Welcome back to our 2018 Football Season Preview. In this installment, we're tackling the Defensive Backs position group.
Bronco Mendenhall’s roots are on defense. He served as a defensive assistant for ~10 years before becoming defensive coordinator at New Mexico from 1998 – 2002. He then served as defensive coordinator for BYU for two years before taking over as head coach in 2005. As Virginia head coach, he still calls the plays on game day for Virginia’s defense.
So there’s likely not too many people more excited than Mendenhall himself for the secondary he’ll get to coach this season. They’re really, really good. Senior Juan Thornhill, who received third-team All-ACC honors in 2017, will lead the unit, sliding back into his more natural safety position. Junior Bryce Hall returns as a physical, lock down corner, while sophomore Brenton Nelson will again roam the defensive backfield a year removed from earning ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year. With Tim Harris finishing up his Cavalier career with a sixth season and guys like Chris Moore and Germane Crowell at Mendenhall’s disposal, all sorts of lineups are suddenly on the table, likely to give opposing quarterbacks fits.
This is as good of a position group as Mendenhall has coached in his brief stint at Virginia. The ACC has officially been warned.
Quin Blanding. The illustrious career of the former five-star safety ranks among the best in recent Cavalier memory. Blanding finished with 495 career tackles, good for No. 1 in program history and No. 6 all time in ACC history. His 49 career starts ranks No. 2 in the UVa record books, and those starts included just one bowl game. He had a plethora of All-American and All-ACC honors as well.
Blanding will certainly be missed – he attacked the run like a linebacker (making 3.5 tackles for loss last season), and snagged a career high four interceptions a year ago, including one that was returned for a touchdown. That said, Virginia is well-stocked at safety and is in good shape to replace the All-American.
De’Vante Cross has also moved back to the offensive side of the ball, focusing on wide receiver, so don’t expect to see him in the defensive backfield anymore, either.
The rest of 2017’s starters, and then some. Most notably from last season, that group includes senior Juan Thornhill (third team All-ACC as a junior), junior Bryce Hall, and sophomore Brenton Nelson (last year's ACC Defensive RoY) – three terrific players in their own right. Depth also returns with Tim Harris (who decided to come back for a sixth season) at cornerback, special teams ace Joey Blount at safety, and swiss army knife Chris Moore in his hybrid safety / linebacker role. Not to mention redshirt freshman Germane Crowell (who received a medical hardship waiver for his “upper extremity” injury last season), sophomores Nick Grant and Darrius Bratton, and junior Myles Robinson, who started three games in 2016 before a suffering a season ending injury and later sitting out 2017 (when the coaching staff had planned to move him to safety).
That’s as good of a returning unit as you’ll find in the ACC.
Juan Thornhill - Senior - 6-1, 210
Bryce Hall - Junior - 6-1, 200
Brenton Nelson - Sophomore - 5-11, 180
Tim Harris - Senior - 6-1, 205
Myles Robinson - Junior - 5-11, 190
Joey Blount - Sophomore - 6-1, 190
Chris Moore - Sophomore - 6-0, 210 (S/LB)
Germane Crowell - Freshman (R) - 6-2, 200
Nick Grant - Sophomore - 6-1, 195
Darrius Bratton - Sophomore - 6-0, 195
Virginia added a pair of three stars in corner Jaylon Baker and safety Joseph White in its 2018 recruiting class. Both Baker (from Chattanooga, Tenn.) and White (Virginia Beach, Va.) have good size, standing at 6-foot-2. Both are also impressive athletes who also spent time at receiver in high school. White also returned punts for Landstown. Barring disaster, neither will be needed for meaningful snaps in 2018. Whether or not they take a redshirt season will likely depend on their special teams contributions, but either way, Virginia will have two players to learn behind a talented and deep position group.
After redshirting in 2017, Riah Burton, a January enrollee who participated in 2017 spring practice, will also be available this season. Burton was a former two-star recruit.
Juan Thornhill. Forced to play corner the last two seasons due to injury, Thornhill will slide into his more natural position at safety, allowing for a near seamless transition as Virginia replaces Blanding. Thornhill is great at attacking the line of scrimmage, notching 4.5 tackles for loss a year ago, and has arguably the best ball-tracking instincts of any Cavalier in the defensive backfield, tallying four interceptions last season and three the year before. As a senior this season, Thornhill will lead one of the best defensive backfields in the country.
Chris Moore, although this one is admittedly tough to project. Joey Blount was all the rage this offseason, and despite a broken collarbone during spring ball, if injuries force Thornhill to move back to corner, Blount is probably your breakout guy. Germane Crowell is another player to watch, too, as he will likely play as the third corner, which could involve meaningful snaps depending on how secondary coach Nick Howell deploys his unit.
But for now, let’s say Chris Moore, who is likely to get the most playing time of those without a defined role. Moore is the type of player that will allow Mendenhall to deploy more 3-3-5 schemes vs. a traditional 3-4 base defense, so Moore is likely to see action both on early downs as well as in clear passing situations. The Ashburn, Va-native was forced to play a bit out of position last year, starting five games as a traditional outside linebacker while Malcolm Cook sat out with injury. This season, Moore will see more time covering tight ends and running backs and also as a situational blitzer. Expect him to snag a few interceptions and make a few plays in the backfield as well.
A Stab at the UofR Game Depth Chart
This is the most excited I’ve been about a Virginia position group in quite some time. Virginia has three top-tier ACC players starting in Thornhill, Hall, and Nelson, not to mention Tim Harris, who has always had the tools to excel – maybe this is his year. Add in guys like Moore, Crowell, and Blount, and I might just fall out of my chair. I seriously don’t know if there’s a better group in the ACC.
Big, physical corners paired with two rangy safeties is a quarterback’s nightmare, especially if he’s under duress. I’m hoping the front-seven can generate enough pressure for these guys to have the stats to show just how good they are. Either way, this unit will be the unquestioned strength of the defense in 2018, and it has all of the pieces in place to be just as fearsome in 2019. Get excited, Virginia fans – this is the best position group Mendenhall has coached at Virginia.