Wednesday, February 10, 2010

assistant coaches: offense

Mike London is very decidedly a defensive coach, so if the offense is ever going to pull out of the awful doldrums it's in right now, the assistants on that side of the ball have to be absolutely on point from Day 1 of practice. There's a lot of work to be done there, but the glaring question is whether this group is experienced enough to make this happen.

Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks: Bill Lazor

Yes, it's just like "laser." Headline writers throughout the entire Commonwealth creamed their pants when they heard he was hired. But Lazor, by virtue of his inexperience and the high-profile job he now holds, is the biggest question mark of the bunch.

First, the positives. During his NFL career, he's worked for some of the best coaches the NFL has to offer. No, not Bill Parcells. But his bosses have included Dan Reeves, Mike Holmgren, and Joe Gibbs, all of whom gave their stamp of approval to the hire. London didn't know Lazor before a month or so ago, but while on the OC hunt, London came across some of these folks and they were all like, "you totally gotta hire this guy," so he did. Lazor, interestingly, has never been fired from any position he's held. When he left the University of Buffalo, it was by his own doing to pursue an NFL career, and though he worked for three separate teams in seven years, his departures were always because of a change at head coach.

He has, on his resume, exactly two years of offensive coordinator experience, which at least is more than Mike Groh had....but still. Those years were largely disastrous, but can't be held against him - Buffalo was in their third and fourth years of I-A membership and wasn't exactly even a competitive team in I-AA. They were horribly ill-equipped for the jump and Bear Bryant couldn't have led that team to three wins. Lazor therefore doesn't have to learn a whole lot about the day-to-day duties, but he is essentially starting fresh here without much, if any, past experience to draw meaningful lessons from. I expect Lazor will be a pretty good quarterbacks coach and a big asset to a very inexperienced squad, but his performance as OC is totally up in the air.

The pro-style offense Lazor will run should be a plus in the short-term, as it won't require much adjustment. It's what the players are used to, even despite the dabblings in the spread last year. It'll make the learning curve a lot shallower.

Wide receivers: Shawn Moore

I may be the only Virginia fan not doing cartwheels about this. Moore quarterbacked some of the most successful UVA teams in history, so he's at least one of the top three most recognizable program alums out there. On the recruiting trail it will be a boost - people know who he is, and when he talks about how awesome UVA is, it'll be instantly obvious he means it 100%.

But between the sidelines, Moore is just another coach, and unfortunately one with zero coaching experience above high school - and we have thrust him into an important offensive assistant position, important especially given that I don't think we got particularly good instruction in this realm from Latrell Scott last year. Moore is tasked with fixing one of the most underachieving position groups on the team, and his bio includes all of one sentence about his coaching experience.

Wide receivers coach is at least the proper position for Moore, if he's going to be somewhere. This may sound counterintuitive, but the best quarterbacks often make lousy coaches. There's a reason the best NFL quarterbacks tend to go into broadcasting instead of coaching. It came naturally to them, so they don't always know how to impart that to someone who needs to squeeze all his available potential out of limited resources. Someone like Marc Verica, for example. At receiver, Moore may not be 100% familiar with a lot of the footwork and blocking techniques, but he can impart what a quarterback wants a receiver to do, which is half the battle.

Running backs: Mike Faragalli

This is where London will supposedly be looking for offensive wisdom. Faragalli's been in the coaching business for three decades, running the gamut from assistant at every position to offensive coordinator (at Bowling Green, Lafayette, and Richmond) to head coach (in the CFL.) Dude's been around.

Faragalli was the backup plan as offensive coordinator if London couldn't find one, and originally I was of the opinion that if London was taking this damn long to find a coordinator, he really wasn't sold on Faragalli's abilities there. Change of opinion: it actually seems more likely London wanted Faragalli in a minor official role so he could take on a very large unofficial role.

Technically, therefore, Faragalli is the running backs coach, but the staff is so under-experienced that Faragalli probably carries the unofficial title of co-everything else. He'll have a hand in building the playbook, you can bet on that. He'll be showing the ropes to the newbie coaches. I know very little about Faragalli other than an overview of his career history, but I wish there were more like him on this staff.

Tight ends: Scott Wachenheim

London brought Wachenheim on board to coach the tight ends, yes, but he's also made it abundantly clear Wachenheim will be expected to lend a hand with the offensive line. Like Faragalli, Wachenheim has an official position and an unofficial one, and given Ron Mattes's woeful lack of experience, it seems to me Wachenheim's duties will be split as much as 50/50. I don't think that's especially healthy. As far as the tight ends go, if Wachenheim is able to focus the right amount of attention on them then I don't have any worries that they'll be productive, but given that he basically has to babysit a pair of rookie coaches, I have my worries about the arrangement.

Offensive line: Ron Mattes/Gordie Sammis

Neither are listed as assistant coaches, because the limit there is nine. Mattes and Sammis are technically graduate assistants, with a lot more responsibility than the usual graduate assistant is given. Both are UVA alums, bringing the alum count on the staff to four, six if you count video grad assistants Josh Zidenberg and Brennan Schmidt. Neither has a lick of coaching experience. Well, OK: Mattes spent four years at JMU after his rather successful NFL career was up - unfortunately that was over 12 years ago. He spent one of those years coaching the O-line.

And yes, this has "bad idea" written all over it. Mattes' extensive time in the NFL is a plus, but that's about the only thing on his resume that says this is a good idea. Sammis is really just apprenticing, but Mattes is going to be expected to pull his weight along with the rest of the coaches. This is a unit that badly underperformed last year because their heads were spinning from the new ideas being thrown at them: two-point stances, huge line splits, entirely new blocking schemes. To put them in the care of a guy who hasn't coached for 12 years and barely has any more experience coaching the line than you or I is not a low-risk move.

Overall, I can't offer up a big vote of confidence for this offensive staff. Taken individually, it seems fine: Lazor has a lot of impressive referrals, Moore is a UVA legend, Mattes is a highly accomplished NFL lineman and should know his trade pretty well, etc. etc. But the experience mix tilts way too heavily toward the inexperienced side of the ledger. This offense is sorely in need of some quality guidance. It needs people who can say, "look, this is how you do it because this is what has worked for the past thirty years." We just don't have enough of that here, and as a result the guys who do have the experience are going to be spending too much of their time babysitting the guys without. Worse, all that inexperience is in the most important positions. Coordinator. O-line coach. Wouldn't it make more sense, for example, to break in Mattes as the tight ends coach, where he would only have five or six players to worry about, than to give him the biggest unit on the team (twenty-plus players)? I have serious misgivings about the way this has been put together. You can only employ someone as a grad assistant for two years, so there will be a guaranteed shakeup after 2011. I don't know whether to add that to the pile of problems or consider it a blessing in disguise.

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