Coach Rud has a roadmap to success for Virginia’s defense

By Jerry Ratcliffe

John Rudzinski (Photo: UVA Athletics)

John Rudzinski knows exactly what it takes to play winning defensive football.

A 14-year veteran of the Air Force coaching staff, Rudzinski produced strong defenses for the Falcons, particularly last season when his team finished fourth nationally in total defense (296.5 yards per game) en route to the Academy’s second 10-win season in three years.

There’s five criteria that Coach Rud follows closely, five categories that he believes are crucial to playing winning defense.

“We always look at our rushing defense, we looked at defense per play, scoring defense per possession, our takeaways and then third-down defense, being the five areas that we want to have really, really competitive numbers,” Rudzinski said. “Those end up having translated into being able to play winning defensive football. As you look at bowl teams and good defensive teams in the nation, those ended up being the statistics that ultimately drive winning.”

He realized the challenge when he came on board of Tony Elliott’s new Virginia staff. He understood just how bad it was last season when the Cavaliers started out 6-2 and lost their last four games, giving up embarrassing numbers on defense. In spring practice, he displayed those numbers to the players and it is assumed he let them know they weren’t acceptable in John Rudzinski’s world.

UVA finished No. 123 (out of 130 FBS teams) last season in rushing defense (5.79 yards per carry, 225.8 yards per game). By contrast, Coach Rud’s Air Force squad was No. 9 nationally in that category, allowing 102.2 ypg).

Virginia was No. 121 in total defense (the Falcons were fourth), the Cavaliers were No. 104 in scoring defense (giving up 31.83 points per game). Air Force was No. 16 (19.8 ppg). UVA tied with a dozen other teams for No. 82 in team takeaways with a mere 15. The Cavaliers were also No. 90 in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert a first down 66 times out of 161 opportunities (.410).

While UVA could field a prolific offense this season, if it can piece together an effective offensive line, Rudzinski’s goals won’t change. It was generally assumed last year that Virginia would have to score 35-45 points to win a game and hope the defense could hold the opponent to less.

Rudzinski and his defensive staff chose to focus on fundamentals, particularly tackling. During a recent tackling drill, assistant Chris Slade kept shouting, “Secure the tackle,” to each would-be tackler. It wasn’t about stripping the ball, it was about stopping the runner or receiver.

“If we’re going to play great defensive football, we’ve got to be great tacklers,” Rudzinski said. “And then you hope that second guy and third guy comes in getting the chance to expose the football. If guys are conscious about the second and third guy coming in to strip or punch hit the all, you hope to force that ball out.”

Last week, Elliott mentioned in jest that he believed Rudzinski was operating out of two playbooks, because there were so many different things being thrown at the offense. Coach Rud chuckled and said he had used the “firehose mentality” on his defensive players, overflowing them with information in camp, but greatly tapering things down the closer the team gets to the season.

“It will be a retrospective as far as what we did really, really well in spring ball and in fall camp and then let that be your package,” Rudzinski said. “That allows us to boil it down and ultimately try to put guys in a position where they can play the fastest, which I think can lead up to us playing the best defensive football.”

That philosophy worked well at Air Force where Rudzinski developed some of the nation’s strongest defenses over the years, particularly the last three seasons.

One of the key roles in UVA’s defense this season will be how the Cavaliers fill the SAM linebacker position. In Rudzinski’s scheme, the SAM is a hybrid position, kind of, sort of a field safety spot but more.

The SAM linebacker will be expected to do a lot of different things, anything from containing the run, to being involved in coverage to pressuring the quarterback.

Fifth-year senior Darrius Bratton, who has played both the corner and safety spots, has been working as the SAM this fall.

“He can give us a lot of diversity in what we can do schematically and so he’s a great young man,” Rudzinski said.

If Coach Rud’s plan can just cut UVA’s numbers from a year ago in half, it could make a huge difference if the Cavaliers put up the expected offensive numbers. Should that come to fruition, then Virginia could be in the Coastal race yet again and become bowl eligible for the sixth year in a row.