Fall Practice 2006: Cavs’ Defense Making Strides

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Linebacker Antonio Appleby said the defense is “working hard and getting better.”

Open practices kept rolling along for the Virginia football team with two more sessions on Saturday. The second weekend of drills brings the defense to the fans’ side of the field more often and defensive coordinator Mike London’s crew is making noticeable progress. After a somewhat ragged day on Friday, the defense looked strong on Saturday night in both individual and team drills.

The day-to-day improvement should be encouraging for Cavalier fans, who don’t know what to expect from a young and inexperienced defense. After all, learning from practice repetitions is the main goal of preseason training camp.

“I feel like things are going real good right now. We’re coming in here every day, working hard and getting better,” linebacker Antonio Appleby said. “We’re making mistakes, but at the same time correcting them every day. That’s all you can really do.”

Essentially, it is a three-week dress rehearsal for opening night. The curtain goes up on the Cavaliers’ season on Sept. 2 at Pittsburgh at 7 p.m.

“I’m pretty excited. I’m out here getting some reps, getting some work, learning new things every day,” Vic Hall said. “I’m working hard and just trying to work toward playing in a game.”

Certainly, the inexperience of the defense has shown at times so far this fall. There are times when a player misses an assignment or makes a mistake with his technique – each time the defensive coaches are there to make the adjustments. That much is a given, though.

The more interesting part of watching the Virginia defense is in the details. There seems to be an emphasis on making plays, forcing turnovers, and gang tackling. The intensity level is high, starting with London all the way down to each person on each unit. Any time a defensive player makes a positive play, his teammates and coaches are there in full force – vocally and physically – to let him know about it. That energy is contagious and if the Cavaliers maintain that character trait in games, it could help carry the D through its growing pains early this season.

“Things come together in the fall. In the spring, you don’t always have everybody there. So just the pure energy of getting to camp and just the excitement of working toward something right now” makes things more intense, Chris Long said. “Although this is week one or two of camp and your body is tired and everything, people are just excited right now. I think it’s showing. With our emphasis on swarming the football and things like that, I think the defense is taking steps forward.”

Poindexter Pumps Up the Volume

Coach Anthony Poindexter’s constant chatter can be heard at Virginia’s open practices.

Anyone who followed Anthony Poindexter’s career at Virginia knows that he could turn up the volume with some sick hits or quick sound bites. Well, Coach Poindexter is no different in the latter category – he brings the intensity and enthusiasm in practice with constant chatter and instruction for the players.

Keith Payne was one player that caught a lot of verbal heat Saturday night. Poindexter had instructed him several times early in individual running back drills on the way he was holding the football. Basically, Poindexter repeatedly jumped on the freshmen for being careless with the ball – “High and tight” is the phrase, meaning keep the football in close to your body and up near your chest. In other words, Payne is a physical specimen, but he needs some technique work in the finer details of playing running back.

A couple Poindexter sound bites:

  • “Don’t throw him into the [dang] quarterback.” – During a blocking drill after a running back pushed his block into the pocket instead of away from the quarterback.
  • “Work him until his tongue hangs out.” – During individual running back drills.

Special Teams Specifics

While limited time is spent in open practices on special teams sessions, the coaching staff makes the most of those moments. The drills are very detail-oriented and the units rattle off reps at a high rate. Interestingly, the coverage for kickoffs and punts is taught in personnel segments. Once each group has been instructed on its job, the pieces come together to work on the whole drill.

Special Teams Coordinator Bob Diaco runs this portion of practice and he fits the character of this coaching staff – like the others frequently mentioned as vocal, high intensity guys, Diaco bounces around with confidence and precision.

A couple of personnel notes:

  • On punts, Jason Snelling makes the pre-snap calls for the first-team unit. Joining him in the backfield of the protection scheme are Jon Copper and Brandon Woods .
  • Vic Hall and Mike Brown are the gunners on punt coverage. Al Groh liked their showing Saturday in the drill as he said, “That’s what we need on this team. Two guys who can do that.” It was in reference to how quickly they shed the jams at the line of scrimmage, sprinted down field, and then approached the returner with proper technique.
  • Ryan Weigand took all of the snaps and had a good night for the most part – there were a couple of bad kicks, but overall his consistency is improving.
  • A lot of preseason talk has focused on “can’t afford to lose him” guys. Maybe long snapper Tyrus Gardner should be added to the list – he consistently snapped the ball directly into the punter’s hands on Saturday while some others struggled to hit the precise target. One snap went so awry, that Diaco brought Gardner back in so the reserve unit could get a better rep.
  • Chris Gould definitely had more leg than Noah Greenbaum on kickoffs at Saturday night’s practice.
  • If you were standing behind the kickoff coverage team, the first unit appears like this from left to right: Vic Hall, Tony Franklin, Ryan Best, Josh Zidenberg , Kevin Bradley , Chris Gould , Brandon Woods , Rashawn Jackson , Jamaal Jackson , Mike Brown, and Chris Gorham .

Yards After the Catch …

  • While they aren’t wearing Orange jerseys, Vic Hall and Rashawn Jackson took a lot of snaps with the first team Saturday night.
  • The offense has been practicing a lot of option so far during the open practice periods. The popular opinion is that this is a staple that running game coordinator Dave Borbely brought with him from Colorado.
  • Deyon Williams attended Saturday’s evening practice in a cast while on crutches. Williams did the honors on the first air horn of the evening. (The team switches drills on the blast of an air horn.)
  • Nate Lyles snuffed out a screen in an 11-on-11 drill by slicing through the blockers to get the play. The read and execution drew the praise of the defensive coaches.
  • Chris Gorham had a nice pass break-up during a 7-on-7 drill that featured six defensive backs and a linebacker. Gorham released his man into the flat on the right side of the D, then dropped into the passing lane of a comeback route behind him to knock the ball down.
  • Overheard … A fan in the stands had this to say about a defensive coach: “Mike London is always into it.”
  • Cedric Peerman had a nice block against Jermaine Dias in the
    linebacker pick-up blocking drill. The coaches loved it. Unfortunately for the running backs, the rest of the drill belonged to the linebackers, who beat them time and time again to the inside.
  • The best linebacker move in the drill belonged to Bernie McKeever, who juke-stepped Kevin Bradley into a complete whiff on a block attempt.
  • Ian-Yates Cunningham took quite a few reps at guard Saturday night with Jordy Lipsey at center.
  • Zak Stair didn’t get to wear his normal No. 76 jersey Saturday. Instead, he had on a No. 1 with “one a day” written under the number. The reason? No, not vitamins or apples. Rather, it is something unhealthy to an offense – too many penalties.
  • Chris Cook had a solid stick on receiver Bud Davis during a drill. Cook let Davis hear about it too.
  • Nate Lyles had an interception in a 7-on-7 drill because Christian Olsen lobbed one into the middle. Why was it such a poor throw? Allen Billyk had easily crashed the backfield and was in Olsen’s lap. The good news – I guess – is that the pass would never have gotten thrown in a game because it would have been an easy sack.
  • Tight end John Phillips caught a touchdown from quarterback Scott Deke in another 7-on-7 play.
  • The weekend provides one more chance for fans to see the team in action during open practices:
    • Sunday, August 13 – 2:30 p.m.

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