There will be plenty of new faces when Virginia football opens practice Monday, including a cavalcade of new coordinators and two quarterbacks who didn’t take a snap last year. But all the change has also brought about hope that 2012’s disappointing 4-8 record can be put in the past.
The Cavaliers remain relatively inexperienced with just seven seniors on the roster, and with a schedule that opens against BYU and Oregon, the next three weeks could be the most important of the year. Here’s a look at some story lines and players that could define this training camp:
For the third season in a row, Virginia enters training camp trying to determine its starting quarterback. All indications are that it is redshirt sophomore David Watford’s job to lose, but new offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild said redshirt freshman Greyson Lambert still has a chance to prove he deserves the nod when the Cavaliers open the regular season against BYU. Watford has more experience and more mobility. Lambert is the better pocket passer. Perhaps more important is whether either quarterback will have staying power facing a daunting schedule. Coaches, players and fans would prefer to avoid the revolving door of previous campaigns.
Coach Mike London and Fairchild would like Virginia’s offense to revolve around a powerful rushing attack, but they’ll have to rely on an inexperienced line to pave the way. The Cavaliers allowed a record 14 sacks and three safeties in their spring game, and the poor performance prompted an overhaul heading into training camp. Virginia has a proven entities at left tackle and left guard with seniors Morgan Moses and Luke Bowanko (Centreville), but redshirt sophomore Jay Whitmire (T.C. Williams) will be a first-time starter at right tackle. Walk on Jackson Matteo, a redshirt freshman, has taken the reins as the No. 1 center. Senior guard Sean Cascarano may not be available this season due to a hip injury, and London will need one or two freshmen to provide depth.
New defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta brings his pressure-based scheme back to Virginia, where he played defensive back more than 30 years ago. The hope is that his aggressive approach will better fit the Cavaliers’ personnel than the read-and-react system used a year ago, and create more game-changing plays. Virginia had just four interceptions, eight fumble recoveries and 17 sacks in 2012. Filling the void left at linebacker by last season’s leading tacklers, Steve Greer and LaRoy Reynolds, will also be paramount.
Fairchild has orchestrated his fair share of successful offenses, most notably during the waning days of “The Greatest Show on Turf” a decade ago with the St. Louis Rams. But even he admits the identity of this Virginia offense is largely a mystery entering training camp. His scheme isn’t much different than the one Bill Lazor employed the past three seasons, but he’ll have more experienced playmakers. Senior wide receiver Tim Smith is healthy again, and juniors Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell (Osbourn) are another year into their transition from high school quarterbacks to college receivers. Junior tight end Jake McGee and junior tailback Kevin Parks could also be on the verge of monster seasons after splitting time with veterans last year. But how Fairchild goes about using all those weapons remains a work in progress.
Virginia’s disappointing 2012 campaign also coincided with a decline in discipline and special teams prowess. The Cavaliers were last in the ACC in penalties, punt returns and defending kickoff returns. To remedy this, London and Virginia’s administration brought in a new associate head coach with a military background (former North Carolina State Coach Tom O’Brien) to help with game management and a coach dedicated to special teams (new special teams coordinator Larry Lewis). The Cavaliers want those investments to pay immediate dividends.
Mizzell, the first five-star recruit of the London era, arrives on campus and could have an immediate impact spelling Parks at tailback and in the return game. Known for quick feet more than breakaway speed, the Virginia Beach native rushed for 1,231 yards and scored 26 touchdowns as a senior in high school. Like most freshman tailbacks, he must earn the coaching staff’s trust by mastering Virginia’s pass-protection schemes.
Folks around the program have started referring to Urban as “the Urbanator” after he dominated spring practice. The 6-foot-7, 295-pound senior could be a breakout star in 2013, especially since the Cavaliers have little depth at defensive tackle after sophomore Chris Brathwaite was ruled ineligible this offseason. Urban had 20 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss a year ago, but Tenuta believes the Ontario native has NFL potential. Urban was a second-round pick in the Canadian Football League draft in May.
Harold showed flashes of the talent that made him Virginia’s top recruit in 2012, but with a full year of college under his belt, big things are expected from the sophomore. Harold has bulked up to 235 pounds, and noted Friday that he feels faster even with the extra weight. He had just two sacks last year, but Tenuta’s aggressive approach could increase that figure exponentially.
McGee emerged as perhaps Virginia’s most reliable target in the passing game a year ago, particularly in the red zone and during crunch time. Armed with a track athlete’s speed, a 6-6, 250-pound frame and soft hands, the junior is a matchup nightmare for any defense. But his impact was limited at times last year because of his inability to block proficiently. McGee has added 10 to 15 pounds this offseason in hopes of being a complete package in 2013.
Virginia lost 212 tackles with the graduation of Greer and Reynolds, and in their place is a trio of linebackers blessed with more speed and less experience. Juniors Daquan Romero (44 tackles in 2012) and Henry Coley (40 tackles) and sophomore Demeitre Brim are the front-runners to be starting linebackers, and all three have performed admirably in part-time roles in the past. But it remains to be seen how they handle increased playing time, especially since Tenuta’s defense relies on linebackers to make most of the pre-snap calls. Romero had 40 tackles in 2012 and Coley finished with 40.