By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ALEXANDRIA — The fans who made their way to Episcopal High School on Saturday afternoon saw the Virginia Cavaliers run, pass and kick the football during the team’s seventh practice of the spring.
Spectators at Episcopal’s picturesque Hummel Bowl did not see a defense operating as it would during a game. Defensive coordinator Jim Reid’s charges didn’t blitz, didn’t sack the quarterbacks, didn’t tackle ballcarriers to the ground.
At Virginia and many other schools, that’s often the case during spring practice, when coaching staffs try to limit injuries. So how do UVa coach Mike London and his assistants evaluate their defensive players?
“What you look for is, you look for the guys to be in position, to be around the ball,” London said after his team’s open practice on a cool, sunny afternoon at Episcopal.
The coaches want to see if players’ heads are positioned correctly when they go to make tackles and if their hands are in the right places, London said. Many drills are conducted with the defense in what’s called “thud” mode.
“We don’t take guys down to the ground,” London said. “Our numbers dwindled because of surgeries, and we’ve lost one or two here along the way because of [injuries].
“You’ve just got to be in good position. ‘Thud’ is a technique where actually you’re kind of wrapping your arms [around the ballcarrier], dropping your hips. You’re mimicking all those things you do when you tackle, except for taking a guy down to the ground. And with bodies flying and people running and big blockers coming at you, if you can move your feet and stay in position, we’ll be in good shape.”
UVa is looking for marked improvement on defense. After nine seasons under London’s predecessor, Al Groh, who favored the 3-4 scheme, Virginia installed the 4-3 last year. Several players moved to new positions that required new techniques for him, including outside linebackers LaRoy Reynolds and Ausar Walcott, ends Cam Johnson and Billy Schautz, and tackles Matt Conrath and Will Hill.
The results were disappointing. Of the 120 teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, UVa ranked a solid 25th in pass defense. But the Wahoos fared much worse in other major categories: 70th in scoring defense, 78th in total defense and 106th in rushing defense.
“We were young and we were inexperienced,” Reid said recently, but “I told our players I didn’t think that we needed to use that as an excuse.”
Virginia gave up an 81-yard touchdown pass against North Carolina, a 60-yard touchdown pass against Miami, a 39-yard touchdown pass against Boston College. More damaging for the ‘Hoos, though, were their breakdowns against the run.
Opponents rushed 480 times for 2,444 yards versus Virginia last season. Of those runs, 413 went for an average of about 2.5 yards. On the other 67, Reid said, opponents averaged a staggering 21 yards.
Those big plays included TD runs of 70 yards by Richmond and FSU, TD runs of 55 and 53 yards by Eastern Michigan, and TD runs of 37 and 35 yards by Duke.
“If you’re consistent, then you don’t give up 67 [plays] for that dramatic a yardage,” Reid said. “If we [played the run well] 418 times, then we should be able to do it in a little more consistent manner.
“We just have to become more consistent, and that comes, I honestly believe, with experience.”
Walcott, who started 11 games last season, and cornerback Devin Wallace, who started seven, have been suspended from the team, and there’s no guarantee either will play for UVa again.
But eight other players who started at least six games on defense in 2010 are back: Reynolds, Johnson, tackles Conrath and Nick Jenkins, linebacker Aaron Taliaferro, cornerback Chase Minnifield and safeties Rodney McLeod and Corey Mosley. Moreover, Virginia’s No. 1 middle linebacker, Steve Greer, started every game in 2009.
The veterans are well aware that defensive lapses contributed heavily to the team’s 4-8 record.
“We gotta stop giving up the big plays,” Reynolds said at Episcopal. “No matter how many times we stop plays, if we give up the big plays, that’s going to cause us to lose. And that’s what we’ve been trying to work on this entire spring: stopping the explosive plays and stopping the plays that cause us to lose.”
Reynolds, who as a sophomore in 2010 started at strongside linebacker, is now on the weak side. He led the team in tackles last year with 66 — seven more than Greer — but wasn’t satisfied with his performance.
“I feel as a whole that we all need to get better,” Reynolds said. “I’ve watched the film and seen all the mistakes that I made personally, and just the things I could have gotten better at.”
Minnifield, a first-team all-ACC selection last season, said the defense is focused on “doing everything the right way” this spring.
“We played with a lot of inexperienced players on defense last year,” he said. “We have a year underneath our belts. We’ve already made these mistakes and have seen the whole ACC now.
“I would expect [the defense] to be better, just because of the experience factor.”
Virginia’s second-year defensive coordinator expects improvement, too.
“There’s no question our players can learn,” Reid said. “They do it in the classroom, they do it on the field. They’re great young men, they want to win, and I think we’ll be better this year because of that.”
Newcomers on defense include tackle Chris Brathwaite, middle linebacker Henry Coley, safety Pablo Alvarez and outside linebacker Daquan “Da-Da” Romero. Brathwaite, Coley and Alvarez are freshmen who redshirted last season. Romero is a freshman who began classes at UVa in January.
Incoming recruits who are likely to play this season include cornerbacks Demetrious Nicholson and Brandon Phelps.
Coley, who’s from Virginia Beach, had several impressive plays, including an interception, during Saturday’s practice.
For the freshmen who redshirted last season, London said, it’s “their time now. There’s no more ‘redshirt.’ The only option they have is to get better. Henry is one of those guys I think will be in the mix.”
HOME SWEET HOME: Having practiced in Hampton on March 19 and in Alexandria a week later, UVa will play its spring game Saturday afternoon at Scott Stadium.
Of taking his team to venues around the state, London said, “You never know whether there’s [going to be] five people or 50 or 500 or 5,000 or 50,000. It’s a practice to us, but at the same you appreciate the people that come out and support you.”
Washington, D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia are important to his program, London said Saturday. “A lot of our [incoming recruits] are from this area, and it gives other people a chance to see us.”
Former UVa players who attended the practice Saturday included Chris Harrison, Kenny Stadlin and Bryson Spinner, an Episcopal graduate.
“This was a good environment, a good field, a great showing,” Minnifield said. “It’s always fun to play in front of the fans. It’s way more fun that regular practice. It brings more energy.”
BIG BLUE: There may not be a more passionate University of Kentucky basketball fan in Charlottesville than Minnifield, who’s from Lexington, Ky. Never mind that his father played football at Louisville.
UK upset No. 1 seed Ohio State in the NCAA tournament’s third round Friday night, and “I didn’t miss a second of it,” Minnifield said the next afternoon. At the team hotel, “I woke [roommate] Rijo [Walker] up once Brandon Knight hit the game-winning shot. Woke him up. He said, ‘Did y’all win?’ I said, ‘Yes!’ ”
Sunday brought more joy for Minnifield, as Kentucky beat North Carolina to advance to the Final Four.