A year ago, Slade could hardly watch UVA’s defense from his couch, now trying to make it better

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Chris Slade was a key ingredient to some of Virginia’s best defenses during the George Welsh era and still holds the ACC career record for quarterback sacks. Watching UVA’s lousy performance on that side of the football the last two years left a bad taste in Slade’s mouth, so if he has his way, those bad days are gone.

“I was sitting on my couch the last few years and watching how bad our defense was,” Slade said. “Even though I wasn’t coaching here, I felt that was a reflection on me. I took it personal because I’m a part of that, no matter what, and it was embarrassing.”

Slade joined new head coach Tony Elliott’s coaching staff during the winter, hoping to help restore glory to his alma mater’s program. As the new coaching staff moved into spring drills, defensive coordinator produced some graphics for the defense to see, showing just how bad the 2021 defense had been.

“I think we were almost dead last in the major catagories, and like I just yelled out, ‘man, that’s garbage,’” Slade said.

Slade was right. Out of 130 FBS teams, Virginia was No. 123 in rushing defense (225.8 per game), No. 121 in total defense (466.0 per game) and No. 104 in scoring defense (31.8 points per game).

“I think a lot of it was just the attitude and putting points of emphasis on the defense and relying on just outscoring everybody because eventually that always catches up with you,” Slade said. “I watched the BYU game. I think we gave up like 65 or 70 (69-49 loss, plus more than 700 yards of offense by the Cougars). 

“So, I took that personal as a fan and as an alum. I’m not saying we’re going to be great, we’re not going to be like the ‘85 Bears by any means, but I think it’s going to be better.”

New defensive coordinator John Rudzinski, hired to remedy the situation, is taking a practical approach to fix things.

“I think it’s with consistency and process, and so what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to start with the weight room and it always continues with the weight room,” Rudzinski said recently. “Then it’s for us to put guys in a position so that they don’t have to think when we go out there, so they can play super aggressive.

“Now it’s the challenge for us as a defensive staff to put them through all those repetitions, to be able to not only execute the scheme, but to make sure they can demonstrate that they can make plays.”

When Rudzinski posted those graphics for all the returning defensive players to see in the spring, the numbers that had horrified Slade on his couch, he didn’t gasp, or at least he didn’t admit it. After all, he had produced some nationally ranked defenses at Air Force, an anthesis of what had occured in Charlottesville.

“You know, what [those numbers] give me is a perspective of where we are and the challenge we have in front of us,” Coach Rud said.

During the spring game, it appeared that UVA’s defense was playing more fundamentally sound football, improved tackling, fewer blow assignments, line up more properly, better in run gap integrity.

Rudzinski praised his defensive staff for making the process simpler in communication “because sometime, less is more.”

Slade said that while Rudzinski’s defense is complex, once the players understand the scheme it’s simple.

Much of the criticism about last year’s defense stemmed from poor tackling, something Rudzinski pinpointed, something Slade and his fellow assistants are emphasizing.

“You’ve got to be intentional,” Slade said. “I don’t know what they did last year in practice, but we have something called a tackling circuit. A lot of college teams do it. You’ve got to do it in practice. It’s about attitude, effort and having a chip on your shoulder. You can drop all those X’s and O’s man, it’s about wanting to tackle and tackle well and just getting a little nasty.”

During a recent defensive meeting with around 10 players from his position groups, Slade asked for anyone who posted a sack last season to raise their hand. Only two hands went up. Both of those players had transferred into the program in the offseason.

“We had like no sacks,” Slade said, somewhat astonished. “None of our Virginia guys. I wanted to point that out to them, let them know that we’ve got a long way to go but we can get there. I think Mike Green and Chico Bennett can make a difference on the edge. We’ve moved Ben Smiley inside and he’s probably the most explosive guy we have on the D-line. He’s strong, he’s physical, he cares. He’s got an edge about him.

“When we got him in the spring, he had all kinds of issues, but now he looks like a completely different person. I think all three of those guys can be playmakers.”

Now that Slade is off his couch and has a front row view of Virginia’s defense when the bullets start flying in a couple of weeks, he’s hoping he won’t have to hide his eyes from what he’s observing.

Sometimes simple is better, less is more. Almost anything will be an improvement.