Chase Minnifield has been a steadying presence for Virginia football

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 2, 2010; 12:34 AM

On March 31, 1989, the son of Frank Minnifield - a four-time Pro Bowl cornerback for the Cleveland Browns from 1984 to 1992 - was born in Lexington, Ky. On Saturday, Chase Onassis Minnifield will lead Virginia's secondary against a supremely fast and athletic Florida State offense in the Cavaliers' ACC opener at Scott Stadium.

Chase Minnifield - a fourth-year junior cornerback who is tied for No. 2 in the nation with three interceptions in three games - is ready for the challenge. And, seeing as how his first and middle name were purposely bestowed upon him to reflect titans of industry, he has had no other choice from the beginning.

"We just wanted to give him a name that he understood what the expectations were," Frank Minnifield said. "A lot of people in Lexington call him Chase Manhattan. We threw in Onassis because we wanted him to know that we wanted him to be successful. We wanted him to be as successful as the greatest shipping tycoon ever. And then we figured it wouldn't hurt by having Minnifield attached on the end."

Listed at 6 feet and 185 pounds, Chase Minnifield does not possess imposing size, and compared with the cornerback he was supposed to start alongside - two-time second team all-ACC selection Ras-I Dowling - Minnifield did not enter the season with much hype. But after Dowling went down with a hamstring injury and junior strong safety Rodney McLeod - another expected starter - missed time with a knee sprain, Minnifield's role expanded significantly. His on-field performance improved in step.

Virginia has allowed 174.7 passing yards per game thus far, which ranks No. 3 in the ACC. That number is slightly better than what the Cavaliers - with a healthy Dowling and McLeod - allowed last season (184.6 passing yards per game), though the team understands its stiffest competition is yet to come.

Cavaliers Coach Mike London calls Minnifield "a crafty veteran," and Minnifield has lived up to that description while guiding a relatively inexperienced unit through the early stages of what is expected to be a rebuilding season.

On a third-and-eight situation early in the second quarter of a Sept. 25 win over division I-AA VMI, Minnifield recalled a tendency he had noticed on film earlier in the week. In such situations, the Keydets would run a hitch pattern, and he anticipated it.

"If the second receiver in the slot didn't try to come inside of me and get up the field, I told myself I was going to run to the hitch as fast as I can," Minnifield said.

Minnifield pounced on the opportunity and recorded his second interception of the season. It would not have been possible had Minnifield not so studiously pored over game film in the days leading up to the game.

He learned that trait from his father, who as Minnifield's youth football coach had a team of 7-year-olds watch film of their games. According to Frank Minnifield, the goal wasn't to improve their knowledge of the game in terms of X's and O's.

Rather, "I was trying to teach them the effort that they need in order to win," Frank Minnifield said. "And so we would look at the film to see who was doing what they were supposed to do, one, and then who was giving the effort the whole play."

These days, father and son more closely scrutinize film of Chase Minnifield's performances, even if they remain separated by more than 400 miles. Each week, Chase records a video on his cellphone as his man-to-man coverage clips play on television. He then sends the video to his father, and the two later discuss Chase's development via Skype, sometimes for two hours at a time.

One topic they never broached was how Chase's role with the Cavaliers changed once Dowling and McLeod suffered their injuries during training camp. Chase and Frank did, however, discuss the importance of fostering unity among members of the secondary.

So Chase has invited the team's cornerbacks and safeties to his apartment to study film, and during the preseason he gathered them together to gain strength by pushing his car around the neighborhood. He knew sophomore cornerback Devin Wallace and senior strong safety Trey Womack would be making their first career starts during Virginia's season opener against Richmond. He knew junior free safety Corey Mosley was returning from offseason shoulder surgery.

He knew there would be plenty of questions about how well Virginia's secondary could survive without the steadying presences of Dowling and McLeod, and that it was up to him to help guide the relatively inexperienced group along.

"I just wanted to let them know that no matter what's going on out there that I trust in them and I believe in them," Minnifield said.

On Saturday, the Cavaliers will aim to contain a Florida State receiving corps that includes Taiwan Easterling and Willie Haulstead, both of whom rank in the top 10 in the ACC in yards per catch. As his name would suggest, Minnifield will be nothing if not prepared to succeed.

"Chase really had a different attitude and a different approach to this season," said assistant coach and former Cavaliers defensive back Anthony Poindexter. "He watches tape all the time. A lot of times he's the only guy over there. . . . He's finally coming into his own, and sometimes with DBs it takes a while."

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