Will the nickel be Virginia’s base D this season?

uva footballVirginia, in its 43-0 season-opening win over William & Mary, went with the 3-3-5 as pretty much its base defense. Was that a sign of what Bronco Mendenhall wants to do on that side of the ball this season?

“One of the things that I learned early in my career is you put the best 11 players out on the field that match up best against any given opponent,” Mendenhall said. “And so, the more and more years that I coach, the more scheme and knowledge and options become available to then deploy or to use the existing best players that we have in our program against any given opponent. That was what you saw on Saturday.”

So, not necessarily, would be the answer, but against spread offenses, absolutely.

Illinois (1-1, 1-0 Big Ten) is a power running team, under first-year coach Bret Bielema, back in the Big Ten after a disastrous run in the SEC at Arkansas.

Think: Wisconsin, in terms of what Bielema wants to do, eventually, anyway.

Against W&M, which at least formation-wise seemed to want to spread the field, Virginia went nickel as the base, and because of the lopsided score, 10 guys got snaps in the secondary.

It was great seeing super senior Darrius Bratton (Pro Football Focus grade: 59.5) back out on the field for 33 snaps, after getting just 127 in all of 2020.

“Darrius is – he’s a young person of substance and maturity and diligence and consistency and humility, and all those qualities have grown because he’s battled through injury so much. He just keeps going. He’s smiling, and he’s always optimistic,” Mendenhall said.

“In terms of a football player, he’s very capable. He’s long and he’s fast and he has good ball skills and he’s a good tackler,” Mendenhall said. “Injuries have been in the way of, I think, most people seeing what he truly can do, and so I’m so hopeful for him that he’s able to stay healthy and kind of have the season that he would like and we’d like him to have, because as a person he’s just an amazing young man to be around and one of the most likable players or people that I’ve met. He’s remarkable.”

North Dakota State transfer Josh Hayes was not on the field for the opener, missing the contest with a lower leg injury.

His status: “recovering,” said Mendenhall.

“I still don’t have an exact time frame, or I would pass it on, but he is recovering, is on track,” Mendenhall said. “It looks like it’s just going to be a little longer than what we thought, but we’re still hopeful that he comes back and contributes this season, and certainly the beginning of the season.”

Nick Grant (PFF grade: 65.3), who played cornerback in 2020, got 37 snaps at strong safety in the opener, and is listed in the two-deep at safety again for Week 2.

Grant played safety early in his career, and is all for the change in his super senior season, the idea being, echoing Mendenhall, “just getting the best players on the field.”

“I started playing free safety in, like, the middle of fall camp, and kind of just learned it as I went, you know, watched the film from previous free safeties. We’ve had better, good, such as Joey (Blount), Quin (Blanding), and really, I just tried to learn from them. And you know, Joey’s playing right next to me, he helps me out on the field a lot. So, it hasn’t been too difficult.”

Mendenhall singled out junior safety Antonio Clary (PFF grade: 74.4, 29 snaps) and junior cornerback Fentrell Cyprus (PFF grade: 71.1, 30 snaps) for earning snaps in the loaded secondary unit.

“We have kind of three criteria that we talk about a lot: how durable are you, how consistent are you and how productive are you,” Mendenhall said. “Those two, from this fall camp all the way through our first game, have been – and unlike previous years where they’ve been hurt, so they have been there every day, and they have been very productive, and they’ve done it each day, and so they’ve built trust. That’s how you crack in is you build trust, and that comes from being durable and consistent and productive.”

Story by Chris Graham

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