Virginia football might be a perennial underachiever, but there’s one aspect of the game where it’s very clear that nothing is lacking: The secondary.
Quarterback Greyson Lambert declared earlier this week that the ‘Hoos’ secondary is the best in the nation. It’s a bold claim but the athletes back it up. The seventh-ranked Bruins’ first opponent of the 2014 season might still be unproven in several areas, but for a team like UCLA that relies on its receiving depth, the secondary could pose a challenge.
"It’s definitely going to be fun for our receivers," junior receiver Jordan Payton said. "They’ve got a lot of veterans back there. They’re big, they’re lanky, they’re strong."
It all starts with senior safety Anthony Harris, who is one of the best in the nation.
Harris led the FBS last season with eight interceptions, costing opponents 42 yards. He also recorded 80 tackles (three for loss) and a sack. But it’s his ability to play around the ball the has the Bruins’ receivers on high alert.
"He has extreme ball skills," Payton said. "He plays physical, he stays in coverage."
The eight picks were the most at Virginia since Ronde Barber grabbed eight in 1994. Harris could be the one person standing in Devin Lucien’s way as he attempts to make his typical top-10 worthy catches.
"I’m really looking for him to be everywhere because usually, when you have eight picks it means you’re a ball hog," Lucien said. "And I’m a ball hog which means he’s trying to take the ball from me and I can’t let that happen."
But Lucien admits that all of Virginia’s defensive backs are impressive on film. Nearly everyone from last year’s secondary returns this year, and there’s little film on one cornerback in particular, Quin Blanding; a five-star freshman who helped recruiter Chip West to an ACC Recruiter of the Year title.
The defense as a whole boasts superior athletes, but much like many lower-tier power conference schools, it’s athletic players not necessarily the best players in football at their positions. And despite some standout pieces on the defensive front, the Cavaliers ranked only 54th in the country last season in total defense.
But the secondary defies that rule with guys like Harris – one of the best in the country at what does. They have veteran corners like DreQuan Hoskey and Maurice Canaday; and role players like Brandon Phelps have the ability to play multiple positions in multiple packages.
The secondary is what likely will keep Virginia in the game"
"That’s one element of getting better defensively, the corner play throughout August camp and having guys like Maurice Canady and Tim Harris who played in college football games last year. They really looked good," head coach Mike London said. "We feel that the defensive backs are guys that have been in a lot of games or played games for us, and that’s one area of experience for us."