There are no gray areas when it comes to Jon Tenuta, except the long locks of hair that jut out from underneath his coach’s cap. That gray is 32 years of football knowledge barking in your ear to get it right.
Watching Tenuta work conjures echoes of old school game and Lombardi doctrine but with a twist of modern-day pigskin mixed with ancient gridiron tenets. He’s a private man who declines opportunities to thump his chest over his successes, but is thrilled to return to his alma mater, where his football was most influenced by Dick Bestwick assistants Dick Lage and Dave Braine, and where he met his wife, Dori, a Virginia basketball letterwinner.
He coaches hard, doesn’t hesitate to step on toes, but busts his rump to put the best defense possible on the field, something that Cavaliers coach Mike London loves, as does associate head coach Tom O’Brien, who was Tenuta’s boss at N.C. State the past three years.
London is banking on his new defensive coordinator to elevate Virginia’s play on that side of the ball with, shall we say, a more hostile brand of football. You want aggressive? Tenuta will show you aggressive, as in the kind of defense that converted O’Brien’s ex-Wolfpackers from the bottom to the top of the ACC in turnovers in one year’s time.
Along the way he just might get a little loud, a bit passionate, maybe even a little blue.
“When [Tenuta] first came here, he kind of scared me a little bit,” Cavaliers’ defensive end Eli Harold smiled. “I went to Coach Dex [Anthony Poindexter] and said, ‘I don’t know if I can play for this guy … he’s in my ear all the time, cursing at me, blessing me out.”
Linebacker Daquan Romero said it was like playing for his old high school coach Bill Dee.
“They both curse up a storm, they both yell at you and I love it,” Romero said. “I like the aggressiveness and energy he brings. That’s football. That’s the way it should be.”
London can’t help but chuckle about Tenuta’s nature. On the first day of open practices this season, when fans were allowed to attend, London was the only person on the field that noticed the silence: players’ grunts, an occasional whistle, and Tenuta’s unmistakable booming voice.
“I gotta tell our managers to blast some music out here or else those fans are going to hear everything Jon says,” London said.
Hey, it’s not all R-rated. In fact, Tenuta’s comments are sometimes hilarious, bringing a grin to everyone on the field, like the time he got into one of his players for not putting out.
“Hey, you want to go over there and hang out at the lemonade stand with [injured tight end Jake] McGee?” Tenuta growled.
The players welcome his tough love, knowing the purpose is to make them better. How much better and how soon is the unknown.
“The situation we’re in right now is that Jon’s trying to put his memory bank into those kids on defense,” O’Brien said. “They don’t understand it now. They can’t get the whole picture yet, but that’s where they’re going to grow and get better as the year goes on because he’s going to be able to say to them, ‘Remember in this game, this is what happened and this is what we went to?’ and they’re going to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I got it.’”
Tenuta has the answers to practically anything that arises. It’s a matter of how fast he can incorporate his knowledge as to when this defense really “gets it.”
Certainly his squad will be tested right out of the gate with BYU and Oregon coming to town. BYU, with an entirely revamped offensive staff and system, is expected to bring the influence of Rich Rodriguez’s spread from Arizona (Michigan, West Virginia) that once terrorized the ACC when he was Tommy Bowden’s offensive coordinator at Clemson. Oregon, well, is Oregon. The Ducks boast one of the nation’s most high-octane offenses. How does 49.5 points and 537 yards of offense per game strike you?
Tenuta’s not sweating. He’s digested miles of game film, coached against the Pistol when Colin Kaepernick was at Nevada, seen it all, analyzed the spread with blurry eyes.
“A lot of it is still option football, Wing-T football,” Tenuta said. “These guys haven’t reinvented football. They just have taken what some people have done in the past and added it to their packages.
“You still can’t wait for what happens … you have to make something happen,” Tenuta said.
Some observers of the game believe the only way to negate the spread offenses is to disrupt their timing and if there’s a master of that tactic, it would be Tenuta, who has served as defensive coordinator at Ohio State, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame and others, learning from legends like Packers great Forrest Gregg during the rebuilding of SMU’s “Death Penalty” program, or from longtime mentor Dale Lindsay, a veteran of the NFL and CFL and still head coach at the University of San Diego at age 70.
O’Brien knows Tenuta’s system works. He tried to hire him for years before they finally linked up in Raleigh. While the defensive guru has a reputation for pressure, O’Brien knows the secret.
“It’s the illusion he creates, the illusion of constant pressure,” O’Brien said. “Back when I was coaching the offensive line, my lineman would say he blocked his guy, but I would tell him he was only two inches away from our quarterback and our quarterback felt that pressure. You can say it wasn’t pressure but in our quarterback’s mind it was pressure.”
Virginia fans are anxious to see an attacking style of defense, one that forces turnovers, produces sacks and creates havoc.
“When I was back at my old high school at Ocean Lakes to watch a recruiting showcase, Coach O’Brien happened to be there too,” Harold said. “He whispered into my ear that Tenuta was the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Wahoo fans are hoping that, too.