Around this time last year, Virginia Coach Mike London spoke about wanting to expand the number of Cavaliers players being used in games. Virginia was coming off a 42-23 loss to Maryland in its home finale and, at 4-6, becoming bowl eligible seemed unlikely with two road games (at Boston College and at Virginia Tech) remaining. So London wanted to see a wider range of players compete in games to better evaluate them for down the road.
This year, the team’s circumstances are vastly different, and so is London’s approach to the final two weeks of the regular season. Virginia is 7-3 and riding a three-game win streak. The Cavaliers already are bowl eligible and remain in ACC title game contention.
So rather than expanding the list of players London wants to rely upon Saturday at No. 23 Florida State (7-3, 5-2 ACC) and next week against Virginia Tech, the coach finds himself slimming that list down.
“At this point in the season now with implications and if we’re successful that you try to find ways to get your best players the ball, to put your best players in position to make plays and things like that,” London said Thursday. “So I think the mind-set is more geared towards that because of this season and where we are as opposed to last year.”
What, exactly, does that mean for some of Virginia’s positional rotations? Who, exactly, might that strategy impact the most? London would not delve into specifics Thursday, though recent patterns provide something of a guideline.
On offense, for instance, you might expect to see less of reserve linemen Sean Cascarano and Matt Mihalik. Earlier in the season, those two typically would rotate into the offensive line (Cascarano at tackle; Mihalik at guard) for at least one series per game. But that hasn’t happened as much of late. Cascarano did not play during Virginia’s 31-21 win against Duke.
Also, it’s unlikely you’ll see much of true freshman quarterback David Watford. London established three weeks ago that Watford would take on a more limited role, and that has proven very much to be the case. Watford also did not play against Duke. It was the first time all season he did not take a single snap in a game.
True freshman tailback Clifton Richardson’s snaps have decreased recently, as well. Richardson carried the ball nine times during Virginia’s 28-21 win Oct. 27 at Miami. He then carried the ball three times against Maryland the following week and twice last Saturday against Duke. Prior to those two contests, Richardson had not rushed the ball fewer than four times in a game all season.
That’s not to say players like Cascarano, Mihalik, Watford and Richardson won’t be used at all the next two weeks, just that they’ll likely be used far more judiciously than they were earlier in the fall.
The same goes for defensive players like redshirt freshman linebacker Henry Coley and true freshman linebacker Daquan Romero – who, granted, have been dealing with respective injuries of late – as well as true freshmen safeties Anthony Harris and Kameron Mack.
“The key is if you’re a ballhandler and you’ve been productive, the key is to get the ball more in your hands and find creative ways,” London said. “If you’ve been productive on defense with, whether it’s been pressure or whether it’s coverage or whether it’s stunts or blitz movement, then the key is to get those players in that type of position. That’s part of the game plan that went on this week and will continue to go on, just trying to find ways to take advantage of what we have.”
When it comes to special teams, Virginia has tried to utilize some of the players who don’t get a whole lot of snaps on offense or defense. But that may change slightly, too. Last week against Duke, junior tailback Perry Jones was inserted at punt returner in the third quarter and gained 21 yards on his only return.
London said earlier this week it was possible Jones may be moved into that role – replacing true freshman wideout Dominique Terrell – on a more permanent basis to finish out the regular season.
“A lot of teams go into the season sometimes saying whether you’re a starter on [offense] or [defense], you’re also going to start on special teams,” London said Thursday. “We were kind of starters [offense] and [defense] and had some fifth-year guys that could fill the spots there in the special teams roles, some young guys that started playing to fill those roles.
“And as you get to this point in the season, you’re looking for guys that can have a talent or that can continue to help you win based on their skill, so that’s part of the coaching and the game planning as you start moving forward.”