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5 questions about UVa's 2014 defense

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Posted: Monday, August 4, 2014 12:00 am

Countdown to Camp: Virginia will officially kick-off its 2014 season tonight with its first practice outside the McCue Center. The Cavaliers are coming off a 2-10 campaign and have a bevy of questions that need answered as the Aug. 30 opener against UCLA approaches. Today, we look at the storylines involving the UVa defense.

1. With nine starters back, can this group become dominant?

After April’s spring game featured all of 20 points, four interceptions and nine sacks, Virginia head coach Mike London simply noted: “I believe we can be pretty good defensively.”

Many pieces are in place here. There’s a secondary headlined by an All-American in Anthony Harris, who could have blue chipper Quin Blanding as his safety mate. Senior linebackers Henry Coley and Daquan Romero led the Cavaliers in tackles last season and sophomore Max Valles, the expected strong-side starter, has the potential to break out this season after showing serious flashes as a rookie (see 2.5 sacks at Pittsburgh). The line’s first four — Mike Moore, David Dean, Donte Wilkins, Eli Harold — is strong and the second unit, which includes the likes of highly touted freshman Andrew Brown and returning senior Chris Brathwaite, isn’t bad, either.

This should all bode well for Jon Tenuta, the coordinator in his second year at UVa who hasn’t had a defense hold a team under 24 points per game since he was linebackers coach at N.C. State in 2010.

During ACC Kickoff in Greensboro last month, Harris admitted the Cavs were perhaps a step slower at this point last year, still trying to figure out Tenuta’s aggressive scheme.

Now more comfortable, maybe this can be a truly dominant side.

2. After eight interceptions in 2013, what’s next for All-American safety Anthony Harris?

Anthony Harris made one interception in his first two seasons as a Cavalier. Then came 2013 and — boom — he’s sitting atop the country in picks with eight.

Give some credit to Jon Tenuta and some to the maturation process of Virginia’s top defensive player. Known for his relentless tape study, Harris constantly was finding the right spots to be in on the field.

A repeat performance of eight INTs will be quite the challenge. After all, Harris is a bit of a marked man now. But it’s not like he’s alone in UVa’s secondary. Quarterbacks have to deal with the experienced Demetrious Nicholson and Maurice Canady at corners as well as some combination of Quin Blanding and Brandon Phelps at free safety.

Harris will likely still get chances. The senior returned to Virginia this season after filing paperwork for the NFL Draft Advisory Board and receiving a late third round grade.

So what’s left to boost his pro stock?

“[I want to get] stronger, faster, just increase my knowledge of the game,” said the listed 6-foot-1, 190-pounder, “because when you reach that level, there’s separation.”

3. A likely starter in 2014, can defensive end Mike Moore be enough of a force to keep pressure off Eli Harold?

Eli Harold’s lasting impression on the 2013 season was a spectacular three-sack performance against Virginia Tech, the most sacks by any Cavalier in a game since 2008. The junior’s a trendy pick to gain All-ACC honors as he works to become one of the league’s most dominant pass-rushers.

But that attention launches Harold onto the top of many teams’ scouting reports. Defensive end Jake Snyder played a solid counterpart to Harold last season, finishing fourth on the team in tackles with 55, including 7.5 for loss.

Now that task likely falls to Mike Moore, a junior who has all of 30 career tackles and two sacks in his career.

A positive for UVa is Moore was one of three recipients of the Rock Weir Award for most improved players during spring drills.

“Mike’s got a chance to step up and be a significant contributor — and I know he wants to do that,” London said in Greensboro. “I believe his work ethic now has matched his want-to and his desire.”

The hope is that can lead to more 1-on-1 opportunities for Harold.

4. What kind of impact will the highly touted duo of Andrew Brown and Quin Blanding make as freshmen?

This five-star 757 twosome created some needed buzz for the UVa football program when they stuck with their commitments last recruiting season despite the Cavaliers’ struggles.

Now, the rookies have the opportunity to put their paper talents to the field.

Despite missing the last half of spring practice with turf toe, the early enrollee Brown still got a co-starting nod on Virginia’s post-spring depth chart. Assuming his health is back to full strength, the 6-4, 300-pounder should battle hard with Donte Wilkins for the defensive tackle spot next to David Dean.

Brown was the 2013 National Gatorade Player of the Year after he made 93 tackles and 18 sacks as a senior at Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake.

Blanding is a Bayside product who was a consensus top-10 high school player in the country. Despite being rarely thrown at, the 6-4, 210-pounder still made 118 tackles.

Returning at free safety is Brandon Phelps, but London is open to giving Blanding a shot at taking the spot.

Blanding’s already made an impression on Anthony Harris, who called the rookie a “very bright guy.”

5. What does having a healthy Demetrious Nicholson back mean for this defense?

Demetrious Nicholson’s 2013 season ended Oct. 5 against Ball State when he suffered turf toe.

From that point on, the Cavaliers gave up over 260 passing yards per game. Nicholson’s absence gave a quick education to Tim Harris, a freshman corner who took his lumps being on an island against some of the ACC’s top receivers, Clemson’s Sammy Watkins among them.

Beneficial to Virginia a year later is experience for Harris plus the return of Nicholson. There’s some serious depth in this secondary.

Having Nicholson back means the Wahoos have a senior with 30 career starts and three interceptions under his belt. He’s expected to be back in his shutdown role, which remains key in Tenuta’s aggressive system that routinely leaves corners in 1-on-1 situations.

It also gives the whole group an added sense of security.

“He’s a guy who I don’t necessarily have to do much communication with because we’re on the same page,” said Anthony Harris, “we’re seeing the same things versus having a younger guy who’s only had a few games under his belt, I’ll have to do more communicating with.

“So having Tra’ over there, he’s a guy I can kind of turn my back on for a play or two and know he’s secure over there and different stuff like that.”

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