Virginia hopes to erase defensive memories

Virginia hopes to erase defensive memories

Published Jun. 6, 2012 3:12 p.m. ET

Virginia’s defense helped the Cavaliers forge a surprising eight-win season in 2011.

Those victories came in the team’s first 11 contests, but a sour taste was left behind after what transpired in the final two games.

First, Virginia hosted hated rival Virginia Tech in the last game of the regular season with the winner taking the ACC’s Coastal Division title. The Cavs were the upstarts, and were underdogs to a Hokies’ program that annually finds a way to win big games when the weather has cooled.

That experience, coupled with a somewhat-depleted defense, made for a laugher: Hokies 38, Cavaliers 0.

Five weeks later in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, an Auburn team that was a bit offensively challenged at times piled on 43 points in a 19-point victory over suddenly slumping Virginia. In Virginia’s final two games, it allowed 81 points and 845 total yards of offense. For a team that finished the season fifth in the ACC in scoring defense (23.8) and third in total defense (353), it was a big blow to an otherwise positive campaign.

“Well, the last two games we played against two very good teams,” Virginia coach Mike London recently said. “But, obviously you’re going to have to keep the points down in order to give you any chance of playing winning games.”

What concerns London and his staff is that Virgina lost seven starters from that defense, including three each from the line and secondary. The line should still be in solid shape and has some experience, plus super athlete Ausar Walcott moving from linebacker to defensive end will increase the speed up front and give the team a legitimate pass rusher.

In the secondary -- where Chase Minnifield, among others, must be replaced -- the situation is far less settled. But London believes his staff’s teachings have the players more prepared than their snap charts might suggest.

“I think that the type of defense that we have now, or the players that are in those positions now, are guys that have grown up in it with the weight room, with the techniques being consistent,” London said.

“There’s a lot of young players that played in games, maybe three, four phase special teams guys, that now are battling for starting positions and battling for depth,” the third-year coach said. “The good thing is they’ve been in college football games and they’ve played.”

A pair of sophomores, Drequan Hoskey and Demetrious Nicholson, look like the front-runners to man the all-important cornerback jobs, though 12 players in all were listed on the initial spring depth chart, and when the freshmen arrive in August, that figure will increase. A quick chopping block to pare down the group most ready, however, is expected.

Despite being solid in nearly every phase defensively until those final two games, the Cavs were 11th in the ACC in turnover margin. That, of course, can go both ways. A turnover-prone offense can seriously affect the numbers, but a defense that doesn’t force enough miscues or flip the field much can apply a great deal of pressure on the offense.

“As far as creating turnovers, that’s always been something that successful defenses have when they’re turning the ball over and giving the ball to their offenses,” he said. “And I think more of an emphasis, probably more than any time this spring, some of these young guys that are playing is that if you get the ball and take the ball away, then you’ll have an opportunity.”

They’ll have an opportunity to get more playing time and win games. And if the Cavaliers’ defense grows up quickly, it may get a chance to redeem itself in late November.