Nov. 15, 2011

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Mike London, a glass-half-full kind of guy, went into his first season as UVa’s football coach hoping his defense could shift seamlessly from the 3-4 scheme favored by his predecessor, Al Groh, to the 4-3.

The transition, of course, proved to be anything but smooth for the Cavaliers in 2010. Not only did Virginia’s defenders have to learn a new scheme, four of coordinator Jim Reid’s starters — end Cam Johnson, tackle Matt Conrath and linebackers Ausar Walcott and LaRoy Reynolds — had played different positions in Groh’s 3-4. As had reserves Will Hill and Billy Schautz.

“I’m an eternal optimist, but we did have to deal with some issues where guys weren’t quite ready or big enough or skilled enough,” London told reporters Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.

The defense “faced a tough learning curve” in 2010, London said, and the statistics told the story. Among the 120 teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, UVa ranked 106th in rushing defense, 78th in total defense and 70th in scoring defense last season.

London’s team fared much better in pass defense — 25th — but that was partly because opponents knew they could generally run at will on the Wahoos.

Virginia finished 4-8 last season. Through 10 games this fall, the Cavaliers are 7-3. Not coincidentally, they’ve become much more proficient at stopping — or at least slowing — opposing offenses.

“Our defense is probably one of the big reasons we’re standing where we are right now,” London said.

Cornerback Demetrious Nicholson said: “We’re hot right now. We’re playing together, and we’re playing as a unit. Everybody’s just playing their part.”

The numbers tell the story for UVa (4-2, 7-3), which faces 23rd-ranked Florida State (5-2, 7-3) in Tallahassee at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in an ACC game that ESPN2 will broadcast.

Among FBS teams, the ‘Hoos rank 25th in rushing defense, 26th in total defense and 31st in scoring defense. The improvement is not the result of an infusion of new talent. Only one defensive starter, Nicholson, was not recruited to play in the 3-4.

“You just keep believing in what you’re doing and you spend time doing it,” London said. “We’ve kind of seen the benefits of sticking with the plan, practicing it, developing the players, having continuity and consistency. You see how the guys are playing.”

Compare Virginia’s past two games against Duke. In 2010, the Cavaliers allowed 489 yards in a 55-48 loss to the Blue Devils in Durham, N.C. On Saturday, Virginia held Duke to 337 yards and won 31-21 at Scott Stadium. The ‘Hoos remain vulnerable against the pass — Duke’s completions included a 64-yarder, a 51-yarder and a 41-yarder — but overall the defense bears little resemblance to the unit that stumbled through the 2010 season.

“The defensive guys,” Reid said after the Duke game, “have since the spring really kind of jelled together. They feel like they’re playing with the best friends they’re ever going to have for the rest of their lives, and that’s the way it should be, each and every play.”

The defensive staff hasn’t changed from 2010 — Reid, line coach Jeff Hanson, linebackers coach Vincent Brown, cornerbacks coach Chip West and safeties coach Anthony Poindexter — and many of the key players in the defensive rotation are the same, too: Conrath and Nick Jenkins at tackle, Johnson at end, Reynolds, Walcott, Steve Greer and Aaron Taliaferro at linebacker, Chase Minnifield at cornerback, and Corey Mosley and Rodney McLeod at safety.

This season, though, the players have a better grasp of the scheme, particularly run fits — their assignments and angles on running players. Reid tried to keep things simple for his players last year — too simple, he said before training camp this summer — but breakdowns still plagued the defense.

Of his linemen, Hanson said, “I think last year, going from the 3-4 to a 4-3, there were a lot of guys that didn’t understand the concept. And that’s why we stayed so simple last year and basically didn’t do much, because our guys couldn’t handle it mentally. But this year, with a full year under our belt and spring practice and then this year, all these guys understand things. They understand blocking schemes they’re going to get, they understand the techniques we want them to do as far as the run schemes, and they understand the kind of pass-rush technique we’re trying to teach.”

Conrath, a fifth-year senior, was named ACC defensive lineman of the week Monday for his play against Duke. He had nine tackles, including two for loss, forced a fumble and blocked a field-goal attempt to help the Cavaliers beat the Devils for the first time since 2007.

“I think the defensive line as a whole has just gotten unbelievably better from last year,” Conrath said Monday at JPJ. “We understand the scheme a lot better. The front seven in general, we understand where we fit in the scheme of things.”

In 2010, Conrath noted, the ‘Hoos “had a lot of guys playing new positions. I’m not using that as an excuse, but another year in the system to watch film, to see where we screwed up and to learn from our mistakes, has gotten us a lot better.”

London said: “Guys are getting bigger and stronger. It’s the same terminology, same coaches. You get better at the technique with your hands, with your feet, with communicating. I think that lends itself to the improvement — the consistency of teaching the type of techniques that are needed — of guys being able to play this defense like you’re supposed to play it.”

After last season, Reid asked the program’s video staff to string together clips of the 67 running plays on which opponents gained 10 or more yards against UVa in 2010. It didn’t make for pleasant viewing for his defensive players, but the footage helped Reid get his points across.

“A lot of the big plays were self-inflicted,” Conrath said. “We weren’t in our gaps, we missed tackles, and we cleaned those things up this year.”

Nicholson was a senior at Bayside High School last fall, so he wasn’t responsible for any of those big plays. Still, he watched the video after arriving at UVa this summer.

“I saw a lot of potential, despite those plays that they gave up,” Nicholson said Monday. “I just knew Coach Reid was going to do a great job of correcting those mistakes from last year. This year, we’ve corrected a lot of our mistakes each week, and we’re playing pretty good football right now.”

Reid heard the criticism that UVa fans directed at him and his defense last fall, and it was a stressful season for a coach who works extraordinarily long hours in the best of times.

“I think for how much he put into it, and then for us to just make dumb mistakes, it might have taken a little toll on him,” Conrath said Monday. “But we’ve bounced back. He’s put a lot more on the players this year, expecting a lot more out of us to understand what’s going on, and it’s shown.”

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