CHARLOTTESVILLE — There are times when Virginia running back Kevin Parks admits it feels like he’s been in college for 10 years already. Though the redshirt junior has made just two career starts, his 1,443 rushing yards in his first two seasons are second in program history to Wali Lundy.
Parks claims to not pay attention to such accomplishments, but he nonetheless feels optimistic about the upcoming season. And it’s not just because the graduation of Perry Jones has paved the way for him to finally be Virginia’s featured tailback when the team begins its football season at home against BYU on Saturday.
“Our mind-set this year is totally different than last year,” Parks said Monday at Virginia’s weekly news conference. “We want to be physical. We want to wear teams down on offense. . . . We want to establish the run.”
For all the issues that led to the Cavaliers’ disappointing 4-8 record in 2012, none troubled Coach Mike London more than his team’s inability to effectively run the football. Armed with Jones and Parks, he figured it would be the program’s calling card. Instead, a leaky offensive line and inconsistent quarterback play made the holes few and far between, particularly in short-yardage situations.
As a result, Virginia saw its rushing average drop from 4.25 yards per carry in 2011 to 3.7 yards last season. Even before former offensive coordinator Bill Lazor left the program to become the quarterbacks coach for the Philadelphia Eagles, London saw the lack of a credible rushing attack as a focal point for the offseason.
New offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild was hired with that in mind, and it’s Parks who will now be the program’s proverbial battering ram. He’s taking that responsibility seriously. The 5-foot-8 native of Salisbury, N.C., squatted 540 pounds this offseason.
“I’m not putting pressure on myself because I know what I’m capable of, but . . . I feel like I have to make no mistakes,” said Parks, who led the team with 734 rushing yards last season. “There’s no room for error, with the teams we’re playing.”
To that end, Parks noted new running backs coach Larry Lewis has been a stickler for the details, such as how players line up and using proper footwork, since arriving ahead of spring practice.
But often last year, there was nothing Virginia’s tailbacks could do. The Cavaliers’ offensive line struggled simply to keep opposing defenses out of the backfield, particularly at the two guard spots. Parks said the offensive line’s progress will be the biggest indicator of his success, and it appears that practicing against the blitz-heavy scheme of new defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta has served that unit well.
“We’ve seen so many different looks in camp given to us by the defense, that we’ve probably dealt with more movement to this date than we did at the end of last season, just because they’re slanting and twisting and blitzing every single play,” said senior Luke Bowanko, a Centreville graduate who has moved from center to left guard this season.
Virginia announced Monday that sophomore Ross Burbank will be the team’s starting center after beating out former All-Met Jackson Matteo (Broad Run) for the job.
“I think just as a group, we’re more confident than we were last year, and that comes with playing against the defense that we did and that comes with maybe the leadership that Morgan and myself provide,” Bowanko added. “But there’s definitely been a confidence that’s floating around. Maybe it’s arrogance. I don’t know. But we’re all just excited to hit somebody and put our résumé out there.”
Virginia’s running game will also have another dimension this year, with junior Khalek Shepherd and freshman Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell listed below Parks on the depth chart. Each have big-play ability, and London hinted Monday that they could both be used as slot receivers at times.
Parks isn’t sure how the rotation will work, although he has already told coaches his two understudies can “get the catches more than me, as long as I get the carries.”
“The key is to try and get your talented players as many touches as possible, and that’s a talented group of three running backs,” London said. “We’ll do some things to make sure that everybody gets the kind of touches that they need to be successful.”
Parks noted Mizzell, London’s first five-star recruit, has impressed him with how well he performed in pass protection. Bowanko, meanwhile, emphasized that the Virginia Beach native earned his nickname with his play this August.
“He dazzles you,” Bowanko said of Mizzell. “I’m sure he’ll go out there on Saturday and make you guys, ‘Oooh’ and’ ahhh’ and call him Smoke throughout the season.”
Cavs notes: Junior Jake McGee was listed third on the team’s depth chart at tight end Monday, behind redshirt junior Zachary Swanson and redshirt sophomore Rob Burns (Stone Bridge), but London said he “wouldn’t put too much into that. . . . Jake will play and play a lot. He’s one of our best players.” McGee recently returned to practice after being hampered by a shoulder stinger during training camp. . . .
Virginia announced its captains this year will be Bowanko, senior defensive end Jake Snyder and senior defensive back Rijo Walker. A fourth captain will be chosen each game from the team’s leadership council.