Virginia Football Notes: Defensive Backfield Getting Extra Attention

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Fralin Family Head Virginia Football Coach Bronco Mendenhall announced Monday (Feb. 1) that he has reshuffled responsibilities within his coaching staff, with the bulk of the changes coming on the defensive side of the ball.

No major moves were made, but Mendenhall is placing additional focus on the defensive backfield, which has been a weak spot for the Cavaliers the past season-and-a-half. Nick Howell retains the role of Defensive Coordinator and will oversee the secondary, but Ricky Brumfield is the new Cornerbacks Coach and Shane Hunter is the new Safeties Coach. Previously, Howell was the lone Defensive Backs Coach in addition to being the Defensive Coordinator.

Brumfield, who remains the Special Teams Coordinator, also coached tight ends in 2020. Hunter moves over from Inside Linebackers Coach, leaving Co-Defensive Coordinator Kelly Poppinga to now coach all linebackers. Meanwhile, Offensive Coordinator Robert Anae will once again coach tight ends as Brumfield’s role shifts.

Previous Virginia football coaching responsibilities

Robert Anae – Offensive Coordinator/Inside Receivers
Jason Beck – Quarterbacks
Mark Atuaia – Running Backs
Marques Hagans – Wide Receivers
Garett Tujague – Offensive Line
Nick Howell – Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Backs
Kelly Poppinga – Co-Defensive Coordinator/Outside Linebackers
Clint Sintim – Defensive Line
Shane Hunter – Inside Linebackers
Ricky Brumfield – Special Teams Coordinator/Tight Ends

New Virginia football coaching responsibilities (Changes in bold and italic)

Robert Anae – Offensive Coordinator/Inside Receivers/Tight Ends
Jason Beck – Quarterbacks
Mark Atuaia – Running Backs
Marques Hagans – Wide Receivers
Garett Tujague – Offensive Line
Nick Howell – Defensive Coordinator/Secondary
Kelly Poppinga – Co-Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers
Clint Sintim – Defensive Line
Shane Hunter – Safeties
Ricky Brumfield – Special Teams Coordinator/Cornerbacks

Of the moves, Mendenhall said: “Kelly, Shane and Ricky have established themselves as outstanding coaches and are ready for more responsibilities. These adjustments provide Coach Howell the opportunity and assistance to focus more of his efforts on the overall execution of the defense. Nick has developed into a trusted and valuable member of our staff. My intent is to maximize his knowledge and experience with our defense to provide our team with the best opportunity for success.”

While the unit has been hit significantly by injuries, the fact remains that Virginia’s secondary has endured its share of struggles the past two seasons.

Ricky Brumfield, who coached tight ends in addition to serving as the Special Teams Coordinator in 2020, will now coach cornerbacks. He will maintain his role as Special Teams Coordinator.

In 2020, outside linebacker Matt Gahm earned Virginia’s top coverage grade – 78.3 – according to Pro Football Focus. Safety Joey Blount had the best coverage grade among the defensive backs, receiving a 65.4 – an average mark – from Pro Football Focus. Starting cornerbacks Nick Grant (63.7 overall grade, 63 coverage grade) and De’Vante Cross (49.5 overall, 48.9 coverage) had grades average or below average in 2020. Grant improved roughly four points overall and in coverage from 2019 to 2020, while Cross, who played mostly safety in 2019 and played all cornerback in 2020, dropped double digits in both categories from 2019 to 2020.

Virginia, which surrendered 383.8 yards passing per game the final five games of 2019 and 304.4 yards passing per game in 2020, has seen less playmaking from the secondary the past two seasons. Cavalier defensive backs picked off 14 passes in 2017 and 14 more in 2018. They have 17 interceptions combined the past two seasons, including eight in 2019 and nine in 2020.

In addition, Virginia cornerbacks totaled 21 pass breakups (Juan Thornhill with 12, Bryce Hall with nine) in 2017 and 33 pass breakups (Hall with 22, Darrius Bratton with seven, Tim Harris with four) in 2018. UVA corners accounted for 20 pass breakups in 2019, led by Grant with eight, but had only eight in 2020 (Cross with four, Grant with three, Bratton with one).


Virginia football’s online roster now reflects the upcoming season, except for those recruits/transfers who plan to enroll this summer. The roster includes the six first years who signed this past December and enrolled this past weekend (more on them below), graduate transfers Anthony Johnson and Jelani Woods, and now transfer Chico Bennett Jr.

As reported on The Sabre, Bennett Jr. is transferring to Virginia from Georgia Tech, where he played defensive end for two seasons. The 6’4”, 250-pound rising third year is listed on UVA’s official roster as a defensive end; however, he told that the plan was for him to “be an OLB with Coach Poppinga.”

Projected as an outside linebacker out of high school, Bennett Jr. played defensive end for the Yellow Jackets. Bennett Jr., who played in 15 games in two seasons in Atlanta, led all Georgia Tech freshmen in tackling in 2019 with 17 tackles. An injury ended his freshman campaign early.


Quarterback Jacob Rodriguez, running back Amaad Foston, offensive lineman Logan Taylor, inside linebacker Langston Long, outside linebacker James Jackson and defensive back Javin Burke have enrolled at the University of Virginia. UVA football documented the arrival of the six first-year players on Twitter.

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3 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. Fralin Family Head Football Coach. I cannot believe they sold naming rights to the football coach. Does he have to wear Fralin Family underwear?

    1. it’s an official title but the media will stop using it very quickly. we never hear that endowed title with Tony Bennett anymore.

  2. At least it is a family name. I shudder at the thought of corporations purchasing naming rights such as the Tampax tight end coach.

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