CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia defensive end Eli Harold was in the middle of praising cornerback Demetrious Nicholson when he thought back to their days playing together in youth leagues in Virginia Beach.
Nicholson, as the story went, used to be the enforcer, the one guy on the team who struck fear into everyone. Get out of line or disobey the coach, and he was bound to lay a ferocious hit on the football field. But as Harold’s mind drifted back to the present day, he couldn’t help but shake his head in frustration about how Nicholson was misused in Virginia’s zone-heavy defense during a disappointing 2012 campaign.
“In high school, [Nicholson] didn’t even need to put his hands on you. He could jam you with his feet. And last year, we ran cover-four on almost every play. That’s not for a guy like Trey,” Harold said, referencing Nicholson’s nickname. “You gotta come up 10 yards away and make a tackle on a guy that’s in the ACC. Nine times out of 10 you’re not gonna tackle anyone running from 10 yards out.”
Though the Cavaliers improved defensively as last season wore on, finishing fourth in the ACC in yards allowed, there was a perception among the players that the scheme favored by former defensive coordinator Jim Reid — in which defensive backs gave opposing receivers a large cushion in order to avoid big passing plays, and blitzes were rare — simply didn’t match the personnel on the field. Virginia’s biggest strength was its athleticism, yet the Cavaliers had just 17 sacks and caused only 12 turnovers.
But the arrival of new defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta and his blitz-happy approach has brought hope that the Cavaliers are on the verge of a breakthrough.
“It’s always refreshing, it’s always good to have a defense that can dictate what you want them to do because of the different pressures,” Coach Mike London said. “I think part of what Jon does is dictating to an offense what we’re gonna do and how we’re gonna do it and it lends to creating aggressiveness. It lends to creating turnovers and that’s what we’re looking for.”
In Virginia’s spring game, Tenuta’s defense tallied 14 sacks and three safeties even with blitzing kept to a minimum. When asked about the spring last week, offensive lineman Luke Bowanko noted: “Coach Tenuta had them moving every play. It’s easy to learn a new offense when guys are standing in front of you and you say, ‘Block that guy.’ It’s harder when you say, ‘Block that guy,’ and that guy is over there and [quarterbacks David Watford and Greyson Lambert] are wiping grass stains off their back.”
Tenuta’s goal is to put opposing offenses in second-and-long and third-and-long situations, and not just by bringing as many defenders near the line of scrimmage as possible.
“We don’t sell the ranch on every snap,” Tenuta said. We can bring five guys. We can make a five-man appearance come from one side and only bring three. . . . We want to create problems for the front five and never let the quarterback set his feet in the passing game.”
During Tenuta’s six seasons as a defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech in the last decade, his units finished in the top 30 nationally in scoring defense, rushing defense and total defense every year. But in 2009, when Tenuta oversaw Notre Dame’s defense, the Fighting Irish were ranked No. 86 nationally in total defense. Last year, his North Carolina State defense finished the season No. 69 in yards allowed per game.
That, though, has done nothing to deter the optimism Virginia’s defense has experienced since Tenuta’s arrival. Count Harold among those who think the Cavaliers have finally found the right formula.
“Everyone feels like they have a lot to prove because everyone is doubting us, saying we’re gonna win like four games again. You should love that stuff. It should drive you to hit someone. And I just can’t wait to show the world what we’re capable of doing,” Harold said.
“I mean, coaches mean a lot. I’m not saying what Coach Reid did last year wasn’t that good or whatever, but we’re gonna have the same players we had last year and you’re gonna see a big difference. Coaching matters. Schemes, they don’t fit everyone. People are gonna be shocked to see what we do this year.”