Curome Cox tasked with responsibility for revamping the Virginia secondary
The Virginia defense, which ranked 121st nationally, among the 130 teams in FBS, in 2021, is a fixer-upper, and the crack in the foundation heading into 2022 is the secondary.
The unit loses its top two guys from the past couple of years with safeties Joey Blount (664 snaps, 87 tackles, 5 TFL, 3 INTs, 3 PBUs, 3 QB hurries, 77.7 PFF grade) and Nick Grant (544 snaps, 50 tackles, 9 PBUs, 3 TFLs, 67.1 PFF grade) having finished up their eligibility.
The new defensive backs coach, Curome Cox, made the move from Air Force with the new defensive coordinator, John Rudzinski.
The focus in the spring is on installing a new defensive scheme, and a renewed emphasis on the fundamentals of positioning, pursuit and finishing plays.
“We’re making strides. Our goal is every day to just be 1 percent better than the play before or the day before. From that standpoint, we’re making strides. Where we’re trying to focus is just getting those guys to play fast and not beat ourselves and just be as fundamentally sound as we can,” Cox said.
The new scheme seems to have some similarities to what the staff of former coach Bronco Mendenhall had been working to get ingrained the past few years, with five defensive backs, including three safeties, as the base.
Seniors Coen King (506 snaps, 41 tackles, 3 PBUs in 2021) and Antonio Clary (361 snaps, 42 tackles, 62.1 PFF grade) and sophomore Langston Long (55 snaps, 57.4 PFF grade) are getting the first-team reps at the three safety positions in the spring.
The depth at safety comes from juniors Chayce Chalmers (16 snaps in 2020) and Jake Dewease (also 16 snaps in 2020) and sophomores Jonas Sanker (58 snaps, 60.3 PFF grade in 2021) and Donovan Johnson (5 snaps in 2021).
The building blocks for the secondary will be senior cornerbacks Anthony Johnson (777 snaps, 44 tackles, 3 INTs, 6 PBUs, 68.6 PFF grade) and Darrius Bratton (473 snaps, 30 tackles, 6 PBUs, 65.6 PFF grade).
The depth at corner includes junior Fentrell Cypress II (297 snaps, 16 tackles, 1 INT, 53.6 PFF grade) and sophomores Elijah Gaines (42 snaps, 48.8 PFF grade) and Dave Herard (16 snaps, 65.5 PFF grade).
The rest of the secondary room heading into the spring: sophomore safety Aidan Ryan and sophomore cornerbacks Micah Gaffney and William Simpkins III.
The emphasis for the group with the new defensive staff, according to Clary, is “just flying around.”
“It’s a little different from last year, some of the same things, but it’s a little different. We call some things some different names, but it’s fun, flying around out there, having fun,” Clary said.
The guys in the defense room have a big chip on their shoulders from the failures down the stretch in 2021. Virginia lost its last four games after a 6-2 start had the Cavaliers in the running for a second consecutive Coastal Division title.
The defense surrendered a ghastly 532.5 yards and 42.8 points per game over the last four.
“The way we ended last year, we don’t want to end that way, so we come in with a chip on our shoulder every single day, just to get better,” Clary said. “We don’t really listen to anybody, like all the outside noise and stuff like that. We try to block that out. But we just come to play every day and try to get better.”
Cox said the staff is trying to get the defense guys to focus on controlling what they can control.
“Last season is over. Learn from it,” Cox said. “If you’re worried about last season, that means you’re not focused on the next day. Live in the now. It was what it was. We own it, and now we’re just going to focus on what we can control, and that’s this day, that’s the next play. They are playing with a little bit more passion. They have bought in, they’re trying, they want to, and now hopefully, they get that success that they’re all preparing for.”
Story by Chris Graham