CHARLOTTESVILLE — None of Virginia’s position groups was hit as hard by the NFL Draft last spring as was the Cavaliers’ secondary.
And no group would have been better prepared to deal with its losses.
Returning for the Cavaliers this year will be seven safeties or cornerbacks who have started at least one game in their careers and have a total of 79 starts among them.
Leading that group is first-team All-ACC cornerback Bryce Hall, a senior who has made 33 consecutive starts.
Next in that category is safety Brenton Nelson, a junior who has started 25 of 26 games over the past two seasons.
While it’s hard to find any preseason publications that list Virginia’s secondary as one of the best in the country, the numbers would suggest that.
Virginia was second in the ACC in pass defense, second in pass-efficiency defense and third in interceptions with 17, matching the Cavaliers’ high since 2001.
Gone are safety Juan Thornhill, a second-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs, and cornerback Tim Harris, taken in the sixth round by San Francisco.
“There are a lot of names who aren’t big names yet, but the shoes to fill are easily filled,” said Joey Blount, a junior safety whose father was an All-ACC player for the Cavaliers in the 1970s.
Blount described Darrius Bratton, a junior from William Fleming High School, as a player who has “come out of the shadows.”
Bratton started the first five games of the 2018 season at cornerback before yielding his job to Harris, who had been injured.
Hall revealed in the aftermath of Virginia’s 28-0 victory over South Carolina in the Belk Bowl that he would be returning this year for a final season of college eligibility. He led the nation in passes defended with two interceptions and 22 breakups.
“He said, ‘I’m not going anywhere; I still have a lot of stuff to finish,’” Blount said. “There’s a lot of hype about the draft and a lot of things can change but Bryce was really serious about what he said.
“He had stuff to finish; he had a job to do and we were just breaking the iceberg.”
Hall was the first UVa cornerback to be chosen first-team All-ACC since Chase Minniefield was selected in back-to-back seasons, 2010-11. The last cornerback before that was Ronde Barber for three straight years, 1994-96.
“More so than the accolades or the awards I get, I want to be remembered for how I impacted the people that were here and wasn’t just focused on being a football player,” Hall said.
He first showed up on recruiting lists as a wide receiver at Bishop McDevitt in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he had 137 career receptions for 2,386 yards and 35 touchdowns.
“Coach [Nick] Howell called me during basketball season and said he was going to switch me to safety,” Hall said of the Cavaliers’ secondary coach. “He came to one of my basketball games and saw that I could move laterally as I was defending players.
“I think that’s where he got over to switching me to corner. There was a need there at the time and I’m so glad they made the switch. Making that transition from wide receiver has enabled me to play the ball as a DB.”
He wasn’t alone.
“We were so raw just in terms of our fundamentals and technique,” Hall said. “We really just had to stumble into it. I didn’t know what I was doing because I’d never really played defense for real. Failing a bunch of times and getting roasted multiple times in practice, I eventually found my way.”