Virginia safety Brandon Phelps didn’t need film to tell him how he played Saturday at Georgia Tech. He knew as soon as he walked off the field in Atlanta.
So did Coach Mike London.
After two games in which it seemed the Cavaliers’ two sophomore safeties were in the midst of a seamless transition into the starting lineup, London made it clear early and often that Phelps and counterpart Anthony Harris had a serious hiccup.
Among the problems Virginia’s defense encountered facing the Yellow Jackets’ unorthodox option-based offense, perhaps the most prominent issues had to do with Phelps and Harris showing their youth. Both struggled to get off blocks and make plays in the open field against Georgia Tech.
“We didn’t perform well and our young safeties had their work cut out for them,” London said. “They were on the ground and can’t be hesitant. You need safeties to play in an offense like that.”
The question Harris and Phelps have been forced to confront this week is whether their struggles were simply the result of an unorthodox offensive scheme or if it was the first of many growing pains associated with breaking in three new starters to the secondary.
London believes it’s the former, and at least initially, it seems his safeties have taken last week’s setback in stride. It helps that they’re getting ready to face a more traditional offense Saturday when Virginia goes on the road again to play No. 17 TCU.
“It’s a lot different than the triple option and we work best against a regular style offense,” Phelps said this week. “We’re coming out hungry. The last loss left a bad taste in our mouth.”
Phelps, a former All-Met from Damascus, has been in transition since a month before fall training camp began. He came to Virginia as a cornerback, but with the Cavaliers trying to replace both Rodney McLeod and Corey Mosley, his coverage skills in the slot were seen as a potential asset at strong safety.
It should come in handy against Horned Frogs quarterback Casey Pachall. Not only does he have the highest quarterback rating in the country after completing 33 of his 39 pass attempts through two games, Pachall also spreads the ball around. Ten TCU receivers have at least one catch thus far.
London said TCU’s offense is often very deceptive, with plenty of bubble screens and runs out of the shotgun formation. The responsibility of accounting for that verbally and physically on the field will oftentimes fall on Harris, a converted high school quarterback.
He describes his relationship with Phelps as “a big partnership,” with each helping the other out with coverage calls. But Harris had the advantage of playing safety since arriving at Virginia, and he got a chance to learn from McLeod, one of the linchpins for last year’s defense.
Harris already focused on figuring out where offenses might attack Virginia, but he also picked up some valuable advice from his predecessor “as far as embracing the game and the assignments and knowing what everybody else is doing.”
Whether that will help Saturday remains to be seen. This week, London and his coaching staff have tried not to harp on the mistakes Harris and Phelps made against Georgia Tech. London has emphasized using TCU as another opportunity to prove themselves and that “if you tie your identity into a particular game, it’s a long season.”
It would also help if either Harris or Phelps could create some turnovers. Virginia has just one this year and it came courtesy of a muffed punt against Penn State. Only three schools in the country – Wisconsin, Southern Miss and Buffalo – haven’t forced a turnover this year.
“A few guys are getting anxious. A few guys are talking it up,” Harris said. “Hopefully we can talk some our way.”