Without question, some of the more interesting position competitions for the Virginia football team this fall are in the secondary. The battles among those replacements is intense this preseason. For good reason.
The Cavaliers saw two defensive backs get picked during the NFL Draft last spring with Juan Thornhill and Tim Harris earning that distinction. That came on the heels of four-year starter Quin Blanding finishing his career as UVA’s all-time leading tackler with 495 stops. Of course, the Hoos had the luxury of flipping Thornhill over from corner to immediately step in after Blanding. Per some Kansas City media reports, he’s up to 6 interceptions during the Chiefs’ preseason work so far.
With corner Bryce Hall back as a potential early round NFL Draft pick, there’s an anchor back there again this year but the competition for the starting safety jobs and the other starting corner spot are up for grabs. That’s something this series looked at earlier. Drilling down at the corner spot opposite Hall, however, it’s a wide open race with Darrius Bratton, Nick Grant, Germane Crowell, Heskin Smith, and Jaylon Baker all in the mix, particularly with Bratton nursing a hamstring injury early in training camp. Everyone but Baker, who is just a hair behind, is in a dead heat according to Cavalier coach Bronco Mendenhall late last week.
“It’s so close right now,” Mendenhall said. “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.”
The “50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series returns to look at one of the offseason’s biggest risers from that group.
35 – Grant’s Growth
While the artist by the same name rapped about having the same number, that won’t be true this fall for Virginia cornerback Nick Grant. The rising junior received a high pick in the first round of the UVA football team’s annual number selection draft Sunday night and went with No. 1. That replaces the No. 20 that he donned the last two seasons.
The No. 1 jersey, of course, was available because senior running back Jordan Ellis wrapped up his Cavalier career. Ellis held the top pick in three consecutive drafts and went with No. 1 each of the last two seasons. While Grant didn’t have the top pick this year, he had an early enough choice to take that number this time around.
It’s fitting that Grant selected that number, though. The team awarded Ellis the top pick each of the last three years because of his offseason work ethic and no nonsense approach. That’s something Grant has going too and it blossomed in a big way this offseason.
Not only is he in the starting corner competition, he became one of the new members to reach the program’s top strength and conditioning level this summer. That earned him a black shirt for achieving an average score of at least 90 across multiple testing categories. Other team members at the top level include quarterback Bryce Perkins, corner Bryce Hall, receiver Joe Reed, and others.
“That was one of my major goals in the offseason,” Grant said. “That’s probably the first goal, just to get to there. You work hard, you lift every day so why would you not want to be in the highest category that we have here? That is what I wanted. That’s what I set myself out to do and I achieved it.”
Grant also became a member of Shawn Griswold’s “Dirty Dozen” group for the top performers in the strength and conditioning program this summer. The Cavaliers’ Director of Football Development and Performance created that program early in his career and brought it with him to UVA. Four players are honored from each of three position groups (running backs, wide receivers, quarterbacks, defensive backs | linebackers, tight ends | linemen).
All of that is a way to say that Grant wanted his role to increase and the only way for that to happen in Mendenhall’s program is to earn it. That includes the strength and conditioning aspect as well as earning your stripes on the field either through experience or through knowing the schemes at a high level. Plus, you have to earn your teammates’ trust and respect.
The junior certainly has done all of that. He’s been a major special teams contributor the past two years with playing time in 24 of the 25 games. Plus, Grant willingly accepted a hybrid role for the defense and worked at both safety and corner during those two years. He spent a lot of time working at safety in that period and he thinks that’s helping him now in the corner competition.
“Working at safety makes me understand my leverages and what I can do and what I can’t do and where other people are and what their drops are,” Grant said. “Say for instance, I could have outside leverage because I have inside help – I just know that because I played safety so I know what they’re thinking while I’m covering. It’s just a better feel of the game overall.”
Of course, one benefit of being a hybrid option is that you can float back and forth between positions like safety and corner without getting into the thicket of an intense position battle. That’s where Grant and the others are at right now. With Hall a locked in starter at one corner spot, there’s only one starting job open right now and the players know it.
Grant, who was listed as Hall’s back-up at the boundary corner spot late last year, echoed Mendenhall and said that the early days of preseason practice have been an even race. Everyone is making plays depending on the day and defensive coordinator Nick Howell, who also coaches the secondary, lets everyone know where things stand as practices progress.
There’s no falling back on a safety job right now for Grant, though.
“It makes it much more competitive actually,” Grant said. “You can’t move around and be fluid. There’s one spot to be had and that’s it. It makes it much more competitive. I like it. It allows me to just focus. Granted, I help out people in their position because I know but it allows me to just focus on what I have to do in playing one position and making plays.”
Grant has a good mentor as he competes for a role in the secondary. He lives with Hall, an All-ACC and All-American corner that’s considered one of the best returning players in the league and beyond.
Hall has a reputation for his dogged preparation and film study – Grant says it is all accurate and that it carries over at home not just at the McCue Center. That leads to picking up little tips and tricks along the way. Plus, when the two are at home and one has film pulled up on a tablet or phone, they might spot something worth sharing. Grant said Hall might come over and ask ‘did you see this?’ with a film breakdown or things like that.
All of it adds up to Grant carving out some sort of role on the defense this season. Even if he isn’t the starter in the base package, the sub defenses will need extra defensive backs too and his work throughout the defensive backfield should make him an attractive candidate there. The key is to continue his growth at cornerback in the same way he tackled strength and conditioning and special teams up until this point.
“I played a little bit of corner in high school,” Grant said. “I never really had any technique or anything. So I came here as a corner, learned a little bit of press, and I moved to safety for the past two or two and a half years. Now that I’m back at corner, my technique in press has been a learning experience. … My mindset in press – feet, eyes, hands. That’s been the biggest transition of trying to master corner is getting press down because that’s the most important thing at corner is taking away routes.”
50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff
- 50 – Is Being Favored A Good Thing?
- 49 – What Is Bryce Hall’s Ceiling?
- 48 – What It Takes To Win The Coastal
- 47 – Will Tavares Kelly Have A Breakout Season?
- 46 – Defensive Line Reboot
- 45 – Secondary Contenders
- 44 – Stars & Sleepers
- 43 – One For All?
- 42 – Fan Interest Thermometer
- 41 – Workhorse Search
- 40 – More Points
- 39 – First Year Predictions
- 38 – Be Disruptive
- 37 – Ranking The 2019 Schedule
- 36 – Reducing Explosive Touchdowns