It was the last day of the summer conditioning program in late July. After weeks of 6:00 a.m. workout sessions that lasted over two hours, usually with another workout in the afternoon, the Virginia Cavaliers football team gathered around a slab of rock in the middle of the outdoor practice field.
5-foot-8, 190-pound senior wide receiver Olamide Zacchaeus grabbed a sledge hammer and broke the rock. Smashed into hundreds of smaller pieces, every player took a piece of the rock.
The ritual was to signify the end of summer conditioning program and the hopeful first of many rocks broken in the coming season. With 12 games on the schedule, Virginia had 12 more rocks to break, one for each potential victory.
It's all part of the "new standard" third-year head coach Bronco Mendenhall is instilling in the Cavs program. Taking over a program that compiled a 35-62 record from 2008-2015 and was only bowl-eligible once over that span, a new standard is exactly what Virginia needed. The Cavs were 2-10 in Mendenhall's fist season as coach which was followed by a 6-7 mark that found Virginia in its first bowl game in five seasons.
So far in seven games this season, Virginia has earned a 5-2 record which of course included five "break the rock" ceremonies. The Cavs are fully alive in the ACC Coastal race with sights set on playing for the ACC Championship in December. With the following schedule remaining, it's not unlikely the Commonwealth Cup to close the regular season isn't for the Division Title.
- vs. North Carolina (1-3 ACC)
- vs. Pitt (2-1 ACC)
- vs. Liberty
- @ Georgia Tech (1-3 ACC)
- @ Virginia Tech (3-0 ACC)
There have been numerous standouts in Virginia's breakout season, but the one who has caught my eye and elevated his status as an NFL Draft prospect the most is cornerback Bryce Hall. Chosen by Mendenhall to break the rock after the Cavs most recent victory over Duke, Hall is turning in a dominant season which continued against the Blue Devils.
According to PFF, Hall was in pass coverage for 50 snaps and was targeted nine times in Virginia's 28-14 road win over Duke. He allowed only two receptions, recorded three pass breakups and hauled in an interception. He allowed a 0.0 passer rating when his man was targeted en route to ACC Defensive Back of the Week honors.
It was just the latest standout performance in 2018 from Hall who now has two interceptions and 14 pass breakups in seven games already this season. His ball production is exciting, which he blends with size, length, play strength and athletic ability to provide an overall intriguing skill set.
His interception against Duke was a thing of beauty and encapsulates so much of what makes Hall such a tantalizing prospect. Tested on a go route, Hall does a terrific job using his 6-foot-1, 200 pound frame to pin the receiver to the sideline, leverage the route, position his frame and snag the takeaway. Hall is regularly tasked with man coverage responsibilities and he is suffocating receivers this season.
Earlier this season, Hall was challenged with covering the ACC's best receiver in NC State's Kelvin Harmon. While Harmon made his plays, Hall competed with Harmon as well as any cornerback I've seen in two seasons of studying Harmon. Harmon's play strength is a blue-chip trait and Hall battled him for four quarters.
You almost never see Harmon out-worked for the football but Hall does exactly that on this next rep. Hall elevates and snatches it from Harmon's grip to force an incomplete pass. Surprisingly, this play wasn't ruled an interception and was never reviewed. Watch the clip until the end to get a full appreciation of what Hall did on the play.
What exactly is the "new standard" Mendenhall is preaching? Hall answered it best when quote-tweeting me regarding his Herculean effort in Virginia's upset win over Miami.
This next clip is an all-time great individual effort. Hall's tackle took a for sure touchdown off the board and Miami settled for a field goal on the drive. Virginia went on to win by 3.
Hall is currently leading the ACC in pass breakups this season, with double the amount of the next player on this list. If they are wise, eventually quarterbacks are going to stop testing Hall in coverage.
Amid his third season as a starting cornerback for Virginia (played in all 12 games, starting 7 as a true freshman), Hall is playing the best football of his career and has elevated his draft stock as much as any cornerback prospect in the nation has this season.
What makes Hall even more exciting is his upside. His ball skills and physical traits are exactly what the NFL is looking for, but he's still new to playing the cornerback position. Hall was recruited as a wide receiver out of high school before switching to cornerback just before his freshman season at Virginia in 2016. He hasn't even played three full seasons at the position. His background at receiver speaks to his natural ability to make plays on the ball and he's developed wonderfully in coverage to this point.
An ascending prospect for a Virginia program on the rise, there promises to be more rocks to break as Hall and his teammates fully embrace the new Cavalier standard.