By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – During the University of Virginia football team’s media day, the first question defensive coordinator Jim Reid fielded Friday concerned his secondary, which by any standard is extraordinarily inexperienced.
Tra Nicholson wasn’t surprised.
“I figured that would be the question coming into our new season,” Nicholson said later that afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena.
Nicholson, a 2011 graduate of Virginia Beach’s Bayside High School, is the most experienced member of the secondary, and it’s not close. He started all 13 games at cornerback for the Cavaliers as a true freshman last year.
“It’s going to force me to be a leader,” Nicholson said of his status as an elder statesman.
His fellow starters in the secondary last year were seniors — cornerback Chase Minnifield and safeties Rodney McLeod and Corey Mosley — who left UVa with 88 career starts among them. Also gone is Dom Joseph, who was in for 399 plays last season.
This year’s secondary? It includes no seniors, and Rijo Walker is the lone junior. The other defensive backs are sophomores (Nicholson, Drequan Hoskey, Brandon Phelps, Anthony Harris, Brendan Morgan and Pablo Alvarez), redshirt freshmen (Darius Lee, Mason Thomas and Kyrrel Latimer) and true freshmen, including Maurice Canady, C.J. Moore and Kelvin Rainey.
Hoskey, Phelps and Harris played extensively on special teams in 2011 but rarely from scrimmage.
“I think they have the skill and the talent to do it,” Mike London said Friday, “but what’s missing is the experience of playing defensive back in a game. They’ll get it early on, and I’m sure that’ll be something that we’ll be paying close attention to.”
Virginia’s secondary lacked seasoning in 2010, too. That was London’s first season as the Wahoos’ head coach and Reid’s first as their defensive coordinator. Moreover, as Reid pointed out Friday, the defense was learning a new scheme. After nine seasons in the 3-4 defense favored by London’s predecessor, Al Groh, the `Hoos had switched to the 4-3, and the transition wasn’t always smooth that first year.
“At least here we have experience with the scheme,” Reid said, “which I believe will be a difference-maker.”
Hoskey, like Nicholson, is a cornerback. Phelps may see time at both corner and safety. Harris is a safety. Walker came to UVa as a cornerback but has since shifted to safety.
“We’ve got some real good eager young guys,” Reid said. “Two years ago I can remember, I sat here and said late at night the door [at the McCue Center] would open and [former quarterback] Marc Verica would be watching film.
“This year I could tell you that you sit in your office, and as you’re leaving, Tra Nicholson, Brandon Phelps, Drequan Hoskey, Anthony Harris, all those young characters came in and were watching film … I don’t know if it’s a correct analogy, but you’d walk down a dark alley with those guys any day.”
Chip West coaches the Cavaliers’ cornerbacks, and Anthony Poindexter oversees the safeties. Their charges are “high-quality, terrific [young men] … that want to succeed, that have watched guys in front of them succeed,” Reid said. “We’ll just work as hard as we can with them. It all goes back to basics and fundamentals, and as long as they have that, then we’ll get `em in the right spot.”
That Harris will be one starter at safety is a virtual certainty. His running mate could be Walker, or it could be Phelps.
“I think early in the camp, we just gotta see who’s going to be ready to go,” Poindexter said. “I’d like to get four or five of them ready to play in the game. But as I was telling them in the spring, I’m kind of excited to watch some new guys develop. Rod and Mo were great for us here, and it’s going to be hard to replace that experience, but I think we got some young, talented players.”
McLeod and Mosley were “really good players,” Poindexter said, “but I think we gain a little bit more size. Now we look like safeties. I think that’s the one part. But whatever shape, size and height they are, it comes down to: Can they play the game when the lights are on? That’s gonna be the big thing.”
The rotation at cornerback is likely to include two or more true freshmen. Nicholson’s advice to the newcomers?
“Just don’t think too much about it,” he said. “Just go after it. Just play ball … Just don’t be afraid to make a mistake. That’s what Coach Reid always tell us, and that’s what I tell them — just go out and ball.”
The Cavaliers’ front seven is considerably more experienced than the secondary. End Jake Snyder, middle linebacker Steve Greer and weak-side linebacker LaRoy Reynolds are returning starters, and tackle Will Hill and end Billy Schautz played extensively last year. So did Ausar Walcott, now a full-time end, and Brent Urban, who can play tackle as well as end. And then there’s Henry Coley, the projected starter at strong-side linebacker. With Greer sidelined by a knee injury, Coley started at middle linebacker against Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
The more pressure the front seven can put on quarterbacks, the better off UVa’s young defensive backs will be. Reid cited a play in Virginia’s win over Duke last season. Defensive end Cam Johnson’s hit on the Blue Devils’ quarterback led to an interception that Minnifield returned for a touchdown.
“The reason why we intercepted that ball was the quarterback did not have time,” Reid said.
“But if somebody has all day to throw the football, I don’t care how experienced you are back there, they’re going to complete that ball.”
Among ACC teams, UVa ranked second defensively in third-down conversions (33.3 percent) last season. The `Hoos were ninth, however, in sacks (20).
“The pass rush was not one of our strong points last year,” Snyder said. “We had some good plays, and we had some good games, but overall I would say we were below average. It’s something we need to work on. We were able last year to have our very experienced secondary bail us out sometimes.”
The Cavaliers won’t have that luxury this year, Snyder noted. “We’ve got a very talented young secondary, but they are more inexperienced, so with the experience shifting to the linebackers and the D-line, we need to pick them up. We need to get pressure on the quarterback every game, every series. That way we take a lot of pressure off those guys.”
In 2013 and again in `14, the core of UVa’s secondary may well be the players who’ll make up the rotation this fall: Nicholson, Harris and Co.
“I think about that,” Nicholson said. “As young as our secondary is, this year and in the years to come it’s not going to do anything but get better as we get older and get more experience and just have chemistry together, playing on the field, and it becomes like second nature. A lot of times last year, Chase and Rodney, they’d just do a little hand motion or gesture, and they’d be on the same page. Hopefully we can get to that point.”
EXTRA POINT: Kameron Mack, one of the 12 true freshmen who saw time for the Cavaliers last season, will not practice or play this fall, London said Friday.
Mack, a safety from Portsmouth, will remain at UVa as a student and hopes to rejoin the team in 2013.
“It’ll be his redshirt year,” said London, who wants Mack to focus on his academics and personal life.