It’s understandable that most Virginia fans this week are caught up in the excitement of their men’s basketball team making its first NCAA tournament appearance in five years. But with the Virginia football team set to begin spring practice Monday, we wanted to take a few minutes to highlight five areas to watch in the coming weeks as the Cavaliers get back onto the field following their resurgent 8-5 season in 2011.
We’ll start with a comment from Coach Mike London, who provided the key theme for this year’s spring practice: “The youth that we have will now have to step up into significant starting or providing depth as backups,” he said.
1) Offensive line. The Cavaliers must replace two starters – second team all-American guard Austin Pasztor and honorable mention all-ACC center Anthony Mihota – from an offensive line that remained intact throughout all of last season and helped Virginia rank fourth in the ACC in rushing offense.
Second team all-ACC left tackle Oday Aboushi will lead the returning crew, and right tackle Morgan Moses will lock down the other side. But pay particular attention to the development of the interior of the offensive line during spring practice.
Currently, Sean Cascarano (left guard), Matt Mihalik (center) and Luke Bowanko (right guard) sit atop the depth chart at their positions. But neither Cascarano nor Bowanko will participate in spring practice after undergoing offseason shoulder surgeries. Aboushi also won’t participate in spring practice, but at least he isn’t learning a new position.
Cascarano played tackle last season and has moved inside, as has Mihalik, who spent last season at guard. Cody Wallace, who spent last season at center, now is listed as the primary backup to Cascarano at left guard.
London said Monday that many of the interior linemen will spend time at left guard, right guard and center. That’s based, London said, primarily out of necessity, given the various injuries that are being rehabbed. But also, he wants to train the backups so that the offensive line’s depth is more diversified come fall.
2) Secondary. Virginia must replace three starters in the secondary, and those replacements will be charged with helping turn around a pass defense* that was prone to giving up big plays last season. Two-time first team all-ACC cornerback Chase Minnifield is gone, as are honorable mention all-ACC strong safety Rodney McLeod and free safety Corey Mosley. The only returning starter in the secondary is rising sophomore cornerback Demetrious Nicholson, who had an up-and-down season in 2011.
* It takes two components to create a solid pass defense: A decent pass rush and competent pass coverage. That said, it also should be noted that Virginia will have to replace three key figures along its defensive line, given that defensive end Cam Johnson, as well as defensive tackles Matt Conrath and Nick Jenkins, have graduated. Defensive end Jake Snyder and defensive tackle Will Hill return, and Hill in particular could be poised for a breakout season.
The other two-thirds of Virginia’s defensive tackle rotation likely will consist of sophomore Chris Brathwaite and junior Justin Renfrow. Defensive end Billy Schautz will not participate in spring drills as he continues to recover from a leg injury. Rising junior Brent Urban will take Schautz’s first team reps during spring practice. Rising senior Ausar Walcott has been moved back to defensive end after spending most of the past two seasons at outside linebacker.
Rising junior Rijo Walker will spend time at cornerback and free safety this spring, and he currently is listed atop the depth chart at the latter position. Sophomores Kameron Mack and Pablo Alvarez are listed as the primary backups at free safety.
Rising sophomore Anthony Harris enters spring practice atop the depth chart at strong safety, though redshirt freshmen Mason Thomas and Kyrrel Latimer will contend for playing time, as well.
Rising sophomores Drequan Hoskey and Brandon Phelps will battle for the starting cornerback spot opposite Nicholson, and depending on how things play out, Walker may enter the mix for that role, too.
So, as you can see, not a whole lot of returning experience there. Most of those guys played primarily on special teams last season, so there will be a significant role adjustment for each of them.
3) Linebackers. LaRoy Reynolds solely will play weak-side linebacker. That much is certain as the Cavaliers enter spring practice. Everything else among the linebacking corps is pretty much up in the air at this point. Second team all-ACC middle linebacker Steve Greer will not participate in spring drills as he continues recovering from offseason knee surgery, and Henry Coley will take many snaps at middle linebacker in Greer’s place.
But Coley also will log time at strong-side linebacker, where Daquan Romero currently is listed atop the depth chart. Defensive coordinator Jim Reid said Monday that Greer and Coley are being asked to know how to play both the middle and strong-side spots, and those players may spend time at both positions next season.
For now, Reid said, the coaches want to determine who the team’s top three linebackers are. Reynolds most certainly is one. So keep an eye on how Coley and Romero perform in spring practice. That could tell you a lot about how much ground Greer will have to make up once he returns to the field.
Remember, Greer went through this process before after he suffered an ankle injury two offseasons ago. It took him nearly a full season to fully gain back the coaching staff’s trust in his abilities.
4) Wide receivers. Kris Burd’s value to the team was not confined to his ability to catch the ball. He also was a tenacious blocker, and the Cavaliers will miss that, as well. With Burd’s eligibility having expired, rising junior Tim Smith has become the resident veteran on the team’s receiving corps. He’ll lead the group that will factor significantly into whether the Virginia offense can be more explosive in 2012, as is the desire of London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor.
Rising sophomore Miles Gooch, who came to Virginia as a quarterback, is expected to finally take on a more prominent role in the Cavaliers’ passing game. He is listed immediately behind Smith on the depth chart at one wide receiver position.
“When you look at him, he’s physically impressive,” London said of Gooch, who is listed at 6 feet 3 and 220 pounds. “This is an opportunity and year for him to take significant reps and snaps and do something to help this team win.”
At the other wide receiver position, rising sophomore Darius Jennings enters the spring No. 1 on the depth chart. He is followed by fellow rising sophomore Dominique Terrell. Both players possess top-end speed similar to Smith’s, and Lazor said he will look to utilize that collective swiftness more effectively this upcoming season. He said Virginia will use more play-action passes this spring – as it did during the bowl game against Auburn – to see what works best.
“One of the things that we have to do, and it’s nothing new, but it’s something we recognized and we worked really hard on during our bowl preparation, is to create more explosive plays offensively,” Lazor said Monday. “Offensively, whatever your style is, it’s hard to go 12, 13, 14 plays, to drive all the way down the field, if you don’t have some kind of explosive play in there. … In passing game, usually it takes throwing the ball down the field to get those plays.”
Last season, Virginia ranked fourth in the ACC in total offense and ninth in scoring offense. The Cavaliers would prefer to narrow that disparity this fall.
“I think the receiver position is going to be very, very important – almost critical – for us this year in our development,” London said. “From a speed standpoint, we’re probably as fast as we’ve been in a long time. Having another year of knowing the system is going to require that they be on their A-game all the time.”
5) Kicking game. One of the most glaring areas Virginia needs to address in spring practice, London said, is the team’s kicking game. Place kicker Robert Randolph, punter Jimmy Howell and Chris Hinkebein, who handled kickoffs, are all gone. While Randolph and Hinkebein were inconsistent last year, Howell proved to be a valuable weapon in the field position battle.
Junior Drew Jarrett has returned after taking a year off from football. He will compete for playing time at the punter and place-kicker spots. Sophomore Alec Vozenilek also will vie for the punter role, while redshirt freshman Ian Frye will battle Jarrett at place kicker.
“We lost all three of the guys that have been here and made some significant kicks and wins and things like that for this program,” London said. “Now we’re having to find some replacements in that area. … That’s an area obviously that we’ll have to look at.”