Thursday, August 04, 2011
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Cavaliers’ defense taking on challenge

VIRGINIA DATES TO REMEMBER

  • Open practices: Public invited to watch the team’s first five practices on the fields behind the McCue Center — Friday through Tuesday. All are scheduled to begin at 3:50 p.m.
  • First game: Saturday, Sept. 3, vs. William and Mary, at Scott Stadium, 6 p.m.

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Every statistical indicator and every football instinct begs for the simplification of Virginia's defense. That's the conventional approach to take in this sport.

Making too many mental mistakes? Well, then scale back the schemes. Lighten that intellectual load.

Guys aren't sure where they're supposed to be? Fine, then forget about adding new stuff. Get the positioning right on your base defense before all else.

Too many running plays turning into big gains? Sounds like you need to preach tackling fundamentals. A couple of smashmouth weeks in the August heat should fix that.

Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Here's the thing, though: This is not what UVa plans to do.

And it's actually kind of cool.

See, UVa defensive coordinator Jim Reid has this theory. With the benefit of hindsight, he's decided that last year's defense faltered not because the players were overburdened -- the common explanation for struggles under a new system. It's not because they were unequipped to make the mental adjustments required when switching alignments from a three-man front to a 4-3.

Just the opposite, in fact.

"I think I have to make it more challenging for them," Reid said. "I'm not sure simplifying things is the answer with this crowd. You're not at Virginia because you're simple. You're at Virginia because you've worked hard to come to a special, special place.

"We've got to make our defense special."

Will it work? I have no idea. This is August. All talk sounds good in August. You could say you plan to run the punt-block formation on every down, and there's no evidence to call it a failure.

But on a certain level, Reid's train of thought has a lot of potential. The Wahoos need an identity. And at a school that prides itself on academic excellence, what better identity to aspire to than that one?

Reid's new message is that no amount of schemes should be too difficult for these guys to master.

"Sometimes if you try to simplify a little bit too much, there's not that stimulus to always be thinking ahead and knowing technique," Reid said. "It's like 'Here we go. Quarters coverage again.' ... We made some drastic and dramatic mistakes being very, very simple.

"So we're going to continue to add to the defensive schemes, and we're going to challenge our players mentally to stay on track to perform well."

The first step in this process was reviewing last year's defense, which ranked 106th out of 120 Division I-A teams against the run. Reid charted the play-by-play and says he found that of the 480 running plays Virginia defended against last season, 67 went for 10 yards or more.

The ones that didn't go 10-plus averaged a shade under three yards a pop -- a very nice number. The others? A whopping 21.6 yards apiece.

"When we broke down, we broke down dramatically," Reid said.

So he had a video spliced together of all the bad plays. The defense gathered several times this offseason to watch it.

"All 67 of 'em," linebacker Steve Greer said. "It's not a real positive feeling when you're watching it."

But in the end, Greer liked the experience. He finally realized how close they'd been to shutting down those plays, and how little would be required to change their fate.

The Cavs plan to fix those errors while implementing new tactics as well. Reid introduced his players to some different defensive fronts and coverages in the spring that they'll build on as their Sept. 3 opener against William and Mary approaches.

Linebacker LaRoy Reynolds is all for Reid's epiphany.

"We need to challenge other teams in different ways," he said. "Throw what we really have at them. Throw our entire playbook at them if we have to."

Simple as that.

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