Virginia Coach Mike London has made it known throughout spring practice that he’d like to see the Cavaliers connect on more downfield throws next season.
So it should come as no surprise that the position battles that have been most entertaining for him to watch these past two weeks involve the team’s wide receivers and secondary. It seems whenever the football has been in the air, London can’t help but take heed of the end result.
“I guess everybody sees it because when the ball is thrown down the field, you see wide receivers, DBs going after it,” London said Wednesday during a teleconference. “Sometimes inside, you don’t always see the stuff going on inside, but definitely you’re attention is drawn to the deep balls and the one-on-ones that we have every day with those guys.”
It’s partly because some of Virginia’s most exciting young playmakers also happen to litter the depth chart at those two spots.
Though the Cavaliers lost leading receiver Kris Burd to graduation, they return starter Tim Smith and dynamic sophomores Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell. That trio has London wondering just how explosive his offense could be in three wide receiver sets “since they are collectively probably some of the fastest receivers, as a group, that can go in the game.”
Smith, you’ll remember, led the Cavaliers in yards per catch last season, while Jennings showed his big play ability late last year with a 52-yard touchdown catch in Virginia’s win over Miami. Terrell, a former All Met from Manassas, saw most of his playing time as a punt returner, but had a game-winning 27-yard touchdown catch in overtime against Idaho.
London also mentioned 6-3 sophomore Miles Gooch and sophomore E.J. Scott (Good Counsel) as two others that will likely contribute at receiver next year. But more than anybody’s track record, the encouraging sign for London is that all of his potential receivers have shown an increased grasp of Lazor’s playbook.
“You can see it on the field. They’re reading coverages better on the run,” he said. “They already came in fast, but to take [advantage of] fast, you gotta put it with scheme. … They’ve done a really nice job of understanding the offense and kind of moving forward.”
In the secondary, Virginia lost three starters, including all-ACC selections Chase Minnifield at cornerback and Rodney McCleod at strong safety. Sophomore Demetrious Nicholson is entrenched as one of the starting cornerbacks after showing signs of being a true lockdown option as a true freshman in 2011. But who will play opposite Nicholson has been one of the more compelling storylines of this spring.
Sophomores Brandon Phelps (Damascus High) and Drequan Hoskey – who had a memorable pass break-up in the final minute of Virginia’s dramatic win over Florida State last season -- have been in a spirited battle for that spot. Both have shown marked improvement after spending their freshmen campaigns almost exclusively on special teams, and London has challenged them by asking, “What do you want to be now? Do you want to be the starting corner or do you want to be a full-phased special teams guy?”
The coach also likes what he sees out of sophomore cornerback Brendan Morgan, who converted from running back this offseason given Virginia’s deep corps of returners in the backfield.
“I think from a speed standpoint we’re faster at that position and it’s been interesting to watch those guys, the three of them, have to battle, because they’re going against some really fast wide receivers,” London said.
At safety, it appears junior Rijo Walker and sophomore Anthony Harris have emerged as the team’s best options but London did single out redshirt freshman strong safety Mason Harris for praise. The top reserve at free safety, sophomore Kameron Mack, has not been practicing this spring “because of some obligations that he has to this team and to the athletic department,” London said Wednesday.
“It’s been really neat, at the corners and the safeties, the influence that Rodney McCleod had on Anthony Harris and how much influence Chase had on the corners,” he added. “Those guys took notes and listened up. … There’s nobody else in front, no one in recruiting. They’ve got to be the guys.”