UVA Football: Cavaliers get healthier on D during bye week

uva footballChris Moore is back, Heskin Smith is back and has had two weeks of practice. UVA Football is healthier after the bye week.

“I’m so glad that we’ve had a bye to help our team recover,” coach Bronco Mendenhall told reporters at his weekly Monday presser.

The ‘Hoos (7-3, 5-2 ACC) will face non-conference opponent Liberty (6-4) Saturday at noon, with the Black Friday winner-take-all showdown with #25 Virginia Tech looming.

First things first. Liberty, under first-year coach Hugh Freeze, can throw the ball. Senior quarterback Stephen Calvert has thrown for 2,941 yards and 23 TDs, with three INTs, in 2019, completing 61.5 percent of his passes, with a 158.4 passer rating.

His top target is wideout Antonio Gandy-Golden, a 6’4”, 220-pound senior who has 1,244 yards receiving on 64 catches this year, and is a sure-fire NFL prospect.

The UVA secondary that will have to defend against that is missing All-America corner Bryce Hall and safety Brenton Nelson. Mendenhall and defensive coordinator Nick Howell at least have Moore, who went down in the 33-28 win over Georgia Tech on Nov. 9, back, and Smith, who replaced Moore in that one after returning earlier that week from a six-week rehab from an early-season injury.

The D also has a healthier Matt Gahm, the backup whip linebacker who had been playing with a brace on his left knee, but now appears fully healthy, and has been able to shed the brace.

Hall and Nelson aren’t coming back, but at least the guys taking their place are as healthy as they can be heading into Week 13.

This is important because the banged-up defensive unit gave up 423.7 yards per game over the recent three-game stretch including the 28-21 loss at Louisville, the 38-31 win at North Carolina and the narrow win over Georgia Tech.

The Cavaliers had been giving up 273.3 yards per game through their first seven.

The issue: “just more big plays,” Mendenhall said.

“A few assignment mistakes, a little less coordination between some new players, and that’s led to a couple big plays a game, which were scoring plays, and that’s really the main difference,” Mendenhall said.

The focus during the bye was on getting everybody on the defensive side of the ball back on the right page.

“Fortunately, we had a bye, and we were able to practice a number of days with a specific focus on development of players just like that,” Mendenhall said. “Depth is really important down the stretch. One player makes a huge impact on our roster, as well as it does on most rosters, especially for us in our secondary. We were able to target that position, work on specific things to address it, improve it, make it more cohesive.”

Story by Chris Graham

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