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Virginia D’s focus: Cutting down on big plays

uva footballNick Howell knows the key to getting Virginia’s defense to getting back to 2018 form: cutting down on big plays in the passing game.

“We’ve studied this to a high degree. Obviously, we spent a good portion of our six months, of the last time period, looking at this and emphasizing this,” said Howell, the co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach.

The Virginia secondary was dead last in the ACC in passing yards per game allowed (304.4) and pass efficiency defense (154.4) in 2020, and a big reason for that was chunk plays – passing plays of 20+ yards.

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.

Stands to reason that, if you fix that, you have yourself the stout defense that you had in 2018 and the first half of the 2019 season.

The staff analysis, according to Howell: “are we giving our guys the right things to execute? Are we putting the right players in the right position? Because that’s really what it came down to. We had to look at our scheme and say, can our guys execute this, or is there something else that they can do better?”

“I think you have to look just strictly, you know, can you execute it, and if you can execute it, then we’ve got to execute it better,” Howell said. “So those two things we’ve really focused on. And the word execution is huge right now. We feel like if we put our players in the right position and they get their capability, if we can answer the question, yes, he is capable, then we’ve got to be able to do it. If we maybe can’t do this, then we’ve got to look and tweak that a little bit. So there’s been a lot of that in the offseason.”

The addition of North Dakota State grad transfer cornerback Josh Hayes should help. Hayes will add depth to a secondary that returns starting corners Nick Grant and Darrius Bratton and starting safeties Joey Blount and De’Vante Cross.

Virginia doesn’t get Hayes until the summer, but Howell likes what he has seen from the talented Hayes on tape.

“What I’ve seen from Josh is, very highly competitive, he’s quick, he’s done a lot of things in their defense that we do similarly in our defense,” Howell said. “He’s been in, you know, big games, pressure situations, played in a really good environment up there. And so I think what you have is, you know, a guy that’s probably hungry, and looking for something to improve his stock.

“You have a hungry player that, you know, is experienced, and so we won’t know everything until he gets here because we obviously haven’t seen him besides on tape, but we like who he is and how he fits and think he’s a good player. And then, you know, in terms of competition, that’s going to be very competitive, and competition makes everybody better, makes everybody play better, and you’ve got to be ready to go, and that’s what we’re looking for,” Howell said.

Quick hits

On needing to replace Charles Snowden and Zane Zandier: “We’ve had a lot of guys have a lot of different reps and opportunities, and we’re assessing that every day,” Howell said. “I might say that competition is still very much open going into the summer, going into fall camp. You know, there’s a couple guys that are injured that will be back in the fold. Put them in the mix, guys that have now gotten opportunities, we’ve seen what they can do as well, so I would say that competition is still very much open, and a lot of very good players competing for it.

On the D line: “Aaron (Faumui) is a guy who stayed home a year ago. I believe, Aaron, you guys will have to look this up, but statistically, he put pressure on quarterbacks as many as much as probably anybody I think in the country. I may be speaking out of turn, but he had a bunch of pressures. And so having Aaron and Mandy (Alonso) together is a little more juice. You’ve got Ben Smiley and Jameer (Carter), as big as he is, pressures the pocket in certain packages and things like that, and he rushes the passer well.

“We have a lot of schemes that will blitz and run a lot of different patterns. We’ve made a really big focus this spring on trying to straight rush and win one-on-ones, hoping that will make us better one-on-one, but it will also enhance our package when we do change the patterns and things like that. So there’s been a real emphasis on that with Coach Sintim and Coach Poppinga, to really straight rush and then help us there, and then with our blitz packages as well, we think that’s going to help us.”

Story by Chris Graham


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