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2008 Virginia Preview - Defense

CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted May 20, 2008


CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Virginia Cavalier Defense

Virginia Cavaliers

Preview 2008 - Defense


- 2008 CFN Virginia Preview | 2008 Virginia Offense
- 2008 Virginia Defense | 2008 Virginia Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Virginia Preview | 2006 CFN Virginia Preview 

What you need to know: Who’s going to rush the passer? As if losing Chris Long isn’t tough enough, the line also has to replace Jeffrey Fitzgerald, who left school. The pair combined for 21 sacks last season, leaving behind an untested set of backups who won’t make life any easier for an already vulnerable Cav secondary. Chris Cook was the team’s top cover corner, but didn’t keep up in the classroom, putting pressure on young Ras-I Dowling to mature even faster than he did a year ago as a true freshman. The unquestioned strength of the defense is at linebacker, where Jon Copper, Antonio Appleby, and Clint Sintim represent three of last season’s top seven tacklers.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Jon Copper, 109
Sacks: Jon Copper, 3
Interceptions: Jon Copper, Ras-I Dowling, 2

Star of the defense: Senior LB Clint Sintim
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DE Alex Field
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore CB Ras-I Dowling
Best pro prospect: Sintim
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Sintim, 2) Senior LB Jon Copper, 3) Senior LB Antonio
Appleby
Strength of the defense: The linebackers, run defense
Weakness of the defense: Rebuilt defensive line, the secondary

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: The entire defensive line needs to be retooled, including replacing All-American and inspirational leader Chris Long. Scheduled to take over at defensive end are 6-7, 270-pound senior Alex Field and 6-4, 275-pound sophomore Sean Gottschalk.

Field played in all 13 games a year ago, making 11 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks.  He has the great size and tireless work ethic on the field and in the weight room to make a push for the NFL in his final season on campus.

Gottschalk was one of the program’s top recruits from 2005, a terrific athlete for his size who continues to grow into his frame. Slated to be a backup before Jeffrey Fitzgerald left school, he has an opportunity to make a splash as a pass rusher a year earlier than anticipated.

At nose tackle will be 6-2, 280-pound junior Nate Collins, a natural leader who has lettered in each of his first two seasons with the Cavaliers. An active player with a non-stop motor, he produced 31 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and a pair of sacks as Allen Billyk’s backup last season. With a chance for more playing time, he could eventually mature into a borderline All-ACC performer.          

Projected Top Reserves
: Much like the offensive line, depth will be in the hands of a bunch of very young and unproven players. In fact, the entire second team could be comprised of redshirt freshmen. On the inside, 6-3, 285-pound Nick Jenkins is expected to do his apprenticeship under Collins for the next couple of seasons. Very tough at the point of contact and continuously getting stronger, he should become a factor early on.

The rising star of the line appears to be redshirt freshman DE Matt Conrath, an athletic 6-7, 269-pounder who’s been turning heads since arriving on campus. Strong enough to play on the inside and built like the next great UVa offensive tackle, he’ll stay right where he is and continue developing into a much-needed disruptive pass rusher.

Not unlike Conrath, 6-6, 267-pound Zane Parr is a another well-sized, physical defensive end with the quickness to make plays for negative yards. More than just a pass rusher, he also has the power and upper body strength to be a factor in run defense.      

Watch Out For
... Collins to take a quantum leap now that he’s been promoted to the first team.  A playmaker when he was a reserve, he has the instincts and quickness to help keep the Cavs from slipping too much in run defense.
Strength
: Size. In a word, this group is massive, precisely what’s needed to successfully run the 3-4. No one on the two-deep is lighter than 265 pounds, and Field, Gottschalk, Conrath, and Parr have the height that should annoy quarterbacks looking to throw over them.
Weakness
:
Proven experience. There isn’t much, especially on the second unit. The reserves have considerable upside, but there’s cause for concern when all three are freshmen.
Outlook: This is one of those units that’s going to be considerably better in November than it is in September, largely due to the inexperience of so many key players in the rotation. While the line certainly won’t kill the defense, it also won’t get nearly as much backfield pressure as last year.
Rating: 6.5

Linebackers

Projected Starters: With three of the top four returning tacklers coming from this group, linebacker will be the strength of the defense, and possibly the entire team. Senior Jon Copper has come a long way since arriving as a walk-on, leading the team in stops in consecutive years, making 109 tackles, nine tackles for loss, and three sacks. At 6-0 and 230 pounds, he doesn’t have the measurables of the other linebackers, but he makes up for it with great instincts and the intensity and work ethic to always be near the ball.

Next to Copper on the inside is 6-4, 250-pound Antonio Appleby, who looks and plays as if his career won’t end in Charlottesville. Fast and physical from his station on the field, he’s been a productive run stopper the last two years, making 60 tackles a year ago to go along with five tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, and a half-dozen pass breakups.

The most dynamic of the Cavalier linebackers, however, resides on the outside.  Entering his fourth and final year as a starter, senior Clint Sintim has emerged as a versatile force for the D, defending the run and getting after the passer with equal success. At 6-3 and 254 pounds, he performs like a hybrid defensive end, registering a career-high 77 tackles, nine tackles for loss, and nine sacks in his junior year.

The only new starter will be 6-1, 235-pound sophomore Jared Detrick, who’s scheduled to supplant Jermaine Dias at one of the outside positions. One of just five true freshmen to see action, he got on the field for 11 games as a regular on the kickoff coverage team. An explosive athlete, he can be used on the blitz and has the hips to cover backs when they leave the backfield.   

Projected Top Reserves: On the second team, the Cavs will feature a nice mix of veterans and promising underclassmen. Senior Aaron Clark has played plenty of football for the program, appearing in 30 games, typically as a contributor on special teams. At 6-5 and 250 pounds, he brings know-how and a physical presence to the outside position.

Junior Denzell Burrell will be a key backup on the inside for one more season before moving into the starting lineup a year from now. A ferocious hitter at 6-4 and 230 pounds, he made a dozen tackles appearing in all 13 games.

The future star among the underclassmen is redshirt freshman J'Courtney Williams, a former top recruit who’s itching to get on the field. At 6-3 and 218 pounds, he still needs to fill out, but has the lateral quickness and sticking ability to start making plays early in his career.

Watch Out For ... Copper to make it three straight years as the team’s leading tackler. Even with good talent around him, he always finds a way to the ball and rarely misses an opportunity to pad his numbers.
Strength
: Talent and experience. Not only do three senior starters return to the lineup, but all have enough talent to finish their careers on the All-ACC squad.
Weakness: Pass defense. The big, bad Cavalier linebackers are nasty in run defense and disruptive when rushing the passer, but drop them back in coverage and it could be a problem against some of the league’s slicker tight ends.
Outlook
: For the second straight year, this will be a very solid group of linebackers that’ll form the backbone of the defense. Copper, Sintim, and Appleby will clean up a ton of messes, especially as the defensive line adjusts to having three new starters.
Rating: 8

Secondary

Projected Starters: More than any other unit, the secondary was dented by offseason and off-field problems.  Not only did S Nate Lyles graduate, but corners Chris Cook and Mike Brown are no longer with the school, testing the group’s depth. The unlikely veteran of the group is senior S Byron Glaspy, a former walk-on who has emerged as a two-year starter and a steady performer in run defense. While he won’t floor opponents with his measurables, the 5-11, 206-pounder did produce a career-high 71 tackles and two tackles for loss last year.

Glaspy will be joined by safety 6-2, 211-pound junior Brandon Woods, a former receiver who hits like a linebacker. In two years, his experience has mostly been limited to special teams, meaning he’ll have to elevate his play, especially in pass defense, in order to remain in the top spot.

The front-runners at cornerback are a couple of sophomores with high ceilings, 6-2, 200-pound Mike Parker and 6-2, 200-pound Ras-I Dowling. Parker played mostly in nickel and dime packages as a freshman, appearing in 13 games and making 26 tackles. He’s got improving cover skills wrapped in a safety’s body, a blend that has the coaching staff excited.

If Dowling keeps working hard, he has a chance to someday become one of the ACC’s premier lockdown corners. He possesses the size, speed, and natural leaping ability to excel at the position, particularly with a full season of experience already in the vault. As a true freshman, he laid the groundwork with 44 tackles, a couple of picks, and a team-high nine pass breakups.          

Projected Top Reserves: Junior Vic Hall started 12 games a year ago, making 58 tackles, and is certainly capable of regaining that job over the summer. While only 5-9 and 190 pounds, he’s tough in the open field and one of the best overall athletes among the defensive backs. Whether or not he starts, he’ll clearly have an important role in the Cavs’ defensive packages.         

Sophomore Trey Womack is another one of the cornerbacks who’ll factor prominently into the defensive plans this season. One of the fastest players on the team at 5-11 and 182 pounds, he mostly played on special teams a year ago, but will get more opportunities to shut off passing lanes in his second season of action.

The top safety off the bench will be 5-10, 190-pound sophomore Rico Bell, a speedy thumper who appeared in seven games in his debut season. If he shows he can cover, the opportunity exists to garner plenty of playing time when Virginia shifts into its nickel and dime packages. 

Watch Out For ... Dowling. After showing glimpses of being special last fall, he backed it up by playing even better during offseason drills.  Physically, he has all of the tools to begin attracting the attention of NFL scouts in a couple of years.
Strength: The corners.  While Dowling, Parker, and Womack are bubbling over with upside potential, Hall brings starting experience and a veteran’s presence to the position.
Weakness
:
Depth at safety.  Glaspy has proven himself in the ACC, but after him, the Cavaliers have more question marks than sure things. Moving Hall to free safety is an option the coaching staff could explore.
Outlook: With less help than a year ago from the pass rush, Virginia could get exposed through the air, especially against the likes of USC and Clemson.  Yeah, there are going to be mistakes and missed assignments, but led by Dowling, the sophomore cornerbacks give the defense plenty to be excited about in the future. 
Rating: 7

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Like so many areas of the roster, the Cavs are being forced to rebuild on special teams with a new placekicker and punter. Replacing clutch K Chris Gould will be redshirt freshman Chris Hinkebein, who was being groomed for this moment since being recruited out of of North Carolina. At 6-1 and 190 pounds, he has a long leg and enough pop to also be used as the kickoff specialist.

Gould and All-ACC second teamer Ryan Weigrand deftly shared the punting job. Filling in will be senior John Thornton, a walk-on who has yet to see any time. At 6-4 and 212 pounds, he has good size, but the lack of experience makes him a big question mark.

Back to return punts will be junior Vic Hall, who finished fifth in the ACC with an average of 10 yards a return. He, senior Cedric Peerman, and junior Mikell Simpson all have experience handling kickoffs, and will be working in unison to light a spark under that area of special teams.

Watch Out For ... Hinkebein’s development. Virginia doesn’t have the kind of offense that’ll consistently finish drives and crank out touchdowns. The Cavs rely heavily on the leg of their kicker, which is why it’s so important that the redshirt freshman doesn’t perform like a redshirt freshman.
Strength: The return game. Hall provided a spark to the punt return game, averaging 10 yards and taking his first opportunity back for 67 yards. Had it not been for the injury to Peerman, the Cavs wouldn’t have been so pedestrian on kick returns. Before getting hurt, he was one of the more productive return men in the country.
Weakness
: A sure thing at either kicking position. Neither Hinkebein nor Thornton has ever attempted a kick for the program. Uh-oh.
Outlook
: After being a strength and so vital to last year’s 9-4 mark, the special teams unit is in danger of becoming a liability that could cost the Cavs a game or two. In order to buck that forecast, it’ll be up to Hinkebein and Thornton to perform better than expected in their debuts as starters. 
Rating: 6