Virginia will hold its first training camp practice of the year Monday afternoon in Charlottesville, and many eyes are likely to be focused on the start of the quarterback battle between incumbent Michael Rocco, Alabama transfer Phillip Sims and sophomore David Watford.
But perhaps the most important position group on the field will be the Cavaliers’ secondary, which lost three starters from last season. Coach Mike London and defensive coordinator Jim Reid are both confident they have the right defensive backs waiting in the wings, but there remain unknowns that must be answered over the coming weeks.
“They have the skill and the talent to do it. What’s missing is the experience of playing defensive back in a game,” London said last week when addressing the secondary. “They’ll get it early on and I’m sure that will be something we’ll be paying close attention to.”
There is so much youth vying for playing time in the secondary this year that sophomore cornerback Demetrious Nicholson has assumed the role of veteran leader heading into practices, something he admitted will be an adjustment since his first year as a starter was marred at times by, “second-guessing myself a lot and being kind of hesitant.”
Nicholson started every game as a freshman in 2011, finishing with 60 tackles and two interceptions. But none of the five others vying for time in the secondary this year (safeties Anthony Harris and Kameron Mack, and cornerbacks Rijo Walker, Brandon Phelps and Drequan Hoskey) had more than 14 tackles to their credit and most of that came on special teams.
But count Nicholson among those convinced that won’t be an issue.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that are athletic and can make plays that people haven’t gotten a chance to see yet,” he said.
All of the inexperience has some worried the Cavaliers’ defense could revert to its 2010 form, when it gave up more passing plays of 40 or more yards (10) than all but one other ACC team, finished 10th in the conference in total defense and ranked 76th nationally in terms of opponent’s third down conversion rate. Last year, Virginia improved to third in the conference in total defense and ranked 15th in third down conversion rate.
But Reid played down the issue last week, pointing to these players’ familiarity with his system as a prime reason why they’re set up to be more successful than the inexperienced group that played in the secondary in 2010. He then defended his current group by telling reporters, “you’d walk down a dark alley with those guys any day.”
“Two years ago it was a new scheme, and at least here we have experience with the scheme, which I believe will be a difference maker,” said Reid.