The last time Virginia’s season didn’t end in November – back in 2007 – Kris Burd spent most of his December pretending to be Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Chase Minnifield, who had suffered a knee injury earlier in that season, soared up the depth chart as he finally got an extended opportunity to showcase his skills.
Both players were in their first years at Virginia and learned a lesson they hope will sink in to some of the younger players currently on the Cavaliers’ roster: The next three weeks are critically important, not merely for the team’s ability to show well in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Dec. 31 , but for the players’ standing in the eyes of their coaches and teammates.
“I took these bowl practices as an early spring ball,” Minnifield said Monday. “It was the first time I really got to compete and try to show my teammates what I could do on the field. I was really looking forward to these bowl practices. I had fun, and I moved up the depth chart in pretty good ways. I moved from the third [string] to around the first [string] as a freshman. Me and Burd joked that we were ready to play in the Gator Bowl, but we didn’t because we were redshirting.”
Virginia Coach Mike London on Monday laid out a rough estimate of his team’s schedule as it prepares to face Auburn at the end of the month. Starting Wednesday, the Cavaliers will devote three to four days of practice solely to developing the younger and less experienced players on the roster.
The team then will treat Sunday as it would any other Sunday during the season and focus on game planning for Auburn from that point forward. London said the Cavaliers will devote about 15 practices over a three-week span to preparing for Auburn, which went 7-5 this season after winning last year’s Bowl Championship Series national title.
Virginia will spend the two of those three weeks in Charlottesville before spending the week leading up to the bowl game in Atlanta.
“The practice and the preparation that you put into it while you are here at Virginia is very, very important, because you go down to the bowl site and you can get lost in the activities and different things and the transportation back and forth and all the obligations that you have,” London said. “So the opportunity to game plan and practice your plan is critical as we start moving forward here while we’re on grounds.”
The latter part of this week, though, will be dedicated to developing Virginia’s younger players. On Friday, they will be divided into teams and scrimmage each other in what Minnifield called “the Weenie Bowl.” Minnifield said that scrimmage is important for the younger players because it provides them an opportunity to demonstrate their reliability and showcase their skills to the older players, as well as the coaches.
London said the workouts for the younger players primarily will consist of honing the fundamental aspects of the game. During those 3-4 days, the team’s older players will continue to run and lift weights.
Once regular practices resume, many of those younger players will make up the scout team that competes against the first- and second-team units. In 2007, when the Cavaliers were preparing to face Texas Tech in the Gator Bowl, Burd played the role of Crabtree, who at the time was a dynamic receiving threat for the Red Raiders.
“It was the funnest time of my young career at that point,” Burd said. “You learn the other team’s offense as if it was your own, so you get real comfortable with the plays and you get to make plays against the starting [defense]. I took it as going out there and competing every day for a spot and trying to earn some respect, some credibility. I’m hoping the young guys will embrace that and take it seriously and just go out there and start competing.”
The goal for London and his staff always is to simultaneously foster the team’s youth while preparing the team’s experienced talent to succeed in a more immediate sense, but it’s been a while since Virginia coaches have been able to try to meet those objectives in December.
“The great thing about going to a bowl game is it gives you those opportunities to do that, and then you go into spring practice and you get a chance to do that again,” London said. “And I really believe that’s the correlation between teams that are really good, being able to do that on a consistent basis.”
While relatively new and encouraging, the window to make significant progress on both fronts is small. As London knows, when it comes to having his players’ full attention and directing it toward development – and Auburn – all bets are off once the team plane touches down in Atlanta.
“Sometimes what happens is you go to the bowl site and you think you’re going to get very productive, intense, focused practices, and in talking to some other coaches, sometimes you lose that because you just don’t have that focus and attention that you desire,” London said. “You think you will, but there’s too many things that occur that are cause for distraction. So I think the in-house preparation prior to leaving, from what I’ve learned, is key.”