50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff: Secondary Depth Will Be Tested

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Junior cornerback Darrius Bratton reportedly suffered a knee injury at practice on Wednesday (August 14). ~ Photo by Kris Wright

Virginia football finished no. 20 in total defense and no. 21 in scoring defense last season and, despite the loss of some key performers such as Juan Thornhill, Chris Peace and Tim Harris, has the chance to be as good or better in 2019. A possible area of concern, though, is depth in the secondary, particularly at the cornerback position, and that question looms even larger with today’s news regarding junior Darrius Bratton.

Between the defensive line, the linebackers, and the secondary, it’s the secondary that seems most vulnerable if injuries strike. We explore this further in our “50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” article.

29 – Secondary Depth Will Be Tested

Juniors Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson boast a wealth of experience at safety. Nelson, a redshirt junior with outstanding speed and coverage ability, has started 25 of 26 games the past two seasons, totaling 105 tackles (60 solo), 19 pass deflections and five interceptions (four of which came in 2017). Meanwhile, Blount, a true junior with tremendous savvy and toughness, has played in 24 games the past two seasons. In an expanded role in 2018 he registered 65 tackles with five pass deflections, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles.

Besides talent, the fact that both players have played so many games is a testament to their mental and physical toughness, as both have battled through injuries. Blount missed two games last season with injury, while Nelson has fought through ankle issues the past two seasons. Both missed this year’s Spring Game for health reasons.

“We have candidates, but Brenton Nelson’s health, Joey Blount’s health, and their ability to be durable and productive and consistent are going to be, I think, a big part to our secondary,” Bronco Mendenhall told Jeff White last June when discussing replacing Juan Thornhill.

Neither Nelson (5’11”, 185 pounds) nor Blount (6’1”, 190 pounds) possesses great size, so it’ll be important for Mendenhall to find consistent rotation players to go along with the two projected starters. Juniors Chris Moore and De’Vante Cross very well could be the solutions, although Moore, who played in 23 of 25 games his true freshman and sophomore seasons, didn’t play at all last season while battling injury. Cross, who has played quarterback, wide receiver, safety and cornerback in his Cavalier career, may have finally found a permanent position at safety, but he doesn’t have much game experience at the position.

Virginia fans should feel good about the trio of Blount, Nelson and Moore. Mendenhall raved about the competition between all three prior to last season. Cross remains a question mark in terms of how he performs in games, but he has size (6’2”, 210 pounds), experience in the program, and athleticism. I expect him to be solid as a rotational player with the potential to make a bigger impact as the season goes on. If any of the trio of Blount, Nelson and Moore go down, though, then Cross or a less experienced player will assume a larger role.

So far, so good in terms of health at the safety position. The same apparently can’t be said at cornerback, as Bratton unfortunately suffered a knee injury on Wednesday (August 14) according to Doug Doughty of the Roanoke Times. The extent of the injury is yet to be determined, although Doughty writes that it could be season-ending.

As a sophomore last season, Bratton worked his way into becoming a regular in the cornerback rotation, appearing in 13 games and earning five starts while competing against now San Francisco 49ers rookie Tim Harris for the starting role opposite 2018 All-ACC First Team performer Bryce Hall. The Roanoke (VA) native finished with 16 tackles (13 solo) and seven pass deflections.

Hall, who enters 2019 established as one of the nation’s top cornerbacks, and Bratton are the only Virginia cornerbacks with any starting experience on the major college level. Some players were/are making gains, though. When Bratton missed time earlier this preseason with a hamstring injury, Coach Mendenhall cited junior Nick Grant, sophomore Germane Crowell, sophomore Heskin Smith and redshirt freshman Jaylon Baker as players making a push.

“It’s so close right now,” Mendenhall was quoted as saying in this article by Kris Wright. “Our secondary has a lot of depth. On any given day, it’s hard to say who’s who out there. The second corner, Bratton had it. Those are the chasers and they’re making ground up while he’s hurt. Between those four I just mentioned, it’s anyone’s right now.”

None of the four players mentioned has any significant experience outside of special teams, and Crowell’s career has been derailed by injuries so far. One of the four – or perhaps someone else out of the blue – will line up opposite Bryce Hall as the starter against Pitt, if Bratton is indeed on the sidelines. The best bet right now is probably Grant. Here is a rundown of the junior as well as those other cornerback contenders.

Nick Grant has worked his way into position to become a factor in the defensive backfield this season. If Darrius Bratton is out, the junior could begin the season as the starting cornerback opposite Bryce Hall. – Photo courtesy Jim Daves/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

Nick Grant – Grant, who Kris Wright featured in this “50 Thoughts” piece, has gained attention for a tremendous offseason in which he earned a black shirt and was named to the “Dirty Dozen” as a result of his strength and conditioning work, and earned the right to be one of the first to select their jersey numbers last Sunday. As a rising fourth year, he also has maturity on his side. However, after redshirting his true freshman campaign, Grant has spent most of his time on special teams and has totaled only six tackles total the past two seasons. We’ll find out soon if his outstanding offseason translates on the field, as he is the likely replacement for Bratton in the starting lineup. With Hall on the other side, look for opponents to challenge whoever starts at the other cornerback spot early and often in 2019.

Germane Crowell – Crowell, whose father starred at receiver at UVA, arrived in Charlottesville in January of 2017 with high acclaim. Unfortunately, because of injury he has yet to make it past the month of September in either of his first two seasons. Concussion-related issues sidelined the 6’2”, 200-pound Crowell for the final nine games of last season, and back in January Coach Mendenhall told Jeff White there was still a decision to be made regarding his future on the football field.

“It’s unfortunate if he doesn’t, because of his ability and his mindset and what he could contribute from an athletic standpoint,” Mendenhall said. “If he can’t play football, though, he’s bright, he’s talented, he’s articulate, and he’ll have an amazing career in something that will support and help him.”

Crowell is back on the field and competing, but any expectations would be premature given his injury history. The tools are there if he can stay healthy, though.

Heskin Smith – Besides Grant, Smith seems the most likely candidate to see the field and perhaps start if Bratton is out. The 5’11”, 175-pound sophomore arrived at Virginia as a wide receiver before moving to cornerback, where he earned some positive reviews last year and was noted by Mendenhall as pushing for playing time this preseason prior to the Bratton injury.

Jaylon Baker – Mendenhall noted that the redshirt freshman out of Tennessee was just behind Grant, Crowell, and Smith, but again that was before the Bratton news. He blends good size (6’2”) and athleticism.

Others – Junior Myles Robinson showed promise early on in his Virginia career, but he suffered a season-ending injury in 2016, was off the team in 2017, and missed the final eight games last year because of injury. If he can stay healthy, he has experience and has shown flashes. In addition to Robinson, Virginia brought in a talented class of corners that includes Fentrell Cypress II and Major Williams.

How good will the Virginia defense be? Health in the secondary may be the biggest indicator, beginning with who will be the next man up at cornerback.

50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff
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    1. Virginia’s official roster lists him as a junior. He redshirted last season with an injury.

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