2009 Record: 3-9 (2-6 ACC)
Scheme: With a defensive background, it isn’t surprising that new coach Mike London will field a conservative offense. London, who ran a pro-style set in his two years at Richmond, hired former Seattle Seahawks QB coach Bill Lazor to run a West Coast-style offense that will feature a power running game with high percentage passing and some occasional bombs. UVA has had one of the worst offenses in college football over the past four seasons, finishing ranked 100th or lower over that span. The bottom fell out last year as the Cavs finished 118th on offense, gaining less than 270 yards per game, and averaged just 19.3 points per game. Switching from a pro-style to the spread last year and now back to a pro-style probably won’t help matters as players learn a new scheme. This will likely be one of the worst offenses in college football.
Quarterbacks: Part of the doom and gloom about the offense is due to the QB position. While UVA does return a senior with plenty of experience, neither the coaches nor the fans have much faith in Marc Verica. Verica (156 yards, 44%, 1 int.) appeared in 6 games last year and has plenty of experience, but has been erratic and prone to errors, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns for his career. Not blessed with any particularly amazing abilities, Verica will likely start the season, but be riding the pine unless he undergoes a transformation or UVA is battling for a bowl. Because many expect UVA to be in the ACC’s cellar, most pundits figure redshirt freshman Ross Metheny or true freshman Michael Strauss will be starting by midseason.
Metheny ran the scout team last year and impressed the old coaching staff. A southpaw pocket passer, Metheny doesn’t have a big arm, but he is accurate and gets rid of the ball in a hurry. He’s the backup for now. Hot on his, and Verica’s, heels is Strauss. A true freshman who enrolled in January, Strauss showed a surprisingly solid grasp of the offense in spring ball. Strauss also flashed poise and sound fundamentals and many think he may be the future face of the program. It’s anyone’s guess who will emerge from the pack, but most figure Metheny or Strauss will be seeing the field as London eyes 2011.
Running Backs: Part of the reason for the conservative offense is surely due to the lack of talent at QB. And part of the reason is due to UVA actually having some talent at RB. Sophomore Perry Jones and redshirt freshman Dominique Wallace both have serious potential. Jones appeared in 11 games, but only got to tote the ball 9 times. Still, he could be a breakout star in this offense due to his vision and shiftiness. Not built to be a workhorse (5-8, 185), Jones has big-play potential that UVA has been lacking. Wallace does not appear on the post-spring two deep due to a foot injury, but don’t let that fool you. The old staff loved his potential and Lazor has kept an eye on his progress back from surgery. At 6-0, 215, Wallace has the best blend of size and speed of the backs and can also take the pounding London’s offense may require. He could sneak up in the summer and emerge as the starter, with Jones providing a change of pace.
Sophomore Torrey Mack is the leading returning rusher, but that isn’t saying much seeing as how Mack gained all of 73 yards. Mack is a north-south runner, but his role may be as a third down back. He made 11 catches last year and has the best hands of the group. The x-factor could be 6-3, 255-pound senior Keith Payne. Payne missed last season due to off-field issues and could be a short-yardage specialist as he lacks much speed. If a true freshman sees the field, it will likely be Kevin Parks, Jr., a.k.a. K.P. Parks. Parks is a game breaker who could provide a change of pace, but, like Jones, isn’t big enough to take a pounding.
When UVA uses a fullback, expect junior Terence Fells-Danzer to trot out on the field. UVA had an excellent FB in Rashawn Jackson last season and Fells-Danzer is not the blocker or receiver that Jackson was, having spent most of his time at LB.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: Despite the mediocre passing stats UVA put up last year, they actually have a decent WR and TE corps. There is a nice mix of youth, experience, and athleticism.
Sophomore Tim Smith is similar to Jones and Wallace in that he is the type of talent UVA has been lacking recently. Smith (15 receptions, 204 yds, 2 TDs) was a top recruit who instantly saw the field as a true freshman. With great athleticism and overall talent, Smith could really help the new QB. So too could junior Kris Burd. Burd (31 recs, 413 yds, 1 TD) led the team in receiving last year and has great hands and good running ability after the catch. There is some nice depth at the position with senior Dontrelle Inman, junior Jared Green, and sophomore Javaris Brown. Inman (8 recs, 80 yds) has been extremely inconsistent, but has appeared in 33 games and will bring better experience and size than any of the other wideouts. Green (15 recs, 124 yds) has a great size-speed combo, but still needs to work on things like route-running and blocking. Brown (7 recs, 136 yds, 1 TD) was limited to just 6 games last year due to injury, but flashed big-play ability and playmaking skills unlike any other wideout. He and Smith are probably the two best talents in the corps.
Former coach Al Groh was able to reel in several prized recruits at tight end and senior Joe Torchia is another in a long line of UVA TEs who flourished under Groh. He is probably UVA’s top NFL prospect on offense. Torchia (15 recs, 150 yds, 2 TDs) is an excellent blocker as well as an able receiver and expect him to be used more now that the spread offense has been ditched. Behind Torchia is sophomore Colter Phillips, who appeared in all 12 games last year and made 5 catches. Phillips is a better blocker at this point, but has potential as a pass-catcher.
Offensive Line: It’s a lame joke, but this unit was…well, offensive last year. The Cavs averaged just 2.9 yards per carry and UVA QBs were sacked 41 times, ranking them 115th in sacks allowed. Frankly, the line struggled to both run block and pass block. The coaches hope that the return of 3 starters and 3 others players who have lettered means this unit will improve with age. The overall talent, though, is average and this unit will likely struggle again, especially in pass protection.
Two of the three returning starters are at guard and that is where the majority of the good news is. Junior LG Austin Pasztor will be a third-year starter and is a physically imposing run blocker. Senior RG B.J. Cabbell will also be a third-year starter and is a mauler who is probably UVA’s strongest lineman, although not necessarily the best overall blocker. Joining them inside will likely be junior C Anthony Mihota. Mihota only appeared in two games last season, but is athletic and the coaches loved his intensity in spring. That being said, Mihota is an average talent who still needs to bulk up and could be pushed around.
The Cavs are relatively young at the tackle spots, but junior LT Landon Bradley and sophomore RT Oday Aboushi are probably the two most talented linemen on the roster. Bradley, a returning starter, is a prototypical tackle with a long reach and good feet, but he was beaten a lot last year and the coaches hope his experience helps him improve. He is considered an NFL prospect. Aboushi appeared in just 6 games last season, but probably has the best skill set of the whole line. With size, strength, and smarts, Aboushi should only improve with experience and could be the unit’s best player by season’s end.
The coaching staff is likely praying that no injuries occur because depth is nearly non-existent. Senior Isaac Cain started one game last year, but is a former walk-on who has played sparingly over his career and is really better suited as a backup and leader. Redshirt freshman Hunter Steward could push at RT, although that will likely only happen if Aboushi struggles. Steward has the frame, but obviously lacks experience and doesn’t have as much raw talent as Aboushi. The staff is really hopeful that true freshman Morgan Moses, a transfer from Fork Union Military Academy, can provide instant help. A massive man at 6-6, 336, Moses was considered an elite prospect in 2009 and excels at run blocking. He could move quickly up the depth chart in this run-first offense.
Scheme: With Groh’s departure, UVA is switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3. London, a former UVA defensive coordinator, has some talent to work with on this side of the ball, but he and coordinator Jim Reid have their hands full with a run defense that gave up over 170 yards per game and 4.2 yards per rush. Furthermore, the Cavs only sacked the QB 22 times and, thus, Reid is implementing an attacking style that will attempt to pressure and disrupt the opposing offense. Groh recruited better on this side of the ball and this unit could improve, but probably just marginally.
Defensive Line: Considering how poor UVA played last year in run defense, on paper the line actually looks like a strength of the defense. Despite the lack of any proven playmakers, the Cavs feature good size and may not be pushed around quite as much. Depth, however, is another thing.
UVA features two good building blocks at end in juniors Cam Johnson and Zane Parr. Johnson (40 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks) is moving from OLB and is the best pass-rusher and athlete of the linemen. He has to prove he can hold up against the run, but has decent size (6-4, 260) and the talent to be solid. Parr (33 tackles, 4.5 tfl, 3.5 sacks) is the top returning sacker and many tab him as a player on the rise. With great size (6-6, 275) and the ability to hold up against the run, he is a prototypical strongside end. Several underclassmen are battling for the backup jobs at end, but only sophomore Bill Schautz appears ready to play. Schautz appeared in 9 games last season, but is moving from OLB so he could have a learning curve at DE.
While UVA doesn’t exactly have huge space-eaters at tackle, juniors Matt Conrath and Nick Jenkins put in some solid work last year and should be good. Conrath (45 tackles, 5 tfl, 2 sacks) is built more like an end at 6-7, 270, and is quicker than most tackles. Though his technique still needs refining and he has battled injuries, he could be UVA’s best lineman. Jenkins (41 tackles, 2 tfl, 1 sack) was the starting NG last year in the 3-4, but doesn’t exactly have ideal size at 6-3, 280. Still, Jenkins has great strength and is a hustler who never quits. He’s solid if nothing else. Senior John-Kevin Dolce provides depth. Although Dolce (17 tackles, 2.5 sacks) has plenty of experience, having appeared in 23 games, he is undersized at 6-2, 250 and UVA can stand to find some bigger guys off the bench.
Linebackers: The LB corps is a good news-bad news situation. The good news is that there is competition at every position and UVA may have at least 5 guys who can start and produce. The bad news is that the majority of the players are undersized, which means improving last year’s abysmal numbers against the run may not happen. This unit will be faster, but at what cost?
Sophomore MLB Steve Greer was UVA’s leading tackler last year, but he is in a dogfight with junior Aaron Taliaferro for the starting job. Greer (92 tackles, 6.5 tfl) has terrific instincts, but London is interested in getting more speed on the field and that may give Taliaferro the edge. Taliaferro has only three career games of experience, but when Greer injured his ankle in spring, Taliaferro rose to the top of the depth chart and has yet to give it up. While Taliaferro may not end up holding onto the job once Greer returns to practice, he showed big-play ability and will probably be the top LB off the bench.
Another battle is occurring at WLB where junior Jared Detrick is trying to hold off sophomore Ausar Walcott. Detrick missed all of last season with a wrist injury. He is experienced, has decent quickness, solid instincts, and the best size (6-1, 240) of the corps. That being said, Walcott shifted from safety and has the better athleticism and raw ability. Right now, Detrick is better against the run, while Walcott is better against the pass and that might mean whoever is on the field is determined by the down and distance.
One guy who seems to have a solid hold on a job is SLB LaRoy Reynolds. A former safety, Reynolds seemed to benefit the most from the transition to the 4-3. While undersized (6-2, 215) and with only 10 games of experience, mostly on special teams, the coaches think Reynolds has the range and speed to be a difference-maker once he bulks up.
Secondary: While CB Chris Cook is in an NFL camp trying to make a team, the Cavs return three other starters in what will be the strength of the defense. UVA finished 23rd in pass efficiency defense in 2009 and should field one of the ACC’s best defensive backfields again.
It all starts with senior Ras-I Dowling, a future high NFL Draft pick. Dowling (58 tackles, 2 tfl, 3 ints., 8 pass breakups) has the full package—size, speed, instincts, and the ability to step up in run support. If he stays healthy, he’ll be an All-ACC pick. Replacing Cook to start with Dowling at corner will likely be junior Chase Minnifield. Minnifield (28 tackles, 2 tfl, 2 ints.) has been the nickel back the past two years and, thus, has plenty of experience. With good size, technique, and ball skills, the transition to starting should be fairly easy. He will certainly be picked on playing opposite Dowling and looks up to the task. Pushing Minnifield hard is sophomore Devin Wallace. Wallace didn’t play much in 2009, but has had a tremendous offseason and has been one of the players coaches and fans have been buzzing about (comparable to Xavier Rhodes in FSU’s secondary in that respect).
Both starters return at the safety spots, with junior Rodney McLeod at strong safety and classmate Corey Mosley at free safety. McLeod (62 tackles, 3 tfl) is a former corner who does not have prototypical SS size (5-10, 185), but makes up for it with smarts. He always seems to be in the right position. Mosley (47 tackles), meanwhile, won his starting job back in spring after being demoted midway through last season. Blessed with tons of athletic ability, the coaches like the way Mosley responded to his demotion and hope he is better for it in 2010. If he slips again, junior Dom Joseph is waiting in the wings. Joseph (9 tackles, 1 int.) was tabbed the most improved player in the secondary in 2009 and continued that trend during spring practice this year. With safety size and CB skills, Joseph will push Mosley hard. At minimum, he’ll be the first safety off the bench.
Special Teams: All of last year’s specialists return so there is hope this unit will help the offense generate some points. Junior Robert Randolph is back to kick after nailing 17 of 19 attempts last year. A Groza semifinalist, Randolph has a powerful leg and has only missed 3 of his 23 career attempts. Classmate Jimmy Howell is a big guy (6-6, 240) with a big leg. He averaged 40.1 yards per punt and has gotten better every year so that number should go up. The coverage units, however, did not help Randolph and Howell last year as they allowed two return touchdowns and need to improve overall.
Chase Minnifield handled the return duties last season, but UVA ranked 93rd in punt returns and 113th in kick returns last season so the return job may be open to all comers.
Schedule: Nothing is a sure thing after an abysmal 2009, but non-conference games against VMI and Eastern Michigan should be wins. Normally you’d say the same about a game against I-AA Richmond, but the Spiders are one of the lower division’s best teams and beat UVA a few years back. A road game at USC will likely be a blowout loss. The ACC slate is mixed, as UVA gets FSU, UNC, and UM at home, but must travel to face GA Tech, Boston College, and VA Tech. Even a road game at Duke could be dicey for this unit.
Overall: Lackluster. That is probably the best way to describe UVA. Sure, they have a few guys who could end up playing on Sundays, but this is a true rebuilding project. The overall talent is not that great and the skill position talent is not very deep. Verica is likely just a placeholder at QB while UVA needs much more size in the front seven, especially at LB. The defense probably will still struggle to stop the run, but might keep the Cavs in most games. The offense doesn’t look like it will improve on last year’s stats much so expect another 3-4 win season from the Cavs. London seems like a decent hire and has hit the recruiting trail hard in Virginia, but it will probably take him several years to get UVA back on solid ground.