Wednesday, March 18, 2009

spring practice primer

Ten or fifteen years ago, a lot of fans likely didn't even know spring practice existed. Fewer cable channels meant there were only so many cameras, and so the coaches had the chance to conduct some practices while the prying eyes were trained on baseball's Opening Day and the waning days of the NBA and NHL seasons. People know about spring ball now. They know about it good and hard.

But before we get to the spring practice primer, in which I'll offer up my take on what kind of drama we can expect to see position by position, your daily dose of basketball coach rumormongering:

First, we put to rest once and for all the notion that players were disgruntled about playing for Leitao. They're disgruntled now, yes. There will be transfers, you can be sure of that, and some guys we were hoping to count on next year might end up gone. Sylven Landesberg, Jeff Jones, Mike Scott, and Sammy Zeglinski all vowed to stay. Not that I don't believe them, but there's much that will change between now and then. I hope they stay. I won't be surprised if one changes his mind, and I'll be less surprised when - not if - somebody does transfer, or ask out of their LOI.

Another very similar take on the situation. Mike Scott was the source of a quote last year (and I wish I wish I wish I could find the article again but I cannot) that gave ammo to the "players don't like Leitao" camp. This, I believe, refutes that 110%.

Jim Young at the ACC Sports Journal proposes Siena's Fran McCaffrey as a cheaper alternative to the Big Three floating around out there. The four major points:

- Cheaper
- Good resume
- Recruits well
- Knows Littlepage (and Littlepage knows him)

First point, agreed 100% - as I said earlier, it will take megabux to lure the big name we want. But is it really wise to go the cheaper route? I'm not sure fans would be enamored of that idea. This was a pretty bold leap, firing Leitao at a juncture like this, and all kinds of the wrong messages will be sent to the fanbase.

Not that McCaffrey couldn't necessarily do a good job. I think recruiting to a place like Siena is one of the toughest recruiting jobs in all of college. There are no less than 22 D-I schools in the state of New York. At Siena, first you have to identify the players good enough to lead you to a conference championship but not good enough to activate the radars on the big-time programs (you're smack in the middle of Big East-land) or even the medium-time programs (you're also smack in the middle of Atlantic-10-land.) You pretty much have to go to New York City to do this, although McCaffrey has also been able to snag some quality talent out of Philly and DC. Then you have to convince them to go to Siena and not any of the other 21 schools in the state that are also in touch with them, like, say, Iona, all of which are pretty much the same to a basketball-playing kid in NYC. Or for that matter, any of the schools in New Jersey or Pennsylvania or New England, all of which also want in to NYC. In short, you can't really sell Siena. You have to sell you. If McCaffrey can consistently bring conference championship-winning talent to Siena, then I'm on board with the idea that he can recruit to UVA.

So this is not a knock against McCaffrey, but there is more proven talent out there, and it's been made known even at this early juncture that there is a Big Three that the school is interested in. If we hire McCaffrey, it means Littlepage didn't have his ducks properly in a row before pushing Leitao out the door, or failed to close a deal with three separate coaches, and ought to be fired his own self.

Criminitly. This stuff is long enough to be its own post. But we're pressing ahead with spring football, because that starts Saturday and this post is a long time in the making. Position by position, here we go with the position battles, and keep in mind this is for spring practice, which means don't worry about the incoming recruiting class cause they ain't here yet.

Offensive line

Drama: Very low. Four starters (Shields, Cabbell, Pasztor, Barker) return, as do most backups, and the one vacancy at left tackle will be immediately filled by Landon Bradley. Rather than fighting for a spot on the depth chart, these players will be able to focus almost exclusively on continuing to gel as a unit and learning the new blocking schemes that Gregg Brandon brings. This unit will generate the fewest stories during spring practice as long as they stay the hell away from Club 216, but that means they'll also be the biggest reason for our mighty ascendance to glory in the fall.

Running back

Drama: Pretty low. Mikell Simpson appears set as the feature back, as the new offense appears tailor-made for his talents. But he's not durable enough to be a workhorse, so whoever earns the backup job will see his share of carries. Raynard Horne has experience, but Torrey Mack brings the talent and a football-playin', Pro Bowl-sounding kinda name. Sooner or later Mack will be carrying the load and I'm looking forward to that day.

Wide receiver

Drama: Lowish, but mainly because there's room for everyone. There will only be five scholarship receivers on the roster for spring, so they should all see lots of reps. Brandon's offense requires having a big fat load of receivers available and the question is not so much who gets on the field but who's the best at getting open once there.

Tight end

Drama: Low. With Andrew Devlin's move to defensive end, Joe Torchia becomes the starter by default. The main thing will not be whether the tight end's role is reduced in this offense but by how much.


Drama: Astronomically galactic. We don't even know who all the horses are in this race. Does Vic Hall get treated as a cornerback that sometimes lines up under center, or a quarterback that can play defense? Jameel Sewell has earned the staff's trust and the fans' respect by working hard to come back to the team, and his talents appear well-suited for this new offense. Marc Verica still throws that oh-so-nice ball though, and if he shows in spring camp that he knows where the defenders are this time around, the superior passing touch that he brings as compared to Sewell can't be ignored. And how big will Hall's WildCav package be? Expect the paparazzi to be all over this one and for it not to be settled even the tiniest bit by the end of spring practice.

Defensive line

Drama: Medium. A clearcut, good old-fashioned position battle is shaping up between Devlin and Zane Parr at defensive end. Winner starts. Matt Conrath is firmly entrenched on the other side. Nick Jenkins and Nate Collins will likely split the duties at nose tackle just as they did last year, but it'll be interesting to see how much Buddy Ruff can horn in on their fun.


Drama: Pretty bloody high. There are a lot of open spots but a lot more dogs in this fight. Denzel Burrell is the lone returning starter, but his platoon-mate from last year Aaron Clark is healthy these days. Cam Johnson also got on the field last year as a true freshman and looked like he belonged. John-Kevin Dolce will probably continue in his role as a pass-rush specialist on the outside. On the inside, Darren Childs probably has the inside track on a starting spot by virtue of having playing experience. Steve Greer, Darnell Carter, and Terrence Fells-Danzer are in the mix on the inside as well. The pundits will point to our freshly rebuilt linebacking corps as a reason to count us out again this year, but there's enough competition to keep the talent level high here and not face too much of a drop-off. This one should be more fun to watch than the quarterback battle, mainly because we can never seem to escape quarterback controversy and we'll be saturated with it ad exhaustium all summer.


Drama: Dependent on Vic Hall's role with the offense. Ras-I Dowling is a future first-round pick and has one spot locked the hell down. Opposite him, Chase Minnifield and Rodney McLeod both have a lot of talent as well and the more quarterback Hall plays, the more starting time is at stake in that battle.


Drama: Medium, but less if Chris Cook ends up here. Which I think he will because Minnifield and McLeod are very promising cornerback talents and the current official roster lists only four safeties. One of whom is pretty strictly a special-teams guy and another of whom is a scout-teamer. Corey Mosley is locked in, and Cook would probably be locked in opposite him. If not, it's probably up to Ausar Walcott.


Drama: None, because Jimmy Howell has the spot under control and even if he didn't, it's still the punter.


Drama: More than I'd like there to be. Probably the same three-horse race as last year with Reyering, Randolph, and Hinkebein vying for the spot.

Of the 24 starting spots, figure that on the offense, six of eleven are locked up tight and on defense, just three of eleven. Kicker is open, punter is not. The six on offense are RT Will Barker, RG B.J. Cabbell, C Jack Shields, LG Austin Pasztor, RB Mikell Simpson, and TE Joe Torchia. LT is penciled as Landon Bradley until fall. Wide receiver is more or less an open competition, but labeling anyone "starter" is a formality because there's lots of playing time for everyone. Quarterback is gonna be bloody.

On defense, your three locked-in starters are DE Matt Conrath, CB Ras-I Dowling, and S Corey Mosley. The NT spot is in good hands with the aforementioned platoon, and the other DE spot should hopefully work itself out nice and clean, so the defensive line is in fine shape. The secondary is fine too - most of the battles are between proven and experienced players. As for linebacker, write all the names on little slips of paper and toss 'em in the air. Whichever land face-up are your starters. It's that wide-open. Bob Trott has his work cut out for him.

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