Virginia Football: Defense Looks to Carry Load Again

Ben GibsonSenior Analyst IJune 30, 2008

When Mike London stood up in front of a warm reception in Richmond, Va. to accept his position as head coach of the Spiders, Virginia Cavaliers fan could only wait anxiously as the search was on for a new defensive coordinator. 


The Cavaliers had a similar situation just a few years ago when former coordinator Al Golden took the head coaching job at Temple. 


London, a former Cavalier himself, was a perfect choice.  His passion and energy helped not only in motivating players but was a huge factor in recruiting top talent from the tidewater area. 


His replacement, however, knows a thing or two about recruiting as well.


Bob Pruett worked with Virginia head coach Al Groh down at Wake Forest University and, after they parted ways, Pruett went on to have tremendous success with Marshall University. 


It was under Pruett that Marshall made that often difficult task of moving up from Division I-AA to Division I-A, earning him a spot in the University's Hall of Fame.


He knows something about winning too, going 94-23 in his career. In 1999, just two years after Marshall joined the MAC, his team went undefeated and finished the year ranked 10th in the country. 


Pruett retired in 2005 but is now back in the game and ready to help Virginia back up a surprisingly strong 2007 record. 


If Virginia is to do just that, expect the defense to once again carry the load in 2008.


With an offense sometimes bordering on anemic it was the defense which time and time again led to Cavalier victories in 2007.


For example:


1. The deflection on a two-point conversion attempt by nose tackle Nate Collins against UNC to secure victory.


2.  Jeffrey Fitzgerald’s bizarre interception to score a touchdown against Georgia Tech.


3. Chris Long’s safety against Maryland that will remain one of the hardest hits in Cavalier history.


Clearly, the real play-makers for Virginia were on the defensive end.  The question is: will that still be true this season?


When one thinks of Virginia defense, undoubtedly one thinks about the 3-4 scheme Al Groh has kept since his days working with the Big Tuna himself, Bill Parcells. 


The defensive formation is increasingly rare in both the college and pro level.  It requires strong linebackers, something Virginia has become known for. 


This year’s cadre of linebackers includes Clint Sintim, who has started every game for the Cavaliers and finished last season third in tackles and the leading returner in sacks.


Sintim has an explosive first step, something he has worked on since coming to Virginia.  Last year, he hit the quarterback more times than his first two seasons combined.


Jon Copper has led the Cavaliers in tackles for the past two seasons and will be back to finish his career in style.  Copper’s experience and maturity will be two important factors for a relatively young front seven for Virginia.


These two men should be running towards a quarterback and a first team All-ACC list near you.  If they are successful, Copper and Sintim can help put pressure on the signal caller and play right into the hands of an increasingly experience secondary.


With the loss of Mike Brown last season and Chris Cook’s injury during the year Virginia had to truly embrace the motto: next man up.


Ras-I Dowling was one of those young freshman that saw increased playing time at cornerback and did not disappoint.  He tied the team lead for interceptions and showed Virginia fans an impressive combination of speed and brawn. 


Even though, like all cornerbacks, Dowling had his fair share of blown coverages, his progression throughout his first year leaves many fans to hope that he will turn continue to improve and grow into 2008.


The versatile Vic Hall also got a chance to show what he could do last season.  His impressive speed wowed many fans but his fumbles at punt returner and his lack of height also left many people scratching their heads.


Hall remains an example of the best and worst of head coach Al Groh’s coaching philosophy. 


While most coaches put their skill players at wide receiver, Groh tends to put his best athletes on the defensive side of the ball.


While this has certainly helped Virginia keep a perennially tough defense that is statistically near the top 25 all year long, it has left many wondering why Gretna’s record-breaking quarterback remains swatting footballs away rather than throwing them.


Even with the loss of Fitzgerald and Long, fans can expect a staunch defense that can power its way through most of the ACC competition.


Still, despite all the great defensive numbers Virginia has put up during Groh’s tenure, those numbers have meant nothing against their arch-rival.


Since Virginia last beat the Hokies in 2003, they have given up an average 31.5 points per game against the boys from Blacksburg.


Despite all their talent on defense, if Virginia cannot find a way to move the ball against other great defenses, they will continue to be mired against the top teams in the country. 


Next Time: We take a look at the schedule and try to predict how Virginia will fare in 2008.