Friday, August 27, 2010

season preview: the offense

It's getting to be that time. Just think: there's this weekend, which is pretty cool because it's a weekend, and after that, you will wake up on Monday morning and it'll officially be a game week. Time to see how the offense looks. I hope it's good.

THE QUARTERBACKS

The starter: #6 Marc Verica
The backups: #15 Ross Metheny, #16 Mike Rocco, #10 Michael Strauss

Before spring practice, a general sentiment among many UVA fans was that one of the freshmen should be handed the keys to the offense. After all, this was to be a throwaway year, and the future needed developing. As spring practice wore on, it became increasingly clear Marc Verica had no intention of letting that happen. By the beginning of August, if not long before, it was settled: It's Verica. There will be no quarterback controversy.

The competition to be #2 continues, however. And I don't think that's a good thing. There's a hierarchy when it comes to experience - Metheny is a redshirt freshman and Strauss enrolled in the spring - and the fact that those higher on the experience tree can't separate from those who are lower isn't encouraging. Nobody - and I mean nobody - that isn't actually employed by the program seems to have been able to handicap the race for #2 in any meaningful way. That said, if you held a gun to my head and forced a prediction out of me, I'd line them up like this: Metheny #2, Rocco #3, Strauss #4.

That kind of makes Strauss the odd one out. Whoever comes in last in the derby suffers a big setback, because Miles Gooch is still a quarterback too, only on the scout team, and David Watford comes in next year. A much more solid prediction is this: one of those three players - Metheny, Rocco, or Strauss - will end up transferring rather than be left behind by his classmates and continually passed up by incoming players. It's just the sort of thing that happens.

But, Verica. Two years ago around this time, Verica was a third-stringer. One academic suspension and one court case later, he was the starter, just a couple months removed from backup clipboard stand. His 2008 season wasn't actually all that bad, but it got worse as the season wore on, and he was horribly, horribly prone to interceptions. In 2009, he saw only spot duty, and if he wasn't exactly in the doghouse starting after an awful 2008 performance against Clemson, he was at least sleeping in the yard.

New coach, new times, and no doghouse anymore: Verica is a senior, it's his team, and he knows it. This team lacks many things, but you can be sure it won't lack for leadership at a position that demands it. And when he's on, Verica has the capability to put just a beautiful touch on a deep ball and get it right to the hands of his receiver. I don't think the interception bugaboo is going to go away, and I think much like the '08 Clemson game, there will be a game this year that Verica will lose for us. But if he can keep that TD/INT ratio somewhere in the vicinity of 1-to-1, he'll also win us one, and I don't mean VMI.

THE RUNNING BACKS

The starters: #44 Raynard Horne, #21 Dominique Wallace
The backups: #22 Keith Payne, #33 Perry Jones

Pure speculation here. Nobody really knows who'll be the RB starters any more than we know about the backup quarterback. But Horne and Wallace seem to be, from the reports that have come out, the front-runners. Maybe.

Anyway, let's pretend this is how it'll be. Khalek Shepherd's name has been mentioned maybe once, ever, in any sort of camp report, and the most buzz Kevin Parks generated was when reporters learned his flea-sized self was rooming with the human boulder, Morgan Moses. Unless they really, really made a name for themselves, and the time for that has come and gone, they might as well redshirt.

As for the other option not mentioned above, Torrey Mack, he's been equally quiet. He had Al Groh just gushing about his running ability, but when the games started it turned out he couldn't pass-block. Like, at all. Mack won't be completely invisible all season, but it seems he still has a way to go.

Keith Payne has been in London's doghouse, but all evidence points to him working his way slowly out of it. And if he has, football teams can usually find something for you to do if you're a 255-pound running back. It's almost too obvious to say, but Payne will probably see his carries come in short-yardage situations.

Perry Jones, on the other hand, is way too small to ever be a feature back. He's listed at 5'8", 185, measurements which were achieved with the help of a footstool and a sack of concrete. That said, he's also impossible to keep off the field. He'd be a good change of pace kind of back, the kind I'd love to see on the receiving end of screen passes.

The bulk of the carries look like they're ticketed for Dominique Wallace and Raynard Horne - though "bulk" is kind of a generous term. Early on I think the workload will be split much more evenly than in the second half of the season as the better players start to separate. And I think one of the players separating from the pack will be Wallace. Horne strikes me as the kind of player that coaches like in practice because they do things right, but he doesn't make your eyes go pop on the field either. Wallace is clearly the more physically gifted back, and barring injury I think he emerges from the 2010 season with the most carries.

THE FULLBACKS

The starter: #36 Max Milien
The backup: #34 Terrence Fells-Danzer

It seems funny to call a 255-pound guy a tailback when you have a 215-pound fullback around, but that's Milien. Both these guys are converted from other positions - Milien from tailback and Fells-Danzer from linebacker - because 2009's offense made the fullback disappear entirely after a slow decline into nothingness.

But Jason Snelling wasn't a huge guy either. Milien's tailback skills should be utilized plenty. It may run the risk of telegraphing plays, but the split we're likely to see here is that Milien will be used mostly when the play calls for the fullback to touch the ball, and TFD goes in when the idea is to smash into someone.

THE WIDE RECEIVERS

The starters: #20 Tim Smith, #18 Kris Burd
The backups: #81 Dontrelle Inman, #2 Jared Green, #14 Matt Snyder

Want to know who the most important player on the offensive side of the ball is? Your answer might be here. Burd is a highly dependable player. Great route runner, good hands. We pretty much know what we're getting from him, which is really nice to see for once because he's one of the few. But he's not a #1 kind of guy. You can send Burd on a fly pattern, but it's not gonna work. For that, we need Tim Smith. Smith occasionally flashed that ability last year, but not consistently. He has the tools. In order for the passing game to flourish and operate successfully, he must put them to work.

Green and Inman are kind of doppelganger versions of the top two guys. Green also has the ability to stretch the field some, although his main talents are in the 12-20 yard range. Inman is a little bit more of a possession guy, like Burd. Here in the preseason it's not hard to envision this being a productive group. They all have the talent. But this was also one of the most underperforming groups in 2009, and only the dazed and confused offensive line kept them from being the most. Things being simpler this year, I think these guys stand the best chance of any unit on the team of stepping up their play.

THE TIGHT ENDS

The starter: #83 Joe Torchia
The backups: #89 Colter Phillips, #88 Paul Freedman

Tight end is making a comeback. The whole idea nearly disappeared, of course, in 2009, and Torchia, who once looked like the next guy up on the Great Tight End Conveyor Belt that produced Luzar and Miller and Santi and Stupar and everyone else, suddenly became the Last of the Tight End-hicans. Not anymore. In his senior year, Torchia will try and reestablish the tradition.

Torchia has the receiving skills and the prototypical tight end size, but so far in his career he hasn't displayed the necessary blocking acumen. It's simple, therefore. Block, graduate with your name on the above list, and get drafted. Otherwise it'll be time for one of the sophomores. Torchia has the ability to hit 30 catches, but he won't get there if he blocks like he did last year. In fairness, he had a nagging shoulder issue last year, which doesn't make blocking any easier. With that gone, I do think Torchia will make sure that tight end returns to being the most dependable spot on the offensive roster.

THE OFFENSIVE LINE

The starters: #67 Landon Bradley (LT), #63 Austin Pasztor (LG), #68 Anthony Mihota (C), #65 B.J. Cabbell (RG), #72 Oday Aboushi (RT)
The backups: #79 Sean Cascarano (LT), #75 Isaac Cain (LG), #60 Mike Price (C), #70 Luke Bowanko (RG), #78 Morgan Moses (RT)

Aw hell, here we go. In 2008, I lamented, long and loud, the total inability of the offensive line to run-block, though it improved once Pasztor was inserted into the lineup. In 2009, they didn't really get any better at run-blocking, and the new, hugely wide line splits and new scheme caused the pass-blocking to take a crap on the grass. This did not improve.

So we go into 2010, amending every positive word ever uttered about the offense with, "if the offensive line...." Frankly, there's enough talent at the skill positions to give us every reason to think this team could overachieve, and enough questions here on the line to just sadly nod your head when UVA is a unanimous pick for dead-ass-last in the whole conference.

What do we have to work with? Let's start with the bright spots: at guard. Pasztor is going into his third season as a starter, and Cabbell is too. Pasztor made a very obvious positive difference in the moribund 2008 running game, and both are good pulling guards, giving the running game the ability to go to either side with equal effectiveness.

But at tackle, Landon Bradley was one of the biggest culprits of the criminal pass protection the line afforded our quarterbacks. He must improve. Aboushi is intriguing. He has plenty of potential to eventually outperform his predecessor, Will Barker, but that's not likely to happen right away. And at center, Mihota wasn't supposed to be the starter just yet, but the silver lining of Jack Shields' abrupt departure is that it happened early enough to give Mihota a chance to prepare for the job just as if Shields had graduated.

Depth - I don't even want to talk about this. London speaks highly of Sean Cascarano, and of course being the size of a tsunami is a natural aid to Morgan Moses' performance. He will be a mauler, and it will be a joy to watch. Eventually. But just take a look at the backups. Among them they have roughly 170 combined snaps of experience and every single one of them belongs to Isaac Cain. Besides Cain and the starters, take a guess how many offensive snaps the entire rest of the offensive line crew has seen in live game experience? Ten: five each for Aaron Van Kuiken and Matt Mihalik during junk time in last year's pasting of Indiana. This isn't the kind of thing that ends well.

The pressure is on.....

.....Tim Smith. He must get open and draw some double teams so that the other receivers can do their thing. Offenses can't function without a #1 receiver and he's just about the only option.

.....Landon Bradley. Pass protection starts at left tackle and this unit was in the bottom ten nationwide in that respect last year. Sacks must be cut by at a bare minimum one per game or nothing the receivers do will be of any use. And Verica, unlike Sewell, isn't a very mobile quarterback. He can move very well in the pocket, but there needs to be a pocket.

.....Anthony Mihota. Center is the quarterback of the line, and it's always nerve-racking to break in a new one. If pass protection starts at the tackles, run-blocking starts at center. And if that weren't enough, center is also the position of least depth on the line, by a long shot.

If I had to pick three players that I could guarantee would have good, healthy, productive seasons, these'd be it. Everything else will fall in line after that.

Realistic best-case:

Smith is all he's cracked up to be and the line is at least adequate. A running back, possibly Wallace, emerges from the pack and proves capable of being a future workhorse. During blowouts of VMI and Eastern Michigan, a #2 quarterback also emerges and prepares to be groomed to take over the job in 2011. We don't have a 1,000-yard rusher, but only by virtue of splitting the carries a bit too much, and 2011 looks like it could produce one. Verica's touchdown throws keep pace with his interceptions, and though he throws his share of those too it's mostly during games we were going to lose anyway, like USC.

Leading passer: Verica - 64% completion percentage, 2,400 yards, 15 TDs, 12 INTs
Leading receiver: Smith - 55 catches, 800 yards, 6 touchdowns
Leading rusher: Wallace - 150 carries, 770 yards, 5 touchdowns

Realistic worst-case:

The line is absolute garbage, helped along by injuries to Mihota and/or Pasztor. The best running backs turn out to be Horne and Payne, which isn't ideal because they're seniors; nobody else can make a name for themselves, and it isn't like there's much room to run anyway. Verica's interception bug returns, and it's one thing against USC but he also plays poorly in the subsequent ACC games, and a four-pick effort in a horrid loss to UNC is the final straw: he's yanked halfway through the season. A parade of inconsistent freshmen ensues, each playing only just well enough to ensure that the battle will last til next August. We never know if Smith is playing up to his potential or not, because the QB situation is so ugly, though we suspect not.

Leading passer: Verica - 53% completion percentage, 900 yards, 3 TDs, 10 INTs
Leading receiver: Burd - 30 catches, 450 yards, 2 TDs
Leading rusher: Horne - 95 carries, 400 yards, 2 TDs

2 comments:

John and Kim said...

I have a question. You say Aaron Van Kuiken and Matt Mihalik each had 5 snaps vs. Indiana. How do you find this sort of data about which players had how many snaps in each game? thanks

Brendan said...

I don't know where you'd find that in some kind of comprehensive list, if it's even available. In Mihalik's and Van Kuiken's case they were listed under their player bios.