Last season, in Virginia’s first year of transition from the 3-4 base defense utilized under former Coach Al Groh to the 4-3 scheme employed by Coach Mike London, the mandate to the Cavaliers’ defensive players was streamlined: Don’t worry about making mistakes so long as you are playing fast.

That approach yielded a unit that struggled mightily to stop the run, missed tackles regularly, infrequently produced takeaways and garnered an abundance of penalties.

This season, Virginia’s defensive players still are competing at a fast pace, but they’re doing so with more discipline, more knowledge of the scheme and, thus, better results. Granted, it’s only been two games, but the early returns have been promising nonetheless. The Cavaliers have allowed opponents to gain an average of 244 total yards per game, which ranks No. 20 in the nation.

But the Virginia defense’s first true test of the season will come Saturday when the Cavaliers open ACC play at North Carolina. Virginia Linebackers Coach Vincent Brown said Tuesday that the Tar Heels’ motion-heavy offensive approach will make them difficult to defend. North Carolina has ample talent at the offensive skill positions, Brown said, and the Tar Heels will do what they can to distract and out-flank an opposing defense.

“If you’re not really sound in your alignment rules and your key responsibilities, you can give up some big plays to them,” Brown said.

Thus far, the Cavaliers have demonstrated improvement in that regard, and one of the things that has led to is an increase in takeaways. Through two games in the 2010 season, Virginia had forced two turnovers. In getting off to a 2-0 start this season against FCS William & Mary and Indiana, the Cavaliers tallied five takeaways.

That’s a result, Brown said, not simply of better execution by the players, but of a better understanding on the players’ part of where they need to be on the field at all times.

Virginia’s defensive players “just have a greater understanding of what we’re doing and of what the offense is trying to do to you when they get into certain formations and backfield sets and recognizing route combinations and whatnot,” Brown said. “So they’re just in better position because they know more than they did last year.”

Last season, Virginia recorded 16 takeaways, which put them in a six-way tie for No. 102 in the nation in that category. Brown said the coaches knew entering this fall that the quickest way for their defense to improve as an overall unit would be to find a way to increase takeaways.

The Cavaliers also were one of the most penalized teams in the country (only two FBS teams averaged more penalties per game than Virginia in 2010). They were playing fast, but they weren’t playing smart.

That, Brown said, has changed.

“You don’t want guys thinking and being robotic out on the field,” Brown said. “You want them to utilize their God-given athleticism and be able to make plays. And so throughout last season that was really the focus, to use the talents that God has blessed you with to make plays.

“But you realize that that’s not good enough, that going fast isn’t good enough. You want to play fast, but you want to play fast with great detail and precision. And so, again, the fact that they guys have seen some of these plays so many times, they know the framework and structure of our defense better than they did last year.

“They’re not perfect by any means, but at least there’s been some improvement, so when you combine the two, now you’re on the road to being able to play pretty good defense by going fast and yet, by going in the right direction fast.”

Penalties are down. Takeaways are up. The Virginia defense – through two non-conference games, at least – has been stingier. Will the trends continue Saturday and into the coming weeks? Who knows?

But for now, the Cavaliers defense is showing signs of growth. Brown and the rest of the coaches will take it.