Virginia defense 'didn't show the improvement from week to week that we all anticipated'
Virginia defensive coordinator Jim Reid spent most of the past week on the road recruiting, and during that span he's had ample time to reflect on the showing of his unit during a season in which the Cavaliers finished 4-8 overall and 1-7 in ACC play.
Reid's conclusion: The defense did not fare well, which means he must become a better teacher of its principles.
In their first season since switching from a 3-4 base alignment to a 4-3 base alignment -- a move that prompted several defenders to switch positions -- the Cavaliers allowed 396.1 total yards per game, which ranked No. 10 in the conference and was 37.7 total yards per game more than Virginia gave up in 2009. The Cavaliers also allowed an average of nearly two points more per contest (28.2) and tallied four fewer turnovers (16) this season than they did during former Coach Al Groh's final campaign.
Reid said in a telephone interview Monday that he would not give himself a high evaluation on his performance during his first season in charge of Virginia's defense.
"I don't know that we would change anything other than the fact that if we'd have known (senior cornerback) Ras-I (Dowling) wasn't coming back, we might have changed a few things," Reid said. "Not dramatically. But a couple of areas. I think we evaluated our personnel correctly. I'd like to have a couple calls back, certainly. I think everybody would.
"When we do a good job, that means the players played well. When we don't do a good job, that means I need to do a better job, because I have great respect for our players because they really, really played hard the whole season long. So I need to do a better job getting them in the right spot at the right time."
At the season's outset, Dowling -- a two-time second team all-ACC performer -- and junior Chase Minnifield were expected to form a deft cornerback duo that would allow the Cavaliers to primarily employ pressing, man-to-man coverage on opposing wide receivers. So during training camp that's the type of coverage the team's cornerbacks prepared to play.
Then Dowling went down with a hamstring injury that forced him to sit out the first two games of the season. After playing in reserve against 1-AA Virginia Military Institute and Florida State, Dowling started against Georgia Tech. But then he suffered a left knee injury that would force him to miss all but three snaps of the following four contests. Dowling returned and started Nov. 13 against Maryland, but he fractured his left ankle during that game and sat out the final two weeks of the season.
In Dowling's absense, Virginia relied more heavily on sophomore cornerback Devin Wallace and senior cornerback Mike Parker.
"I think we might have done some schemes a little different had we known that we weren't going to have Ras-I," Reid said. "He's such a great talent, and when he pulled his hamstring, when he was injured, we always felt we were going to get him back the next week and then the next week. And then when we did get him back he injured himself again. We might have done some schemes a little bit different."
Reid said that in a circumstance such as the one Virginia experienced with Dowling frequently out of the lineup this season, ideally, a defense would switch from using mostly man-to-man and quarters schemes to relying more prevalently on "hard corner forces," in which the cornerbacks are responsible for covering the flats and funneling receivers toward the middle of the field.
However, making such a move would have significantly impacted the roles of the safeties and linebackers, as well, and given the inexperience of some of the primary players in those positions, Reid felt that might be too jarring of a shift in midseason. In hard corner force schemes, the linebackers run deeper in their coverage drops because they are responsible for protecting the middle of the field against the pass. The safeties, meantime, cover the areas above where the respective cornerbacks are situated on each side of the field.
"It sounds easy," Reid said. "Just have the corners come up and force the ball and play the flat. Well, that's good. Now the safeties have to play the half, which they're not used to doing, which we did, but not to a great extent in training camp and spring practice. And the linebackers have to take verticals deep because the safeties are in the half. And the run fits are a lot different in playing some of those schemes.
"You usually make a determination, 'Hey, we'd like to be this type of defense.' I chose to be the defense that we were, and that's how we ended up. But it affects a lot of other areas, too."
While Minnifield tallied six interceptions and was named a first team all-ACC performer this season, many other members of the secondary struggled with their assignments and in their tackling techniques.
Reid praised the collective job turned in by the team's defensive line, despite the fact Virginia was tied for No. 9 in the ACC in sacks (19).
As for Virginia's linebacking corps, Reid said the inexperience of sophomore outside linebackers LaRoy Reynolds and Ausar Walcott contributed to some of the issues the Cavaliers had in defending against the run. Reynolds and Walcott played as safeties prior to this season. Virginia ranked No. 105 in the nation in rushing defense (203.7 ypg allowed) this season.
"The frustrating part for everyone was we didn't show the improvement from week to week that we all anticipated, players and staff alike," Reid said. "We played hard, we played fast and we played detailed a great amount of time, and then when we lost our detail it really ended up to be tragic."
Indeed, giving up big plays was a frequent detriment -- often triggered by missed tackles -- to Virginia's defensive efforts this fall. During one three-game stretch in October, the Cavaliers gave up 19 scoring drives. And in 11 of those 19 scoring drives, the opposing offense executed at least one play that gained 25 or more yards.
Reid expects to see improvement in that regard next season, particularly from linebackers such as Reynolds and Walcott who will have a year of experience at their respective positions under their figurative belts.
"It's hard, because every week those guys have to face counter plays that you don't face in practice and that you haven't seen," Reid said. "Georgia Tech's triple-option. The read-zone option that Florida State ran. Those are all offenses that you don't see every week. So it's not a matter of just lining up and playing hard. We certainly did that. But it's a matter of having to change and see something different every week.
"It's not easy, and that's why we tried to stay as basic as we could to get the same reads. I thought they did an excellent job of doing the best that they could. Now we're going to take another step forward in spring ball and training camp."
Reid pointed out that Virginia's defenders will have the advantage during the coming spring practice of preparing more specifically to face some of the unique offenses that various ACC teams offer. Last spring and during a good portion of training camp, Reid said, players who were recruited to Virginia to play in a 3-4 defense were gaining a grasp of their responsibilities in the new 4-3 scheme.
"We were very young this year in a lot of spots, and we played very hard," Reid said. "Sometimes we played with discipline and detail, and other times we didn't. But I think we set a tone right now, pretty much, that we know what it's like to play hard, and we know what it's like to play with some success. We also know what it's like to play when we don't have success."