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What Tony Elliott said Tuesday about facing Tennessee, Virginia's injuries

IMG_3593by:Grant Ramey08/29/23


Second-year Virginia head coach Tony Elliott met with reporters on Tuesday to preview his team’s game against Tennessee on Saturday (Noon Eastern Time, ABC) at Nissan Stadium in Nashville. He also provided the latest injury updates for the Cavaliers.

His history coaching in big games at Clemson and preparing this Virginia team for this kind of game 

“This week it’s really been about trying to prepare these guys for the environment. Because it’s gonna be loud. There’s gonna be a lot of excitement. I think more so the crowd, as much as just the anticipation of wanting to play this, this football team hasn’t played in a long time, and it’s been a very, very long offseason. So helping these guys understand how to channel that emotion, not to play the game before you actually show up to the game. Don’t play the game in the locker room.

“You’re gonna have to make sure that you manage and, kind of the analogy I’ve been using is gas in your tank, right? So you gotta manage it, right? You can’t use it all in the first quarter, in the first five minutes, right? You gotta be able to use it each quarter, each play, and not be too emotionally involved in the game. Because the emotions, what I’ve learned in games like this, the emotions are high early, and then it comes down to who can lock in, who can focus. And then when you get into the course of the game where there’s momentum changes. Can you stay steady so that you can continue to do what you need to do to give yourself an opportunity to be in position?

“But definitely focusing on just teaching these guys how to manage their emotions. Don’t play the game the night before, right? Don’t play it on the bus ride to the stadium. So just kind of giving those guys some tips on how to manage themselves so that they’re prepared to be able to play for four quarters.”

What he’s seen from Tennessee

“They’re good. They’re really good. And what they do is, people talk about the pace, but it’s as much of how they spread the field. If you watch them, their splits are a little bit unorthodox. They kind of go against convention when you start talking about the spacing, because they really, really push their wide outs wide to the sideline. But then what it does is it forces a defense to make a decision. And then if you’re doing that and you’re changing formations, depending upon how your defense adjusts, you could have traveling back and forth with some of your secondary guys, which creates a problem in terms of getting lined up.

“Then they’re physical up front. They could run the football. The quarterback man, he’s a stud. He can run it and he can throw it. (He’s) more a throw guy first. But man, when he pulls it down, it’s pretty scary. Their backs run hard. Offensive line wise, I know they got a little bit of transition with a couple guys, but I anticipate that you’ll see a very similar group that’s physical. Can protect the quarterback, but then also can create movement in the run game. So for our defense, we’re gonna have to be very, very quick after the whistle to get the call and get lined up.

“And that’s something that I’ve always challenged the guys with, is to win between the plays. And the way you win between the plays is your intensity, your focus and your sense of urgency.

“Can you hurry up and get the call so that you can get lined up and go ahead and process the play before the ball is ever snapped? So the speed, and then just the width of the splits, right? And then the ability for them to do a lot of different things. They can motion. They motion the stacks. They do a lot of good stuff. And they do it fast. And then they also kind of break your rules. That’s the tough part is from a defensive perspective. You have rules, you have spacing on the field, certain landmarks, and now they’re outside of your landmarks. So all of your training is kind of out the window now.

“You have to adjust specifically to the spacing a lot, like preparing for option football, right? So it goes against the rules, even though it looks very similar to what you’re seeing in college football. The fact that those guys are pushed to the sideline, your leverages change, all kind of different things change. And then now what it does is, especially in the run game, it creates just one-on-one matchups without the support being able to get there, because they gotta defend the perimeter. So it’s a big challenge.”

How to emulate Tennessee’s tempo in practice

“Oh, man, we got the scout team going fast. Fast as we possibly can, and then coaches straining and pushing the guys to get lined up. So you try to emulate it as fast as you can. And then there’s components of what we do offensively where we have tempo. And so throughout the course of fall camp, when we’ve had our good-on-good work, we’ve put an emphasis on tempo. And I think it helps both sides of the ball. It helps us to practice our own tempo, but then it also helps the defense be able to get lined up a little bit quicker. And that’s the key, if you get lined up right, because they do what they do and they’re good at what they do. But you gotta get lined up to it and have formation. That’s what defensive football is, formation recognition in certain situations.”

What Virginia coaches have seen from Tennessee’s defensive front

“You can’t help but notice when they’re big, like they’re really big. When I look at the list, especially the inside guys, 320, 343, 310, 301, 310, right? That’s big on the interior. And they’re not just big, two-gappers, man. These guys can move. They can push the pocket, they can get off of blocks. They can disrupt the run game. And then you’re gonna have to double them, right? It’s gonna be hard to single block those guys. And then when you look at guys off the edge, (Roman) Harrison and (Tyler) Baron, man, they’re twitchy, they’re talented.They can get after the quarterback.

“And then I think the best player is Aaron Beasley, the linebacker. He roams around. He’s a great pass rusher, man. He’s a big guy. That’s a matchup problem on your backs. It doesn’t matter who your back is. Our biggest one is 215. (Beasley is) listed at 225, but he plays a lot bigger than 225. Very experienced, too. He’s a senior, played a lot of football. And then they’re bringing in the transfer from BYU (Keenan Pili) … He’s a big guy, so they’re big, they’re fast, they’re athletic. So the way that I think they’re going to challenge (Virginia quarterback) Tony (Muskett) is they’re not gonna let him hold the ball, right? Because they’re gonna be able to push the pocket interior wise. They’re gonna be able to create pressure and squeeze the pocket coming off the edge. They’re gonna force the ball out of his hand quickly.

“I think they’re gonna try and bring some pressure, see if they can they overwhelm our backs and protection and get to the quarterback, seeing if they rattle him. And then I think you play man coverage on the outside and you say, hey man, are you good enough to beat us? So that’s why I think they’re gonna challenge Tony. They’re gonna stop the run with their six-man box, right? And then they’re gonna be able to play cover-one man coverage, man free across the board. And they’re gonna say, hey, I wanna see you throwing, catching (it in) tight windows, and you better not hold that ball, because if you hold that ball longer than 2.8 (seconds), all right, you’re gonna be on the ground. So that’s what I anticipate is gonna be their approach.

Tennessee’s defense against Clemson in the Orange Bowl in December

“They played Clemson differently when you watch them on film. Still trying to figure out kind of why did … Clemson was down a couple of receivers. They played a little bit more two-shell, cover two. Now part of it was to try and frustrate and confuse (Cade) Klubik with some of the variations of coverage. Uh, but I think that they’re going to play, in my opinion, what I told the guys: Big-boy football. They’re going toline up, they’re gonna be in your face, and they’re gonna come after you with six. And then if they can’t, they’re gonna go seven and they’re gonna play zero coverage, and they’re gonna say, hey, let the best man win. That’s what I’m anticipating.”

Updating Virginia’s injuries for the Tennessee game

“Chico (defensive end Chico Bennett Jr.), man, he was pushing for this week, and obviously it was a big scare for all of us. And it’s a crazy story of how it happened. He’s taking a knee after practice, and then next thing you know, he can’t straighten his leg. And we’re like, oh, Lord, what just happened? And we’re very fortunate that it was a situation where it was a minor procedure where they just had to remove some bone fragments. And so really it’s how quickly could the swelling go down? There was nothing structurally wrong. I was just walking over here with him. He’s walking good. He’s back running a little bit. So I’m anticipating next week is realistic for him. 

“Injury wise, you guys know (senior safety) Donovan Johnson is still a couple weeks away. (Sophomore running back) Xavier Brown, still a couple weeks from being ready to go. I’m trying to think of any more long-term guys. (Junior corner) Will Simpkins is back cutting and running. So I anticipate him back. And then we have a hamstrings with (freshman wide receiver) Titus Ivy, young guy. (Freshman safety) Caleb Hardy is coming back from an ankle. And I anticipate those will be week-to-week, so we should get some more guys back next week. But Chico was pushing for this week, but probably the smartest thing is just to wait and hold him till next week and gives (fifth-year defensive end) Ben Smiley a great opportunity.

“That’s what I’m excited about. (Smiley) have a great opportunity, and I’m sure Chico will give him some tips to help him be prepared. But Chico’s the biggest one. The other injuries we didn’t anticipate having this week, and I’m hoping within the next week or two, we’ll have some of those guys back. 

“(Fifth-year safety Antonio) Clary, he’s pushing for trying to be ready this week. I think that he would be a guy that would be limited. But if we needed them, we could get some work out of him, but that would be more of a game-time decision.”

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