By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For now, as he recovers from foot surgery, Matt Conrath is a spectator at UVa football practices. But he’s expected to be cleared by the start of training camp, and when Conrath returns, the rising junior from the Chicago suburbs will line up at a new position.
A two-year starter at end in the Cavaliers’ previous defensive scheme, the 6-7, 270-pound Conrath is now a tackle. He’s not the only player working in unfamiliar territory as UVa moves away from the 3-4 defense Al Groh installed at his alma mater after leaving the New York Jets in December 2000.
Groh was fired after the 2009 season, and his successor, Mike London, and new defensive coordinator Jim Reid scrapped the 3-4. They favor the 4-3, the scheme run by the large majority of high school and college teams. And that means changes for several players, including Conrath, Justin Renfrow, Will Hill, Cameron Johnson and Jeremiah Mathis.
Renfrow (6-6, 280) and Hill (6-4, 255) were defensive ends last season. Like Conrath, they’ve moved inside to tackle. Johnson (6-4, 260) and Mathis (6-3, 245) were outside linebackers in the 3-4; they’re now at defensive end.
The man charged with making these transitions as seamless as possible is defensive line coach Jeff Hanson, who in December followed London from the University of Richmond to UVa.
“I think we’ve made a lot of progress,” Hanson said Saturday in Norfolk after the Cavaliers’ open practice at Old Dominion University.
“I think you saw today we’re coming off the edge with the kids that were stand-up guys. That’s what you need out there. You need speed and quickness coming off the edge. And our inside guys are starting to get the hang of our defense, getting up the field. They were more of a two-gap, read-type defense last year, and now we’re trying to really get up the field with the inside guys, and they’ve done a good job picking it up, they really have.”
Zane Parr, a 6-6, 275-pound rising junior, is still at defensive end. But his responsibilities are different in the 4-3.
“It’s a big change, just because I’ve been here three years under the 3-4 scheme,” Parr said after practice Monday. “This is mostly get off the ball, get up the field, rush the passer … As soon as the ball moves, you move.”
So he likes the new defense?
“Absolutely,” Parr said. “I feel like the defense will get a lot more sacks this year.”
That’s the goal. Among ACC teams, Virginia ranked 10th in sacks last season with 22, ahead of only Duke (19) and Boston College (18). Lineman Nate Collins led the Wahoos with 6 sacks last season, and he’s out of eligibility.
With 3.5 sacks, Parr had the most of any Cavalier who’s back this season.
“Now we’ve got him outside, and he’s played really, really well,” Hanson said. “He’s got a good burst. We call it ‘twitch’ outside. We’re looking for guys that are twitched up and got some quickness off the edge and speed off the edge.”
Nick Jenkins and John-Kevin Dolce, nose tackles in the 3-4, are simply listed as tackles now.
“When we get Conrath back, we’ll be very, very solid inside, with him and Jenkins and Dolce,” Hanson said. “And then Will Hill and Renfrow will be the other guys inside, so we’ll have some tackles in there.”
Whatever his position on the line, Conrath has shown the potential to be an all-ACC candidate.
“I think once we get him back, that really solidifies us inside, and we’re bigger in there and quick enough in there,” Hanson said. “We just gotta stay healthy.”
The Wahoos’ ends are Parr, Johnson, Mathis, Jake Snyder (6-4, 255) and, in all likelihood, Brent Urban, who’s sidelined with an injury.
“It’s going to be a six-month process with his knee, so he won’t be ready to go [for awhile],” Hanson said. “But I foresee him being an edge guy when he comes back, a defensive end, a guy with some height that can knock balls down.”
At 6-7, 290 pounds, Urban isn’t built like a prototypical 4-3 defensive end. The others at the position more closely fit the mold.
“We’re looking for guys that are quicker outside-type guys that can come off the edge and rush the passer,” Hanson said, “and that’s what we’ve got out there in Cam Johnson, Zane, J-Mathis and Jake Snyder.”
In 2001, ’02, ’03 and ’04, London coached UVa’s defensive line. In 2006 and ’07, he was the Cavaliers’ defensive coordinator, so he’s well-versed in the 3-4.
At other schools, however, he’d worked with the 4-3, and London knew enough about the personnel he inherited at UVa to be confident the scheme could work there.
“We’re going to keep it simple and let the guys play fast,” London said. “Defensively, we’re pointed north. We’re getting up the field.”
The key, London said, will be the line’s ability to “put pressure on the quarterback. If you can rush four guys [and get pressure], man, it makes it so much easier, as opposed to manufacturing blitzes and bringing a fifth guy.”
In the 3-4, Parr usually lined up directly across from an offensive tackle who outweighed him by 20 or 30 or, sometimes, 40 pounds. Now he sets up wider and relies as much on his speed as his strength to get to the quarterback.
“I feel a big difference,” Parr said, “and I’m definitely liking it.”
Practice ended Monday evening with gassers. Lots of them. In groups, the players sprinted from one sideline of the field to the other and then back, with strength-and-conditioning coach Brandon Hourigan loudly counting off the seconds. At every position, the Cavaliers want to be faster this season, the D-line included.
“That’s why we’re doing this running right now,” Parr said, “because it’s all quick movements and speed up the field.”