By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the defensive players on the UVa football team, the experience bore no resemblance to a night at the local cineplex. There was no candy, no popcorn, no laughs.
“It is tough to watch,” Corey Mosley said Wednesday during Virginia’s media day at John Paul Jones Arena. “It’s like a bad movie. It’s like the worst movie ever.”
Mosley, a senior safety, was referring to the footage that UVa’s video staff assembled at Jim Reid’s request. The Cavaliers’ defensive coordinator wanted his charges to take a long look at the 67 running plays on which opponents gained 10 or more yards against Virginia last season.
“As a defense we went through each play, and each time it’s like you cringe a little bit,” middle linebacker Steve Greer said Wednesday. “But it makes you work that much harder and you want to make sure that doesn’t happen again this season.
“It was just frustrating at times, because 10 guys would all be doing the right thing, and just one guy wouldn’t be doing the right thing.”
On 413 of the 480 plays on which opponents ran the ball against Virginia last season, they averaged about 3 yards, according to Reid. On the remaining 67 running plays, opponents averaged 21.6 yards. Breakdowns included poor pursuit angles, missed tackles and blown assignments.
“So when we broke down, we broke down dramatically,” Reid said. “And that’s what we worked on hard this spring. What we need to show is consistent improvement again in the fall.”
And so UVa’s defensive players sat through the gruesome video more than once, at times wishing they could cover their eyes. The lowlights for the Wahoos in 2010 included touchdown runs of 70 yards by Richmond and Florida State, 55 and 53 by Eastern Michigan, and 37 and 35 by Duke.
“It’s a learning experience,” said junior linebacker LaRoy Reynolds, Virginia’s leading tackler last year. “Once you watch film, you understand what you did wrong. It’s easy for us to look over it and be like, ‘We don’t want to watch these plays, because they were so bad.’ But at the end of the day, we need to watch them to get better.
“During the game … you’re really not aware of everything that’s going on. But after you watch it, you realize, ‘We messed up a lot. We made a lot of mistakes.’ It gets to you. You just want to work harder. It’s like motivation. So [Reid has] been motivating us with these 67 plays.”
For Al Groh’s nine seasons as head coach, Virginia’s base defense was the 3-4. Mike London replaced Groh after the 2009 season, and Reid took over as defensive coordinator. Virginia shifted to a 4-3 scheme, and several players changed positions, including Reynolds, Ausar Walcott, Matt Conrath and Cam Johnson.
The transition proved more challenging than many expected. Out of the 120 teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, UVa ranked 70th in scoring defense, 78th in total defense and 106th in rushing defense last season. Small wonder the Cavaliers finished 4-8.
“We can be better,” Reid said of his defense.
His players have a firmer grasp of the 4-3 than at this time last year, and his defense will be among the ACC’s most experienced. Ten players who have started at least six games apiece in a season are back: tackles Conrath and Nick Jenkins, ends Johnson and Walcott (an outside linebacker last year), linebackers Reynolds, Greer and Aaron Taliaferro, All-ACC cornerback Chase Minnifield, and safeties Mosley and Rodney McLeod.
“This additional year [in the 4-3] will really help,” said Greer, a junior who was UVa’s second-leading tackler last season.
In retrospect, Reid said, he erred by simplifying the scheme for his players last year.
“You want to challenge players so they think all the time,” he said. “React fast, make mistakes, but think.
“Sometimes if you try to simplify a little too much, I think what happens is, there’s not that stimulus to always be thinking ahead …. I’m not so sure we stimulated these guys enough, because we made some drastic and dramatic mistakes being very, very simple.
“So we’re going to continue to add to the defensive schemes. We’re going to add to that, and we’re going to challenge our players mentally to stay on track to perform well.”
Greer said: “I see what Coach Reid’s saying. He wants to make offensive coordinators’ jobs difficult. We got a lot of smart guys on this team, so I think we can handle it. I think the more stuff we put in, it’ll make opposing offenses have to work harder.”
However inconsistent UVa’s performance on defense might have been last season, Reid had no complaints about his players’ effort level.
“I want you to know, I love all these guys,” he said. “I love them because they really work hard in practice, and I know it means a lot to them. So what I have got to do is give them enough, show them enough, coach them enough, for them to be successful and better than we were last year. And I’m not sure simplifying things is the answer with this crowd. You’re not at Virginia because you’re simple. You’re at Virginia because you worked hard to come to a special, special place. And we’ve got to make our defense special, so we have to challenge them.”
UVa’s defenders challenged themselves throughout the offseason. Training camp opens Friday, and the defense hopes the payoff starts then.
“This summer, the linebackers and the D-line got together a lot, and we did a lot of walk-throughs of plays that we saw last year and plays that hurt us last year,” Greer said. “We just kind of made sure everyone understood what was going on, what the offense was trying to do, what we’re trying to do and how to stop it.”
Mosley said: “It’s a new season, so hopefully we won’t make that many mistakes again.”
He caught himself. “Not even ‘hopefully,’ ” Mosley added emphatically. “We’re not going to have that many mistakes this season.”
OPEN INVITATION: Fans are welcome to attend Virginia’s first five practices (Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday) this month. Each will start at 3:50 p.m. The Cavaliers practice on the fields behind University Hall and the McCue Center.