A few minutes before Virginia’s first practice of training camp Monday, a reporter asked Coach Mike London what position group he was most anxious to watch.
His ensuing answer had nothing to do with the three-way battle to be the team’s starting quarterback. Instead, London said he would be keeping a close eye on his safeties. And when Virginia’s defense lined up for the first time, the reason behind London’s nerves were revealed.
After it appeared in spring practice that sophomore Brandon Phelps would be engaged in a battle to be Virginia’s second cornerback along with classmate Drequan Hoskey, the Cavaliers moved Phelps to free safety to begin training camp. On the first two days of practices, the former All Met from Damascus lined up with the first team defense next to strong safety Anthony Harris.
“We’re just trying to get our best four guys on the field,” safeties coach Anthony Poindexter explained. “We know who we’re gonna see this year, so we’re just trying to have the best secondary we can have.”
The move comes with an adjustment for the 6-foot, 170-pound Phelps, who only played free safety as a freshman in high school. The coaches informed him of the position switch about a month ago, explaining they felt it was best for the team.
He has been watching film ever since in preparation for training camp. Last year Phelps appeared in all 13 games, but mostly played on special teams.
“It is a pretty big transition,” Phelps said. “The responsibilities are a little different. Corner, you’re usually matched up with a man. At safety, you have to kind of read the quarterback and drive based on where he’s gonna throw the ball.”
The secondary remains a big topic of discussion now that Virginia’s training camp is officially underway. Including Phelps, the Cavaliers are slated to have three first-year starters in their defensive backfield.
Junior Rijo Walker, freshman Maurice Canady and Hoskey have all been taking reps at the other cornerback spot opposite sophomore Demetrious Nicholson. But it’s Phelps that might face the biggest learning curve now.
“The kid has the skill to play it,” Poindexter said. “Obviously, he’s a little bit farther behind than all the other safeties because the reps and it’s a different technique. He falls back into some of his corner stuff a little bit, but that’s understandable.”