Virginia football encouraged by unproven wide receivers, including Doni Dowling


Senior Darius Jennings (No. 6) is the only wideout on Virginia’s roster with more than 20 catches in a college season, but offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild has praised the group’s improvement from last season. (Mark Gormus/Associated Press via Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Virginia wide receivers coach Marques Hagans held the meeting well before training camp began. Cliches, the former Cavaliers quarterback told his players, would become the norm when speaking with reporters this August. If they didn’t realize how serious he was, Hagans got the point across with his own version of an interview.

Any answer not involving some version of “We have things that we have to prove and every guy has to continue to show up every day, work hard, find a way to get better and do their job,” was deemed unacceptable. There would be no anointed starters or superlatives doled out this preseason, not for a unit that played a major role in Virginia’s anemic offensive performance last season.

The only problem is Hagans can’t control what his bosses say.

“That has probably been as good of a surprise, like the receivers, as we’ve had,” offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild declared during Virginia’s media day last weekend. “That’s probably where we’re most improved . . . as you look at last year.”

The Cavaliers enter the regular season in search of proven playmakers for new starting quarterback Greyson Lambert, especially after tight end Jake McGee, last year’s leading receiver, abruptly transferred to Florida following spring practice. And while there seems to be very little separation among the potential replacements, Virginia’s coaches sound optimistic about the possibilities.

The first two weeks of August practice, for instance, have brought a new face to the surface. Freshman wide receiver Doni Dowling, an overlooked two-star recruit from Varina High in Richmond, has forced his way into an already crowded rotation and stole the show at the team’s Wednesday scrimmage by scoring three touchdowns.

“His athletic ability is something that’s a huge asset for us as a football team. He has earned the right to get on the field for us,” Coach Mike London said Thursday of the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Dowling. “The way he caught the ball and runs after catch, a very physical type of guy, which lends credence to being a member of the special teams as well, that’s a player that’s in our plans of playing early . . . and that’s probably under-recruited. But I’m glad we have him because what he’s shown in practices, his first 13 practices, is he’s going to be a pretty good football player.”

If the first week of practice was any indication, London won’t be without options. Sophomores Keeon Johnson and Kyle Dockins, who took over as starters midway through last season, remain fixtures at wide receiver and bigger receivers such as junior Canaan Severin, senior Miles Gooch and redshirt freshman Andre Levrone have also been factors.

Smaller, shiftier targets like senior Darius Jennings (108 career catches) and touted freshman Jamil Kamara also figure to be in the mix for playing time. Senior Dominique Terrell (Osbourn Park) has been limited by a hernia and could redshirt.

But only Jennings has ever finished with more than 20 receptions during a college season.

“You always want a dominant, go-to number-one guy, but I like the competition,” Fairchild said.

London noted last week that the program made a conscious effort in recent years to recruit taller receivers, and it could pay off with McGee gone.

During the spring, Fairchild had carved out a role in the slot for McGee, to take advantage of his receiving skills and mask his blocking deficiencies. Once McGee left, though, Fairchild said several of his bigger wideouts — Dockins and Severin, in particular — have shown they could be capable of filling the void. He’s hopeful it will jump start an offense that led the ACC in time of possession, but finished ranked No. 110 in the country in scoring offense (19.8 points per game) last year.

“We couldn’t create big plays,” Fairchild said. “That’s just who we were last year and obviously those are things, those explosive type plays, those scoring plays in the red zone, we’ve got to improve on.”

Just don’t bother asking about the specifics with Hagans. Not yet, at least.

“I feel like we were at a standard last year and until we prove we’re beyond that standard, then there’s really nothing for us to talk about,” he said. “We have things that we have to prove and every guy has to continue to show up every day, work hard, find a way to get better and do their job. So that’s where that comes from, and it’s not to punish them. But until we do something, that’s what you’re going to get out of me and that’s what you’re going to get out of them.”

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