By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At the end of practice Tuesday morning, Virginia’s defensive backs returned to the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility with secondary coach Nick Howell.
Inside, Howell put the cornerbacks and safeties through footwork drills and had them take turns slamming into and wrapping up a tackling dummy.
The group included No. 31, Kareem Gibson, who until last weekend was largely anonymous to UVA fans. A redshirt freshman from Johnstown, Pa., Gibson made his college debut Saturday in Virginia’s 13-10 loss at Connecticut.
He replaced starter Myles Robinson on UConn’s second possession and played the rest of the game.
“I think I did pretty well,” Gibson said Tuesday, “They broke a couple tackles I should have had, though.
“Getting thrown in the game was kind of shocking at first, but once you know what you’re doing, it’s so much easier, because you feel comfortable. You’ve already rehearsed it.”
After two straight road games, Virginia (0-3) is home this weekend against Central Michigan (3-0). The teams meet Saturday at 12:30 p.m. at Scott Stadium.
The Cavaliers, who are in their first season under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, also their defensive coordinator, began preparing in earnest for Chippewas on Monday. Gibson continues to work with the first-team defense.
“With our new coaching staff, they’re just looking for whoever is hungry to play,” he said. “You come out and you know your assignments, you know how to execute and you make plays, they’ll give you a shot. They’re looking for guys who are going to step up and make plays.”
Gibson spent most of his childhood in Bowie, Md., and he attended Archbishop Carroll High in Washington, D.C., as a ninth-grader. His fellow students at Carroll included Cory Jones, now a redshirt sophomore linebacker at UVA, and Gibson occasionally trained with Myles Robinson, who attended nearby Good Counsel High.
After the death of his mother, Gibson moved with family members to Pennsylvania, where he starred at cornerback and wide receiver at Greater Johnstown High.
In his first season at UVA, Gibson redshirted. Then came a coaching change. Mendenhall took over in December and brought most of his assistants, including Howell, to Virginia with him from BYU.
Gibson did not play in either of the Wahoos’ first two games — losses to Richmond and Oregon — but he practiced well ahead of the trip to UConn, he said, “so I kind of knew, and was hoping, that I would get a shot out there.”
At 5-11, 170 pounds, Gibson is smaller than many major-college cornerbacks, and he noted that there are “a lot of big receivers out there.”
He makes up for his lack of size, Gibson said, by “using my speed and using my lower leverage as an advantage on opponents, and being aggressive. You’ve definitely got to be aggressive.”
HIGHER PROFILE: In passing situations, the Cavaliers’ fifth defensive back usually has been Kirk Garner, a Good Counsel graduate who played sparingly from scrimmage before this season.
“Last year I really was just specifically special teams,” said Garner, a 5-11, 180-pound redshirt junior. “This year I have a little piece of the defense … It’s a tremendous difference.”
After allowing 81 points in the losses to UR and Oregon, Virginia showed significant improvement on defense against UConn. Upon arriving in Charlottesville, Mendenhall installed a 3-4 as his base defense — the Cavaliers previously ran a 4-3 — and the players are undergoing on-the-job training this year.
“It’s a different defense for all of us, so we’re all learning,” Garner said. “We’re still learning from day to day. The biggest key is just progression, going from week to week, practicing hard, focusing on our keys and making sure we’re always taking steps forward and never back.”
Sophomore cornerback Juan Thornhill came up with UVA’s first takeaway of the season Saturday, picking off a UConn pass in the end zone.
“I was so happy that one of my guys finally got a takeaway,” Garner said. “Now, hopefully it creates some competition. He has one, and now I want one myself, and I’m pretty sure all the other DBs are hungry for their own takeaway.”
UNDAUNTED: This is Mendenhall’s 12th season as a college head coach, and until this year he’d never been 0-2, let alone 0-3.
The scope of the rebuilding project facing him at UVA has not, Mendenhall said, shaken his faith in his coaching principles.
“I haven’t been 0-3 before,” he told reporters Monday at John Paul Jones Arena, but “it doesn’t feel like that to me now. I’m focusing so much on what I see as growth and improvement, and I’m completely engrossed in the task. This is a massive change effort, it really is, at every turn.”
The challenge motivates him, Mendenhall said. “It’s still difficult, but I came here to do hard things, and this is hard. I’m looking forward to seeing it through to the kind of success I believe we can have.”
BREAKING OUT: Through three games, defensive end Andrew Brown leads the `Hoos with 3.5 tackles for loss and has the team’s only fumble recovery. Now a 6-4, 290-pound junior, Brown arrived at UVA in 2014 as a heralded recruit but had little impact his first two seasons. He’s thriving in the 3-4.
“It’s been really easy to acclimate to,” Brown said Monday. “We just need … more game experience with it. You can practice it all day long, but [until] the bullets are live, you’ll never really experience what it’s like to play in that defense.”
Mendenhall praised Brown’s increased maturity as a player and a person.
“He’ll be the first to tell you that there is a play or two per game that he might go the wrong direction or be a little bit wild,” Mendenhall said, “but, man, the number of plays he’s putting together consistently with production, that’s what people are starting to see … I think he’s very, very capable, and much like the other seven or eight players out there defensively that are getting a lot of experience, he’s growing consistently. One of the differences with Andrew, though, is he just has the size and speed and playmaking ability to when he does his job correctly and/or he’s at the point of attack, he really stands out as a playmaker.”
Brown said his two first seasons at UVA humbled him. He wasn’t always in sync with the previous coaching staff, and injuries slowed his progress, too.
Now, under Mendenhall, it’s “a whole new level, a whole new scheme, and a whole new process,” Brown said. “Once I got hurt and things like that I just had to humble myself, get back to ground zero and build myself back up again. I feel like now with this new coaching staff I’m able to be myself again. I’ve been blessed to have many opportunities on the field, and I’ve played more than I’ve ever played in like two years.”
RECHARGING BATTERIES: Under Mendenhall’s predecessor, the players had Mondays off during the season. Sunday is now their day of rest, and that’s been a welcome change, senior center Jackson Matteo said Monday.
Previously, players would return to the McCue Center on Sundays to lift weights. Meetings and a walk-through would follow.
“Sunday would be a pretty long day in the past,” Matteo said, “and now we really have an opportunity to get our bodies back in the place where we can practice at a high level throughout the week.
“We love having Sunday off because it gives us a chance to really have a day off somewhere in our week, because even though we had Mondays off in the past few years, we had class all day so it’s really not a day off. You’re still waking up early, you’re still going to class all day, and it’s almost mentally draining. Now we really have a day to recuperate, get in the cold tub, watch film, relax, get off our feet, really eat good meals and be fueled for Monday morning … I love having Sundays off. I think it’s pretty cool.”
RESURGENT: After catching 20 passes as a true freshman in 2013, wide receiver Keeon Johnson had only 13 receptions in each of the next two seasons.
Through three games this season, Johnson has 17 catches for 159 yards and two touchdowns, all team highs.
“It feels good,” Johnson said Monday. “The biggest thing for me is just to have fun. It’s my last year. It’s going by way too fast, so I just try to make every play, every rep, count in practice.”
He takes responsibility for the dip in his production in 2014 and ’15.
“After my first year,” Johnson said, “I kind of didn’t grind as hard as I should have and I kind of got complacent and things like that. That can always come back and bite you in the end. That’s one thing I learned from it.”
ALL FOR ONE: Johnson was asked Monday about sophomore walk-on Alex Furbank, who in his first-ever football game missed a 20-yard field-goal attempt on the final play Saturday at UConn.
Furbank had opened the scoring with a 23-yard field goal, and he later kicked an extra point that pushed Virginia’s lead to 10-0 early in the second quarter.
“I believe in him,” Johnson said. “I’m behind him 100 percent. We all make mistakes. I’ve dropped balls before. Some people miss kicks. That’s just how it is at the end of the day.
“It’s not his fault [UVA lost], because there’s plays we could have made on offense. I could have made a catch on third down. We might have scored on that drive. Who knows? The defense could have made a stop. So you really can’t put all the pressure on the kick, because it’s not really what it came down to.”