Bill Hass on the ACC: Playing Defense 'In His Blood' for Virginia's Chase Minnifield
Oct. 15, 2009
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Diligence, preparation and hard work are attributes common to most football players.
And they have been an integral part of Chase Minnifield’s life for as long as he can remember. His father was teaching him those habits in youth football. And recently, Minnifield got a reminder from another source.
Virginia started the football season by losing its first three games and then the Cavaliers had a bye week. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Several former players came back to talk to the current team with an emphasis on how to approach practice.
“We got to watch some film on some old players and how they practiced,” said Minnifield, Virginia’s sophomore return specialist and extra defensive back in coverage packages. “A lot of players came back and talked to the team. We changed the way we were practicing. We’re just working harder in general.
“(Former linebacker) Angelo Crowell, he’s the one I remember. Crowell told us we needed to take practices like our game reps, and then in the game it’s easy. I like hearing things from people who have been there and done it as far as succeeding in the league. What they say is what works, so it really stuck with me.”
Sometimes you never know exactly what turns a team around, but what Minnifield and his teammates absorbed from the former players certainly didn’t hurt. The Cavs won their next two games, 16-3 over North Carolina and 47-7 over Indiana. Although they have played only one conference game, they are in the mix in the ACC’s Coastal Division heading into a game at Maryland Saturday.
“It’s really positive right now,” Minnifield said. “(The slow start) was discouraging, but we pretty much knew who we had around and we figured we could turn it around with just a few things here and there if we just keep working and grinding.”
Minnifield is used to working and grinding. His father is Frank Minnifield, who played 11 years of pro football as a cornerback. Nine of those were with the Cleveland Browns, where he was named to the NFL’s All-Decade team of the 1980s. He and his running mate, Hanford Dixon, were named the NFL’s No. 2 cornerback tandem of all time.
Frank Minnifield comes to all of Virginia’s home games, a five- to six-hour drive from his home in Lexington, Ky. And he studies tape of his son’s games.
“He gives me a hard critique,” Chase Minnifield said. “There’s never such a thing as a perfect play; I can always do better. I’m used to it. My dad is the kind of guy, when I was 7 and 8 we were watching tape of my pee wee football team. We were probably the only 7-year-old team in the country breaking down film.”
The younger Minnifield chuckled when he said that, but doesn’t take his father’s critiques lightly.
“(He taught me about) knowing situations, taking away certain routes from receivers based on alignments, a lot of tricks and trades for the corners,” Chase Minnifield said. “It’s not just running with the receivers. There’s a lot of ways to make the job easier so you don’t have to be the biggest, the fastest and the strongest corner out there.”
Chase Minnifield chose Virginia’s scholarship offer over several others, including Louisville, his dad’s alma mater. But Frank Minnifield steered his son toward the Cavs because of coach Al Groh, who was the linebackers coach with the Browns when Frank played there.
“My dad was really big on Coach Groh,” Chase Minnifield said. “and my mom’s real big on academics, so with those two together Virginia wasn’t going to be beat.”
Groh said Frank Minnifield was a diligent, tremendously detailed player, the first he ever saw bring a laptop to team meetings and take notes about game plans. Flying home after road games, he would type notes about how he did against the receivers he covered that day.
“He practiced really hard,” Groh said. “Every day in practice on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday was a game-like concentration and effort.”
Frank Minnifield retired when his son was about 4 years old, but if Chase Minnifield wants to watch his dad play first-hand, there are several clips of him on YouTube – making an interception against Houston in 1986, blocking a punt (and taking the kicker’s foot in his stomach) against Minnesota in 1986, tipping a pass that was intercepted by a teammate and returned for a TD in 1987, blocking another punt recovered by a teammate for a score in 1988. (Chase Minnifield has some of his clips on YouTube as well, plays from his high school games.)
There are also some old game tapes that Chase will watch at home. His father played in four Pro Bowls and was named All-NFL three times by the Associated Press.
“I knew he was good,” Chase Minnifield said. “I watch his tape like I watch my own tape, to see how I can improve.”
The two are not identical players. At 6-feet, 185 pounds Chase is three inches taller and about five pounds heavier than his father in his playing days.
“Chase is really a leaner, longer player,” Groh said. “Frank was shorter and a little more compact. You can certainly see that Chase has a high level of athletic ability. Frank had to be a little more of a grinder, although he had terrific acceleration and quickness.”
One thing that seems to have been passed on is how to play without fear. Although Chase Minnifield played on both sides of the ball as a junior and senior in high school, he always had a preference.
“If I have to choose I will always play defense,” he said. “I guess it’s in my blood. I just love the corner spot. Being on an island as a corner is kind of like returning kicks and returning punts. You’ve got to get it done. It’s a thrill, an energy rush.”
Groh said Minnifield enjoys returning kicks and feels comfortable and confident doing those chores. The coaching staff lets him make his own decisions, then talks to him about whether they were good ones.
He also doesn’t like to do is raise his hand for a fair catch on punts.
“I fair catch when people are standing around me,” he said, “but for the most part I don’t like to because I’ve never seen a long return on a fair catch.”
Minnifield said he enjoys all eyes being on him when he returns a kick, giving him a chance to make a big play for the Cavaliers. Although he hasn’t brought one back for a score yet, he remains confident that “I’ll be able to slip out of there sooner or later.”
As a defensive back, Minnifield started two games at corner as a freshman and one this season when one of the regular starters was injured. He also plays in Virginia’s “dime” package (six defensive backs), which means he’s on the field a lot against teams that run spread offenses.
Groh said Minnifield has adapted well to the dime, where the coverage and techniques are somewhat different than at cornerback.
No matter what his role, Minnifield goes into a game thinking about what kind of big play he can make to help change things in the Cavaliers’ favor. And that’s the attitude of the whole team right now.
“Our confidence is pretty high right now, and I think confidence is a big issue in winning,” he said. “We have a motto around here, ‘keep pounding at the rock, keep pounding at the rock’ and eventually it’s going to crack. So we keep working hard every day and we’re playing with a lot of confidence out on the field.”
There’s another lesson Chase Minnifield has learned from his father. Frank Minnifield became a highly successful businessman and serves on several boards of directors in the Lexington, Ky., area.
“My dad, he’s pretty smart about his money,” Chase said. “One thing he takes from his football days is his work ethic; he’s never stopped working. He’s in every day, every morning, and doesn’t take a lot of days off.
“The main thing I take from my father is his work ethic – to never stop and to keep going. I’ve always been a big believer that the hardest worker is going to get the biggest payoff.”
And that’s good news for the Cavalier football team.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
E-mail Bill Hass
This article can not be copied or reproduced without the express written consent of the Atlantic Coast Conference.