CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia offensive lineman Luke Bowanko concedes there is a “weird dynamic” around campus these days, even as Coach Mike London enters his fourth year leading the Cavaliers.
The former Centreville standout feels like an old man with 25 consecutive starts under his belt, one of the few proven commodities on a team that has just seven seniors and will have new coordinators on offense, defense and special teams when the Cavaliers open against Brigham Young on Aug. 31.
In some ways, though, the program feels more entrenched than ever. On campus, the athletic department unveiled an impressive $13 million indoor practice facility this spring. On the recruiting trail, London created a jolt by gaining commitments from three five-star prospects over the past year.
On the field, however, Bowanko is still waiting for that momentum to materialize for his final year in Charlottesville.
“It goes the same with recruits, fans, perception on campus, perception off campus,” Bowanko said Friday during Virginia’s annual media day. “I’ve been a fan of a lot of bad teams in my life. You gotta win. That’s the end game.”
He’s not alone in that sentiment, even with outside expectations lowered following a 2012 campaign in which the Cavaliers went 4-8 for the second time in three years under London. Though Virginia was picked to finish ahead of only Duke in the ACC’s Coastal Division in a poll of reporters last month, the pressure to produce has been ratcheted up after an offseason of change.
Gone are offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and defense coordinator Jim Reid, three other assistants and both of last year’s starting quarterbacks. In their place are three former college head coaches (offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, associate head coach Tom O’Brien and special teams coordinator Larry Lewis), a defensive coordinator with experience calling plays for eight programs (Jon Tenuta) and two quarterbacks who didn’t take a snap last season.
Tight end Jake McGee called all the new faces “a wake-up call” after how little attrition occurred the previous two years. London said suffering through 2012’s disappointment forced the entire program to focus on re-creating “what happened the year before” when the Cavaliers were one win away from the ACC championship game and earned a berth into the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
“Just because we went to a bowl game doesn’t mean we did something. That was a step, but that’s all it was and last year we took a step back,” said junior linebacker Daquan Romero. “This camp is big for the whole team to show each other what we have.”
The most pressing offensive issue when practice begins Monday is once again at quarterback, where redshirt sophomore David Watford is No. 1 on the depth chart and set to battle redshirt freshman Greyson Lambert. A starter will be named early in training camp, but Fairchild said it remains a competition and the decision will come down to the most “productive” player.
The offensive line could also feature several freshmen, most notably walk-on center Jackson Matteo (an All-Met from Broad Run), since London did not sound optimistic about the availability of senior guard Sean Cascarano (hip).
“We have 29 practices and that’s when we’re gonna develop what type of offense and what type of team we are,” Fairchild said.
The consensus on defense is that Tenuta’s pressure-based philosophies — when asked about blitzing, the well-traveled coordinator noted, “We don’t sell the ranch on every snap” — will be better-suited for the strengths of Virginia’s personnel than the read-and-react strategies that were in place last season.
It’s the sort of optimism seniors such as Bowanko are counting on after a season they’d like to forget.
“Who’s to say we can’t run the table and make the ACC championship,” he said. “My expectations are nothing less than making the ACC championship and if we tell ourselves anything different, what do we get?”