50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff: Earning Trust

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Redshirt freshman Jaylon Baker (white jersey) has made a step forward in his development and is competing for a significant role at cornerback. ~ Photo Courtesy of Jim Daves/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

One of Virginia football’s most experienced cornerbacks, junior Darrius Bratton, went down with a torn ACL in fall camp and will miss the 2019 season. The Roanoke (VA) native played in all 13 games his sophomore campaign, earning five starts as part of a talented and formidable Cavalier cornerback rotation that included All-ACC First Team performer Bryce Hall and sixth-year senior Tim Harris, who was selected in the sixth round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers.

Bratton entered fall camp as the projected starter opposite Hall, a preseason All-American pick. His injury leaves the Cavaliers with questions at cornerback, including who will start alongside Hall as well as who sees significant time in the cornerback rotation. Bronco Mendenhall has been optimistic about the depth at cornerback throughput camp, and, to my surprise, was once again so when asked about the no. 2 cornerback position following fall camp practice this past Tuesday (August 20).

Virginia’s head coach, who called it was “hard” to see the hard-working Bratton go down, said he didn’t have “much concern” about the position despite Bratton’s absence, indicating confidence in the options still in place.

Redshirt freshman Jaylon Baker is one of those options and is the subject of our latest “50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series.

17 – Earning Trust

Co-Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Backs Coach Nick Howell “tells me just stay ready because you don’t know what can happen,” 6’2”, 170-pound Jaylon Baker said following Virginia’s August 20 practice. “He’s getting everybody reps, trying to get a feel of who he wants. I’m just trying to get him to trust me. We’ve got a good group of guys competing for the spot. [Howell] says to stay ready and stay locked in.”

Lessons learned from Hall and Kansas City Chiefs 2019 second-round pick Juan Thornhill have helped Baker keep a strong mindset. Those two taught the young defensive back to “stay locked in. Don’t get too discouraged as far as in the film room and on the field. If you lose a rep, don’t get discouraged. Just get back up and always compete. I’ve always been like that my entire life, but just coming here, as part of this program in general, just always compete and don’t give up. The standard is total effort, so I’m staying on top of that.”

Baker did not see the field – nor did he earn a jersey number – while redshirting his true freshman campaign. Virginia obviously enjoyed depth at cornerback in 2018, but Baker also admits his first year of major college football was an adjustment. Compared to this time last year, however, Baker feels “stronger” and “faster,” adding that “I’m getting the feel of it better this year. I was kind of slow my freshman year; but watching a guy like Darrius Bratton go down the coaches need that next man to step up. I’m taking that opportunity to the next level and I’m trying to get on the field, trying to get my teammates and coaches to trust me.”

Trust is the key word. Although Coach Mendenhall has expressed confidence with what he has seen from redshirt junior Nick Grant, redshirt sophomores Germane Crowell and Heskin Smith, and Baker during fall camp, true trust will be earned in actual game performances. None of the four players mentioned have had significant live game experience on defense.

Grant, who is 6’1”, 200 pounds, has had a terrific offseason and probably remains the favorite for the starting role opposite Hall. The Spotsylvania (VA) native earned a spot on the “Dirty Dozen,” which recognizes the top performers at the end of summer conditioning, as well as the right to be one of the first to select his jersey. Smith, who is 5’11”, 175 pounds, is my current pick to be next in line. He received positive buzz last season, and although that didn’t equate into serious playing time, he is once again receiving praise for his play. Crowell, who was not participating in Tuesday’s practice for undisclosed reasons, is a talent. However, the 6’2”, 200-pound third-year has missed most of his first two seasons because of injuries, with concussion symptoms sidelining him for the final eight games of 2018.

However the cornerback depth chart shakes out in Virginia’s week one matchup with Pittsburgh, Baker is “excited” in terms of competing to earn the essential trust from his coaches and teammates. Mendenhall may opt for Grant, Smith or Crowell, who have been in the system longer than Baker, at least early in 2019. Remember Baker, though, as a potential contributor moving forward. He has earned his jersey – no. 39, which he picked in the second round of selections – and says he is “ready to go.”

“I’m totally locked in,” Baker said. “I’m trying to get my coach to trust me and my teammates to trust me. I’m trying to be the playmaker that I am and to continue to progress throughout the year. I’m trying to get my opportunity.”

50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff
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