By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Head coach Mike London, a self-described eternal optimist, is well aware of the strides his UVa football team made on offense last season.
“I’m hoping that the defense can make that same type of improvement” this fall, London said.
Defensive coordinator Jim Reid shares that goal. Reid, under whom London coached at the University of Richmond, oversees a unit that in 2010 ranked 70th in scoring defense, 78th in total defense and 106th in rushing defense out of 120 teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision.
It didn’t help that cornerback Ras-I Dowling, who entered the season as an All-America candidate, rarely played because of injuries. The New England Patriots selected Dowling with the first pick of the second round in last week’s NFL draft.
Among the big plays UVa allowed last season were touchdown runs of 70 yards by Richmond and Florida State, 55 and 53 yards by Eastern Michigan, and 37 and 35 yards by Duke.
Only in pass defense, in which they were 25th, did the Cavaliers rank among the nation’s elite. Even so, they gave up an 81-yard touchdown pass to North Carolina and a 60-yarder to Miami.
“It was not a great season, but no one ever let down,” Reid said. “The attitude was great last spring, and the attitude continued to be great through the season.
“I can show you that in the fourth quarter [of the season finale], with the score 31-0 against Virginia Tech, we had nine white jerseys around the ball, with seven minutes left and the outcome determined. There’s just no quit in these guys.
“We played hard, and we played fast [last season]. Now we have to play with a little bit more recognition and understanding.”
From 2001 through 2009, UVa’s base defense under London’s predecessor, Al Groh, was the 3-4. The Wahoos shifted to the 4-3 after London and Reid took over, and several players changed positions on defense. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the transition proved difficult, though UVa’s ranking in scoring defense barely dropped from 2009 to ’10.
From a team that finished 4-8, eight players who started at least six games apiece are back on defense this year: tackles Matt Conrath and Nick Jenkins, end Cameron Johnson, linebackers Aaron Taliaferro and LaRoy Reynolds, all-ACC cornerback Chase Minnifield and safeties Rodney McLeod and Corey Mosley. Moreover, middle linebacker Steve Greer started every game in 2009.
The defense would be even more experienced had Zane Parr, a two-year starter at end, not given up his final season of eligibility to pursue a professional career. That said, UVa has yet another veteran in Ausar Walcott, a junior who started 11 games at outside linebacker last season.
Walcott, who recently was moved to defensive end, missed spring practice after being suspended for what London called “conduct detrimental to the team.” He was reinstated to the team last month and placed at the bottom of the depth chart at his new position.
Reid spent most of the week on the road recruiting, but he’s back in town and sat down Friday morning to talk with VirginiaSports.com. The highlights of the Q&A follow.
JW: How much did the change in schemes — from the 3-4 to the 4-3 — contribute to the breakdowns last season?
Reid: “Let me just be very blunt about that. People that like you say that, and what I told our players all year and what was I told them this spring was, ‘Those are great people that are making excuses for us. We can never let that happen. If you’re able to run, and you’re able to hit, then you should be able to think, and we should be able to play very, very well.’ “
JW: What about the fact that several players, including Johnson and Conrath and Reynolds and Walcott, were at new positions?
Reid: “It doesn’t make any difference. There’s an accountability, and there’s a responsibility that we have to go in and perform. Cut if off there. I don’t want to hear another thing, because then you’re making excuses, and we need to feel pressure to perform.”
JW: What differences did you see in your players during spring practice this year?
Reid: “I think there’s an understanding by the players that they need to have a better feel as to how people are attacking us, tendencies, route progressions, run fits. So I really feel good about where we are now, but I have to be honest with you, I felt very good last year as to where we were.
“Now, people have always said for 40 years that I’m way too much of an optimist, but that’s because I always believe in the players that we’re coaching, and these guys didn’t loaf. They worked hard. They ran around the field like a bunch of wild men. I think where the inexperience came in was, honestly, not being able to see where they [should have been positioned] on plays that we don’t see all the time.”
JW: You’ve mentioned the big plays your defense gave up last season. Was there a common thread?
Reid: “People say, ‘Well, it was bad tackling.’ No, it wasn’t always bad tackling. When were setting the edge, most of the time it was great. But when we had a breakdown, it was a major breakdown. And that has a lot to do with guys pursuing hard to the football. They did that all the time, but there’s a lot to do with understanding where you fit in the scheme of the defense and the play being run.
“And, I also have to tell you, the plays that we broke down on were the plays that we don’t run as an offense. So what we did this spring was construct drills [to address] the breakdowns in some of these areas. It wasn’t always tackling. It was converging to the right spot, it was counter plays, things of that nature, and then we worked on that as a unit every day. We worked not on what our offense was running against us, but what hurt us last year and what we don’t see from our offense. We didn’t make very good adjustments to what we don’t see every day, and when I say adjustments, I’m talking about key, run fit and force adjustments, and that’s what we’ve got to do better. These are some of the details we worked on. We worked on them last year as well.”
JW: In retrospect, how big of a loss was Ras-I?
Reid: “Chase Minnifield went from a guy that was the nickel back [in 2009] to an all-ACC corner in this defense. So with the skill set that Ras-I Dowling would have brought, I think you would have seen Ras-I as an all-ACC corner selection and first-round draft choice.
“When you take a look at the big plays, it was that boundary corner position that hurt us. We kept expecting to get Ras-I back every week until the very end, and we weren’t able to get him. He would have been an imposing figure out there and one we would have liked to have had.”
JW: What did you see from your line during the spring?
Reid: “I thought [end] Jake Snyder really improved, especially in his pass rush, and [end] Brent Urban really came out of nowhere to give us some real good physical play.
“Matt Conrath really played well. And I forgot, until he and I were talking about [last] season, that he missed all spring with the ankle injury. He really had a very good spring [this year], and [backup tackle] Justin Renfrow made some good gains.”
JW: On the depth chart, Will Hill is listed as the co-starter with Conrath at one tackle spot and Jenkins at the other. What do you like about Will?
Reid: “Will Hill is a highly intelligent guy, and he is going to play both nose and tackle for us. He understands everything that goes on. He had a great Boston College game towards the end of the year, and he’s a guy that just keeps his mouth shut and works. He plays with great violence, great effort and great understanding. He’s really terrific.”
JW: Any surprises up front during the spring?
Reid: “The player that made tremendous improvement from Practice 1 to 15 is [redshirt freshman tackle] Chris Brathwaite. At first it was, ‘Who is this? Oh, jeez, Brathwaite.’ And then, ‘Wait a minute, look at Chris.’ And then at the end, ‘Wow.’
“He went from 294 [pounds] to about 275 and then became a really fast player. We all like him, and Chris has done a nice job.”
JW: Cam Johnson led the team in sacks last season. He missed spring practice after having shoulder surgery. How is he coming along?
Reid: “This [break] has been good, because he’s been able to get some real good cardio work in. He’s done a lot more running and conditioning.
“Cam played with a bad shoulder all year, and did a very good job. He was our most consistently mentally sound player in terms of assignments, maybe other than Rodney [McLeod]. But we need another dynamic pass-rusher. It would be nice to have another dynamic pass-rusher inside and outside.”
JW: Who are some of the candidates?
Reid: “Will Hill has given us some very good pass-rush ability, and Matt Conrath certainly has that. We’re looking for another playmaker at defensive end, and Jake and Billy [Schautz], I thought, had excellent spring practices. I thought they improved. Certainly Brent Urban improved. I think Brent’s more of an inside player, but we’ll just see. We’re looking for one of them to become a dynamic pass-rusher.
“Zane gave us that, and he had a number of hits on the quarterback as the ball was being released.”
JW: What about your linebackers? On the depth chart, the starters are Taliaferro at Sam (strong side) and Reynolds at Will (weak side), and Greer and Henry Coley are co-starters at Mike (middle).
Reid: “The guy I think made the most improvement [in the spring] probably was Aaron Taliaferro. Last year I thought he gave us some really good play. When you go through the season we did, he made some mistakes, but I think he’s a solid guy there. I really do. He comes in for extra help now. He’s just a really good kid, a hard-working guy, and we like him.
“He’s going to be a good player. Don’t forget: Last year was his first year, and for two years he never got on the field. So people are like, ‘This guy should be this, he should be better.’ I think what people expected him to be when he came here is what people will see in 2011.”
JW: Steve Greer started only one game last season but still finished second on the team in tackles. What have you seen from him this spring?
Reid: “Steven Greer became a very good player in this scheme as he got more reps. And people forget, we didn’t have him last spring [because of ankle injury]. He’s a try-hard guy and wants to please you, and I think he did a really good job for us last year.”
JW: Henry Coley, who redshirted last year, is competing for the starting job at middle linebacker, and you have another talented freshman in [outside linebacker] Daquan Romero. What about those guys?
Reid: “Henry had a great spring. We want to fit Henry in there some place. And Da-Da Romero was really good. Having a spring here is going to help him, because he was swimming [at first]. It’s not going to be new to him at preseason camp, and I’m telling you he’s a hard, hard, hard worker. He’s going to get it, and he did some very good things athletically this spring, made some very good moves. Played tough and physical.”
JW: For most of last season, you had first-year starters at linebacker who also were adjusting to the 4-3. What are your expectations at that position this year?
Reid: “It doesn’t make any difference really what scheme you’re running. That crowd has to take over the defense with calls. We have to give them more responsibility to get us in the fronts and the stunts that we want. And we started doing that a little bit this spring. It’s hard to put all of it in at once, and they have to get us better run fits and better pass drops, which I think they will.”
JW: Rijo Walker was the only true freshman to play on defense last year. He’s listed as a starting cornerback on the post-spring depth chart, opposite Chase Minnifield. Overall, there’s not much depth in the secondary. Where do things stand there?
Reid: “We actually moved Dom Joseph from safety to corner, because we’re just very, very thin there. And Dom had a very good spring at corner, and now we’ve got a player that at least has safety and corner experience.
“[Redshirt freshman cornerback] Drequan Hoskey really improved, I thought, from where he was last year. Last year I think you’d probably say he was a track athlete playing football. Now he’s more of a football player that runs track. I thought Rodney gave us really good play again and really has a great understanding of the coverages and the calls, and Corey gave us some real good tough physical play this spring.”
JW: You have a number of highly regarded recruits coming in on defense, including cornerbacks Demetrious Nicholson and Brandon Phelps. Do you expect to play many true freshmen in the fall?
Reid: “It’s like what Coach London has said: We’re going to work all these guys out and see athletically where they are. And so at every position, it doesn’t make any difference, at every position there’ll be a battle. We’re going to play the best athletes and turn them into the best players.”
JW: In terms of size and speed and athleticism, do you have the necessary pieces for a sound defense?
Reid: “I really believe we do. And, honestly, I think this group coming in is going to make us better. I really do.”