There is one play from Virginia’s first scrimmage of the preseason that sticks out in the mind of wide receiver Tim Smith. He was running a post route when quarterback Michael Rocco launched a pass down the field. The ball carried so far, in fact, that the speedy Smith had to dive in order to make an attempt at catching it.
“That was probably the first time I had to lay out instead of running underneath it, so I can tell his arm has gotten stronger,” Smith said this week.
Coach Mike London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor sure hope that’s the case because Virginia is emphasizing the long ball this year. After watching Virginia’s offensive production not result in the sort of points it hoped for a year ago, the Cavaliers are in the market for big plays.
The coaching staff has put the onus on a group of wide receivers that showed signs of being game-breakers during limited playing time in 2011, but still must prove it can beat coverages down the field on a consistent basis.
Last year, Virginia connected on just six passing plays of 40 or more yards, which tied them for 10th in the ACC in that category.
“I wasn’t given a lot of chances last year, but we have to be more explosive this year,” said sophomore Darius Jennings, who will start alongside Smith when Virginia begins the regular season against Richmond Saturday. “We’ve got four great backs that can run the ball, but we’ve got to open it up. We have to get downfield first so we can get the short routes.”
Jennings and classmate Dominique Terrell will be at the forefront of this movement. Both possess the sort of speed that could wreak havoc on secondaries, and each is more comfortable with their responsibilities at the position after playing quarterback in high school.
Jennings “went through some growing pains there a little bit . . . but now a year under his belt, he has been really consistent and made some really good catches in practice,” London said before addressing Terrell as well. “They’ve become really good receivers and hopefully it’ll show up on Saturdays
Jennings finished last year with 20 catches for 238 yards and one touchdown. Terrell, who admitted to sometimes being “nervous” and “conservative” last year, contributed eight catches for 59 yards in limited action. Smith is the veteran of the group after catching 33 passes for 565 yards and three touchdowns in 2011.
Rocco has also helped get all these relatively inexperienced receivers acclimated to more prominent roles. After senior Kris Burd helped him assimilate into the starting lineup a year ago, Rocco has taken on more of a leadership role with his receiving corps.
Perhaps most importantly, he doesn’t plan on overthrowing them too often this season.
“I know if I put it out there, they’re gonna make a play for me,” Rocco said. “My job is to make sure they get the ball in their hands.”