By the end of the 2019 season, Virginia’s secondary looked lost.
The team’s top defensive backs were injured, and the replacements weren’t ready for the level of competition on the schedule. Five of the final six teams on Virginia’s schedule threw for at least 300 yards against the Wahoos, with Clemson throwing for 408 yards and four touchdowns.
Those results came after Bryce Hall and company started the season by holding each of the team’s first eight opponents under 250 yards passing. In the first eight games, only two teams surpassed 200 yards through the air against the Cavaliers.
But later in the season, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Clemson and Florida torched Bronco Mendenhall’s team through the air.
“For our secondary, we all understand what the standard is and we all have been a part of a winning secondary, so we have a pretty clear understanding of what it takes to take it to the next level,” senior cornerback Nick Grant said.
Starting last season strong showed Virginia’s defensive backs what it looks like to stop opposing passing attacks. The end of the season illustrated all that can go wrong against high-powered offenses when players are out of position.
Entering the 2020 season, Virginia returns nearly everyone from its secondary, minus Hall.
“We have a lot of the same guys back,” co-defensive coordinator Nick Howell said. “You hope that guys will perform at a higher level. The hope is that we perform at a higher level than we did a year ago.”
When teams return after an offseason, there’s usually an assumption among fans, coaches and media members that returners take at least a small step forward. Without spring practices, that assumption seems far less guaranteed than in a typical season.
Virginia desperately needs improvement from its returners, though.
Grant steps in as the team’s starting field corner. De’Vante Cross, who can also play safety, is pegged as the starting boundary corner. Brenton Nelson takes the Sabre position, which is essentially the team’s strong safety. Joey Blount starts at free safety.
Last season, the group struggled with consistency. Against the best offenses in the ACC, UVa’s secondary frequently lost the one-on-one battles that determine the outcome of games.
All four starters in the secondary are seniors, however, and their understanding of the scheme has improved. They’re also entering the season fully healthy, which wasn’t the case at the end of last season with Nelson out and Blount banged up.
“We have a senior defense really,” Cross said. “A lot of the defense is upperclassmen, which is great. We’ve all been in the program for a long time. We know the defense. We know the culture.”
Knowing the culture and system puts UVa in a position to succeed this season. At the same time, UVa struggled against the nation’s best passers. Significant improvement in both one-on-one matchups and communication is needed for Virginia’s secondary to become one of the best in the ACC.
Fortunately for the Wahoos, there’s quality depth behind the starters this season. An injury or two shouldn’t completely derail the unit’s success like last season.
D’Angelo Amos, a graduate transfer from James Madison, backs up Blount. He’s played in multiple defensive schemes during his time at JMU, and he’s an explosive athlete.
Heskin Smith, Jaylon Baker and Darrius Bratton bring experience and athleticism to the cornerback position. Coen King and Antonio Clary are well-respected by coaches at the strong safety spot.
Injuries forced players like Smith and Baker into action last season. While the results were mixed, the backups are deeper into their development than they would be if they didn’t take the field last season.
“Even though at the time it looked bad, now it paid off and it’s working for us in a good way,” Cross said.
UVa’s secondary tries to view the end of last season with a “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” approach. The Cavaliers were dominated by quality quarterbacks and wide receivers in the second half of the 2019 season. Teams hit on deep routes to turn close games into sizeable advantages over the Wahoos.
The losses gave Virginia plenty of film to study during quarantine.
“You can’t know what your weaknesses are until something is tested,” Grant said. “We obviously got exposed in a couple areas, but that just proved to us what we needed to work on, especially the deep balls. That’s one thing as a secondary we’ve placed a high premium on since we’ve got back here. Every day, no posts, no fades, that’s all we talk about.”
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