Virginia’s pass rush is going to have to pick it up in tough test at Illinois

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Tommy DeVito (Photo: Illinois Athletics)

When Virginia travels to Illinois this weekend, one of the points of emphasis will be putting pressure on Illini quarterback Tommy DeVito.

UVA coach Tony Elliott wasn’t overly excited about his defense’s inability to get to Richmond QB Reece Udinski last Saturday. The Cavaliers sacked Udinski only twice and had only two hurries, numbers not too pleasing to Elliott.

“I’m pushing these guys,” Elliott said. “We’ve got to be able to get more pressure. If we’re going to keep everything in front and not give up the big play on the back end, then the front four has to get there.”

Against Richmond, the two sacks were divided between linebacker Josh Ahern (a solo sack) and a half-sack between hybrid safety Darrius Bratton and defensive tackle Aaron Faumui. Defensive end Kam Butler and outside linebacker Chico Bennett were credited with the two QB hurries.

All that means the defensive front didn’t get to Udinski that much. Granted, Udinski is an experienced quarterback who didn’t hold onto the ball very long. He was chased from the pocket at times, but not knocked down or hit that much.

If UVA can’t get pressure from its front four, that means defensive coordinator John Rudzinski is going to have to bring five or six pass rushers, meaning he has to play man coverage, which would favor an experienced QB if he can avoid the pass rush.

“So the alternative is we’ve just got to get a little bit more pressure,” Elliott said. “A lot of it is the twist game. If we were a little bit more precise in our timing, we’re better on the twists, then guys would pop free.

“But if you’ve got any kind of delays or you’re looping too wide, the offense has a chance to bump it off and pass it off and pick you up.”

A twist is a stunt, when two players exchange roles to slip past blockers to rush the passer.

“We hit the quarterback a couple times, but we got there just a split second late,” Elliott said. “I think that our guys have to do a better job playing with their hands. [Ben] Smiley hit the quarterback a couple of times, but it was his first time getting a ton of game action. He’s got to be better with his hands.”

DeVito, not the most mobile guy, was pressured 10 times and sacked three times in a 23-20 loss to Indiana last weekend. He was playing behind an offensive line that featured four starters playing new roles.

His immobility was one reason that caused his former head coach at Syracuse, Dino Babers, to bench him four games into the season in 2021, when DeVito was replaced by a more mobile Garrett Shrader. DeVito completed a mere 50 percent of his passes last season for the Orange, leading to his transfer to Illinois.

So far this season, DeVito has completed 66.7 percent of his passes (48 for 72) for 426 yards, four touchdowns and an interception.

Illinois offensive coordinator Barry Lunney, who came to the Illini from UTSA (which upset Illinois last season), has been pleased with DeVito after two games.

“I would give him an A-plus for his competitiveness, that’s what stuck out to me,” Lunney said after the loss to Indiana. “He made some really nice throws and decisions.”