Defensive secondary play a focal point for Mendenhall, ‘Hoos

uva footballThe key to the UVA defense in 2021: fixing what ailed the secondary in 2020.

“The biggest determinant on outcomes of games in the COVID year was our secondary’s play. Yards led to points in the secondary,” Cavaliers coach Bronco Mendenhall said, and the numbers bear him out.

I ran an analysis of the 716 defensive snaps the Virginia D saw in 2020: and counted 51 pass completions of 20 or more yards.

Those 51 big-play completions, from among the 323 pass attempts from UVA opponents, accounted for 1,775 yards – 58.3 percent of the pass yards surrendered in the 2020 season.

Another frame of reference point: those 51 big plays, from the 716 defensive snaps, accounted for 40.1 percent of the total yards surrendered by the Virginia D in 2020.

Forty percent of the yards came on 7 percent of the snaps.

Let that sink in.

The issues actually date back to the second half of 2019, which was the beginning of the rash of injuries in the secondary as the ‘Hoos scratched and clawed their way to a Coastal Division title and Orange Bowl berth.

“There was a significant dropoff in our defensive performance. Some of those same issues occurred in the COVID year as well,” Mendenhall said.

Which is why, heading into 2021, “health, depth, then possibly implementation of I would say the best players at the best time, keeping them healthy, will have a lot to do with our success defensively,” Mendenhall said.

Mendenhall began to address the issues ahead of the spring with some changes to his staff, reconfiguring responsibilities to have Nick Howell, the co-defensive coordinator along with linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga, overseeing the defensive backfield, with Shane Hunter as the safeties coach and Ricky Brumfield coaching the cornerbacks.

The good news, sorta, kinda, is that the secondary returns players who accounted for 83.9 percent of the snaps in 2020.

The bad news is that you have guys returning from a secondary was dead last in the ACC in passing yards per game allowed (304.4) and pass efficiency defense (154.4) in 2020.

For a frame of reference there, a QB averaging 304.4 yards per game would have ranked second in the ACC, and one with a pass efficiency rating of 154.4 would have ranked third.

That’s what the Virginia secondary made every QB it faced look like each week.

The health of guys like cornerback Darrius Bratton, who had a 56.2 Pro Football Focus grade for his 127 snaps in 2020, and safety Joey Blount, who has logged 1,742 snaps in four seasons at Virginia, but was only on the field for 260 in 2020, the least since his freshman year back in 2017, is key,

Blount was a full go for spring practice for the first time in his career, which can only help.

“2020 was crazy for everybody,” said Blount, who was at his least effective in his four years in Charlottesville in 2020 – with a career-low 65.0 PFF season grade, and a career-worst missed-tackle percentage (19.4).

For frame of reference, in his breakout season, in 2018, Blount, in 520 snaps, had a PFF season grade of 88.0, and a career-best 12.9 missed-tackle percentage.

Bratton, similarly, is looking to get back to his 2018 form. Bratton missed the 2019 season after suffering an injury in training camp, following a banner 2018 in which he registered a 74.5 PFF grade, allowing 12 pass completions in 26 targets on 219 pass coverage snaps, for an NFL passer rating of 68.8.

Ah, that 2018 group. Virginia rated – gulp! – second in pass defense 2018 (183.0 yards per game, 107.6 pass efficiency rating).

So, yeah, the capacity is there. And there are reinforcements. North Dakota State grad transfer Josh Hayes was a standout as he helped the Bison to a run of three state FCS national titles, including a 2019 campaign in which was named second-team All-Missouri Valley Conference in 2019 after making 59 tackles, breaking up 10 passes and recording two INTs.

Hayes and Louisville grad transfer Anthony Johnson (119 snaps in 2020, with a 64.9 PFF grade, allowing one reception in 10 targets on 58 pass coverage snaps) figure to battle Bratton and another returning senior, Nick Grant (634 snaps in 2020, 63.7 PFF grade, 29 catches in 48 targets on 346 coverage snaps), for the starting jobs at corner in fall camp.

Mendenhall has much as much clear.

“A pretty simple principle as well I use when considering grad transfers, if I don’t think they can start, I won’t bring them,” the coach told reporters at the ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte last week.

That’s actually great news looking forward. A secondary beset by injuries the past year and a half suddenly has depth and experience.

Story by Chris Graham

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