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July 29, 2014

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This is the third installment of a series in which breaks down the 2014 football team by position.

CHARLOTTESVILLE — On a team that won only two games, UVa safety Anthony Harris intercepted eight passes last season, the most of any player in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision.

Harris would happily trade those eight interceptions for eight victories — or more — as a senior. He’s confident the Cavaliers, who played in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in 2011, can resume their winning ways this season, in part because of their returning talent on defense.

Nowhere is Virginia stronger than in the secondary. Among them, UVa defensive backs have made 112 career starts. Demetrious Nicholson, who’s recovering from a May operation on his toe, is first with 30 starts. Following him are Anthony Harris (23), Brandon Phelps (22), DreQuan Hoskey (20), Maurice Canady (10) and Tim Harris (7).

“I think the secondary’s very talented, with a lot of depth,” Anthony Harris said.

That also was the case last summer in Charlottesville. But the Wahoos lost reserve safety Wilfred Wahee to a season-ending knee injury during training camp. Then, in the fifth game of the season, Nicholson suffered a season-ending toe injury. Canady also missed three games with an injury.

“Last season we had some very talented guys who I felt in my opinion didn’t get to display their full capabilities, due to injuries or whatever that may be,” Anthony Harris said.

With Nicholson and Canady out, Tim Harris had to play more as a true freshman than defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta would have preferred.

“Tim showed very good signs and played well in spurts,” Anthony Harris (no relation) said, “but sometimes just a lack of experience in some game situations may leave him a little vulnerable. But he’s a guy with great size who’s developed over the spring and learned a lot from the season because of how much he played.”

The Cavaliers ranked 48th nationally in passing efficiency defense and tied for 67th in passing yards allowed per game in 2013. Chip West returns as UVa’s cornerbacks coach. In his first season overseeing Virginia’s safeties is Mike Archer, who has more than 35 years of experience in college and NFL coaching.

“He’s been around the game a long time,” Anthony Harris said of Archer, who replaced Anthony Poindexter. “He has a lot of personality, so he can get on you, but he’s also old-fashioned and believes in teaching the basics. So he’s really coming out and critiquing guys and making sure we don’t skip over things that in our opinion may not be as important as some of the things we want to get to. He’s making sure we’re taking each process seriously and getting better in each of those categories to help us be better players at the end of the week and ready for Saturdays.”

Like the coaching staff and UVa fans, Anthony Harris is excited about the addition of safety Quin Blanding, a 6-4, 210-pound true freshman from Virginia Beach who had his pick of college programs.

“Physically, he looks like a guy who’s ready to come in and play,” Harris said, and head coach Mike London doesn’t disagree.

“You never want to put too much on an incoming freshman,” London told reporters last week in Greensboro, N.C., “but the reality of it is, he’s a very talented player.”

That description, of course, applies to Anthony Harris, too, and he’s determined to be better in 2014 than he was in ’13.

“My main focus is to continue to study the game, be a student of the game and continue to perfect my craft, whether that’s technique, putting on some weight, getting faster, getting stronger, all those things,” Harris said.

Also, he said, “I feel like I can take some of the success I’ve had and use it to influence my teammates, whether it’s increasing some of their film study and knowledge of the game, or just bringing that passion and being able to make a play when the team needs it. So my goal is just to motivate my team a little bit more and make the players around me a little bit better. So if I’m not making as many plays, there’s guys around me making plays.”

Overall, Harris said, UVa has “a ton of guys who we feel like can contribute to the secondary, whether that’s adding depth or just adding knowledge or size to it. So I’d say we’re pretty excited going into the season.

“This season, just like last season, we’re going to play some very explosive teams that are going to spread the defense out a little bit. That allows us to go into different packages and put more DBs on the field, because they know what they’re doing, and they have the ability to go out there and do the things we need them to do.”

A look at the Cavaliers’ scholarship defensive backs, by class:

* No. 22, cornerback DreQuan Hoskey (6-0, 180-pound fifth-year senior, Richmond). A former walk-on who came to Virginia to run track, Hoskey started 10 games in 2012 and 10 in ’13. He broke up six passes as a junior and five as a sophomore. With 43 tackles, he was fourth among UVa defensive backs last season.

* No. 8, safety Anthony Harris (6-1, 185-pound senior, Chesterfield). An All-ACC and All-America selection, Harris led the nation with eight interceptions last season and had a stretch of five consecutive games with at least one pick. He finished third on the team in tackles, behind linebackers Henry Coley and Daquan Romero. Harris is heading into his third season as a starter.

* No. 21, safety/cornerback Brandon Phelps (6-0, 185-pound senior, Damascus, Md.). A heralded recruit out of Damascus High School, Phelps played corner as a true freshman in 2011 before switching to safety in ’12. He started 12 games as a sophomore, all at safety, and 10 as a junior, including one at corner. Phelps may see time at both positions this fall.

* No. 1, cornerback Demetrious Nicholson (5-11, 185-pound senior, Virginia Beach). After starting the first 30 games of his UVa career, Nicholson suffered a season-ending toe injury against Ball State last fall. He’s a fundamentally sound cornerback who has made 136 tackles and broken up 27 passes for the `Hoos.

* No. 26, cornerback Maurice Canady (6-2, 190-pound junior, Richmond). Canady, perhaps Virginia’s top all-around corner, missed three games with an injury last season but still tied for seventh on the team in tackles, with 44. He was second in pass breakups, with eight. As a true freshman in 2012, he was twice named ACC defensive back of the week.

* No. 16, safety Mason Thomas (6-0, 210-pound junior, Virginia Beach). Thomas, who redshirted in 2011, played in nine games the next season and six last fall, mostly on special teams.

* No. 5, cornerback Tim Harris (6-2, 200-pound sophomore, Richmond). Harris, one of the Cavaliers’ most physically imposing defensive backs, appeared in 11 games as a true freshman last season and, because of injuries to Nicholson and Canady, started seven of them. He broke up two passes and made 26 tackles in 2013.

* No. 28, safety Wilfred Wahee (5-11, 200-pound sophomore, Norfolk). After redshirting in 2012, Wahee impressed during spring practice in ’13. In training camp last summer, however, he suffered a season-ending knee injury. He made a swift recovery and this spring received an Iron Cavalier Award for his work in the weight room.

* No. 37, cornerback Divante Walker (5-11, 190-pound sophomore, Virginia Beach). Walker appeared in 11 games last season, primarily on special teams. In his most memorable performance, he made four tackles and forced a fumble against VMI.

* No. 38, safety Kelvin Rainey (6-1, 190-pound sophomore, Houston). One of the team’s more physical defensive backs, Rainey missed the final three games of the 2013 season with an injury. In the first nine games, he played primarily on special teams. He finished the season with 11 tackles and one pass breakup.

* No. 27, safety Malcolm Cook (6-1, 205-pound redshirt freshman, Richmond). As a senior on Fork Union Military Academy’s high school team, Cook intercepted nine passes, four of which he returned for touchdowns.

* No. 2, cornerback Kirk Garner (5-11, 180-pound redshirt freshman, Baltimore). At Good Counsel High, also the alma mater of UVa teammates Vincent Croce, Andre Levrone and Brendan Marshall, Garner played safety and wide receiver and returned punts.

* No. 3, safety Quin Blanding (6-4, 210-pound true freshman, Virginia Beach). A graduate of Bayside High, where his predecessors included UVa teammates Nicholson, Coley and Taquan Mizzell. Blanding was a high school All-American whom ranked No. 10 nationally in the Class of 2014. On offense, he played quarterback, running back, tight end and wide receiver for Bayside last season.

* No. 39, cornerback Darious Latimore (6-0, 175-pound true freshman, Lawrenceville, Ga.). At Central Gwinnett High, Latimore played cornerback, linebacker and defensive end during his varsity career. He started at cornerback in 2012 and ’13.

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