Who will make the 50-50 catches, Cavaliers or State’s big receivers?

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Nick Grant (1) prepares to leap for a ball in the air against fellow DB Heskin Smith during fall practice (Photo: UVA Athletics).

One of the keys to Saturday’s Virginia-NC State football game will be “50-50” balls.

Both UVA and State have some tall receivers, which means Cavalier quarterback Brennan Armstrong and Wolfpack quarterback Devin Leary will sometimes take chances in throwing up a “fade” pass in hopes that their taller receiver can go up over a smaller defender and grab the ball.

“I’m all for [those type pass plays] because I know how hard it is to defend,” UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said this week. “There’s a reason they call it 50-50. And if you throw enough of those, then yeah, there’s likely you get half.”

In last week’s loss at No. 1 Clemson, there were a pair of 50-50 balls thrown by Armstrong that the Cavaliers didn’t get, critical ones that could have made the game much closer.

“One took a one-handed interception, and we’re teaching (freshman) Lavel (Davis Jr.) how to ensure that that ball isn’t caught by a defender, which was possible,” Mendenhall said.

“Then we had a critical fourth down we threw up to (tight end) Tony (Poljan), and the ball got knocked away. Both of those are makeable plays in my opinion, either at least not have an interception or to come up with the catch. So, other plays were made, which is positive. The ones that aren’t caught, we just need to make sure they’re not intercepted, which is another component that we’re still teaching.”

Lavel and Tony, of course, are UVA’s tallest receivers. Lavel Davis Jr., a 6-foot-7 wide receiver with a long wingspan and can easily go up for balls, out-leaping a smaller defender for an advantage. Poljan is also 6-7 at tight end.

NC State has a pair of rangy receivers as well in 6-7 tight end Cary Angeline, a transfer from Southern Cal, and wide receiver Emeka Emezie, who is 6-3, but has great leaping ability.

Virginia defensive coordinator Nick Howell believes there are several intricacies involved in defending 50-50 balls.

“There’s different things that go into that,” Howell said. “A lot is the position of the corner. If he’s underneath, is the ball going on top? If the DB’s on top, is the ball going back-shoulder?

“So these quarterbacks and these receivers, it’s a read. It’s an in-flight read, and then a lot is just knowing the receiver, his body type, his speed, what he likes.”

Howell used former UVA receiver Hasise Dubois as an example.

“[Dubois] was not a down-the-field guy. He was a definite back-shoulder guy, and so each have tendencies, each body type yields different types of routes, and then it comes down to your positioning and the quarterback/receiver read as the play is happening.”

Howell has been impressed with Wolfpack quarterback Leary, who threw for 366 yards and four touchdowns in last week’s late comeback win at Pitt. He drove State 80 yards with no timeouts, connecting with Emezie for the winning TD with only 23 seconds to play.

“I would say I like his decision-making,” Howell said. “And he looks calm and confident and accurate.”

Leary and the Wolfpack offense really came alive in the second half to upset the ranked Panthers.

“In the second half, they were able to connect against Pitt’s press coverage, and then penalties were a huge part of that game where [State] was the benefactor of pass interference, and then the hard counts on the snap, and that kept the chains moving,” Howell observed.

State, under new offensive coordinator Tim Beck (formerly of Ohio State and Texas), had Leary using a hard count to draw Pitt offsides at least five times in the first half, which caused the Panthers’ ferocious pass rush to back off.

“And then, the big guys (Emezie and Angeline) on the outside, were making plays down the field,” Howell said.

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