There are less than two weeks remaining before the Virginia football team begins its quest for a second consecutive bowl appearance with its regular season opener against Richmond. But after two weeks of training camp, much is left to be decided.
For the most part, the Cavaliers are set at offensive line, running back and wide receiver, but they haven’t named a starting quarterback and several defensive positions have yet to sort themselves out. Coach Mike London said this week his coaching staff has now moved from installing the playbook with on-field drills to evaluating exactly what players Virginia will rely upon this year.
Here are three emerging position battles that will undoubtedly be part of that focus in the coming days.
Strong-side linebacker – Henry Coley vs. Daquan Romero
With senior Steve Greer recovered from offseason knee surgery and manning the middle linebacker spot again, the battle to be Virginia’s strong-side linebacker has become one of the most intriguing competitions of training camp. Redshirt sophomore Henry Coley made his first career start in place of Greer at the Chick-fil-A Bowl and after Coley struggled at times, London referred to it as a “baptism by fire” this offseason. But defensive coordinator Jim Reid made it clear during Virginia’s media day that Coley would be the Cavaliers’ third starting linebacker alongside Greer and senior LaRoy Reynolds this season.
However, sophomore Daquan Romero has complicated things by showing off an improved acumen within Virginia’s defensive scheme. A defensive end in high school, Romero’s pass-rushing skills helped him emerge from the spring as the potential starter at strong-side linebacker, but his coverage skills remained a work in progress. That seems to be changing, though, and London declared late last week that the competition “has not been solidified” yet.
“He’s made remarkable improvement in terms of his knowledge of his position right now,” London said of Romero. “The way his body has changed, he feels comfortable knowing the defense, he’s made some good plays in practice. . . . I like his approach. I like his mental approach to that. He’s not just conceding that it’s over.”
Quarterback – Michael Rocco vs. Phillip Sims vs. David Watford
There has been a spotlight on Virginia’s signal callers since training camp began, but London has mostly shied away from definitively praising any of them. He said Friday that there was “nothing new to report in terms of who’s moving ahead of who.” That likely means Rocco remains atop the depth chart, followed by Sims and Watford. London has no set time frame for when he’ll name a starting quarterback, but he did note that this week the coaching staff is “trying to find out a little bit more about Phillip.”
In regards to Watford potentially taking a redshirt or switching positions if he’s not named the starter, London said “all options are on the table.” Watford told reporters on the first day of training camp that he would not be open to changing positions.
Defensive tackle – Brent Urban vs. Justin Renfrow
Virginia knows it will go into the season with senior Billy Schautz and junior Jake Snyder manning its two defensive end spots, and senior Will Hill as one of its defensive tackles. The fourth starter, though, is still in flux. The battle centers on Urban, a 6-foot-7 converted defensive end, and Renfrow, who is an imposing 310 pounds.
Defensive line coach Jeff Hanson recently compared the 280-pound Urban’s combination of size and quickness to Matt Conrath, one of last year’s starting defensive tackles. But Renfrow is more of a traditional defensive tackle and could be an elite space eater. Regardless, both should see playing time this season along with sophomore Chris Braithwaite because Hanson hopes to have a rotation in which each defensive linemen receives at least 25 snaps per game.
Others worth mentioning — The ongoing battle to start at cornerback opposite sophomore Demetrious Nicholson. Freshman Maurice Canady and sophomore Drequan Hoskey are in the mix there. Also, Virginia is still waiting for a consistent punter to emerge. Sophomore Alec Vozenilek is still atop the depth chart.