The Virginia football team started down the road to recovery Monday morning. After a tumultuous offseason followed the team’s second 4-8 season in three years, the Cavaliers took to the practice field for the start of spring practice.
Coach Mike London has four new assistant coaches, including two new coordinators, to work with and the transition will be a defining storyline over the coming days. If that weren’t enough change, a new indoor practice facility was officially unveiled Monday, another reminder of the financial commitment Virginia has made in the hope of revitalizing its football program.
But at its core, spring practice is about player development, with an eye towards the fall, when the Cavaliers open the regular season with games against BYU and Oregon. So here’s a look at four positions that fans should keep an eye on over the next few weeks.
What’s new, right? After two straight seasons during which the choiced of starting quarterback seemed to be up in the air every week, the Cavaliers enter spring practice with something of an incumbent in redshirt junior Phillip Sims. He started four games, completed 56.2 percent of his passes and threw nine touchdowns last year. Sims will get first crack at winning the job outright after Michael Rocco transferred to Richmond this offseason, but he must show improved accuracy to hold off two potential challengers.
Sophomore David Watford and freshman Greyson Lambert, both coming off redshirt seasons, will each be given a shot this spring as well. Watford appeared in 11 games in 2010 and has a strong arm to go along with the speed to be a dual threat. Lambert, a classic 6-foot-5 pocket passer, drew raves for his play in practice last season. How new offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild handles a group of signal callers he didn’t recruit will also merit observation. Before he started calling plays, Fairchild’s roots were as a quarterbacks coach.
Virginia lost the heart of last year’s defense with the graduation of linebackers Steve Greer and LaRoy Reynolds. In their place, London and new defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta are counting on several unproven commodities who will move into central roles as the Cavaliers implement a more aggressive, blitz-heavy scheme.
Sophomore Kwontie Moore was a highly touted recruit, but mostly played special teams as a freshman a year ago. His speed at middle linebacker will be an immediate upgrade over Greer, but it remains to be seen whether he has the mental acuity and leadership skills of his predecessor.
Surrounding Moore, there are several candidates who must prove their worth this spring. Junior D.J. Hill filled in nicely for Reynolds last year and should be the favorite to win the weak-side linebacker job. At strong-side linebacker, junior Daquan Romero seemed to move ahead of junior Henry Coley as last season progressed, but both have experience. Coley started the first eight games of the year and had 40 tackles in 2012. Romero started four games and had 44 tackles last season, coming on strong at the end. Sophomore Demeitre Brim could also figure into the mix after standing out on special teams a year ago.
With Oday Aboushi off to the NFL, senior Morgan Moses shifts from right tackle to left tackle this year. The Cavaliers need him to be more consistent than he was a year ago. But considering Virginia’s plans to pound the ball on the ground this year, its search for Moses’s replacement will be more important. London indicated earlier this month that senior Sean Cascarano, who started 13 games at guard last season, is the front-runner for the job. Redshirt sophomore Jay Whitmire, a former All Met from T.C. Williams, will provide a challenge, especially because he could be the long-term answer at the position. DeMatha product Kelby Johnson would have helped here, but he is suspended indefinitely from the program this spring.
Though the interior of Virginia’s offensive line struggled at times last season, senior Luke Bowanko and redshirt sophomore Ross Burbank will likely be in the starting lineup next fall. Juniors Cody Wallace and Conner Davis split time at left guard in 2012 and it wouldn’t surprise if they did so again this season.
Virginia is set at defensive end, with senior Jake Snyder back and sophomore Eli Harold on the verge of what could be a breakout campaign. Former All Met Michael Moore (DeMatha) will also receive significant playing time there. But defensive tackle is in flux with Chris Brathwaite no longer in the program. Seniors Brent Urban and Justin Renfrow would be logical choices to start, given their experience and size, but redshirt sophomore David Dean came on strong at the end of last season. With a new coaching staff, the battle in the trenches could be the most interesting aspect of spring practice. Everyone gets something of a fresh start.