During its bye last week, the Virginia football team held something called the Weenie Bowl, a simulated scrimmage for the talented freshman class that came to Charlottesville this year. On the sideline, veterans such as senior linebacker Steve Greer cheered on their lesser-known teammates, a rejuvenating change of pace in a season that has gone awry.
Greer, the team’s leading tackler this season, hasn’t given up hope that Virginia could win its last four games and qualify for a second straight bowl game. But he’s also aware of the unenviable crossroad the Cavaliers’ seniors now find themselves in after losing six consecutive games.
“We’re frustrated we’re not getting the results we want, but at the same time the program is very important to us older guys,” said Greer, one of Virginia’s 16 seniors. “We want the younger guys to learn the right way to do stuff so they can implement it when they’re seniors.”
This is the dilemma Coach Mike London must confront beginning Saturday, when Virginia (2-6, 0-4 ACC) takes on North Carolina State (5-3, 2-2). He has recruited well since taking over Virginia’s program three years ago, and already has begun the process of elevating some of the team’s younger players up the Cavaliers’ depth chart.
London promised many of them the chance for early playing time, and for the most part he has delivered. On Saturday, for instance, freshman defensive end Eli Harold will receive his first career start. But planning for the future can be tricky for a team trying to salvage the present.
“There’s so many things you want to do with the development of the younger players, but you also want to have an opportunity to be competitive be in some games to win some games at the end,” said London, who described his team as “desperately” needing a victory this week.
If he needs any proof of the fine line between rebuilding and reloading, London need only look at a sophomore-filled secondary that will have to slow down North Carolina State quarterback Mike Glennon, a former All-Met out of Westfield High.
Three of the four starters this year barely played on defense last season, relegated mostly to special teams duty as Virginia finished 8-5 and qualified for a bowl game for the first time since 2007. The result has been a defensive backfield that lacks the instincts to create turnovers and proved susceptible to the big play, especially early in the season.
But Virginia’s sloppy play this season extends far beyond one unit. The Cavaliers currently have the worst turnover margin in the country (minus-16) and remain the second-most penalized team in the ACC.
These sorts of self-inflicted errors, more than any youth movement, is why even Virginia’s veterans seem to be on board with involving more younger players.
“It’s a back-against-the-wall mentality,” junior center Luke Bowanko said. “There’s no question in anyone’s desire to win, but at this point it’s pretty much put up or shut up. We can talk about it. You can write about in the paper, about how much we want to win.
“But guys have got to perform on the field. People are feeling the pressure. I think guys are being pushed in positions where maybe earlier they hadn’t been getting challenged for playing time. Everybody’s fighting for a win, so hopefully it works out.”
Changes to the starting lineup began this week. Along with Harold, Virginia’s top recruit a year ago, sophomore linebacker DaQuan Romero should also start with linebacker Henry Coley suspended this week for violating team rules. Virginia’s depth chart now includes 30 players with at least two years of eligibility remaining after this season.
When he wasn’t on campus, London spent his bye week recruiting around the state of Virginia. He said this week that high school players and coaches remain excited about the direction of the program, despite its struggles this season. Losing aside, London noted, taking some lumps this year was all part of the plan.
“To me, this has always been a process of building a team that has an opportunity to take some of those young players that have been talked about and get them to a point where they become older players and they become players that can contribute significantly to you,” he said.