Earlier this week, Virginia defensive end Eli Harold called himself “the hype man” for the Cavaliers’ defense, and bravado does seem to come naturally for the sophomore.
For example, Harold was discussing his conditioning in last Saturday’s season opener against BYU, which runs an up-tempo offense. He said he compared favorably to South Carolina standout Jadaveon Clowney, who appeared winded at times in the Gamecocks’ season opener against North Carolina.
“I didn’t want to show the coaches what Jadaveon [Clowney] showed on film, even though the guy’s my idol and I look up to him. But I didn’t want to be as hurt as he was against North Carolina when they ran their no-huddle,” Harold said.
Moments later, though, the Virginia Beach native showed there’s also some substance behind those words, breaking down the spread offense used by No. 2 Oregon, which visits Charlottesville on Saturday.
Harold had already diagnosed that unlike most spread teams, Oregon reads the opponent’s defensive tackles instead of its defensive ends on its zone-read plays. It was a far cry from the player who called himself “a guppy in a big pond” during his freshman season, and the latest indication that the new faces on Virginia’s coaching staff are getting their messages across.
“Guys actually know what they’re looking at. They know what offenses are doing. They know formations,” safety Anthony Harris said recently. “We’ve all grown that much, just branching away from knowing what we’re supposed to be doing to what we’re trying to do as a team and what the offense is trying to do to us.”
New Virginia defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta has empowered his unit with an attack mentality born from his blitz-heavy schemes. The early consensus among the players is that it’s a style better suited to the personnel Coach Mike London and company have recruited in recent years, and they backed up that talk in a 19-16 win over BYU in last Saturday’s season opener.
Harris set up the game-winning touchdown with a late interception, and the Cavaliers caused a safety and sacked Cougars quarterback Taysom Hill three times. Harris (11 tackles, one interception, one sack and a blocked punt) earned Walter Camp national defensive player of the week honors for his play, but the sheer volume of contributors was the most impressive part of the performance.
There was also “a noticeable improvement” on special teams, according to London, and his decision to give new special teams coordinator Larry Lewis free rein in terms of using starters paid immediate dividends with Harris’s blocked punt.
Punt returner Dominique Terrell, a former All-Met from Osbourn High, looked sure-handed after struggling with fumbles in that role two years ago. London said the staff kept reminding Terrell that “we’re gonna stick with you,” and the junior delivered a 35-yard return against BYU.
In addition, new associate head coach Tom O’Brien recommended that the team start putting its specialists on scholarship this offseason to create more structure for the entire program. Punter Alec Vozenilek responded against BYU by averaging more than 41 yards per punt, and four were downed inside the 20-yard-line. According to college football analyst Phil Steele, Virginia became the first team this century to punt 13 times in a game and still win.
“I’ve seen the first game can definitely determine how that whole season will go, and for us to be resilient and make the adjustments that we needed to make throughout the game in order to come out with the victory, it definitely showed how our team could be and how we can respond to adversity,” linebacker Henry Coley said.
But the newfound sense of maturity on both units will be put to the test Saturday against Oregon and its high-powered attack, a challenge the always-irascible Tenuta hasn’t let the defense forget about. He declared his players “did a damn good job” against BYU, but otherwise would only discuss the Ducks this week.
The biggest challenge could be corralling the backfield duo of quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back De’Anthony Thomas. Mariota scored 30 rushing touchdowns last year, but also nearly set an NCAA freshman record by completing a Pacific-12-best 68.5 percent of his passes.
Thomas, meanwhile, was one of one of only two players in the country to accumulate more than 700 rushing yards, 400 receiving yards and 600 yards in kick returns in 2012. He would have ranked third in the country in punt returns a year ago had he not fallen below the NCAA-minimum standard of 1.2 punt returns per game. London called special teams coverage “critical” this week
And as Harold reminded reporters, Oregon gets its playmakers in open space by being “the smartest team.” He’s anxious to see how the Cavaliers measure up these days.
“They have the best spread in college football in my eyes, but I really think that we can give these guys a run for their money,” Harold said. “I just want to see what all the hype’s about.”