By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On a pass play designed to produce a big gain, if not a touchdown, defensive back Brandon Phelps matched wide receiver Keeon Johnson stride for stride down the field, no easy task, and forced an incompletion under the lights Monday night on the field next to the McCue Center.
Such plays by defenders were common during the UVa football team’s first practice of training camp, an occasion that drew an appreciative crowd that included the University’s president, Teresa Sullivan, and members of the men’s and women’s basketball teams. (Virginia’s second and third practices, which will start Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:15 p.m., are also open to the public.)
Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s options Monday night included 11 players who started at least four games apiece last season: Phelps, safety Anthony Harris, cornerbacks DreQuan Hoskey, Maurice Canady and Tim Harris, linebackers Henry Coley, Daquan Romero and Max Valles, end Eli Harold, and tackles David Dean and Donte Wilkins.
If the Cavaliers’ defense regularly gets the better of their offense, at least early in training camp, no one will be shocked. The offensive line remains a work in progress, and if the defense can stay healthy, head coach Mike London noted after the first practice, it could be one of the ACC’s best.
Virginia’s starting quarterback, redshirt sophomore Greyson Lambert, will attest to the defense’s potential. This is the Cavaliers’ second year under Tenuta, and his charges are clearly more comfortable with his system than they were in 2013.
“Even during seven-on-seven [workouts this summer], I could tell,” Lambert said after practice Monday night. “They’re trying to fool all of us [on offense]. And today they fooled me one time, where they were disguising a blitz on this side but really brought it from the other side, and so I made the wrong call.
“They’re playing together like nothing I’ve ever seen before in my time being at Virginia. They’re all on the same page, and they all know their keys.”
UVa’s defenders include a player who, a few months ago, was still a senior at Bayside High School in Virginia Beach. But Quin Blanding, a 6-4, 210-pound free safety, is no ordinary freshman. He was one of the most celebrated recruits in the nation’s Class of 2014, and the coaching staff wasted no time inserting Blanding into the starting lineup next to Harris, an All-American who led the nation in interceptions last season.
“He’s lining up there because, as I said, with his recruiting class, we’re going to give some individuals opportunities to play early,” London said. “And he’s being evaluated like everyone else. If he can maintain the techniques and the fundamentals and the calls like we expect, then he’ll be there.”
The addition of Blanding, coupled with the unavailability of cornerback Demetrious Nicholson for full-speed drills, has meant a new role for Phelps, a 6-0, 185-pound senior from Damascus, Md.
After working at cornerback as a true freshman in 2011, Phelps changed positions in the secondary the next year. He started 12 games at safety in 2012 and 10 last season. He’s back at what he considers his natural position, the one at which his play for Damascus High earned him scholarship offers from such schools as Alabama, LSU and Ohio State.
After two seasons in which he never appeared totally comfortable at safety, Phelps is happy to be at corner again, working with assistant coach Chip West.
“It feels pretty good to be home,” Phelps said after practice Monday night. “But to be honest, if I played any position I would say the same thing: It feels great to be back out here with my teammates. We’re just out here trying to get better.”
Nicholson, who started the first 30 games of his college career, suffered a season-ending toe injury against Ball State last fall. His toe continued to bother him in the spring, and he had an operation in May. His recovery is going well, but he’s yet to be cleared for full participation.
Whether he’ll take reps at safety as well as corner when Nicholson returns, Phelps said, he’s not sure.
“I’m doing whatever the coaches tell me to do,” Phelps said. “Whatever they think is going to help the team be most successful, that’s what I’m going to do.”
The first-team defense Monday night consisted of Harris and Blanding at safety, Phelps and Canady at cornerback, Coley, Romero and Valles at linebacker, Harold and Mike Moore at end, and Dean and Wilkins at tackle.
Conspicuously absent from some drills Monday night was true freshman defensive tackle Andrew Brown, who like Blanding had scholarship offers from virtually every major college program.
Brown, who enrolled at UVa in January, suffered a foot injury during spring practice, and the coaching staff is being cautious with him.
“He’s been cleared to do certain things individually,” London said. “He’s not fully cleared at this point, but again his want-to, his desire, his work ethic [are evident]. He’s back to lifting and doing a lot of things that we knew that he’d bring when we got here. We’ll bring him along slowly. He wants to go at it right away, but he’ll be a great player for us.”
Expectations are equally high for Blanding, and No. 3 did not disappoint in his first college practice.
“He looks good out there,” Phelps said. “Once he gets the formations down there and the calls, he’ll be fine. He has great athletic abilities. He’s definitely going to be a big help to us this year.”
To be part of a starting defense loaded with veterans “just felt good,” Blanding said. “They’re out here pushing me. They’re working me, and I’m working them. We all have different talents, and we’re all going at it at the same time.”
In 2013, when they finished 2-10, the Wahoos had an unusually small senior class. That’s not the case this year, and Phelps and his classmates have ample motivation as the Aug. 30 opener against UCLA approaches.
“We definitely don’t want to have that feeling of going 2-10 again,” Phelps said. “That wasn’t a great feeling, and for me, this being my last year, there definitely is a sense of urgency. I love every guy on this team, and we all have goals, but we all share the common goal of being the best team we can be and going to a bowl game and winning championships.”
The final session of summer school at UVa doesn’t end till Friday. And so the football team, which typically practices in the morning, is training at night this week. Phelps, like some of his teammates, has an 8 a.m. class each day.
“We’re in tune to the fact that they’re students first, and the opportunities to fulfill their obligations for that are paramount,” said London, who added that it’s a top priority for his players “to get their grades and be eligible and become educated men. That’s the message.”