Following Injury-Riddled Season, Virginia Football Secondary Looking To Make Mark In 2020

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Nick Grant (#1) earned a major role for the first time in his collegiate career last season, when he started all 14 games at cornerback. The Virginia football senior will be counted upon as a top playmaker in 2020. ~ Photo credit: Jim Davis, Virginia Athletics Media Relations

The Virginia football defensive backfield was ravaged by injuries in 2019, battling through setbacks at both cornerback and safety. Before the final regular season stretch in November, the Hoos had lost four defensive backs for the season.

– Cornerback Darrius Bratton, who appeared in 22 of 26 games the previous two seasons, earning five starts and totaling seven pass breakups as a sophomore in 2018, was lost for the season with a torn ACL suffered in preseason camp.

– Six games into 2019, All-American Bryce Hall went down with a season-ending ankle injury.

Brenton Nelson, who started 25 games at safety in 2017 and 2018, made it through the first eight games before missing the remainder of 2019 with an injury.

– Promising true freshman safety Antonio Clary suffered an injury in the preseason and returned to play five games. However, an injury against Louisville on October 26 put him on the sidelines the rest of the year.

Co-Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Backs Coach Nick Howell leaned heavily on a trio of juniors as UVA made a historic run in 2019. Cornerback Nick Grant, safety/cornerback De’Vante Cross, and safety Joey Blount played in all 14 games for the Hoos, ranking first (924 for Grant), second (906 for Cross), and third (856 for Blount) in defensive snaps according to Pro Football Focus. Safety Chris Moore was fourth in terms of snaps for defensive backs, playing 377.

Having played in 11 games and earning five starts as a sophomore in 2018, Blount was used to a primetime role heading into 2019. For Grant and Cross, last year was the first in which they played major roles in the secondary. The duo looks to build upon the experience for the 2020 Cavalier defense, which features a potentially stout front seven.

“I think we have guys that have played, and those guys that have played they have to play better than we played a year ago,” Howell said, previewing UVA’s 2020 secondary. “You’re hoping that a year’s time, the experience that they had om the field, the offseason training, the mental preparation, the fall camp, we’re hoping that the guys play better than we played at the end of last season. That’s going to be necessary for us to be good.”

Hall is off to the NFL. Moore, who played in nine games last season, transferred in the offseason. And sophomore Tenyeh Dixon, who saw limited playing time on defense but played in nine games as a true freshman last season, has opted out of playing in 2020. In addition to returning Blount, Cross, and Grant, in the “experienced returner” department the Hoos have welcomed back Bratton and Nelson from injury. Additionally, cornerbacks Heskin Smith (Jr) and Jaylon Baker (Soph), who gained experience in limited roles in 2019, are also back.

Grant, a redshirt senior, has locked down one starting corner spot after racking up 51 tackles (34 solo) with eight pass breakups and two interceptions one year ago. He returned one interception for a touchdown, and the other came against Florida in the Capital One Orange Bowl. Fans should expect to see plenty of Cross as well, no matter if he is starting or where he is playing. Though his primary position is free safety, Cross was asked if he is receiving preseason work at cornerback. He replied: “All I can really tell y’all is that I play defense. That’s all I got for you (laughs).”

De’Vante Cross can play safety or corner for the Cavaliers. He started all 14 games – some at safety, some at corner – last season for UVA. ~ Photo credit: Jim Daves, Virginia Athletics Media Relations

Bratton, a redshirt junior, is very much in the competition to start opposite Grant at cornerback. The Roanoke (VA) native is still working his way back from the ACL injury suffered over a year ago, but he has received praise from teammates such as Grant and Cross as well as from head coach Bronco Mendenhall.

“Darrius has been back and he’s doing a really, really nice job,” Mendenhall said in a September 3 videoconference with media. “I would say he’s just short of 100 percent, but with over two weeks remaining before game day, I really like what I see from him. It’s really gratifying to see him out playing football. I would say just shy of 100 percent as of today, but with two and a little less than a half weeks, I feel really good about where he will be.”

Smith, who played in nine games including the final three regular season games and the ACC Championship, should provide depth at cornerback. The former receiver earned a 73.9 grade in the tackling department according to Pro Football Focus, finishing with 28 tackles with two pass breakups. Baker is entering his third year in the program; however, whether the 6’2” redshirt sophomore is ready for a prominent role remains to be seen. Virginia could look to some other young promising players for help at corner. Or, Cross or another safety type could help as well. That’s where UVA’s cross-training methods pay dividends.

“I think in the secondary, always, you’re looking to put your best players on the field, so you’re always I believe in the secondary going to have a safety that can play corner or a corner that can play safety,” said Howell, who added: “You’d like to keep guys in the same position all the time and get some consistency to where there can be more success.”

Blount, Cross, and Nelson make for a formidable safety trio. The Hoos have also added JMU graduate transfer D’Angelo Amos, who was an All-CAA performer at the position in 2019, and sophomore Coen King, a former walk-on safety who earned a scholarship in fall camp. Clary has returned from injury, and he and other young players were noted by Grant.

Safety Antonio Clary headlines a talent group of young defensive backs in the Virginia program. He earned playing time as a true freshman last season before going down with a knee injury. ~ Photo credit: Jim Daves

“We just got Antonio Clary back today off of his torn ACL from last year, so that was pretty exciting. He did pretty well today,” Grant said in an interview on September 1. “Also, (true freshman defensive back) Elijah Gaines, he shows flashes of potential. He’s a hard worker. I love the way he plays. (Redshirt freshman cornerback) Fentrell Cypress, he’s had a couple injuries in and out there, but every time he’s in he’s making plays. Those three, and the midyear – (safety) Donovan Johnson – he makes a lot of plays when he’s out there too.”

Virginia returns a blend of experience and young talent in the secondary. The question – perhaps the biggest question on the defensive side – is how good and how consistent can this unit become in 2020? The answer may provide the key to just how high a ceiling a potentially stout Cavalier D can have.

Others I’m Watching

Joseph White

The 6’1″, 180-pound White, a heralded two-way prospect in his days at Landstown High School (Virginia Beach, VA), played three games as a true freshman in 2018, thus preserving his redshirt status. He appeared in nine of 13 games last season, with most of his time coming on special teams. He is entering his third year at UVA, so could this be the year he starts to get serious playing time in the defensive backfield?

Darnell Pratt

Pratt, who began his Cavalier career as a wide receiver, did not play in any games his first two years in the program. You may have noticed the 6’3″, 185-pound speedster on special teams last season, where he flashed his speed on the kickoff coverage unit. The redshirt junior has an impressive blend of size, athleticism and speed that could translate well to either DB position. He’s an intriguing possibility at cornerback in my opinion. So far he has only played eight games in his career, but perhaps the move to defense could spark his career. At the very least he could be a special teams force.

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