Virginia right tackle Eric Smith tried not to smile as his heart beat rapidly upon hearing the news. Wide receiver Kyle Dockins found out with a simple message from his position coach: “It’s your time. What do you got?” Defensive tackle Donte Wilkins still had memories of how he was dominated by the Virginia’s starting offensive line during training camp when his number was called.
In recent weeks, though, all three freshmen have been a part of a youth movement as the Cavaliers try to pull themselves out of a four-game losing streak that has sparked questions about the direction of the program and the future of Coach Mike London.
Whether it’s because of injury or subpar performances, London and his staff are looking for answers, and more often than not, the solution has involved thrusting a first-year player into a more prominent role.
“There’s some young, talented players that have been given opportunities to perform, and they have performed well,” London said this week. “In regards to how we’re sitting record-wise, you wish that experience and that performance would surpass each other, but it’s not there yet.”
It’s a refrain Virginia fans have grown tired of now that London is in the midst of his fourth year running the program, but the Cavaliers lack experience this season. They have just eight seniors on the roster, the second fewest in the nation. In the past four games, seven freshmen received their first career start.
When Virginia takes on Georgia Tech on Saturday, its two-deep depth chart will include more underclassmen (36) than any other team in the country, and it might explain the array of ways the Cavaliers have lost games this year. In just the last three weeks, they have been blown out by Ball State, lost on a last-second field goal at Maryland and watched Duke score 35 straight points after Virginia jumped out to a 22-0 lead.
The young players have had varying degrees of success.
Dockins and freshman Keeon Johnson, thrust into the starting lineup because of the ineffectiveness of veteran wide receivers Tim Smith, Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell, have been better perimeter blockers because of their size (both are listed at 6 feet 3), allowing Virginia to average nearly 200 rushing yards the past three games.
But quarterback David Watford completed only three passes to wide receivers on Saturday against Duke, and they accounted for “five or six” drops, according to London.
Eric Smith, meanwhile, became just the fourth freshman ever to start at tackle for Virginia, and his progress has allowed the Cavaliers to add bulk to the interior of the line by shifting senior Luke Bowanko back to center and moving redshirt sophomore Jay Whitmire to right guard. But Smith also committed a penalty against Ball State that negated a Virginia touchdown.
“It’s no knock to the guys that were starting previously. You’re not turning your back or saying you’re completely done with them,” wide receivers coach Marques Hagans said. “You’re just saying that the guys in front of them have had an opportunity to produce and catch the ball and they’ve done a better job with it.”
Freshman cornerback Tim Harris and Wilkins, an All-Met from Potomac (Va.) High, have become invaluable now that the Cavaliers are without defensive tackle Brent Urban, the team’s most dynamic defensive player this year, and defensive backs Demetrious Nicholson and Maurice Canady because of injuries. Freshman linebacker Max Valles also accumulated 2.5 sacks in his first career start at Pittsburgh last month.
But after an encouraging start to the season, Virginia’s defense has allowed an average of nearly 37 points and 482 yards the past three games. As defensive line coach Vincent Brown put it this week, “Anytime you lose that level of production, you’re not as strong as you would be otherwise.”
“It’s disappointing that it’s not happening fast enough,” London said. “You want them to do well, they want to do well, and you’ve just got to believe in the process.”
That’s the strategy Virginia has employed with freshman tailback Taquan Mizzell, the first five-star recruit to come to Charlottesville since 2005. After living up to his nickname — “Smoke” — with dazzling spin moves and explosive runs during preseason practices, Mizzell’s initial campaign was derailed by an ankle injury on his first carry in Virginia’s second game of the year against Oregon.
His effectiveness has been limited since, although he felt he was back to full strength for the first time against Duke and uncorked a season-long 36-yard run in the first half. With fellow running back Kevin Parks proving to be the team’s best offensive weapon thus far — he leads Virginia in rushing and receiving yards — Mizzell is comfortable with his part-time role for now.
“With the opportunities that I get, I just want to show [fans] that I can make plays, be a game-changer, a home run hitter,” Mizzell said this week.
If Virginia’s month-long slide is any indication, it might not be long before he gets that chance.