Virginia Secondary Hopes To Build On Unexpected Experience

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Virginia won 9 games.
Joey Blount led the secondary in tackles last season. ~ Kris Wright

Similar to the linebackers, each of the last three Virginia football teams has had one of its main leaders come from the secondary. Quin Blanding changed the course of this group and the program when he committed to the Cavaliers as a 5-star recruit and one of the top high school prospects in the nation.

Blanding played a key part in leading the culture change that became known as the “New Standard”. He also inspired younger guys in the position group that would pick up where he left off and lead the Hoos on the defensive side of the ball. The past two years, defensive backs such as Juan Thornhill and Bryce Hall took up the mantle.

While members of the secondary served as unquestioned leaders of their respective teams, that does not mean this unit, or even these players, did not have to overcome challenges. The Virginia defensive backs in the last couple of seasons have been riddled with injuries. From Tim Harris’ 2017 season-ending injury in the opener to Hall’s senior season being abruptly cut short in Miami among many others, the defensive backs have constantly had to step up in each other’s place and rise to the occasion.

3-year production – defensive backs

  • 2017: 165.8 passing yards APG, 53.4% opponent completion percentage, 211 solo tackles, 182 assists, 15.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 14 interceptions, 32 breakups, 0 fumble recoveries, 1 fumble forced
  • 2018: 183 passing yards APG, 52.5% opponent completion percentage, 209 solo tackles, 131 assists, 16.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 14 interceptions, 51 breakups, 1 fumble recovery, 4 fumbles forced
  • 2019: 233.7 passing yards APG, 56.5% opponent completion percentage, 197 solo tackles, 127 assists, 17.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks, 8 interceptions, 27 breakups, 1 fumble recovery, 0 fumbles forced
  • 3-year average: 195.2 passing yards APG, 54.3% opponent completion percentage, 205.7 solo tackles, 146.7 assists, 16.5 TFL, 3.3 sacks, 12 interceptions, 36.7 breakups, 0.7 fumble recoveries, 1.7 fumbles forced

Leading producers

  • 2017: Quin Blanding, 62 solo tackles, 75 assists, 3.5 TFL, 4 interceptions, 2 breakups
  • 2018: Juan Thornhill, 62 solo tackles, 36 assists, 4.5 TFL, 6 interceptions, 7 breakups
  • 2019: Joey Blount, 60 solo tackles, 35 assists, 6.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 3 interceptions, 3 break ups, 1 fumble recovery

Summary

Quin Blanding was not just a highly touted recruit that impacted the team in the locker room, he produced on the field from the first snap of his freshman season. Blanding started all 12 games his first year in Charlottesville and finished his Cavalier career with 49 starts, which is tied for second all-time at UVA. His 495 career tackles are the most in Virginia football history.

Thornhill followed in his steps moving from corner to safety and was highly productive too. He was drafted in the second round by the Kansas City Chiefs following his senior season and made the All-Rookie team for the Pro Football Writers of America team. Joey Blount stepped in last season as the next safety to be on the tackles chart.

Hall could follow in Thornhill’s footsteps as an NFL Draft pick this month. He put the NFL on hold after his impressive junior season (62 total tackles, 2 sacks, 2 interceptions, and 22 breakups) to try to leave his mark on the program. He saw his senior year end early, but still posted 20 tackles and 4 breakups in six games even though teams avoided him at times.

When Hall’s senior year ended with the ankle surgery following the Miami game, it was no surprise that the secondary would be worse off. Teams began to pick on Hall’s replacement, the converted quarterback to safety to corner DeVante Cross immediately. Hall’s absence explains the increase in opposing offense’s production this past season. The Hoos struggled to slow down other teams through the air and turn them over the second half of the season.

2020 Virginia football look ahead

So did that second half of the season, particularly against the likes of Clemson and Florida in the postseason, help the secondary for the upcoming season? While Hall’s injury obviously hurt the Cavaliers in 2019, it actually prepared them for life without their talented cornerback and leader in 2020.

It gave guys like Cross and Heskin Smith, who returned later in the year from his own early season injury, the chance to learn from mistakes and gain experience with increased playing time and responsibilities. With Hall no longer matching up with other team’s top receiving options, rising senior Nick Grant was forced to step up and handle this duty. The Hoos will call on Grant to be the experienced man on the outside this season after he started the entire way in 2019.

Virginia will be looking to Grant, Cross, and other members of this senior class to lead and produce at the rate Blanding, Thornhill, and Hall did during their time in Charlottesville. That includes safety Joey Blount, coming off of a season that earned him a spot on the All-ACC third team. Blount was second on the team in tackles last season with 95 and added in three interceptions. This level of production needs to be the same, if not better next season.

Other key contributors for next year will be senior Brenton Nelson and junior Darrius Bratton. Both players are coming off injuries but have experience on the field. Nelson was the 2017 ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and was off to a solid start through the first eight games of 2019 before an injury stopped his season. He had 19 tackles, 3 passes defended, and an interception in a hybrid safety-nickel corner role. Bratton missed all of 2019 after an injury in preseason practice, but he was in a battle with Grant to start opposite of Hall when that injury occurred.

Some younger names will try to crack into the rotation as well. Antonio Clary started to work his way into the conversation as a true freshman before an injury ended his season after five games. Joseph White got time on special teams mostly, but did log appearances in nine games a year ago. Sophomore Jaylon Baker got his shot after Hall went down and started against North Carolina so he could work his way into more snaps too. This doesn’t take into account any true freshmen or early enrollees, who lost spring practice when things were cancelled in the spring.

As mentioned in previous articles for this series, the 2020 Virginia team will need the defense to step up with more of an inexperienced offense working in a new quarterback. The secondary is the last line of defense and may have to save the day and bail out the defense at times. The defensive backs got a head start on life without Hall late last season, but they’ll need to translate that experience into improved play and production.

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