So with that in mind, here are five observations heading into the second week of training camp.
1) Barring injury, redshirt sophomore David Watford will be the opening day starter at quarterback.
Coach Mike London and new offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild are keeping their opinions about Virginia’s quarterback battle close to the vest, although London revealed Friday that a decision could come as early as Monday with the Cavaliers set to hold a closed scrimmage Saturday. But through five practices, it’s fairly obvious which direction Virginia will go in. Watford has exclusively been working with the first team, while redshirt freshman Greyson Lambert takes snaps with the backups.
More importantly, Watford has increasingly outperformed Lambert, showing improved accuracy as camp progressed this week. His speed and elusiveness in the pocket add another dimension. Lambert has been affected at times by a shaky second-team offensive line against defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s blitz packages and has thrown several interceptions. His arm strength is something to behold. The Jesup, Ga., native has a cannon, although sometimes he relies on it too much, trying to force balls into coverage.
“All three of the guys that are getting reps aren’t as consistent as we’d like,” Fairchild said Friday about the quarterbacks. “Early on, we’ve been turning the ball over more than we’d like to, but there’s been some flashes. Like I’ve said all along, they’re all talented guys. I think we have to play through some things, but I think we’re gonna be pretty good at the spot.”
2) Despite an inexperienced roster, Virginia’s starting lineup is mostly set.
The only position battles remaining to be decided are at center, where redshirt freshman Jackson Matteo and sophomore Ross Burbank are both getting first-team reps, and place kicker. London noted Friday that he’s focused on idenfying a fourth cornerback for the team’s dime package, a couple of backup defensive tackles and a fourth linebacker. At cornerback, freshman Tim Harris and Will Wahee seem to be the favorites to claim that spot. Freshman defensive tackle Donta Wilkins, a former All Met from Potomac (Va.) High, has also impressed coaches. Sophomore Andre Miles-Redmond and freshman Tyrell Chavis will also figure into the competition along the interior of the defensive line. At linebacker, redshirt freshman linebacker Mark Hall has had several interceptions and emerged as one of the breakout players through a week of practice. Sophomore Kwontie Moore, a middle linebacker, also seems to be in the mix.
3)The defensive backs will be the key to Tenuta’s success on defense.
The soundtrack of training camp thus far has been the gravelly, curse-heavy voice of Tenuta offering praise and criticism between every snap. From his familiar spot behind the defense, Tenuta often directs his ire at the defensive backs, and for good reason. With his blitz-heavy scheme, Virginia’s defensive backs have often been left alone in man-to-man coverage and thus far, cornerbacks Demetrious Nicholson, Drequan Hoskey and Maurice Canady haven’t been beaten deep much. Junior Brandon Phelps seems to have taken to free safety well, adding weight to his frame without losing any speed. If the secondary can hold up once the season arrives, when they’ll be on an island with Tenuta blitzing early and often, Virginia’s defense could create the sacks and turnovers it lacked a year ago.
4) Good luck trying to figure out exactly what the offense will look like.
Standing on the sideline Friday, former Virginia running back Perry Jones noted the Cavaliers’ new offensive scheme looked similar to the one he played in last season. But getting a firm grip on what Fairchild will do when the games count remains a tall task. Virginia has tried all sorts of formations during the first week, including the pistol and some read option. Fairchild says he now has a better grasp of who his play-makers will be this season, but it appears he’s waiting until practices are closed to narrow his focus and develop some bread-and-butter plays. “We’re a long way away from being ready to play a game right now,” he said Friday.
5) There’s no doubt freshman RB Taquan Mizzell needs to be an integral part of the offense
Even the cerebral Fairchild can’t hide his surprise at how college-ready Mizzell, a five-star recruit, has looked through the first week of practices. The Virginia Beach native, who goes by the nickname “Smoke,” has been a big play waiting to happen, juking and spinning past defenders whenever he gets the ball. Currently, most of his reps have been with the second team, but it looks like he could be the explosive weapon the Cavaliers lacked a year ago. With featured tailback Kevin Parks still around, Mizzell won’t get enough touches to match the production of past breakout freshmen like Miami’s Duke Johnson. But it has become obvious he’s already one of Virginia’s best playmakers.
Mizzell is “ahead of what you’d think a high school guy would be from a mental aspect,” Fairchild said. “I’ve been very impressed.”