CHARLOTTESVILLE — The “new standard” Virginia football players have embraced as a theme for this resurgent season didn’t start with the team’s three consecutive wins. It began back in August, when the coaches asked junior outside linebacker Chris Peace to speak at the start of a team meeting.
Peace said he thought about how senior linebacker Micah Kiser, a team captain, had spent much of winter workouts talking about the standard the team needed to set for the program.
“I was just thinking about the word standard, something we really haven’t had these past few years here at Virginia,” Peace said. “And that’s something I want to change. I know everybody wanted to change. I just thought the new thing should just be ‘the new standard,’ how we do things around here.”
Since then, the Cavaliers (4-1, 1-0 ACC) have talked about “the new standard” as they’ve put together their best start since 2007.
And Peace, a 6-foot-2, 245-pound Newport News native, has been way more than talk. He coined the motto “the new standard” and, coach Bronco Mendenhall said, has embodied it on the practice field.
“He’s probably the very best practice player and hardest worker and most consistent worker that I’ve seen defensively, which is quite a statement,” said Mendenhall. “That’s translating into his play, and so he’s completely trustworthy, reliable, and he’s productive, so I like what he’s doing a lot. We’re really that lucky that he’s here. I would take as many more guys like Chris as we could find.”
Peace has 25 tackles in five games and ranks second on the Cavaliers with three sacks and four tackles for losses, behind only Kiser in both categories, as the team heads to Chapel Hill to play North Carolina (1-5, 0-3).
“You see they do a lot of things with him,” said UNC coach Larry Fedora. “They’ll drop him into coverage. They’ll bring him. He’s definitely a factor in everything that they do, because he’s all over the place. And he’s done a really good job of pressuring the quarterback.”
Peace worked this offseason on being quicker off the ball, reacting faster to the snap to get a step on the blockers in front of him.
“Whenever I do get off the ball, it’s really fast,” Peace said. “But also the negative is, usually I’m the first person or the last person. Just something I have to continue to pick up on.”
Teammates said that faster get-off on the ball shows how much confidence Peace is playing with this season.
“He’s definitely been aggressive in terms of his playing style,” said senior defensive end Andrew Brown. “He definitely feels more free to show his capabilities.”
Much of Peace’s success getting after opposing quarterbacks, Fedora said, comes from Peace possessing a deep repertoire of pass rush moves, a concern for the Tar Heels going into Saturday. Through six games, North Carolina has allowed 13 sacks, including eight in its three ACC contests.
“He’s got quite a few moves that he used on offensive linemen,” Fedora said of Peace. “He’ll beat them with speed off the edge, he’s got a good spin move, and he does a good job with his hands.”
Peace has developed that array of attacks in college. He was mostly overlooked in high school, playing most of his career at no more than 170 pounds at Denbigh High in Newport News. But his senior year, he got up to 215 pounds — “I had to force down a lot of peanut better and jelly sandwiches,” he said — and college recruiters took notice.
“I was pretty proud of that,” said Peace. “I really didn’t have too much success on the high school level but my senior year everything just came together, just added more size, strength and just confidence.”
He was recruited by U.Va.’s former coaching staff under Mike London.
The Cavaliers had gone 11-25 in Peace’s time in Charlottesville before this season’s surprising turnaround in Year 2 of the Mendenhall era.
A win Saturday would end a seven-game losing streak against the Tar Heels and put Virginia a win away from becoming bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011.
Peace wants those kind of results to be more than goals. He wants them to be the new standard.
Note: U.Va. listed sophomore wide receiver Hasise Dubois (lower extremity) as doubtful and freshman linebacker Charles Snowden (medical) as questionable for Saturday’s game at North Carolina.