Even last spring, as Virginia was breaking in an inexperienced secondary that lost three starters from a year ago, Coach Mike London and defensive coordinator Jim Reid would always point to the talent level of the potential replacements. Exactly who those players will be came into focus Thursday when Reid addressed reporters during a teleconference.
Throughout training camp, the two certainties to be in the starting lineup when Virginia opens the regular season against Richmond have been sophomore cornerback Demetrious Nicholson and free safety Anthony Harris. Joining them, Reid said, will likely be former All-Met Brandon Phelps and sophomore Drequan Hoskey.
“From the spring, we’ve come leaps and bounds,” Reid said of the secondary as a whole.
Phelps moved from cornerback to safety before training camp began, while Hoskey has improved upon a solid spring practice despite a serious challenge from freshman Maurice Canady. Harris, a first-year starter who will need to make coverage calls from his position, is “a year ahead of where guys usually are in their second year,” Reid added.
Junior Rijo Walker will provide some depth behind Phelps at safety, but the coaching staff likes the coverage skills the Damascus native brings to the position. The mental part of the game is where Harris and Phelps will face the biggest adjustment once the real games begin.
“I just think like the offense has a quarterback, basically the defense has a quarterback and most of the time, in our defense, the way we’re set up, it’s the safety,” position coach Anthony Poindexter said.
Canady and freshman C.J. Moore are the prime candidates to be Virginia’s nickel cornerback in passing situations, and cornerbacks coach Chip West has joked that the only other time he has been around a group that features this many inexperienced pieces came when he was at Old Dominion when the Monarchs had just started their football program.
Despite that youth, the Cavaliers’ coaching staff refuses to use it as a crutch. As West put it, “I’m not going into it scared.”
“I don’t look at it as pressure. That’s why they came here. We recruited these guys to play and we’re not the only team in the country that lost secondary players,” Poindexter added. “Whether they look at it as pressure or opportunity . . . somebody’s got to be ready to play.”
Reid also updated the depth chart for several other positions on Virginia’s defense this year. Redshirt sophomore Henry Coley will start at strong-side linebacker, but not before fending off a stiff challenge from sophomore Daquan Romero. Reid said Romero lost some weight heading into the preseason and will likely split snaps with Coley during the year.
At defensive tackle, Reid declared the experiment of moving redshirt junior Brent Urban from end to tackle a success. But the rotation along the line will also include redshirt Justin Renfrow, sophomore Chris Braithwaite and redshirt freshman David Dean. The latter two have both impressed Reid going against the first-team offensive line in recent weeks.
Reid also emphasized that Bill Schautz and Jake Snyder both remain his starting defensive ends, but London said this week that Eli Harold is one freshman who will definitely play against the Spiders. Reid added that the coaching staff will make a decision on whether to redshirt former DeMatha All-Met Michael Moore in the coming days.