GREENSBORO, N.C. – Didn’t take Virginia’s All-American safety Anthony Harris long to size up his new defensive coordinator, Jon Tenuta, last year. It took Tenuta even less time to figure out Harris.
“I realized that [Tenuta] was a very high energy guy and was going to be very vocal,” Harris said Sunday afternoon at the 2014 ACC Football Kickoff event at Grandover Resort.
For those Wahoo fans familiar with Tenuta, Harris’ analysis of his new boss probably took about 15 seconds. After all the barking and ranting, the then-junior defensive back discovered something much more interesting about UVa’s associate head coach for defense.
“Once we sat down and started talking X’s and O’s, I realized that the guy was pretty much a genius,” Harris said of Tenuta. “I wanted to absorb as much as I could.”
That’s pretty much what the 2013 football season was about in Charlottesville -- absorption.
During Virginia’s training camp last August, Tom O’Brien said that Tenuta was a brilliant defensive mind. The biggest challenge would be how long it would take for the Cavaliers’ players to learn from their new defensive master.
From an outsider’s view, it might appear that it took those players most of the season. Virginia finished No. 65 nationally in total defense (403.6 yards per game), 98th in scoring defense (33.2 ppg), 67th in passing defense (232.9), and 74th in rushing defense (170.7), all numbers that likely kept Tenuta up at night.
All the news wasn’t bad. The Cavaliers were second in the ACC (11th nationally) in first downs allowed (18.83), third in the ACC (eighth nationally) in third down conversions-defense (32 percent), and 39th nationally in quarterback sacks with 28.
Oh, and Harris led the nation in interceptions with eight, the most in a single season by a Wahoo since Ronde Barber in 1994. Yeah, that guy.
Tenuta, who makes no attempt at disguising his appraisal of players, and often will voice those thoughts clear across the practice field, rarely compliments. Harris, affectionately known as “Ant” to some of his colleagues, is an exception.
The defensive guru will often say something like “Harris gets it,” which is high praise coming from a guy who has coached NFL stars.
From Day One, we’ve all recognized that Harris, who hails from Lloyd C. Bird High School in Chesterfield, owned a high football IQ. His success doesn’t come strictly from that intelligence. At 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, he’s a physical player as well with a nose for the pigskin.
He went five consecutive games with a pick last season, was also fifth in the league with 1.2 passes defended per game and finished in the conference’s top 25 in overall tackles with 6.7 per game (80 tackles, one sack). He also made a key punt block in UVa’s upset of BYU last season, earning him the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week.
Maybe that’s why Harris’ name is on practically every possible national defensive award watch list heading into the season. Bednarik, yep. Bronko Nagurski, you betcha. Jim Thorpe, too, and Walter Camp.
All the hype has not gone to his head. Instead, it has set his bar higher, revealed to him the potential and caused him to focus and work even that much harder. He knows he can get better.
“I watch a lot of film,” said Harris, who already can tell you the shoe size and other pertinent information of UCLA’s quarterback. “I physically critique myself. I work with (UVa fifth-year corner) Tre’ Nicholson and other guys who play out on the island so that I can improve my man-to-man technique.”
And, Harris said, he does a lot of listening. Yes, listening, something that every athlete should do more of.
That’s where Tenuta and brand new UVa safeties coach, Mike Archer, come into play. Archer was O’Brien’s defensive coordinator at N.C. State and Tenuta was Archer’s linebackers coach. Before that, Archer had spent some time coaching the Pittsburgh Steelers linebackers and before that was head coach at LSU and before that was on Howard Schnellenberger’s national championship staff at Miami.
You get the picture.
“I want to know where Coach Archer came from,” Harris grinned. “I want to see birth certificates ‘cause I’m trying to figure out if Archer and Tenuta are related because they’re pretty much the same person. Same personality. There are times when Archer comes over and tells me stuff and then a few minutes later Tenuta comes over and tells me the same things. But it’s nice to have two guys on the same page and relaying the same message to the players.”
The UVa senior, who has been recognized for academic achievements as well as football, said he’s already learned some new things from Archer.
So, back to this absorption thing.
“At this point last year, guys were feeling their way, guys were playing conservatively, a step slower,” Harris said of the Cavaliers attempting to learn Tenuta’s defensive system. “This year we know [Tenuta’s] terminology, what he’s looking for.”
The absorbed knowledge allowed Tenuta to add some things, change some others and even dabble with some personnel experiments this past spring, which should make Virginia’s gambling defense more effective this fall.
Consider that the Cavaliers have 15 players with starting experience on defense, six of them in the secondary with Harris, Nicholson, Brandon Phelps, Drequan Hoskey, Maurice Canady and Tim Harris, in addition to the nation’s No. 1 safety recruit, Quin Blanding of Virginia Beach’s Bayside High.
Harris said that not only do he and his teammates know their assignments better this year, but have expanded to knowing one another’s assignments so that should he or someone need to cover someone else’s back on a certain play, they’re capable of doing so.
In addition, all of these guys have been through the battles. Some of them tasted the bowl scene a few years ago and have now tasted a two-win season without a win in the ACC.
“The guys on our defense have played a lot of football,” Harris said. “We know adversity is going to hit from time to time and we know how to handle it.”
Exactly how the Cavaliers handle such matters will have a direct bearing on Coach Mike London’s future status.
More on that today when the ACC’s 14 head coaches meet media head on at the ACC Kickoff.