The Virginia football team is coming off its first eight-win season since 2011 and a dominant performance in the Belk Bowl against South Carolina. Add to that the Cavaliers’ highest-rated recruiting class since 2014 and it’s easy to see how expectations in Charlottesville are at a level unmatched by any UVa football team in the past decade.
The unofficial transition from summer to fall begins Wednesday with ACC Media Days in Charlotte, North Carolina. Leading up to the event, we’re featuring 19 UVa players to watch in 2019. Some are familiar names. Some are new. All are expected to play massive roles in Virginia’s continued rebuild this season.
Bryce Hall emerged last season as one of the best cornerbacks in the nation and a potential first-round NFL Draft pick. This season, he’s focused on adding to his interception total and solidifying to pro scouts that he’s worthy of being one of the first 32 names announced next April. He is No. 2 in our countdown.
Tale of the tape
» Height: 6-1
» Weight: 200
» Hometown: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
» Last season: Hall was named an All-American by six different organizations, and was a first-team All-ACC pick after leading the nation with 22 pass breakups and tying for the lead with 24 passes defended. He also added 62 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions.
» Depth at the position: Hall will lock down the opposition’s top receiver again this season. The most likely candidates to start opposite him are junior Darrius Bratton and senior Nick Grant. Bratton started a couple games early last season before former Cavalier Tim Harris took over. Grant has mostly been a special teams contributor, but he took the bulk of the snaps this spring opposite Hall. Myles Robinson, who missed last season with a personal issue, and Germane Crowell, who was limited this spring with concussion symptoms, add some depth, but beyond Hall and Bratton there aren’t many experienced cornerbacks on the roster. Freshman Antonio Clary enrolled in January, and redshirt freshman Joseph White emerged last season as one of the Wahoos’ top scout team cornerbacks. Both are dark horse candidates for playing time.
» Number to know: 14. Last December in a 28-0 win in the Belk Bowl, Hall was part of a secondary that snapped South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley’s streak of 14 straight games with a touchdown pass and held him to his second-worst quarterback rating of his career.
» Outlook: With another season even close to last year’s, Hall will be the latest Virginia defensive back to hear his name called in the NFL Draft. His anticipation and ball skills aren’t matched by many in the ACC, or the country for that matter. He spent much of last season in off or zone coverage, but he’s nimble enough to cover quick underneath routes and his burst and fluid hips allow him to run with most receivers. His 134 career tackles (85 solo) also show he’s willing to step up and deliver a blow, which will go a long way with NFL scouts. Hall and safeties Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson are all returning starters. If a consistent defender emerges at the other corner, there’s no reason Virginia shouldn’t have one of the best secondaries in the ACC again this season.
In search of picks
Hall received a lot of first-round hype leading up to the 2019 NFL Draft, but one of the reasons he gave for returning for his senior season was to prove he can turn some of his many pass deflections into interceptions. Hall started seven games as a true freshman and all 26 contests the past two seasons, and he has five career interceptions. A few more this season will go a long way with pro scouts, and he has some ground to make up if he’s going to catch up with some of the most productive defensive backs in UVa history.
Hall needs five more interceptions to catch up with a group of former Cavaliers led by former safety Quin Blanding (2014-17). Anthony Poindexter (1995-98) left Grounds with 12 career picks, and Chase Minnifield (2008-11) and Juan Thornhill (2015-18) are tied for sixth with 13. Keith McMeans (1987-90) leads all former UVa defensive backs with 17, followed by Pat Chester (1978-81) with 16 and Ronde Barber (1994-96) with 15.
Top corners in the ACC
Hall enters his senior season as one of the best cornerbacks in the nation, not just the ACC, but who will be his top competition in the conference?
Trajan Bandy was part of a Miami secondary that led the ACC last season in pass defense, allowing just 135.6 yards a game. Virginia was second with 183. With three interceptions and two fumble recoveries, Bandy wore the Hurricanes’ turnover chain more than any other player.
Duke’s Mark Gilbert missed most of last season with a hip injury, but in 2017, he was a first team All-ACC pick after leading the conference in passes defended and finishing second in interceptions (6) and pass breakups (15).
Wake Forest’s Essang Bassey is a four-year starter, who finished third on the team last season with 74 tackles and broke up 15 passes. Clemson’s A.J. Terrell earned some notoriety with a pick-six against Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa in the national championship game and finished in the top five in the conference in interceptions, and both he and Pittsburgh’s Dane Jackson look like top-end NFL Draft picks.