By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Before playing its final game of the season, most likely in Nashville, Tenn., or Charlotte, N.C., UVa’s football team will practice about 20 times in December. The extra work figures to benefit all of the Cavaliers’ younger players, but especially those on the defensive side.
On offense, seven starters are expected back in 2012, so coordinator Bill Lazor will not face an overhaul in the spring.
On defense, however, UVa started seven seniors Saturday in the regular-season finale against Virginia Tech: tackles Matt Conrath and Nick Jenkins, end Cam Johnson, strong-side linebacker Aaron Taliaferro, cornerback Chase Minnifield, and safeties Rodney McLeod and Corey Mosley. (Conrath and Minnifield were named to the All-ACC first team Monday.) Moreover, the Wahoos also will lose cornerback Dom Joseph, who often played in passing situations.
Tackle Will Hill and end Billy Schautz (who suffered a season-ending injury Nov. 19 against Florida State) played about as much as the starters at their respective positions, and both will be back in 2012. But many of the defenders who hope to break into the rotation next year have rarely, if ever, played from scrimmage this fall.
This group includes end Thompson Brown, tackles Chris Brathwaite and Justin Renfrow, linebackers Henry Coley, Daquan Romero, D.J. Hill and Tucker Windle, cornerbacks Brandon Phelps and Drequan Hoskey, and safeties Anthony Harris, Rijo Walker, Kameron Mack, LoVanté Battle and Pablo Alvarez.
“That’s why these bowl practices are hugely important,” defensive coordinator Jim Reid said Monday at the McCue Center.
The practices will also help the freshmen being redshirted this season: ends Diamonte Bailey, Rob Burns and Marco Jones, tackles Vincent Croce and David Dean, linebacker Caleb Taylor, and safeties Kyrrel Latimer, Darius Lee and Mason Thomas. They’ll get extended work in December, especially in the early practices.
In 2010, the Cavaliers’ first season under head coach Mike London and his new staff, they finished 4-8. A year later, Virginia is 8-4 and headed to a bowl for the first time since 2007. The ‘Hoos appear bound for the Music City Bowl (Dec. 30 in Nashville) or the Belk Bowl (Dec. 27 in Charlotte).
“Do we have a lot of work to do in continuing this process? Yes, we do,” said London, who was named ACC coach of the year Tuesday.
“But you get that with recruiting, you get that with developing your players and getting them better, and you get that with the chance to play in bowl games, where you now have extra practices to get your younger players ready for spring practice. That’s something we haven’t had here in a long time.”
The challenge on defense is “to try to have growth faster than what normally happens,” Reid said. “I thought that’s what happened to our entire defense this year.”
The numbers back him up. In 2010, among the 120 teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, UVa ranked 59th in pass-efficiency defense, 70th in scoring defense, 78th in total defense and 106th in rushing defense. In Year No. 2 under Reid, his charges are ranked 33rd nationally in pass-efficiency defense, 35thin scoring defense, 31st in total defense and 35th in rushing defense.
“So I think they’ve they’ve bought into the program,” Reid said, “and now we’ve got to really work hard to get some consistency in performance from our defense. A lot of people already are like, ‘You guys are going to lose seven guys now, and how long is it going to take to rebuild?’ And I hope the answer is, ‘You’re not going to notice too much of a difference.’ ”
At tackle, Hill, a 6-4, 280-pound junior, is a proven talent who “was a starter for all intents and purposes,” Reid said. But Brathwaite, a redshirt freshman, missed the first part of the season while recovering from knee surgery and has appeared in only four games.
“So he will really benefit from this, and we’re really, really excited,” Reid said. “The first couple of bowl practices that we have, he will get most of the reps.”
Reid said he also wants to take a long look at Renfrow, a 6-6, 300-pound redshirt sophomore “who has some real ability. He just needs some work. Some real good work. He really has the hands and the foot quickness to become a very fine player for us.”
Much is expected of 6-7, 290-pound end Brent Urban, too. Urban, a redshirt sophomore from Canada, got many of the snaps that would have gone to Schautz against the Hokies and made a career-high six tackles.
“Brent played a great game,” Reid said. “He dominated the tight end on every snap, and we are really excited to get him to continue his improvement and to get more reps. And the other guy who’s a difference-maker in pass rush is Thompson Brown. I think getting Thompson some extra reps in [December] will be absolutely tremendous, and I can tell you right now, we hope to give him a regular series at defensive end in the bowl game, to see what he can do and get him a little bit of experience.”
Urban is a versatile player who could see some snaps at tackle in UVa’s 4-3 defense. For now, Reid said, he’s thrilled that Urban “is really just beginning to have a great understanding of one position. Brent has some very good ability. He was like a lone wolf in the wilderness running around. Now we’ve got him really focused. He takes a lot of pride in his reads and has an opportunity to really help us.”
Virginia’s returning starters on defense in 2012 will be end Jake Snyder, middle linebacker Steve Greer, weak-side linebacker LaRoy Reynolds and cornerback Demetrious “Tra” Nicholson. Greer, a second-team All-ACC selection, leads the Cavaliers in tackles with 103, and Reynolds is second with 81.
“Roy had a great year,” Reid said. “He really, really did. Compared to a year ago, he was terrific. And Steve, in my mind, just gets better and better and better. He knows where to go, he gets there, and then when he gets there, something good always happens for us.”
Ausar Walcott, a redshirt junior, started seven games at strong-side linebacker before Taliaferro replaced him late in the regular season. Walcott missed the Virginia Tech game with a hand injury, but when he returns to practice, he’ll work “at the defensive end position as well as linebacker,” Reid said, “because he has pass-rush ability.”
Hamstring injuries slowed Romero, a true freshman, and Coley, a redshirt sophomore, for much of the regular season. Coley is listed as Greer’s back-up at middle linebacker but will also take turns at strong-side linebacker in the bowl practices, Reid said.
At safety, Harris and Mack will be among the young players who get extensive work during the bowl practices. Walker, a sophomore who played cornerback in 2010, is “one of the hardest-working players that we have,” Reid said, “and that’s saying something, because that’s a hard-working group.”
Elsewhere in the secondary, cornerback “isn’t as scary with Chase leaving and Dom leaving as it looks,” Reid said. “You lose two corners there, but Tra gave us great play all year. He was a big factor in our turnaround. And the guy that has made strides is Drequan Hoskey.”
Hoskey, a 6-0, 175-pound redshirt freshman, “was a track man that was playing football [when he arrived at UVa],” Reid said. “Now he’s a football guy running track. He just needs to play, and that’s why these early bowl practices are going to help him a lot.”
Phelps is one of seven true freshmen to have played on defense for Virginia this fall, along with Nicholson, Brown, Romero, Hill, Mack, and Harris. Phelps played primarily on special teams during the regular season.
“Brandon Phelps is going to be an excellent player for us,” Reid said. “He got a little lost in the shuffle with all the different coverages and the checks and things of that nature, but he’ll be fine.”
For Reid, the goal is to field another strong defense in 2012. The upcoming bowl practices will help on that front.
“There’s no question,” Reid said.