming to the safeties what Nicholson is to the cornerbacks. He took flight in his first season as a starter, leading the team's defensive backs with 87 tackles. Harris did not miss a game in 2012, playing with the same fire and intensity in November that he had in September. The former high school quarterback is still learning the nuances of his position, but he has the athleticism and the 6-1, 185-pound frame to continue evolving into a top run defender over the second half of his career.
With Harris shifting to strong safety, 6-0, 175-pound strong>Brandon Phelps is expected to take his place at free safety. The junior started all 12 games in 2012, making 48 tackles and three pass breakups. The former four-star recruit from the 2011 class is a terrific all-around who should be ready to make the jump in his evolution now that he's had a full year of starting experience.
Nicholson's partner at cornerback will once again be 6-0, 175-pound junior DreQuan Hoskey. He started all but two games in 2012, registering 36 tackles and five pass breakups. He continues to make strides as a pass defender, but more growth is needed to avoid being picked on by those quarterbacks looking to stay away from Nicholson's side of the field.
In the two games that Hoskey didn't start—NC State and Miami—he was replaced in the lineup by 6-2, 180-pound Maurice Canady who has a bright future with the program. Just a second-year sophomore, he averaged more than 30 plays a game, and logged 28 tackles, three pass breakups and a team-high two picks. Canady might spell one of the starters or be valuable in nickel and dime packages.
The most valuable reserve at safety is Phelps' backup, 5-10, 190-pound senior Rijo Walker. The converted cornerback has played in 37 career games, earning three letters, and posted a career-best 20 tackles last season.
Watch Out For… the ability of rookie Tim Harris to avoid a redshirt season. The four-star recruit could have continued his career at Cal, Michigan, Ohio State or Virginia Tech, but decided to be a Cavalier instead. While he has the size and the speed to contribute right away, Virginia's depth chart won't be an easy one to navigate.
Strength: Continuity. Every defensive back who started a game in 2012 is back in Charlottesville in 2013. That's a big deal for this group, which ranked fifth in the ACC in pass efficiency defense. Looking ahead, all of this year's starters are juniors, so the growth pattern shouldn't stop until at least 2014.
Weakness: Ball skills. Where were the turnovers last year? The Cavaliers were thrown on 395 times, yet had a measly four interceptions, tied for fourth fewest in the FBS. Nicholson, as an example, is Virginia's best cover guy, yet not one of his 15 tipped balls resulted in an interception.
Outlook: The secondary is shaping up as the strength of the defense, and arguably one of the most complete units on the entire squad. The Cavaliers struggled against the likes of TCU's Casey Pachall, Duke Sean Renfree, Miami's Stephen Johnson and North Carolina's Bryn Renner, and the lack of picks was a problem. But a year older should mean a year better, especially since there's no turnover in the starting lineup.
Now that Drew Jarrett has left the program, the Cavaliers are likely to hand the kicking over to sophomore
Ian Frye, a part-time performer in 2012. The unusually rangy 6-6, 210-pounder hit 3-of-5 field goal attempts, and could handle kickoffs this fall as well.
Back at punter will be junior Alec Vozenilek. In his first year as the successor to Jimmy Howell, he averaged 40.6 yards, with an impressive net of 37.9 yards. He's worked on his leg strength and fundamentals this offseason to improve his distance and hang time.
The Cavaliers have yet to decide on a punt returner or a kick returner, a process that began in the spring and will continue in the summer. Junior Khalek Shepherd has been the school's primary specialist the last two years, so it goes to figure that he'll be back in the same role in the fall.
Watch Out For… Frye's development. It won't get discussed a ton in the summer, but Frye will be an underrated piece of the 2013 puzzle. The Cavs are traditionally sketchy in the red zone, and play in a slew of close games, so the accuracy of the kicker could be the difference between wins and losses this fall.
Strength: Shepherd. Assuming he gets the nod, the 5-8, 185-pound playmaker should once again provide a much-needed spark on special teams. Yeah, his numbers slipped a bit in 2012, but he did snap off a 72-yarder on kickoffs, and is the most reliable part on an otherwise shaky unit.
Weakness: Kick coverage. There were 124 programs in the FBS a year ago. All but one was tighter in kick coverage than the Cavaliers. Virginia ranked 123rd nationally at 27.5 yards a return, while allowing two to be taken back for touchdowns. The special teams unit put way too much additional pressure on the D last season.
Outlook: The program continues to face problems on special teams, and will likely do so again in 2013. The legs are average, even less so at placekicker with Frye. And the coverage teams have been a perennial problem. Shepherd will have a moment or two, but not enough to compensate for an otherwise subpar collection of special teamers.
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