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Taking over and transforming the Virginia football program has been no easy feat for Bronco Mendenhall for 2016. But if Mike London left him with one valuable thing, it was a crop of promising defenders who Mendenhall could mold into his scheme. The defensive backs have been especially helpful in helping him build out the defense; but over the last year, the unit has gone from promising to dominant.
Virginia’s passing defense has improved drastically every year since Mendenhall took over in S&P+ efficiency, ranking 89th in 2016, 40th in 2017 and 22nd in 2018. While the scheme has likely played a role, the development of several players into nationally elite DBs has most directly catalyzed the success. The program got its first case-in-point to this when safety Juan Thornhill was drafted in the second round of the NFL Draft in April, likely become a Week 1 starter in the pros after coming out of high school as a three-star recruit.
Though the Hoos have lost one star to the pros, they return an even more unheralded stud amongst a cast of effective playmakers, keeping the unit stable for the coming year. Let’s take a dive into what’s new, what’s old and what’s looks to be the same for the DB unit heading into the season.
Juan Thornhill leaves one of the biggest set of shoes to fill on the entire Virginia roster after two years of stellar play at strong safety. He played his best football as a ball-hawking playmaker in the open field, nabbing six interceptions last season alone, the third most in the FBS. Where they’ll miss him equally as much, though, is as a force in run defense, where he contributed 11 run stuffs and 4.5 tackles for loss last season. He was a truly a complete package that may take several players to replace.
Cornerback Tim Harris also graduated after a six-year tenure with the Hoos – his efforts rewarded with a sixth-round NFL Draft selection from the 49ers. Harris had a roller-coaster career at Virginia because of injuries, but ended playing some of the best football of his career. He was a major part of the unit’s stable depth last season and his experience certainly helped.
That unheralded stud I mentioned before – senior cornerback Bryce Hall (6'1" 200 lbs). On a team with an electric quarterback coming back into the fold, Hall has still managed to be the most hyped returning player Mendenhall has last season (after being a two-starrecruit). He was a lockdown corner last season, registering an astounding 22 pass breakups and making many plays at big moments. Scary enough, he still has room to improve if he can pull down more interceptions (he had two last season) and avoid getting burned by deep balls, something he occasionally struggled with last season. He has the making of a first-round draft pick, but has unfinished business in Charlottesville first.
The safety position is also left in solid hands with the junior tandem of Joey Blount (6'1" 190 lbs) and Brenton Nelson (5'11" 185 lbs) holding down the fort. Blount had a breakout year playing with Thornhill last season, showing great versatility by making plays in the run game (5.0 tackles-for-loss) and through the air (including a major pick during the Miami slugfest). Nelson had a quieter statistical year after his ACC Defensive ROY selection in 2017, but was still very effective with eight pass breakups, second only to Hall in the DB unit.
The returning depth behind the core three players looks to be very strong again. Sophomore cornerback Darrius Bratton (6'0" 190 lbs) will likely slot on the other side of Hall as a starter, looking to build on a very solid sophomore year that saw him break up seven passes and earn a lot of playing time. Rising sophomore cornerback Germane Crowell (6'2" 200 lbs) is a breakout candidate that will be relied on for depth, and junior safety De’Vante Cross (6'2" 210 lbs) will continue to develop behind Thornhill and Blount after his various position changes since joining the team. Senior safety Chris Moore (5'11" 215 lbs) and senior cornerback Myles Robinson (5'11" 205 lbs), who were lost to injuries last season, will also be able to provide some depth if he’s healthy, alongside junior cornerback Nick Grant (6'1" 200 lbs) and sophomore corner Heskin Smith (5'11" 175 lbs). Grant is the latest defensive back to keep an eye on, as he got an early jersey selection over the weekend -- a good sign that he may have earned some playing time.
Two Hoos will take off their redshirts and join the DB ranks – cornerback Jaylon Baker (6'2" 170 lbs) and DB Joseph White (6'1" 175 lbs. White appeared several times on special teams last season before taking his redshirt. Five new DB recruits will also enter the program – cornerbacks Tenyeh Dixon (6'0" 185 lbs), Fentrell Cypress II (6'0" 170 lbs) and Major Williams (5'11" 170 lbs) and safeties Antonio Clary (6'0" 190 lbs) and Chayce Chalmers (6'2" 210 lbs). It won’t be easy for any of them to crack the rotation with so many returning talent, but the pipeline is now clear for them to develop and carry on the strong unit. Chalmers and Clary at least have the leg up of being early enrollees, having arrived in January and going through spring practices.
The no-brainer answer is Bryce Hall. He had the choice to forego his final season in Charlottesville and become a high draft pick after the bowl win. He wouldn’t chose to return if he didn’t have something to prove, so look for him to compound his immense talent with even more fire for winning in his final season.
A sleeper candidate could be Blount. He’s the heir apparent to Thornhill and has shown the versatility to match his contributions, so he’ll definitely be stuffing the stat sheet. This is Hall’s recognition to lose, but for the sake of the team let’s hope they tie?
This is a tough decision with many capable depth players ready to step up and star, but I'll go with Darrius Bratton to build on his solid sophomore season with a prolific third act. Bratton will be targeted a lot playing on the other end of Hall, giving him plenty of chances to make big plays on the boundary and he grew accustomed to last season. He gave up less yards per play than Hall last season and his advanced stats show he was one of the most efficient as players on Virginia's defense. The award will be his if he steps up to the challenge in front of him and locks down No. 2 receivers.
A Stab at the Pitt Game Depth Chart
Bryce Hall (Sr)
Myles Robinson (Jr)
Brenton Nelson (Jr)
Chris Moore (Sr)
Joey Blount (Jr)
De’Vante Cross (Jr)
Darius Bratton (So)
Nick Grant (Jr)
Germane Crowell (So)
Myles Robinson (Jr)
The defensive backfield is primed to be the best position group for DC Nick Howell once again. It’s not often a unit loses a talent like Thornhill and can replicate success, but there’s no reason to think the Hoos cant this season.
It’s worth keeping an eye on how Mendenhall and Howell decide to rotate and pair the backs together. The unit was so productive last season that the coaches employed a package called “Speed” that featured five DBs, sacrificing pass rush to lock down the middle of the field completely. If the new unit proves it can neutralize the run game like it could with Thornhill, more grouping like this and defensive innovation could certainly become a staple of the defense.
Last season, I labelled the Virginia secondary as a No Fly Zone in one of my Cavalier Daily columns. I’m excited to say I expect more of the same from them next season, as they continue to suffocate opposing quarterbacks and control the airways on the field.