CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia safety Anthony Harris had seen the formation on film before, and the former high school quarterback began to read the eyes of Clemson’s Tajh Boyd. The Cavaliers had middle linebacker Henry Coley lined up on a Tigers wide receiver, and Harris knew offensive coordinator Chad Morris would want to Boyd to exploit the matchup.
So the player Coach Mike London refers to as his “center fielder” waited patiently before the snap, not wanting to give his thought process away. Then, as Boyd’s pass soared through the air, on the exact trajectory Harris thought it would, the junior swooped in over the top for his sixth interception of the season.
After Virginia’s 59-10 loss to the Tigers, its sixth straight defeat, Harris was asked if he would have been capable of making such a play a year ago at this time. His answer was telling.
“I think a little more confidence gave me a better jump on the ball,” Harris said.
Harris has been one of the lone bright spots now that the Cavaliers’ prospects have spiraled south for a second straight season. A year after taking his lumps as a first-time starter, Harris has enjoyed a breakout campaign and enters Saturday’s contest at North Carolina as the ACC’s leader in interceptions.
He has all but one of Virginia’s interceptions this season, ranks third on the team in tackles and almost single-handedly delivered the Cavaliers their lone win over a Football Bowl Subdivision team by blocking a punt and intercepting a pass to set up both of Virginia’s touchdown drives in a 19-16 victory over BYU to start the season.
Harris just wishes his individual success would have led to more wins. The Cavaliers have 16 takeaways this season, but have converted them into just 13 points.
“It’s something I can’t believe I’m standing in this position right now, but obviously, I’d rather be standing in the position of a team goal as being ranked up there or having a better record right now,” Harris said recently.
Perhaps more importantly, in the midst of Virginia’s six-game losing streak, Harris has emerged as a stabilizing force for a secondary that will once again be without two of its top cornerbacks (Demetrious Nicholson and Maurice Canady) because of injury this weekend.
Safeties coach Anthony Poindexter noted this week Harris never planned to be the leader on this year’s defense, because few thought that was a role the Chesterfield, Va., native would need to fill. But Harris has been “thrust” into that position with his play, Poindexter said, and he has tried to embrace the responsibility as best he can.
“I think it’s a combination of performance in the game and just how you carry yourself in the weight room, on Grounds, when you’re hanging around” teammates, Harris said when asked how he established himself as a leader. “You kind of build yourself up that way. I definitely say this year me making some plays for the team has definitely grown on the guys and just continuing to be an up spirit for the team in any situation.”
But how did he develop into a ball hawk? After all, Harris had just one interception a year ago and he’s always been able to read quarterbacks better than most because of his days playing the position in high school. This season, though, defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta is “doing a good job of helping me understand what the offense wants to do to the defense,” said Harris, who admits he has become more of a film junkie than ever.
The process hasn’t been without some hiccups, such as the costly 47-yard, fourth-quarter completion on third and 22 to Maryland wide receiver Deon Long with Harris in coverage alongside cornerback Drequan Hoskey. But more often than not, Harris has delivered the sort of consistent play that has gone missing from the rest of the team.
“His learning curve, the way he’s played, whether it’s deep zone coverage, man coverage or where he run fits when he’s involved, he’s gotten really good at it,” Coach Mike London said this week.
These days, Harris is an expert at figuring out tendencies in route concepts and wide receiver releases. Even when he watches games at home with his roommate, cornerback Drequan Hoskey, Harris finds himself imagining what his role would be if he were out on the field.
Poindexter, a former all-American safety at Virginia, said Harris’s mental acuity reminds him of former Cavaliers safety Rodney McLeod, whom Harris watched as a true freshman when the Cavaliers went 8-5 in 2011.
“He understands the game. Clearly, he has some things to work on and tackling is one of them, but he really understands football,” Poindexter said. “He loves the game of football and each week I can see him getting better and better kind of just knowing what teams are trying to do. Hopefully he can finish out these last three games the same way.”