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Virginia secondary looks to cut down on big plays as key to return to 2018 form

nick grant int
Nick Grant reels in a third quarter INT in Virginia’s 43-32 win over Boston College in December. Photo courtesy Atlantic Coast Conference (Erin Edgerton/Daily Progress).

The good news, which is not really good news: the Virginia secondary returns players who accounted for 83.9 percent of the snaps in 2020.

Why what should be good news there, in terms of returning depth, isn’t exactly good news: the Virginia secondary was dead last in the ACC in passing yards per game allowed (304.4) and pass efficiency defense (154.4).

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.

Coach Bronco Mendenhall is trying to address the deficiency, reconfiguring his staff 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.

“I think probably two more games were winnable a year ago, but the number of big plays we allowed through the air just simply didn’t allow that to happen,” Mendenhall said.

The number, from my analysis of the 716 defensive snaps in 2020: 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.

“We have a standard of no deep balls, because we are the last line of defense against big plays and points,” said senior cornerback Darrius Bratton, who had a 56.2 Pro Football Focus grade for his 127 snaps in 2020.

“We’ve got to be on, every game, every practice. And that’s what we strive to do and hold that standard because we know we can do it. We were, in the past, one of the best DB units in the country, so we’re going to try to get back to that and hold the standard,” said Bratton, who missed the 2019 season after suffering an injury in training camp, after 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, as mentioned, with the detail about the returning depth, the guys are there.

It will help that guys like Bratton, fellow corner De’Vante Cross (2020 PFF grade: 49.5) and safety Joey Blount (2020 PFF grade: 65.0) are healthy in the spring, meaning they can work on technique and scheme instead of having to focus on rehab in the months leading up to the start of training camp in July.

Bratton mentioned in a Zoom call with reporters last week that he feels like he’s “getting that swagger back,” swagger being a key for a guy playing a position that often has you alone on an island, one-on-one with a wideout.

The secondary across the board, to Bratton, is ready to take a step forward in 2021.

“This offseason, we’ve worked really hard, and pushed the limits of our conditioning and everything that was going on. I feel like everybody in general is well conditioned, and we’re ready to come to play,” Bratton said.

Brumfield points to Bratton right now as “probably the closest” that the defense has of being a shutdown corner right now, adding that senior Nick Grant (2020 PFF grade: 63.7) “has been doing a really good job of staying on top of receivers and knocking the ball down and being in position the way he’s supposed to be.”

Grant, Cross and Blount are among the returning nine seniors who are taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility being granted by the NCAA to account for the pandemic year.

Grant said he was motivated to return for a fifth year because he wanted to “couldn’t leave Virginia without making it better than what I came here for.”

“Last year, obviously, is pushing us because we know we’re better than that,” said Grant, who allowed 29 pass completions in 48 targets on 346 pass coverage snaps in 2020, for an NFL passer rating of 94.6, with two INTs and three pass breakups.

“We know we’re better than 5-5. We know we’re better than not doing well on the road. We’re better than that. A lot of the mindset of these people that came back and the young guys coming up is just that we have something to prove,” Grant said.

To that point, Brumfield, echoing the Mendenhall mantra of “earned, not given,” is stressing that “it’s open season” in terms of playing time in the fall.

“Everybody has an opportunity to play,” Brumfield said. “I think for us, it’s about just getting them all on the same page, and just understanding, you know, I keep going back to fundamentals and technique. We’ve got to go back to fundamentals and technique. We’ve got to be on the same page as a secondary, as a whole group. Even though we are split corners and safeties, we’re still as one working together as a group, and being the same page with communication and the calls and the checks and the different things like that.

“I think it’s going be really good. You’ll see a lot of improvement, just because they’re getting more individualized and specialized work, I believe.”

Story by Chris Graham


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