Even a run-stuffing, smothering defensive tackle like Gerald Willis III feels pain.
Willis, the Outland Trophy National Player of the Month who on Wednesday was nominated for the Chuck Bednarik Award that goes to the defensive player of the year, said he never felt as much pain in his life as he did early against Florida State, when the middle finger of his left hand got stuck in tailback Jacques Patrick’s jersey.
“My bone popped out,’’ the 6-4, 300-pound redshirt senior said Wednesday after practice, his finger splinted and taped to his pointer after trainer Vinny Scavo “popped it back in” during the game. “I just looked at my hand and I was like, ‘What the?’ I’m not trying to favor it so much. I’m going to try to get some contact so I can get used that pain.”
For the Virginia Cavaliers (3-2, 1-1 Atlantic Coast Conference), who face the No. 16 Hurricanes (5-1, 2-0) at 7 p.m. Saturday in Charlottesville, similar pain could be imminent if Willis gobbles up their rushing offense like he has the Canes’ other opponents.
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“I’m not going to let no finger keep me from playing.’’
“He is a man on a mission,’’ said defensive line coach Jess Simpson. “He wants to be great and he knows that being prepared is how you do that.’’
But Willis, who also has two sacks, and a fumble recovery against FSU that led to a UM touchdown, is not alone.
Sophomore defensive end Jon Garvin is tied for third nationally with 11 1/2 tackles for loss, and fourth nationally with 1.9 tackles for loss per game. Garvin is tied with linebacker Shaq Quarterman with 30 tackles, second best on the team behind Jaquan Johnson’s 32, and also has 3 1/2 sacks, three pass breakups and two fumble recoveries.
“It’s a big deal,’’ said the 6-4, 250-pound Garvin, out of Lake Worth High. “A lot of times with things, especially like personal goals, we’ve got to put it aside for the sake of the team. But when they come, they come, and I’m going to be happy about it.”
How much does it help that Willis seems to get double- and triple-teamed every moment of his life? Garvin was asked.
“With a seven-man protection, they’re not going to leave us free,’’ Garvin said. “I acknowledge, yeah, he is getting double- and triple-teamed, but that’s been the concept throughout the whole season for all of us.’’
The Canes still lead the nation in tackles for loss (12 per game) and third-down conversion percentage defense (19.8 percent), are second in total defense (237 yards allowed per game), third in passing yards allowed (137) and sixth in turnovers gained (14).
Ten Hurricanes have worn the turnover chain this season, including two turns apiece by Garvin, cornerback Jhavonte Dean, cornerback Trajan Bandy and safety Sheldrick Redwine.
Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said Wednesday that “some of the things we are putting up numerically, it’s hard to ever imagine it would be that good. When you talk about the defensive line, it’s very easy to isolate, ‘Well, they have these stats ...’ But the credit has to go to the linebackers as well. The way we play our linebackers, the way those guys play downhill, they take double teams off the defensive linemen.
“....Really, the way the whole defense glues together, everybody eats on this front.’’
“Everybody’’ includes junior defensive end Joe Jackson, who leads the Canes with five sacks, has 7 1/2 tackles for loss, an interception returned for a touchdown, three pass breakups, five quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles.
“From the day I stepped on campus, he was the first person to say something to me, the first person to walk me through everything and really teach me,’’ Garvin said of Jackson, his mentor.
But it is Willis, it seems, that offenses, including Virginia’s, are trying to solve.
This week the Cavaliers have put his No. 9 on a walk-on scout team player “so quarterback Bryce Perkins is used to finding him before the snap,’’ the Daily Progress of Charlottesville wrote. “When he’s in, be more conscious of the keys up front, be more conscious of the cues you have to do, and play a little bit more deliberate when he’s lined up in front of you,’’ said Perkins, a dual-threat signal caller who has 1,125 passing yards and 11 touchdowns, with four interceptions — and 341 yards and three touchdowns rushing.
Said Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall on the ACC teleconference: “Yeah, ball security is really first and foremost on our mind. Their front seven is really dynamic and physical, and a lot of their turnovers come by hitting the quarterback or forcing early throws and interceptions. If you can keep them off balance, it gives you a better chance.”
Willis, at this point a potential first-round NFL Draft pick, is thrilled about his production.
“I’m really happy that my talents are getting [noticed] worldwide and people are starting to notice what I can do,’’ he said. “Sometimes I do feel like it’s a dream.”’