Welcome to our 2020 Football Season Preview. To view our preview table of contents and read already-completed pieces, click here or on the Series button above.
The defensive backfield will close out our position group reviews for the defense.
The DBs are a bit of a mixed bag this year in that there’s a little bit of everything. There are player transfers into and out of the program, a departure to the NFL, a medical retirement, a walk on pressing for playing time, numerous youthful returnees looking to make their mark, and several talented newcomers.
Coming off a season where injuries really depleted their ranks, the DBs will almost certainly approach the 2020 season feeling like they have something to prove.
Nick Howell – VirginiaSports.com Bio
Bryce Hall – After being selected in the 5th Round of the 2020 NFL Draft, Hall is now a member of the New York Jets secondary. The loss of Hall, while still important, is not as jarring as possible since the Hoos played eight games without Hall last season. They’ve had time to adjust mentally to Hall’s absence as well as on the field. Still, there’s no easy way to replace a player of Hall’s caliber.
Myles Robinson – After not playing during the 2019 season, Robinson entered the transfer portal in December 2019. As of today, it does not appear that Robinson joined another football program.
Chris Moore – After starting 5 games, and playing in 9, for the Hoos in 2019, Moore also entered the transfer portal. He’ll play for Georgia State this season.
Germane Crowell – Crowell could not shake the injury bug at UVA. After missing most of the 2017 and 2018 seasons with injuries, he missed all of 2019 due to injury too. Crowell took a medical retirement in February 2020.
Major Williams – Williams played in 3 games for the Hoos as a true freshman in 2019. During the offseason, he transferred to Northwest Mississippi Community College in Senatobia, Mississippi.
Nick Grant – Senior (R) – 6’1″ 200 lb – When Darrius Bratton went down with an injury during 2019’s camp, Grant went from relative unknown to presumed starting cornerback overnight. Grant ended up starting all 14 games for the Hoos. His 8 pass break ups led the team. And his 2 interceptions were good for second best. One of those picks went the distance for a touchdown against William & Mary. Grant also finished the season with the seventh most tackles on the team with 51 (34 solo / 17 assisted). And for good measure, he chipped in half a sack too. Grant figures to be in the starting lineup once again when the season begins.
Brenton Nelson – Senior (R) – 5’11” 180 lb – Nelson, the 2017 ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year, started 5 games and played in 8 before going down with a season ending injury. In those 8 games, Nelson contributed 19 tackles (12 solo / 7 assisted). He also had 1 interception and 2 pass break ups. Listed on the roster as a free safety, Nelson is definitely better in a coverage role instead of playing in the box. His best role is often playing as the Hoos’ nickel back in sub packages. He does a credible job covering receivers in the slot.
De’Vante Cross – Senior (R) – 6’2″ 215 lb – You have to appreciate Cross’s willingness to do whatever it takes for the team to win. Over the course of his career, he’s played on special teams, at quarterback, at wide receiver, at corner, and at safety. Cross is now listed at free safety on the Hoos’ roster. During the 2019 season, Cross was one of the few top of the rotation defensive backs that was able to play in every game. He started each of UVA’s fourteen games in 2019. During the season, Cross finished fifth on the team in tackles with 60 (36 solo / 24 assisted). He also finished with 1 sack, 1 QB hurry, 8 pass break ups, and a couple interceptions. Expect Cross to be on the field early and often in 2020.
Joey Blount – Senior – 6’1″ 205 lb – The last of UVA’s returning seniors in the defensive backfield, Blount won Third Team All-ACC honors from his safety position for the Hoos. Blount made 11 starts while also appearing in all 14 games. Another player listed at free safety by UVA, Blount’s game is coming downhill and throwing his body around with abandon. He’s a fearsome hitter despite not having the typical build of someone known for laying the lumber. Blount’s brand of chaos was effective has he was second on the team in tackles with 95 (60 solo / 35 assisted). His 60 solo tackles were tops for the Hoos. Blount’s 3 interceptions also paced the team. And his 3.5 sacks were good for seventh. Blount also added 3 pass break ups, 1 QB hurry, and 1 fumble recovery to his stat line. Expect more of the same in 2020 as Blount makes one last ride through the ACC.
Heskin Smith – Junior (R) – 5’11” 175 lb – Another selfless Wahoo that’s played multiple positions during his career (wide receiver, corner), Smith seems to have settled in at cornerback now. The close of the 2019 season was a bit of a breakthrough for him as injuries throughout the secondary gave him an opportunity to get on the field. Smith responded well with 18 total tackles against Virginia Tech and Clemson. For the season, Smith finished with 28 tackles (20 solo / 8 assisted) and 2 pass break ups. Smith will likely push for a spot on the two deep at corner for 2020.
Darrius Bratton – Junior (R) – 6’0″ 200 lb – Before suffering a knee injury that cost him the entire 2019 campaign, Bratton looked to form one of the ACC’s best corner duos with Bryce Hall. He’ll try to bounce back to form from the 2018 season where he was a breakout player in the UVA defense. As long as Bratton’s knee is in good shape, he’ll likely start opposite Nick Grant at corner.
Darnell Pratt – Junior (R) – 6’2″ 185 lb – Pratt is another converted wide receiver now roaming UVA’s defensive backfield. Mostly a special teams player, Pratt is known for his speed. He made his career debut in 2019 where he made 3 tackles (2 solo / 1 assisted). Pratt figures to compete for a backup spot in the defensive backfield while being a heavy contributor on special teams.
Joseph White – Sophomore (R) – 6’1″ 180 lb – White made his debut as a redshirt freshman in 2019. He played in 10 of UVA’s 14 games. He was a deep reserve at safety and played on all kick coverage units. For the year, White made 2 assisted tackles. He should have a similar role in 2020.
Jaylon Baker – Sophomore (R) – 6’2″ 175 lb – Baker played in 5 games as a redshirt freshman in 2019. He earned one start at corner in the win over UNC at Chapel Hill. He was credited with 1 solo tackle on the season. Baker appeared to need more strength on his 6-2 frame before he could become a major contributor at corner. He’ll compete for a role as a backup corner and in sub packages in 2020 while hoping to make an impression on special teams.
Antonio Clary – Sophomore – 6’0″ 200 lb – Clary was another hard luck case in UVA’s defensive backfield. During his fifth game of the season, Clary suffered a season ending injury. The fifth game cost Clary his redshirt season. If not for his injury, he likely would have played in ten or eleven games for the Hoos in 2019. During his brief time on the field, Clary looked good as a reserve at safety and in defensive sub packages. He may require a little time to get back up to speed fully in 2020, but the veteran heavy depth chart ahead of him will allow for that. Clary did finish the 2019 season with 4 tackles (2 solo / 2 assisted).
Tenyeh Dixon – Sophomore – 5’11” 185 lb – With injuries mounting in 2019, Dixon’s number was called to play on special teams, in sub packages occasionally, and as a rotational backup in the defensive backfield. He ended up playing in nine games for the Hoos where he finished with 3 tackles (2 solo / 1 assisted). Like most of the younger defensive backs above, Dixon will have to bide his time before seeing a lot of time on the field doing something other than special teams.
Chayce Chalmers – Freshman (R) – 6’2″ 215 lb – Chalmers did not play in 2019. Assuming he does not outgrow the position, he seems to profile best as an in the box safety similar to Chris Moore. If he’s to make a significant contribution in 2020, it will likely be in a special teams role.
Fentrell Cyprus – Freshman (R) – 5’11” 180 lb – Cypress was able to maintain his redshirt after the 2019 season as he played in just two games. In those two games, Cypress did not record any stats. He’ll be another player waiting for the upperclassmen logjam to clear before becoming a factor at cornerback.
Coen King – Sophomore (R) – 6’0″ 190 lb – Unlike the other players above, King is a walk on. So far, King has made his mark on special teams at UVA. What caught my attention, and merited inclusion here, was that King selected his jersey number on the first night of the annual jersey draft. Jeff White then wrote a feature on King over at VirginiaSports.com. It chronicled his story in coming to UVA and then his quest to contribute to the football program as a walk on. He’s halfway there as he’s become a fixture on special teams. Next up for King is making a mark on defense from scrimmage. The depth chart looks to be working against him. However, a depth chart or lack of scholarship does not define a player’s drive. King is the current embodiment of will over skill in the program. He’s seemingly playing well in camp. I wouldn’t overlook his chances of making an impact on the defense in 2020.
Note that for all incoming recruits, their ranking info is as of when they signed with UVA.
D’Angelo Amos – Senior (R) – 6’1″ 185 lb – Amos is a grad transfer from James Madison. He announced his transfer to UVA on August 9. The safety, a 2019 AFCA FCS Coaches’ First Team All-American as an all-purpose player, is also a dangerous return man. Amos played in 44 career games for JMU where he was 2019 First Team All-CAA at safety and punt returner. During the 2019 season, he made 57 tackles, had 2 interceptions, broke up 5 passes, and blocked 3 kicks. He averaged 12.9 yards per punt return on 33 attempts. He also returned one punt for a touchdown. According to sources, Amos is turning heads with his play in camp. He’s likely to be a big factor on the field for the Hoos in 2020.
Donovan Johnson – Freshman – 6’2″ 195 lb – Johnson was a 247 composite 3 Star (.8647) recruit out of Helen Cox High School in Harvey, Louisiana. Johnson picked UVA over other offers from Arizona, Arkansas, Arizona State, Baylor, Colorado, Georgia Tech, Indiana, Kansas, Miami, Oklahoma, Rutgers, Texas Tech, Utah, West Virginia, Florida International, Houston, Liberty, Louisiana Tech, Louisiana-Monroe, Memphis, SMU, South Alabama, Southern Miss, Tulane, UNLV, Utah State, UTSA, Southern, and Southeastern Louisiana. Johnson, a January enrollee, is a high-IQ safety with range and good ball skills. His ceiling in 2020 is likely fighting for a spot on the two deep and special teams. The Hoos have established veterans at the safety position now. But Johnson appears to have a bright future.
Dave Herard – Freshman – 6’0″ 185 lb – Herard was a 247 composite 3 Start (.8451) recruit out of Stranahan High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Herard picked UVA over other offers from Boston College, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Rutgers, Syracuse, Utah, Buffalo, Eastern Michigan, Florida International, Florida Atlantic, Marshall, Northern Illinois, Toledo, Tulane, South Florida, Western Kentucky, Columbia, Cornell, and Dartmouth. Herard is a corner prospect that’s adept at providing run support and spying a QB in addition to his coverage responsibilities. The depth chart is working against Herard, but I like him as the sleeper prospect in the entire recruiting class.
Elijah Gaines – Freshman – 6’2″ 195 lb – Gaines, a native of Queens, New York, was a 247 composite 3 Star (.8776) recruit out of Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia. A one-time Penn State commit, Gaines picked UVA over other offers from Penn State, Boston College, Duke, Georgia Tech, Michigan, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Pitt, Purdue, Rutgers, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Wisconsin, and East Carolina. A safety prospect, Gaines seems to be making an impact during camp from his appearance in highlight videos released by the football program. Gaines has excellent coverage skills and will challenge for a starting safety spot early in his career. This will sound like a broken record by now, but the current depth chart is prohibitive for Gaines in 2020.
Joey Blount – Blount is the top returning player in the UVA secondary. And he was one of the top performers on the defense in 2019. It would be an upset if he doesn’t lead the unit again in 2020.
D’Angelo Amos – I’m not sure it’s fair to put a grad transfer here. But Amos is new to the Hoos, so there’s no baseline established for his performance. The rest of the likely contributors are players the fans have come to know and watch over one to multiple seasons already. If the growing buzz on Amos is accurate, then he’s likely to open a lot of eyes this season. If not for Amos, I probably would have picked Darrius Bratton assuming his injury is 100% healed.
A Stab at the Opening Day Depth Chart
Nick Grant (SR-R)
Jaylon Baker (SO-R)
D’Angelo Amos (SR-R)
De’Vante Cross (SR-R)
Joey Blount (SR)
Brenton Nelson (SR-R)
Darrius Bratton (JR-R)
Heskin Smith (JR-R)
Brenton Nelson (SR-R)
De’Vante Cross (SR-R)
Grade: B / B+
On the grade above, I think this unit falls somewhere between a B and B+ depending on a few factors. Will they stay healthy? Will those returning from injury need a lot of time to get back to pre-injury levels of performance? Will any of the younger players step up to challenge the established veterans?
Coach Howell has an interesting dilemma with such a veteran group. With 5 seniors and 2 redshirt juniors, there’s the possibility of a ton of turnover in the offseason. He’ll need to balance playing the best players, typically presumed to be the veterans in this group, with getting the next generation of Wahoo DBs some experience.
The players themselves will likely attack the season with a chip on their shoulder. They will not be happy with their level of performance post Bryce Hall injury. They’ll play feeling that they have a lot to prove.
If they misfire, look for the defensive coaching staff to scheme to help the coverages out. The defensive brain trust at UVA are akin to a group of mad scientists. There’s no telling what they may cook up from week to week.