Virginia Coach Mike London hired defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta largely because his blitz-heavy, aggressive approach to defense will help the Cavaliers create more havoc. Just don’t tell Tenuta that.
“You mean I just blitz and play man coverage every snap? Is that what you’re saying,” Tenuta shot back Friday during his introductory news conference when presented with that generalization.
At least on the surface, Tenuta couldn’t be more different than his predecessor. Former Virginia defensive coordinator Jim Reid, who was fired last month, was diminutive in stature and revered by players, whom he liked to compliment by telling reporters which ones were “the type of guy you want your daughter to meet.”
Tenuta declined to discuss any members of the Cavaliers roster until he saw them in action this spring. But based on the intense glare he sported during his introduction on Friday, he probably won’t respond all that well to any Virginia losses next season.
On the field, Reid’s read-and-react defense helped Virginia finish fourth in the ACC in yards per game but yielded few game-changing plays this past season. And though Tenuta winces at the notion that all he does is blitz, he has a track record of bothering opposing offenses.
During the 10 seasons in which Tenuta has been a defensive coordinator since 2000 (at Ohio State, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame and North Carolina State), his units have averaged nearly 35 sacks and more than 23 forced turnovers per year. Compare that with Virginia, which had just 17 sacks and forced only 12 turnovers in 2012.
“The type of defense he’s coached has been a very aggressive-style defense, a defense that demands toughness,” London said. “It is important to get sacks. It’s important to get turnovers. It’s important to limit teams to scoring points. And I think those are the things Jon has done a great job in his career and our players are looking forward to being part of that.”
Tenuta, who played defensive back at Virginia (1978-80), considers his best defense to be the one he led at Ohio State in 2000. That unit, which featured future first-round NFL draft picks Nate Clements and Ryan Pickett, recorded 47 sacks. But even though his reputation revolves around his blitz packages, Tenuta made sure to clarify that.
The keys to his success, Tenuta noted, are an emphasis on first down, third down, the red zone, “sudden change” and turnovers.
“You can pressure with four guys, too, so I don’t have to always bring the kitchen sink,” he added. “I like to create illusions. You create illusions and put people in bad plays, then that’s what I like.”
At this point, of course, Tenuta is well traveled, having also led defenses at Marshall, Kansas State and SMU. He also worked as a graduate assistant at Virginia and Maryland. One of the big draws when London first called him during preparations for North Carolina State’s Music City Bowl loss to Vanderbilt was the fact that Tenuta hadn’t coordinated his alma mater’s defense before.
“I won’t go down the road. I’ll tell you that. Never intrigued me,” Tenuta noted, alluding to Virginia Tech.
But it’s when Tenuta discusses the nomadic realities of college football that his gruff façade fades a bit. He understands the stress all the moving – 14 employers since 1981 — has put on his wife, Dori, and three children.
“There are times when she’s just flat-out tired of it, and I don’t blame her,” Tenuta said. “My kids will never say they didn’t like this or didn’t like that, but you know. But I’m fortunate that my wife is smart. She can handle. She’s the boss. It all works out because she makes it work.”
On the field or off it, there is much more to Tenuta than meets the eye.