October 1, 2014

Identity.

[Note before we begin: Don't miss this week's podcast!]



Yep, the Hoos now have a fingerprint.


A funny thing happened through the first five games of this season.  While Mike London hasn't saved his job [yet], his team is doing something I've been waiting five long years to see -- it is forging an identity.  And really, that's all I've ever wanted.  A team that wins more than it loses, a team that puts forth a solid effort every game, a clean program, and a program that appears to be methodically building an identity and then building upon established strengths in an effort to improve its win-loss fortunes.

Here are five fragile, presently-forming components of the identity of Virginia Football, as I see it...


Blitzkrieg!
A Tenuta defense is going to blitz.  It is going to blitz, and put pressure on the quarterback.  It's going to blitz, pressure the passer, and generate turnovers.  That's the whole premise of the defensive system -- forcing the issue, pushing the envelope.  The blitz is a big part of that.

Why It's Good: It generates turnovers and eats inexperienced and skittish quarterbacks alive.  (And you might note that inexperienced, skittish quarterbacks are the norm in college football.)  Look at the star turn currently being enjoyed by Eli Harold and Max Valles.  Thank Tenuta and his blitz-friendly defense!

Tenuta gon' blitz.

Why It Sucks: If you blitz a lot, you leave big portions of the field exposed.  Good quarterbacks (or average QBs enjoying really good pass protection) can attack this type of defense to great effect.  You'll hear the word "gash" used a lot when you see it happen.  A blitz-happy defense is a risk-taking defense, and the inherent danger of taking risks is leaving yourself exposed against teams less talented than you.  FOR EXAMPLE, look at what Ball State's Keith Wenning did to Tenuta's defense last season.  Look at what Richmond's Michael Strauss was doing to our defense before he started throwing INTs.  Anyway, there's an easy counter to this style of defense --- quick passing, and/or slamming the ball right at these pass rushers with a powerful running game.

In the Pipeline: Jon Tenuta is really good at identifying the kind of raw, under-recruited kids that he can mold into master blitz artists and edge rushers.  Max Valles is the perfect example, and he's only a sophomore.  Currently in the hopper, we also have blitzy talents hand-picked by Tenuta in [redshirting freshmen] Caanan Brown, Chris Peace, J.J. Jackson, Darrious Carter, and Cory Jones, and incoming recruits Rasool Clemons, Gladimir Paul, Christopher Sharp, and Kareem McDonald.  If you follow UVA football recruiting at all, you've no doubt noticed that any 6-4, 220-pound, 3-star athlete who plays basketball and also shows some pass rush instincts on the football field has been recruited hard by the Hoos.  Tenuta mines these raw talents, then refines them into pass rush / edgebending blitzmonsters.  It's a lot easier to beat out schools like UConn or Temple for a talent like Gladimir Paul than it is to combat Florida State and Alabama for more traditional pass rush defensive ends.  I like this system because it is easy to sustain thanks to the talent acquisition economy.

Long, lean, lanky Cory Jones is the prototype
of the new breed of Virginia pass rush specialists.

The Verdict: My main thing with the Tenuta blitzkrieg defense is that IT IS FUN TO WATCH.  Football is entertainment.  Sometimes it doesn't have to be any more complicated or cerebral than that.  Sacks are fun, turnovers and big plays are fun.  So what if the defense leaves us exposed and we end up laying a big, stinky turd on occasion?  The other times, when it's working, it's a blast.  And when you blitz all the time, I think it becomes easier to recruit the pass rushers you need to blitz more.  It's an easily sustainable model.  The system snowballs to success.  Everywhere he's been, Tenuta's next defense always was better than his previous one.  There's a reason for that.  So the verdict is... I love it!  When teams face Virginia, they know they're going to be attacked by a blistering blitz.  This is an identity Hoofans can really sink their teeth into.  BRING ON THE BLITZKRIEG!


Takeaways
Generating turnovers is the lifeblood of a blitz-happy defense.  It changes momentum in our favor, and it sets up a short field for an ultra-conservative offense.  Want to know why we're having some success this season?  We've forced 18 turnovers across five games (3.6/game), and are +5 in turnover differential on the season.  We're 5th nationally in forcing turnovers.

See also: Mo Canady's pick six against Kent State.

Why It's Good: This is not rocket science.  You stop the opposing offense, halt their momentum, and give yourself possession of the football.  We've scored 65 points off of turnovers this season, which is 13 points per game... basically two touchdowns.

Why It Sucks: It doesn't suck.  Nothing about generating turnovers is bad.  Well, maybe the risks you take in attempting to produce those takeaways... but even that's a stretch.

The Verdict: I absolutely love the idea of Virginia being known as a team that will come at you with a hyper-aggressive pass rush, and take the ball away.  {Back in the '90s, we had an absurdly long streak of consecutive games with an interception, and that was great.  I'd love to see us get back to something like that.  BYU didn't turn the ball over against us, but Kent State did (5 times).  So our current streak is ONE game forcing a turnover... and counting...}


Roll the Nickels
Not sure if you've noticed, but we've been running the nickel defense (4 down linemen, 2 linebackers, 2 safeties, 3 cornerbacks) a lot this season.  In fact, I'd dare say the nickel has become our de facto base defense.

Tra Nicholson's path to the NFL is to succeed as a nickelback, covering the slot.
He'll get a chance to showcase that specific skillset down the stretch this season.

Why It's Good: Better at stopping the pass, more coverage players on the field, more speed, more exciting and unpredictable blitz opportunities.

Why It Sucks: Easier to run against, specifically susceptible to power-based running games.

In the Pipeline: It's long been a beef of mine that Mike London has over-recruited defensive backs (while woefully under-recruiting the offensive line), but now we know what that leads/led to --- running a shitload of nickel!  Currently, we have 14 defensive backs on the roster, which is a lot.  At least four more will join the program as part of the 2015 recruiting class.  The cupboard is stocked.

The Verdict: The nickel carries inherent strengths and weaknesses, but with the proliferation of spread offenses in today's college game, it makes a lot of sense to build and maintain a formidable nickel defense.  As long as we continue to recruit guys who can run and cover, guys who can edge rush and blitz, and (maybe most importantly) safeties who can come up and hit, it'll work.  Someday soon, the nickel could be the Orange Crush's calling card.  It's a modern defense to combat modern offenses.


Power Wides
We haven't recruited tight ends, we haven't recruited speedy sideline-scorching wideouts... but we've recruited plenty of big bodies at the wide receiver position.  These guys aren't fast, but they are athletic leapers who are big enough and strong enough to help block for the running game while offering good possession-passing targets and working as red zone warriors.  I'd say Canaan Severin, Andre Levrone, and Kyle Dockins -- all 6-2 or 6-3 and 210 pounds -- are UVA's new prototype at the wide receiver position.

Why It's Good: I mentioned it all, above.  They're big and can challenge smaller (read: faster) defensive backs with sheer size and strength.  They can also do some positive things when blocking those DBs... and also the occasional linebacker... in the running game.  In a way, power wides can eliminate the need for a traditional in-line tight end while at the same time spreading the field with more pure passing game firepower.  (Think Jake McGee's hybrid role before he ditched out for Florida.  It's the wave of the future in football - Brandon Marshall / Alshon Jeffery, Vincent Jackson / Mike Evans - and we're kind of ahead of that curve here at Virginia.)

Kyle Dockins and Co. trade off speed for size...
and it seems to be working!

Why It Sucks: A lack of downfield speed.  So with power wides, we might be able to stretch defenses horizontally, but rarely vertically.  Also, big plays in the passing game will simply be fewer and further between.  Power wides sets up a ball control, possession-style passing game, and doesn't allow for any deviation.  If we ever need to complete a few long bombs in order to play catch up, we're sunk.

In the Pipeline: Severin (Jr.), Levrone (RS Fr.), Dockins (So.), and [6-3, 210] Keeon Johnson (So.) still have a few years at UVA. [6-1, 215] Doni Dowling is getting playing time as a true freshman.  [6-2, 210] Jamil Kamara is also playing as a frosh.  Our one incoming WR recruit, David Eldridge, is a 6-1 possession receiver with the frame to add more muscle mass.  I'd say power wides is here to stay.

The Verdict: Ball control offense is not *MY* personal preference, feeling that it's next to impossible for a school like Virginia (way down the elite recruit foodchain) to perform talent acquisition at the level needed to find and sustain success.  I think UVA would be better served by employing an offense with vertical spread fundamentals, which can more easily elevate 3-star recruits into 4-star caliber players.  But hey, power wides... at least it's an ethos.  And being able to block for running plays and post up smaller defenders in the red zone are very useful qualities to put on the field.  The fact that the NFL is migrating toward bigger / badder wideouts is reason to smile about this particular identity taking root at Virginia.


RBBC
My fellow fantasy football nerds will recognize the acronym for "Running Back By Committee."  Consider this: 167 carries for 673 yards and 6 touchdowns thru five games; if you combined our four running backs (KP, Smoke, Khalek Shepherd, and Daniel Hamm) into one player, he'd be the #5 rusher in the country right now (despite our iffy o-line).  I think RBBC is how the Virginia backfield will be configured for the forseeable future, and thus, I think it's a safe bet that this identity is here to stay.

You could even see the RBBC taking shape in prior seasons...

Why It's Good: Keeps legs fresh, keeps defenses off-balance by throwing changeups and curveballs, and allows the flexibility to "ride the hot hand."  As long as the backs are mostly complementary in nature (i.e. a grinder, a true hammer of a power back, a speed merchant, a wiggly east-west runner, a sure-handed receiving back, etc., all working in concert) it can really lead to a lot of success.  Five cellos is a honky, sqwonky mess... but a cello, a violin, a clarinet, a tuba, and a flute, well, that's a fucking orchestra making beautiful music!

Why It Sucks: RBBC makes it harder for any single runner to really get in a groove, and it necessitates the use of more scholarships at the position.

In the Pipeline: KP and Shep graduate after this season, but power back LaChaston Smith should be ready for some carries in 2015.  Plus, current redshirt Jordan Ellis has bellcow potential, and incoming recruit Olamide Zaccheaus is an explosive scatback prospect.  Look for a Smoke / Hamm / Smith / Ellis backfield in 2015, and add O-Zac into the mix for 2016.  COMMITTEE-BOOM!

The Verdict: RBBC is a cool identity, because it allows a run-first team to really do a lot of different things with a stable of different, complementary workhorses.  I don't have much faith in a lot of what Steve Fairchild does, but history shows that he's really good at managing a committee backfield.

I can't wait to see the dynamic, explosive O-Zac added to our RBBC orchestra.


So yeah, I see some identity taking shape, and I like it.  Where Mike London's system and scheme was once a sloppy, shapeless gelatinous blob, with no sense of conviction or direction, it is now clear that the London-led Hoos will blitz, will live or die by generating takeaways, will use a lot of nickel, will employ power wideouts, and roll with a running back by committee.  It's an ethos!

Beat Pitt, get to 4-2... and the Countdown Clock comes down, as does the "Hire This Man" pic.

GO HOOS.


4 comments:

  1. Good commentary, I agree with you 100% on that emphasis. I hope it's on purpose, and not just by default. But I like it, especially the RBBC option. Hopefully I won't eat my words on Sunday, but I suspect we'll win if we can shut down Pitt's Conner because he's their one big do-all back. When you can game plan against just one person like that, it makes it easier to do. When you have several, then it's harder, there's more wrinkles, etc.

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  2. Great article! Really well done!

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  3. Strong article. I agree that I love the idea of having some kind of signature to hang your hat on. And I think this defense could be fun to watch for years to come. And presumably, a fun to watch team will put more butts in the seats

    My only point of contention is with your RBBC section. My concern with the system is the transparency that comes with subbing players in and out depending on their usage. This may be more of a Fairchild issue than an issue with the style itself, I am not sure. But for example, every time Smoke is in I feel like he is going to get the ball, either in the flat or on a screen, and defenses are starting to key into that. Just shouting my opinions into the void.

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