It’s pretty obvious that at the outset of Virginia’s training camp – which begins on the practice fields adjacent to the McCue Center at 3:40 p.m. Friday – the most critical question facing the Cavaliers’ offense is who will start at quarterback.
That question has been and will continue to be examined frequently and thoroughly until said starter is named, which could be in a week … or in about a month when Virginia plays its season opener Sept. 3 against William & Mary.
On the other side of the ball, the most interesting unit to watch take shape will be the team’s linebacking corps. Though the Cavaliers return three linebackers with starting experience, they are thin at all three spots.
Virginia, as you well know, struggled mightily to stop the run last season. In fact, a large part of the reason why Virginia’s pass defense ranked No. 25 in the nation in pass defense in 2010 was because opposing teams didn’t feel the need to attack through the air very often against the Cavaliers. The defenses of only two teams in the country faced fewer pass attempts than Virginia last year.
While the Cavaliers’ ability to turn around those fortunes this fall will not solely be based on the play of their linebackers, vast improvement from that unit certainly wouldn’t hurt. With that in mind, here are a few things to keep track of at each linebacking position as training camp progresses:
Middle linebacker: It would seem that this position needs to be sorted out first, because whichever of the two starting candidates – junior Steve Greer and redshirt freshman Henry Coley – doesn’t get the job likely will be asked to roam among linebacking positions as a reserve. Greer offers experience and a proven track record of making tackles whenever he’s healthy and on the field. He started one game in 2010 and still finished second on the team in tackles (59). During his freshman season, Greer started all 12 games and tallied 92 tackles. But the coaches were impressed in the spring with Coley’s athleticism and toughness. In each of their exit interviews last spring, Greer and Coley were broached about the prospect of spending time at strong-side linebacker. The coaches want whoever doesn’t earn a starting job to slide between the middle and strong-side spots as a backup.
Strong-side linebacker: After starting the first six games of last season at middle linebacker, Aaron Taliaferro was removed from the starting lineup and switched to the strong-side. And while Taliaferro, a fifth-year senior, had a productive spring further adapting himself to the strong-side spot, he still will need to demonstrate an improved ability to recognize where he needs to be on any given play, particularly against the run. His primary competition – according to the post-spring depth chart – is junior Tucker Windle, who logged all of 22 defensive snaps last year. But Taliaferro could end up being pushed by either Greer or Coley, as well.
Weak-side linebacker: Junior LaRoy Reynolds started 11 games at the strong-side spot and led the team in tackles (66) in 2010. But in the spring, Reynolds was switched to weak-side linebacker, which may allow him less specific responsibilities and, thus, more freedom to make plays. For the most part, coaches like Reynolds’s fire, but there were times when it led Reynolds to be out of position. Improvement on his run fits is a must for Reynolds, as well. True freshman Daquan Romero is listed as Reynolds’s primary back-up entering training camp, and coaches believed Romero – who graduated from high school early and enrolled at Virginia for the 2011 spring semester – dramatically progressed toward the end of spring practice. Reynolds’s experience makes him the favorite, but it will be interesting to see how quickly Romero adapts to the college game.