After humiliating finish, Rud’s defense looks to improve

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Our last glance at Virginia’s defense came on an embarrassing day for Cavaliers football last November. UVA was humiliated by state rival Virginia Tech, 55-17, in a game where the visiting Hokies dominated.

Virginia’s defense was particularly poor that day, surrendering 500 yards of total offense, 252 of that to Tech’s rushing attack.

Defensive coordinator John Rudzinski did well to contain himself in the postgame meeting with media seeking answers into how his squad was thoroughly discomposed.

“If an experience like this doesn’t serve as a motivator, frankly, I don’t know what does just as a man,” Coach Rud said of the beatdown. “It’s tough to leave with this taste in your mouth.”

Rudzinski’s message to his team was not to wallow in the lopsided defeat, but to allow it to serve as offseason motivation to get better in the weight room and on the practice field.

Five months later, Rudzinski believes his defense has done just that.

Coach Rud said this week that the emphasis of spring practice, which culminates with Saturday’s annual Spring Game (see related story for time, how to watch and other information), has been on practicing fast, intelligent and tough. Coach Rud reported that the practices have been “super physical,” and that he was excited about the progress that has been made.

“I’m fired up,” Rudzinski said about his first 11. “We’ve got a ton of experience, a ton of college football snaps collectively, and frankly, it starts with our front seven. We’ve got to be really good up front.

“We’ve talked about it all spring long as our front seven has to earn the right to rush the passer, which starts with us being great against the run. That will end up translating for us to play really good defense.”

UVA’s defense was riddled with injuries last season, which was the main shortcoming leading to a 3-9 season. The Cavaliers were ranked anywhere from No. 101 to No. 116 (out of 130 FBS teams) in the major defensive categories: No. 101 in total defense (409.2 yards per game); No. 114 in rush defense (184.5 yards per game); and No. 116 in scoring defense, (33.75 points per game), giving up a whopping 51 touchdowns.

Many of the front seven return, some fifth-, sixth- and even seventh-year players who had extended eligibility due to the Covid year. None stand out more than sixth-year defensive end Kam Butler and true sophomore linebacker Kam Robinson.

Butler, one of five Cavaliers appearing on the 2024 Senior Bowl Watch List, was one of those players injured last season, having played in Virginia’s first four games before being sidelined. Coaches were anticipating a big year from Butler, who had a strong season in 2022, starting all 10 games after transferring from Miami-Ohio, where he was All-Mid American Conference for three straight years.

Robinson, one of the prize recruits from the 2023 recruiting class, was Freshman All-American (first- or second-team) by a host of publications. His 11 tackles in his first start (vs. NC State) were the most by a UVA true freshman linebacker since Ahmad Brooks in 2003. He finished the season with 71 total tackles (46 solo), starting eight games and appearing in all 12. He also had two interceptions and a touchdown.

“[Butler] looks better than [he did in 2022],” Rudzinski said. “He’s bigger … as far as just girth-wise and the power he plays with, and how active he is. He is another guy that gives us a ton of versatility as far as spots that he can play.”

Robinson, with a year under his belt, could be in for a huge year.

“Kam didn’t know what he didn’t know as a freshman,” Rudzinski said. “He’s just continued. He’s changed his body in a good way. He has broadened his perspective mentally with defensive schematics, which should serve him well.”

Defensive back Corey Thomas Jr., a 6-4, 215 grad transfer from Akron, has drawn raves from the defensive coaches. He played in 40 gams over the past five seasons at Akron.

Virginia coach Tony Elliott believes Thomas adds versatility to the defense because he can play multiple safety spots and can play in different personnel sets. Because he’s a bigger body, he can slide into the nickel sam linebacker spot.

Plenty of experience returns to the unit, as Rud had to develop some depth out of necessity last season when so many of his players were sidelined with injuries.

“We had 1,400 snaps that true freshmen played last season, which I think in my coaching career, that’s the most I’ve seen for a defensive unit,” Rudzinski said. “Really excited as far as the growth opportunity for those guys. Experience ends up being a great catalyst for guys understanding what the preparation looks like on a game week.

“Also, they have a better understanding as far as how fast, how aggressive the game is, and I hope that those snaps end up translating for us continuing to have great training cycles.”

Besides Robinson, corner Dre Walker, nose tackle Jason Hammond and Bandit Mekhi Buchanan were among freshmen who gained experience in 2023.

If Virginia is to improve upon last season’s record, then this defense must deliver. With all the experience returning, there’s a good chance it will. The Cavaliers have had more than half a year to chew on that humiliating, season-ending defeat, which should provide all the motivation they need.