Back UVA Secondary Stars Again

Back To ACC

UVA Secondary Stars Again

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
Follow us at Twitter.com/SouthernPigskin.  Become a fan at the SouthernPigskin.com Facebook Page

In their 28-14 win at Duke, Blue Devil quarterback Daniel Jones was intercepted twice for the first time this season, posted his lowest passer rating since the Virginia Tech game last year, and his lowest yard per attempt average since his 2017 game at Army.

Virginia’s secondary came through for the Cavs once again.

In their 28-14 win at Duke, Blue Devil quarterback Daniel Jones was intercepted twice for the first time this season, posted his lowest passer rating since the Virginia Tech game last year, and his lowest yard per attempt average since his 2017 game at Army.

Even factoring in the two games that Jones didn’t play, Duke had only thrown two interceptions over the entire first half of the year.

This, however, is nothing new for a UVA defense that entered the contest in the national top 20 in picks per game and the top ten in passes defensed.

Of course, pass defense is not just a measure of defensive back performance. The best pass defenses are cohesive, symbiotic units: a good pass rush coupled with strong coverage on the backend. The former has been effective, albeit less than elite, with a 6.6% sack rate before this game.

It was another big performance from that group, tallying four sacks and another two QB hurries on Jones. The sack total tied their high of the season.

Still, it has been the cornerback and safety play that has truly stood out.

Through week seven, the Cavaliers ranked first in the entire country in defensive back havoc rate -- passes defenses, tackles for loss, and forced fumbles per play.

They also ranked second in the FBS in passes defensed to incompletion ratio, indicating an extremely high level of playmaking.

Those six pass breakups against Duke tied their 2018 high, with cornerback Bryce Hall leading the way at three, including an interception.

Hall, really over the past two years, has been one of the ACC’s true hidden gems. The junior possesses the ideal combination of size and speed for a modern boundary corner, his length granting him significant advantages in press man. No corner in the league has as many passes defensed as he does at this point in the year.

His performance will not have been a surprise to those that have been paying attention for the past couple of seasons. Neither will Juan Thornhill’s. Thornhill, at strong safety, has spent some time at cornerback during his UVA career, due to some personnel attrition over the years, and has been better off for the experience.

One of the most versatile players on any field he steps on, he leads the team in tackles, adding another eight to his total this afternoon, is second in passes defensed, and also ranks in the top five in both tackles for loss and run stuffs.

Beyond those two, sophomore Joey Blount has allowed the fewest yards per play of any defensive back on the team. Darrius Bratton is in the top ten in the conference in passes defensed, and Brenton Nelson, similar to Thornhill, has followed up a stellar 2017 campaign with another multifaceted performance.

With this win, Virginia is arguably the favorite in the ACC Coastal, now. Virginia Tech is still unbeaten in conference play, but has games versus Boston College and Miami still on the schedule. Bronco Mendenhall’s group, on the other hand, will be favored in every remaining game, with the possible lone exception of what could be the de facto division championship against the Hokies, in Blacksburg, to close out the season.

Bryce Perkins has injected a new element into this offense that did not exist a year ago. The linebacking corps, with Jordan Mack and Chris Peace, alongside breakout stars like Charles Snowden and Zane Zandier, has been excellent. Yet, it is not a stretch to say that Virginia would not be in the position that is without arguably the most playmaking secondary in all of college football.

Expectations were not high for this team prior to the season, but on the legs of this campaign from the defensive backfield, coupled with some strides in other key facets of the game, Mendenhall has his program in a position to compete for the conference title faster than almost anyone could have projected.

If all goes according to plan, the future is brighter than it has been in years for the Cavaliers.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP