2005 Position Outlook: The Defensive Backs

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Tony Franklin’s move from cornerback to safety answers one question but creates several others. Will he make a smooth transition? Are Chris Gorham and Mike Brown ready to play big roles? One thing is for sure: The secondary’s play is of primary importance to the Cavaliers. That’s why Al Golden personally took control of coaching the defensive backs, teaching them a more aggressive style that could make or break Virginia’s season.

Cornerback

1) Marcus Hamilton (Jr., 5-11, 191)

1) Chris Gorham (So., 6-0, 175)

2) Mike Brown (Fr., 5-9, 170)

2) Chris Cook (Fr., 6-2, 188)

Marcus Hamilton

With Franklin’s move, Hamilton is now the only Cavalier defensive back returning to his old starting position. That puts more pressure on the junior to fill a leadership role in the secondary, but the good news is he may be ready for a breakout season. Injuries and confidence issues have held Hamilton back, but the once-heralded recruit played well down the stretch last season and now has the experience and moxie to match his talent. He is a fluid cover man who has improved as a tackler. He made four interceptions last season, including two in the end zone against Georgia Tech, and I won’t be surprised if he surpasses that number this season.

Of course, if Hamilton plays well, opponents may not throw his way. No doubt they’ll test Gorham early and often. As a true freshman last year, Gorham was on the field for just 20 snaps, so he has little game experience. In fact, since he missed most of his senior season in high school with an injury, it’s been a long time since he’s seen significant action. To me, that makes this a dicey situation. Golden and Al Groh want to use more man coverage schemes this season, but that depends on the ability of the corners to handle receivers without safety help. Gorham also needs to prove himself as a tackler on outside running plays, an area in which Franklin excelled.

Chris Gorham

Ideally, Philip Brown would be starting along with Hamilton, but his academic ineligibility means Mike Brown (no relation) will get a chance to play. He’ll probably begin as the third corner in the nickel package, but he could move into the starting lineup if Gorham struggles. For a rookie, Brown looks ready. He was well-coached at St. Peter’s Prep in Newark, N.J., and is a superior athlete despite his lack of size. Moreover, UVa’s coaches rave about his competitiveness. He hasn’t backed down a bit from defending the Cavalier receivers one-on-one during practice. Don’t expect him to shrink from the challenge if he ends up isolated on the ACC’s top wideouts.

Cook is another true freshman with nice potential. Expected to play safety in college, he had been practicing at both secondary positions before Franklin made the full-time move to safety. Now he is needed to provide depth at corner, but he may not play unless something happens to one of the top three CBs.

Safety

1) Nate Lyles (So., 6-0, 195)

1) Tony Franklin (Jr., 5-10, 185)

2) Lance Evans (Jr., 6-4, 198)

2) Jamaal Jackson (So., 6-3, 204)

Nate Lyles

Somehow, UVa’s starting safeties managed to go an entire season without making an interception in 2004. In that respect, it won’t be hard for the Cavs to fill the shoes of Jermaine Hardy and Marquis Weeks. Those two, especially Weeks, weren’t exactly ball hawks. Both were strong against the run, however, so it’s premature to say the new starters will represent an upgrade at this position.

Still, it’s realistic to expect improvement. Lyles is a natural safety, unlike Hardy and Weeks, and a guy who packs a wallop that belies his average size. The Chicago native is compact and aggressive – a faster version of Jerton Evans – and he loves to hit. Inexperience and questionable cover skills are causes for concern, but Lyles may develop into UVa’s best safety since Anthony Poindexter.

Tony Franklin

Franklin, a two-year starter at corner, also may turn out to be a great fit at safety. Like Lyles, he is strong for his size and is a sure tackler – his 78 stops last season were the most by any ACC cornerback. His biggest problem is that he has had trouble playing his man and locating the ball in the air, but that deficiency won’t be a big issue at safety, where he can more easily face the play. Groh says Franklin has quickly picked up the coverage responsibilities and play-calling duties of a free safety. Unless things change, he may be UVa’s last line of defense for the next two years.

Evans and Jackson had been battling for a starting safety spot during the spring and summer. Groh hasn’t publicly criticized either one, but his lack of praise has been conspicuous. It’s fair to say neither has won the coach’s confidence, which is surely a big reason Franklin moved to safety. Both are rangy athletes with decent size and speed, but they don’t quite fit the tough, aggressive mold that Groh and Golden envision for their defensive backs.

The Last Word

Golden says he wants to use more man coverage this season, which puts more pressure on the cornerbacks than the Cover-2 zone the Cavs have played throughout the Groh era. That would allow Virginia to use more men to rush the quarterback and stop the run. Golden also has emphasized going after the ball in the air and stripping it if the receiver makes the catch, an effort to improve on the team’s 16 takeaways last season. If the secondary is up to the task, UVa’s defense could become a dominant unit. If not, opponents may be able to produce more big plays than ever. It’s a risky strategy, given the personnel, but it should be exciting.

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