One of Virginia’s thinnest position groups suffered a major blow last week when cornerback Darrius Bratton tore his ACL, which will cost him his junior season.
“Man, it was hard to see Darrius Bratton go down,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “He had worked so hard to come back and was poised for an amazing season. So, yea, that stung. It would be hard for me not to say it will be a huge loss.”
Bratton is the second potential starter and third player overall that the Cavaliers have lost to season-ending knee injuries. Penn State graduate transfer Alex Gellerstedt went down during summer conditioning and freshman wide receiver Nathaniel Beal tore his ACL early this fall.
Coming into the season, the question in the secondary was who was going to start opposite Bryce Hall? He may not get the chance to lead the nation in pass breakups again because eventually quarterbacks are going to stop throwing to his side, so whoever wins the job on the other side is going to be busy.
After doing so in the first five games of last season, Bratton is the only player on the roster other than Hall to have started a game at cornerback, but Mendenhall is confident in his options.
One of those options, sophomore Germane Crowell, didn’t practice Tuesday for undisclosed reasons. He missed the final eight games of last season because of a concussion and was limited this spring. The most seasoned option is junior Nick Grant, who has appeared in 24 games over the past two seasons, but mostly on special teams.
New names have emerged in the competition. Heskin Smith is a 5-foot-11, 175-pound sophomore from Brunswick, Georgia, who appeared in eight games last season, mostly on special teams. Jaylon Baker is a 6-2, 170-pound redshirt freshman from Chattanooga, Tennessee, who didn’t see any action last fall.
Redshirt freshman Joseph White (6-1, 175) may also get a shot after earning shout outs from Mendenhall this spring and last fall leading up to the Belk Bowl. He appeared in three games last season—all on special teams—and retained a redshirt year under the NCAA’s new rule.
“We encourage each other every day to make a play and try to get better,” Smith said. “With us three being tight with each other and uplifting each other, it will elevate our games to another level.”
No matter how tight the trio’s bond, they all know what’s at stake.
“Those are my brothers, but when it’s time to get between the lines, it’s time to go and you’ve just got to compete for the spot,” Baker said. “Losing a guy like Bratton is heartbreaking, but it’s next man up, and I’m using the opportunity to get my teammates to trust me and my coach to trust me.”
As a senior at Baylor School in Tennessee, Baker intercepted four passes, returned one for a touchdown and caught seven touchdown passes. He has focused solely on the defensive side of the ball since landing on Grounds last summer.
“Coming in last year, it was about getting a feel and learning the defense and the pace of the game,” Baker said. “This year, I’m more comfortable and locked in.”
Smith didn’t play much defense at Brunswick High School, which is home to about 2,100 students in a small coastal town in southeast Georgia. He played quarterback and wide receiver, and as a senior, he caught 44 passes for 399 yards and two touchdowns, rushed for three more scores and took a kickoff to the house.
He was originally recruited as a wide receiver but made the move to cornerback last spring after a meeting with Mendenhall.
“Me being an athlete, I feel like I can do whatever it takes to help the team win,” Smith said. “Switching over last spring, it was a big process of just learning the whole defense, getting with my teammates as a unit and them taking me in.”
The Cavaliers are expected to release their first depth chart of the season on Monday—five days before the opener at Pittsburgh. Whoever earns the No. 2 cornerback spot will take the field with the starting defense for the first time in their career in Heinz Field—home to the Pittsburgh Steelers.