This piece is a part of our 2018 football preview. To view other entries in the preview series, click here.
Virginia's defense had an up and down year last season, showing up big in some games, failing to show up at all in others. We saw three top-notch defenders move on to pro careers, DE Andrew Brown, LB Micah Kiser, and S Quin Blanding, but is it crazy to suggest that in the wake of those elite talents, might we actually see the defense improve?
2017 Production Allowed (ACC Rank)
Yards/Gm: 199.3 (13th)
Yards/Att: 4.7 (11th)
Yards/Gm: 165.8 (2nd)
Yards/Att: 6.7 (6th)
Yards/Gm: 365.1 (7th)
Yards/Att: 5.4 (7th)
Sacks/Gm: 2.15 (7th)
Third Down Conv: 36.7% (7th)
Points/Gm: 28.4 (12th)
Turnovers/Gm: 1.4 (9th)
Position Group Summaries
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Continuity - This is our third year with these defensive coaches (by and large... Vic So'oto replaced Ruffin McNeill on the D-Line after Year 1), meaning most of our playable roster now has multiple offseasons under their instruction, and 1 or 2 seasons completed executing these schemes on the field. This doesn't guarantee success, of course, but it hopefully helps raise the floor, as players are able to play freer, more reactive defense, without having to think too much on assignments or responsiblities that are now ingrained and second nature. Hopefully it means fewer missed assignments or other mental errors, allowing us to better play to our potential.
Pass coverage - The secondary performed admirably last year. It near led the league in pass yards allowed per game, though of course a lot of that was due to our league-low pass attempts faced, as teams schemed to run on us all day. But even then, we were 6th in yards allowed per pass attempt, and were third in INTs with 15. In fact, our INT rate (the % of opponents pass attempts we pick off) was highest in the league at near 5%. Yes, we're going to miss all-ACC safety Quin Blanding and his 4 INTs, but the rest of a very strong unit comes back, along with some intriguing reinforcement. First, we get 4 INTs back apiece from senior Juan Thornhill and ACC Defensive ROY Brenton Nelson, both of whom will line up at Safety this year. On the corners, we've got Germane Crowell and Tim Harris both back from injury, both with big upsides. At nickel safety is the highly experienced LB/S hybrid Chris Moore (played primarily at LB last year). These five, if healthy, are one of the ACC's best secondaries (Athlon has them rated 4th in the league). There's good depth too, with Bryce Hall and Joey Blount ready to take on bigger roles, and former 2016 starter Myles Robinson back after missing the 2017 season.
Defensive line experience - This past offseason was a tumultuous one for the D-Line position group. John Kirven, James Trucilla, and Christian Brooks were medically retired. Juwan Moye and Steven Wright were booted for discipline issues. Christian Baumgardner also left the team. And of course Andrew Brown graduated. That's seven guys gone from a position group that was already considered thin and inexperienced. Replacing them are two transfers, Dylan Thompson and Cassius Peat, a converted TE in Richard Burney, and five freshmen (two RS, three true). Peat has no FBS experience (redshirted at Michigan State and then went JuCo), and Thompson is hardly any better, only seeing time in 2 games over his four years at Ohio State. Only two players return with any real experience from last year's squad in Alonso and Hanback.
3 Keys to Success
1. A healthy D-Line - We've already discussed just how green our D-Line is, only having five players who can be even somewhat reliably counted on at the moment, and only two of them with significant D-1 experience. The defense is already going to be forced to scheme to compensate. But while the DL may be tenuously stitched together as of today, it's all going to come unraveled if/when any of those expected rotation players (Hanback, Alonso, Peat, Burney, and Thompson) miss extended time. None of the freshman are expected to be ready this year, and while some of them may be able to fill in for a few plays here and there, asking them to contribute for multiple games is a recipe for chaos. We need those top 5 to hold the fort across 12 games as much as possible.
2. Commit the linebackers to run defense - The book on attacking Virginia's defense is simple. Ground and pound. Our D-Line is a giant walking question mark, and until we can prove we're not a one-dimensional defense, every team we see is going to target our run defense. That means we have to sell out against the run on every 1st, 2nd, and short distance 3rd down. Trust our DB's in man coverage and load the box, turn Peace and Snowden into hybrid down linemen, and put the ILBs and at least one of the Safeties to work going downhill to plug gaps and seek and destroy the ball carriers. This does make us vulnerable to play-action, of course, especially against teams capable of working the middle of the field with TEs and slot receivers. But frankly, at least early on, we need to be crashing the line of scrimmage first and foremost and make teams beat us with the pass, as opposed to simply letting them beat us with the run.
3. Change the game with interceptions - If Key #2 above is put into effect, and especially if it has any success affecting an opponent's pass/run balance (we saw opponents run the ball 557 times last year and throw it only 322, the most lopsided balance in the ACC by a considerable margin), then that's going to put the spotlight on the coverage unit in a hurry. Eight defenders in the box potentially means more balls in the air to the sideline and downfield. And if this group of DBs can develop a nose for those throws, there's opportunity there. I don't like trying to rely on fumbles for turnovers... they're just too random, both in forcing them and in recovering them. But interceptions, you can scheme for those, you can develop guys to be ball hawks. We return some solid INT stats from last year, returning players accounted for 11 of our ACC-3rd-place 15 picks (4 each to Nelson and Thornhill, 1 apiece to Peace, Hall, and Moore). Putting our corners in a lot of Iso situations is a high risk scenario, but it can be a game-changing high-reward scenario as well if it can come with good turnover production.
Between experienced veterans and a hard-working, high-upside sophomore class, there's a ton to be excited about in the back 8. But man, that defensive line. Only two players who have seen any consistent D-1 action at the position, being backfilled by a converted TE, two transfers with no on-field FBS experience, two RS freshmen who by all accounts still need time to develop, and three true freshmen who despite genuine upside aren't physically ready to be thrown into the ACC fire as newbies. That defensive line is going to handcuff the defense's upside in a couple of ways. First, it's hard to expect them to be able to be disruptive in the backfield, blowing up plays by truly beating their O-Line counterparts. At best we can expect them to hold their ground, not get driven backwards, and occupy blockers allowing the linebackers to work effectively downhill. Second, those linebackers (and maybe even safeties) have to be committed to the line of scrimmage in greater numbers to compensate, putting a lot of pressure on the pass-covering DBs to survive in man coverage. There's the talent in the back 8 to possibly manage this approach, but it does limit the defense's ceiling.
The other half of the equation here, which we haven't even touched on yet in our review of the defense, is what the offense gives it to work with. Last year, our defense looked pretty okay in a lot of phases when looking at yards/game, yards/play, sacks, and 3rd-down %, but yet it still was near-last in points allowed per game. Yes, part of that is to blame on our run defense, but the offense also failed to do it's part, often leaving the defense with a short field to work with (we were dead last in defensive starting field position last year), many of those possession changes coming off 3-and-outs leaving the defense with no time to rest between series. Controlling field position is a huge part of setting a defense up for success, and we can only ask so much of Lester Coleman to flip the field with booming punts... the offense must improve its ability to pick up first downs (second-to-last in the ACC last year in first downs per possession), and improve its league-worst running game to allow it to chew some clock from time to time, letting the defense get a breather.