Football

Mark Story: Lexingtonian Chase Minnifield a standout at Virginia

Chase Minnifield (13), a Lexington native and former Henry Clay star, has emerged as one of the nation's best cornerbacks while playing at Virginia.
Chase Minnifield (13), a Lexington native and former Henry Clay star, has emerged as one of the nation's best cornerbacks while playing at Virginia.

For the sons of famous men, there always comes a time when they must choose between trying to follow in their father's footprints or striking out in a direction all their own.

Lexington's Chase Minnifield faced that moment when he signed a football scholarship with the University of Virginia in 2007.

Then-Cavaliers head coach Al Groh offered Chase, the son of former Cleveland Browns star Frank Minnifield, a choice: be a cornerback, the same position his dad played while earning four NFL Pro Bowl berths, or take his own path and try wide receiver.

"If you followed me in high school, I was pretty decent on the offensive side of the ball," Chase Minnifield said of his days as a star at Henry Clay High School. "But when Coach Groh gave me the choice, I just couldn't let go of being on defense. There is something about being on the defensive side of the ball that is just inside of me."

It hasn't always gone as expected, but Chase Minnifield's choice to embrace the family "business" is paying off.

This season, as Virginia (8-4) ultimately earned a berth opposite Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Chase emerged as one of the best cornerbacks in the country. The 6-foot, 185-pound senior earned first-team All-ACC honors for a second-straight year. He was recently named the winner of the 2011 Pop Warner National College Football Award given to an alumnus of Pop Warner football who "has made a difference on the field, in the classroom and in his community."

Rather than feeling pressure from his father's success as a cornerback with the Browns (1984-92), Chase draws on his dad's expertise. After each of his games at Virginia, he takes game film that shows him defending receivers, transfers it to his iPad and emails it back to his dad in Kentucky.

After Frank watches the film and critiques it, the two go over it together via Skype.

"It's been a real, real fun thing for me to do, because that gets my football fix on a daily basis," says Frank Minnifield, 51, now a businessman and chairman of the University of Louisville Board of Trustees. "And it keeps me and him kind of grounded as far as our relationship."

Named for a bank

From the time of Chase's birth, Frank and Diane Minnifield had high expectations for their oldest child — and they wanted their little boy to know it. So they chose a name for their baby designed to communicate lofty standards.

Chase Onassis Minnifield.

"We named him after Chase Manhattan Bank," Frank Minnifield says. "And we figured putting the shipping tycoon's name (Aristotle Onassis, the Greek business mogul and second husband of Jacqueline Kennedy) wasn't going to hurt anything."

By the time Chase Minnifield emerged as a high school football star at Henry Clay, many figured he would be a recruiting lock for Louisville, the school where his dad starred.

However, Virginia's head football coach at the time, Groh, had been a defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns when Frank played there.

"I was looking for a coach that, I thought, could teach (Chase) how to play the pro game," Frank says. "My wife, she was looking for a school with real high academic standards. Virginia fit for both of us."

In Charlottesville, it took Chase a bit longer than he expected to make a major impact. He redshirted his true freshman season because of injury, then he mostly played behind talented corners Chris Cook and Ras-I Dowling the next two seasons.

Last year, Chase came into his own as a junior. He intercepted six passes in his first year playing for Virginia Coach Mike London, the ex-Richmond Spiders head man who replaced Groh after he was fired.

Having earned a sociology degree in three-and-a-half years, Chase entertained putting his name into the 2011 NFL draft. He instead decided to return to school and try to lead Virginia to its first bowl game since 2007.

He has done so. This season, Chase has three picks, including one he returned for a touchdown against Duke, and 50 tackles for a Cavaliers team that beat Florida State, Miami and Georgia Tech.

From the time he picked Virginia, Chase says his hope was to get a chance to play in a bowl game against either Louisville or his hometown school, Kentucky.

That never occurred, but he is stoked for a chance to play against UK's SEC rival Auburn in Atlanta on New Year's Eve.

"I would have loved to play the Wildcats," Chase said. "That's not going to happen, so I'm really looking forward to playing against an SEC school just to see if the hype is all (you hear)."

A first-round pick?

Coming back as a fifth-year senior seems likely to be a lucrative business decision for the player named for a bank.

"One of the reasons I came back ... I wanted to solidify that my junior year was not a fluke season," Chase said. "I wanted to show the NFL scouts that I could play consistently on a week-to-week basis on a high level. I think I pretty much did that."

Jerry Jones, the veteran NFL draft analyst (www.drugstorelist.com), says Minnifield has a chance to be picked early.

"He's an exceptional corner," Jones said. "His are first-round grades. I'd project the 'C section' of the first round, the bottom. With some people, you can see the genes showing, the advantage of being born with these things. I think that is going to be a heck of an advantage for him."

As Chase has become more prominent as a college player, both father and son are more often asked to compare the playing styles of two generations of Minnifield cornerbacks.

Though he was only 5-9, 180 pounds in his playing days — or maybe because of that — Frank was known for feisty, physical play.

"Oh no, (Chase) doesn't remind me of me," Frank says. "The way defensive backs have to play now is so different than the way I got to play the game. I could do everything but fight (a receiver) in the first five yards (off the line of scrimmage). As long as (the refs) didn't see blood or a bone sticking out, it was all legal.

"Now, with the rules, it's all hands off. Chase doesn't really have the chance to play the game the way I played."

Actually, as his expected NFL career comes closer to reality, Chase says he is making a point of watching his dad's play on film.

"My dad was an in-your-nose, in-your-face, beat-you-up kind of guy out there," Chase says. "(Most of my career), I was probably more of a finesse guy. Now, I'm trying to keep my finesse ability but incorporate that aggression from my dad's game."

As it has turned out, Chase Minnifield has built his own name while walking in his father's shoes.

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