Virginia secondary holding up

Virginia's two-time second-team all-ACC cornerback Ras-I Dowling, out nearly five full games, may play against Duke.
Virginia's two-time second-team all-ACC cornerback Ras-I Dowling, out nearly five full games, may play against Duke. (Tracy A. Woodward)
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By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 6, 2010

CHARLOTTESVILLE - There is something to be said for consistency among the players who serve as a defense's final safety measure, which makes the Virginia secondary's development all the more notable. Entering the season, the Cavaliers coaching staff figured the secondary would be one of the team's strongest units, and it has been - despite the prolonged absence of its top returning performer.

Ras-I Dowling, a two-time second-team all-ACC cornerback, has missed nearly five full games because of multiple lingering injuries, yet Virginia owns the No. 17 pass defense in the nation. Led by junior cornerback Chase Minnifield - who has emerged as the unit's driving force - the Cavaliers (4-4, 1-3 ACC) will enter Saturday's road game at Duke (2-6, 0-4) fully aware of the Blue Devils' preference to attack through the air.

Duke is averaging 40.1 pass attempts per game - second most in the conference - and while Blue Devils quarterback Sean Renfree is completing 58.5 percent of his throws, he completed 28 of 30 passes last weekend in a 34-31 win at Navy. Last season, Duke attempted 41 passes and recorded 343 passing yards in a 28-17 win at Virginia.

The Cavaliers expect Duke to try to spread the field horizontally with short, high-percentage passes primarily to wideouts Conner Vernon and Donovan Varner, who rank No. 1 and No. 7 in the ACC in receiving yards per game, respectively. Virginia's players and coaches acknowledged this week that the Blue Devils will complete their fair share of passes Saturday, but the Cavaliers remain confident in their ability to limit the damage done by Duke's passing attack, regardless of which defenders end up on the field.

Minnifield - who is tied for first in the nation with six interceptions - is the only member of the Virginia secondary who has started all eight games this season. Junior strong safety Rodney McLeod missed most of the first three games of the season after suffering an MCL sprain in his left knee during training camp. Junior free safety Corey Mosley sat out a game while being disciplined by the team for class attendance issues.

Also, the Cavaliers have relied increasingly on nickel and dime defensive formations, which require five and six defensive backs, respectively. And so players such as fifth-year senior cornerback Mike Parker, sophomore cornerback Devin Wallace, junior safety Dom Joseph and fifth-year senior safety Trey Womack have accrued more playing time than they otherwise might have.

"It's tricky a little bit, but you always try to find ways to get guys in the games with personnel groupings that can help," Coach Mike London said. "God bless Ras-I, man. It's one of those things that whatever it is - I don't know what it is - the doctors are still working with him to try to get him in a position where he can go out and feel good and play."

Dowling may play against Duke, or he may not. London has said repeatedly in the past three weeks that it has been up to Dowling to test out his injured right knee in pregame warmups and then inform the team's medical staff if he feels strong enough to compete. Dowling - who was listed as questionable on the team's weekly injury report - has sat out all but three plays of Virginia's last three contests.

Wallace - listed at 5 feet 11 - had been starting in Dowling's place prior to last Saturday's 24-19 win over Miami. Against the Hurricanes, Parker - listed at 6-2 - received the first start of his collegiate career. Cornerbacks coach Chip West said Parker's effort in practice had improved in recent weeks and that "he just earned the right to play a little bit more."

"Mike's a pretty good player, as long as he concentrates," West said. "The biggest thing is keeping Mike low because he's a tall corner, just keeping his pad level low."

The Cavaliers have allowed 178.4 passing yards per game, and although they gave up 269 passing yards against Miami - another team not afraid to throw the ball often - they also tallied five interceptions.

Part of the reason for the improvement of Virginia's secondary is McLeod's return to health. He said Monday that his knee reached 100 percent "about a week ago."

McLeod "is like the little general back there," Mosley said. "He's very football smart and savvy. He gets us in all our proper alignments and things. Having him back there is a very important part."

Safeties coach Anthony Poindexter said McLeod - known for his speed - and Mosley - known for his power - are starting to develop the sort of non-verbal wavelength that enables them to anticipate each other's movements on the field. And that only bolsters the efficiency of a budding Virginia secondary.

"Earlier in the season, we were down two guys and you're mixing and matching and trying to find the right combination," Poindexter said. "For the last couple of weeks we've been able to play with the same guys in the games. Those guys kind of know going into the game, 'Okay, we're going to have to play today.' And knowing that early in the week, I think it helps them get ready for Saturday.

"You hate when one of your best players is hurt, but these other guys just kind of took it and have seized the opportunities before 'em and have showed that they can get the job done, as well."

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