Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins put it best. “Fall camp is all about moving up and down the depth chart.”
After Thursday’s sixth practice of fall camp, head coach Bronco Mendenhall updated a key position battle, No. 2 cornerback. A group of defensive backs with limited experience are competing to start opposite Bryce Hall, whose 22 pass breakups from last season are going to scare most quarterbacks away from his side of the field.
After starting five games last season while former Cavalier Tim Harris was still on the mend, junior Darrius Bratton was the favorite to win the job this offseason. Mendenhall said as much Thursday, but Bratton has missed the past three days with a hamstring injury and Mendenhall didn’t have a timetable for his return.
Meanwhile junior Nick Grant and sophomore Germane Crowell are gaining ground, and on Thursday, Mendenhall threw a couple of new names into the mix. He said sophomore Heskin Smith is competing with the leaders of the pack and redshirt freshman Jaylon Baker isn’t far behind.
“It’s so close right now,” Mendenhall said. “Our secondary has a lot of depth, and on any given day it’s hard to say who is who out there.”
Smith (5-11, 175) played wide receiver and quarterback and returned kicks at Brunswick High School in Georgia, and he was a four-star recruit, according to ESPN. Baker (6-2, 170) played cornerback and wide receiver at Baylor High School in Tennessee. He came in as a consensus three-star prospect and redshirted last season after not appearing in any games.
Grant is entering his fourth year in the program but the majority of his game experience has come on special teams.
Crowell began the past two seasons as a contributor on special teams, but he ended both on injured reserve. He missed the final eight games last fall and was held out of spring ball because of complications from a concussion.
Smith saw some action late last season on special teams, but Bratton is the only member of the group who has started a game. With former defensive back Juan Thornhill gone, he is taking on more of a leadership role in the secondary.
“Everybody in the DB’s room is pushing to make the team better,” Bratton said. “Juan was a great leader, but this year, we’ve come in with a whole different mindset that we’re going to push and build and be better than we were a year ago.”
Last season, Virginia’s 17 interceptions were the second most in the ACC, behind only Boston College and Syracuse, both of which finished with 20.
Thornhill, a safety, accounted for six of the Cavaliers’ picks, while Hall and Harris snagged two each.
The rest of the cornerbacks on the roster are awaiting their first career interception. Despite a clear lack of experience, Bratton thinks the secondary can actually be better than it was last season.
“We’re all pushing each other every day, and we all know what we’re working for,” Bratton said. “We have a lot of great players, and we know how good we can be.”