The Cavaliers are on the right track under second-year coach Mike London.
By: Steven Lassan | 6/4/11, 1:41 PM EDT
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ACC Coastal PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Mike London, 4-8 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bill Lazor | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jim Reid
Led by reclamation projects Marc Verica and Keith Payne, Virginia made dramatic, across-the-board improvement in 2010, producing 1,600 more total yards and 14 more touchdowns than in 2009. Verica and Payne, a pair of players the previous coaching regime had basically given up on, enjoyed career seasons in their final year of eligibility.
Now that they’re gone, the Cavaliers need a new quarterback and feature running back, respectively. The quarterback picture is muddled, to say the least, with four players competing heading into preseason camp. With only so many practice reps to go around, that list will have to be trimmed quickly. The modest game experience of sophomores Michael Rocco and Ross Metheny would appear to give them a slight edge over redshirt freshman Michael Strauss and true freshman David Watford, but coach Mike London insists that the competition is wide open.
Whoever wins the job will have a couple of proven targets in receivers Kris Burd and Matt Snyder. Both are possession types. Virginia’s biggest need is for a deep threat or two. Tim Smith, who missed most of last season with a foot injury, is the most obvious candidate, but speedy freshmen Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell, a pair of 4-star recruits, will get a chance to show what they can do.
An experienced offensive line should ease the transition for the new quarterback and keep the running game productive, even without Payne’s downhill power. Shifty Perry Jones is the leading returning rusher and one of the team’s most versatile players, but at 5'8" and 185 pounds, he’ll need relief.
It sounded simple. Move some outside linebackers to defensive end, some safeties to linebacker, get more speed on the field and watch everyone fly around and make plays.
Virginia’s switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense was not that seamless, however. Far from it. The Cavaliers ranked 10th in the ACC in total defense and were pushovers against the run, allowing 203.7 yards per game. Players flew around, but were too often out of position. With seven starters back, London is counting on fewer missed assignments, as everyone gains a better understanding of the scheme.
Generating some pass rush is another goal. Cam Johnson was a handful off the edge at times, but he could use some help. Seniors Nick Jenkins and Matt Conrath will need to be more disruptive in the middle.
At linebacker, Steve Greer is being counted on for a return to his 2009 form. He was slowed by injuries and the transition to the new scheme. Chase Minnifield, an All-ACC pick, leads the secondary.
With so many players back and a second year in the system, it seems reasonable to predict at least some improvement on the defensive side of the ball.
Punter Jimmy Howell and kickers Robert Randolph and Chris Hinkebein are all seniors, and proven commodities. More sizzle is needed in the return game, an area where a recruiting class brimming with speed could be of service.
London has changed the culture at Virginia, re-energized the fanbase and restored in-state recruiting ties. With so many players back on both sides of the ball, and a forgiving non-conference schedule, the Cavaliers appear capable of taking a step or two forward, with the promise of bigger things down the road.