UVA defensive resurgence about 'the Jimmys and the Joes'
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 SPORTS) -- On the surface one of the few changes between one of the worst defenses in college football to one of the leading units for Virginia was new defensive coordinator John Rudzinski, but the resurgence goes deeper than just a scheme change.
"It doesn't matter with the plays," UVA head coach Tony Elliott said, "It's about the Jimmys and the Joes, not the X's and O's."
Through four games, the Cavaliers rank fifth in the ACC in scoring defense (19.3 points allowed per game), averaging nearly half of what they did a year ago. Rudzinski has come in and put together a sound scheme, which frees players up to make plays, but this group is motivated by their past shortcomings.
"I feel like it's not too much about the scheme, it's more about just everyone coming together after what you did last year I feel like was a great impact on our offseason training and it just keeps bleeding into what we're doing now," junior linebacker Hunter Stewart said, "I feel like the push is just we know what we could do."
When Rudzinski first stepped on the field with the UVA defense in the spring, the focus was on fundamentals and sound tackling. The return to the basics continued throughout the summer and has shown up in their play this fall for a unit allowing 116 yards less than last season.
"The defensive group has done a nice job of being engaged," Rudzinski said, "And it started with their commitment in the weight room and then it followed up with their commitment to doing the little details right."
Senior linebacker Nick Jackson will miss the first half against Duke on Saturday night due to his targeting call against Syracuse, but for the last few seasons Jackson has been one of the few consistent cogs on the UVA defense. Over the offseason Virginia built competitive depth throughout the defense, which has helped elevate players all around Jackson.
"Just think we're playing fast, I think a lot of guys are bought into the scheme and we're just able to play it fast and just trust it," Jackson said, "I think we're just trusting it and all believing in it, we're all putting in the extra work to master our scheme."
One of the brightest examples early on has been Chico Bennett Jr., who is tied for the lead in the ACC in sacks and just earned ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors for his two sack performance against Syracuse.
Overall not only has Rudzinski's defense been sound in not allowing the big plays which plagued past Cavalier units, but also they have also made plays of their own. Virginia currently leads the ACC in sacks with 14 and are tied for first in the conference with NC State with nine forced turnovers.
"More of how much stress there is to give you the hardest looks in practice and when you're not in the game," sophomore safety Jonas Sanker said, "Whether it's walking through when you're in the hotel, writing stuff down on your own, making sure you're ready for any kind of formation they might run."
The Cavaliers will face their toughest test yet this season on Saturday in Duke, who are No. 3 in the ACC for total yards at 461 yards per game. The Blue Devils bring in a passing attack led by quarterback Riley Leonard and receiving trio, who are one of three in the conference in the top-20 for receiving yards along with Wake Forest and Virginia.
"Just playing with that chip on our shoulder knowing that we didn't like where we were last year and that we wanted to change the culture of this defense and I think we've done a really good job so far," senior cornerback Anthony Johnson said, "But there's always room to improve."
Elliott's long-term vision for Virginia is a team playing complementary football, so far the defense has pushed the offense and special teams to complement their efforts.
"They've chosen to say, 'You know what, we're not going to be defined what happened to us last year'," Elliott said, "This is a brand new year, we're going to create our own future."