Henry Coley and his Virginia teammates have never lost a season opener. But their past four opening games have not presented the challenge they face Saturday.
Virginia must find a way to upset No. 7 UCLA. To do that, the Hoos must find a way to slow down preseason Heisman candidate Brett Hundley.
The good news is the defense faced a similar offensive scheme and mobile quarterback last season when they played Marcus Mariota and Oregon. The bad news is they were rolled 59-10, and Mariota had 323 yards of total offense and three scores.
Perhaps there are lessons taken away from that matchup that can be applied to this one to help change the outcome. Coley said he began watching tape on Hundley in the spring, and re-watched the Oregon game tape to find ways Virginia can play better.
"Hundley, he’s a helluva athlete," Coley said in a recent phone interview. "He’s a big guy, physical kid and he can run like a deer. We’ve faced guys like that before, like the Mariotas of the world. We have to make sure we’re defensively sound when it comes to defending him.
"That means making sure you stay in your gaps ... at any moment he could read it, being the athletic guy he is, and just take off. We can’t allow that to happen."
Mariota did that last year, running for a 71-yard touchdown on the opening drive of the game.
"There were a lot of mental errors we made in that game, also," Coley said. "We’re light years ahead of where we were last year when we were facing these types of teams. We just have to be comfortable in the schemes, be comfortable with what the coaches are telling you. You can’t have wandering eyes when you’re playing against an offense like this. On any given play, they’re running three plays in one. They could run, pass or throw a bubble screen. You just take care of your assignments and get after it."
As the middle linebacker, Coley will take on added responsibility in trying to defend Hundley, who had nearly 4,000 yards of offense a season ago. Not only will Coley have to make the calls for the defense, he also will have to be the one to keep an eye on where Hundley goes.
Coley has grown as a player since the Oregon game last year, so the hope is he will play a huge role in the matchup.
"You can try to simulate, you can try to get guys to be him in practice, you can try all types of things and watch film, but when you actually play a player of his caliber, you just have to be very alert and aware of your rush lanes, coverages, just so many things you have to pay attention to because he is such a dynamic player," coach Mike London said.
The defense believes it has grown, too. Now that players are in the second year under Jon Tenuta, Coley says everybody has a much better comfort level. Coaches, too. They know what their players can do, so they also spent the offseason tailoring the defensive calls to the personnel they have.
"We know what we want to get accomplished," Coley said. "I’m very excited and enthusiastic about what our defense has to bring for the season."
First on the agenda would be another season-opening win.