Tuesday, August 30, 2011

season preview: offense

Hell yes and damn right it is brass tacks time.  Officially it is game week, and the moment has arrived to study the fortunes of this Virginia team.  Today the offense; tomorrow the defense; Thursday, the game at hand.  (Now that the season has begun, Fridays are off days.)  Let's dispense with the rest of the pleasantries and get right to business.


The starter: #16 Mike Rocco
The backups: #5 David Watford, #15 Ross Metheny

The quarterback derby has a winner.  Here is your starting quarterback: Mike Rocco, recruited away from a commitment to Louisville in the final days of the 2010 recruiting season and the early days of Mike London's regime.  There are a host of positives and negatives here:

-- Rocco won against some reasonably legitimate competition.
-- Mike London doesn't subscribe to the Al Groh school of thought on quarterback competition, which is best summed up as "play until you suck."
-- There's a good supporting cast: quality receivers and a very solid offensive line.

-- Rocco is a true sophomore with 25 college passes under his belt, barely half of which were completed, mostly against secondary competition in the waning moments of ugly losses.
-- He wasn't all that highly recruited to begin with.

Rocco won't be asked to do everything under the sun, but he needs to be efficient, and he needs to look much better than he did last year.  More so than just your standard freshman-to-sophomore improvement.  His longest pass last year was 29 yards; obviously he will be asked to do much more than that, since last year he was basically asked not to look stupid and to show what he could do with a simplified environment.  He will probably be in the bottom half of the league when the quarterback stats are fleshed out at the end; in fact, it's not impossible to think he could be the ACC's worst starter.  Therefore the dreaded "game manager" label is going to come into play.  Next year, Watford will have a year under his belt and two more quarterbacks will enter the program (including the highly touted Greyson Lambert who will most likely enroll early); Rocco's goal is to play well enough to go into next spring with a considerable lead on the competition that will again ensue.

Watford will also figure heavily into the mix.  Bill Lazor proved an expert last year at drawing up and calling plays that played to Marc Verica's strengths and let him maximize his talent; thus, I think we'll see the same when Watford is in.  All eyes will be fixated when he trots in, to see what the coaches have cooked up for him.  If the team is losing and the coaches start leaning on Watford more and more, expect him to take over some time midseason.

Then there's Ross Metheny; his best bet for playing time is if Rocco stinks up the joint early, before Watford is ready to jump in with both feet.  The odd man out is Michael Strauss, and with two more quarterbacks entering next year, I hate making predictions like this but the transfer watch for Strauss is hereby on.

Best-case: Rocco keeps the job all year and does, in fact, carry an incumbent's advantage into spring practice.  This would mean we won games.  It still won't prevent a large number of UVA fans from demanding to see more of Watford.

Worst-case: Rocco is overwhelmed by the UNC game or even the Indiana game the week before (and less than two weeks from now), and still was the best quarterback on the roster.  Fans demand Greyson Lambert be pulled from high school and enrolled at UVA in time to start the VT game; failing that, they preemptively anoint Lambert the starter before spring practice.

Prediction: Rocco keeps the job all year and wins just enough to hold off the competition, but Watford's role steadily expands as the season wears on.  TD/INT ratio hovers around 1/1 and Rocco completes about 55-58% of his passes, turning in statistics not very different from Marc Verica's last year, perhaps slightly worse.


The starters: #33 Perry Jones, #25 Kevin Parks
The backups: #38 Khalek Shepherd, #10 Clifton Richardson

Perry Jones is listed as the starter with Kevin Parks, but you get the impression that by year's end, all four of these tailbacks will have the opportunity to strut their stuff.  Jones is a given and it's unlikely he'll ever drop out of the rotation.  He's always been small, but his football sense is extraordinary and he was a pleasant surprise as co-feature back with Keith Payne last year.

None of the other players have played a down of college football, but there's very good reason to be excited about the tailbacks.  Parks is the third-leading high school rusher of all time.  Clifton Richardson probably has the best natural athleticism of this bunch and was heavily, heavily recruited; he's also a hard worker who had questions about his ability to make the grade academically but got himself over all the hurdles.  Khalek Shepherd was the best tailback in the spring game and showed some pass-catching chops.

And running behind this offensive line, productivity is expected.  It's actually kind of exciting finding out who from.  This is a fantastic situation for UVA.  Jones is a proven commodity and is too smart to suffer a significant drop in production, and he's an excellent pass-catcher besides.  Behind him, the potential stretches for miles.

By the way, I have to confess a soft spot for Richardson, who stayed loyal to a terrible football team in high school, jumped on the Mike London train for UVA early (when he could have gone to just about any school in the region) and recruited like mad once there, and worked his butt off to get eligible.  Oh, and helped his five-year old nephew recover from way serious burn injuries.  Richardson is a terrific story in the making if he starts moving up the depth chart.

Best-case: Someone - anyone - earns at least honorable mention all-ACC honors.  There's tough competition in that regard, and truth be told the likelihood is that we'll have to wait a year or two.  But in these best-case thoughts, the only thing keeping someone from having a true breakout season is the other players making it hard to stay off the field too.

Worst-case: Someone gets hurt, probably Jones, and the rest of the unit puts up mediocre numbers.

Prediction: Jones stays the main feature back.  There's a reason he's a captain as a third-year player.  But by the end of the season, I think Richardson will have worked his way into at least a split with Parks for the non-Jones carries.  Shepherd kind of duplicates what Jones brings, and the thing about Richardson is that he's the only back there who isn't 5'8".  Plus he's the most likely to develop into a home-run threat; nobody else has the speed to score from 80 yards away.  Nobody will hit 1,000 yards, but Jones should be aiming for 700+.  The running game last year netted 1,672 yards, and had a low per-game number because the team played from behind too much.  1,900 or 2,000 should be an achievable goal this season, which is all the more important on account of new starter at QB.


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

This is going to be more of an H-back position than a smashblocking fullback thing.  Think Jason Snelling.  More pass-catching than running the ball.  Especially if Milien is in the game; Fells-Danzer is bigger and more of a blocker.  Milien is no bigger than a biggish tailback.  Neither got very many carries last year because Keith Payne was doing a lot of fullback work from his tailback position, but I expect Milien to show up some in the passing game this year.

Best-case: Milien is utilized to good effect in the passing game, largely as a surprise-ish play that sees him open and able to run in the open field.

Worst-case: Nothing much happens and they basically just block.

Prediction: Milien will catch about 14-18 passes; TFD does a lot of short-yardage work.

Wide receivers

The starters: #18 Kris Burd, #14 Matt Snyder, #20 Tim Smith
The backups: #2 Dominique Terrell, #6 Darius Jennings

If there's one thing I've been trying to hammer home whenever I get the chance, it's that Kris Burd will be just an absolutely nasty weapon for UVA if he's allowed to work against the other team's second cornerback.  He doesn't even have to be the "second receiver" in the sense that he gets the second-most targets and second-best stats and whatever on the team; he just needs someone playing across the formation that makes coaches afraid he'll score on that very play.  That's where Tim Smith and the wondertwins come in.

See, Matt Snyder is a fine, heady player who "does the little things right" as they say.  He'll be out on the field quite a bit.  But as for being the starter, well, he's not going to have starter's minutes or production.  Tim Smith has flashed the ability to run past defenders and haul in a pass enroute to the end zone, and the obvious hope on these pages is that he'll do it at least just enough for opposing defensive coordinators to get nervous.  And if not him, then maybe one of the two receivers that so perfectly rounded off UVA's recruiting class back in February.

I don't know precisely why, but Darius Jennings strikes me as the more likely of the two to do things like run a fly pattern past a cornerback or a beautiful deep post.  Dominique Terrell, on the other hand, looks like the weapon out of the backfield: a target for wide receiver screens, reverses, and the like.  These two are major-league upgrades to UVA's pure-talent level.

This is a situation much like the running backs: quality proven talent in Burd and then a metric ass-ton of potential behind.  Burd is a rookie QB's best friend: a seasoned, intelligent player who just knows how to get open.  If afforded the opportunity to work on inexperienced opposition he'll eat them alive; if not, he'll still get his share of catches, but the offense will fire on something less than all its cylinders.

Best-case: Yes, someone puts a scare into defenses, and Burd and that someone - maybe Tim Smith since he's going to start off getting the snaps - combine for about 1,800 yards.  That requires some best-case action from the quarterback too, of course.  Meanwhile, Snyder is an excellent possession receiver, much like last year, and Jennings and Terrell get eased into action and feature on some evil trick plays.

Worst-case: The quarterback play holds back the receivers' production and they look like they regressed half a mile from last year.  Either that or Burd gets hurt and the combination of inexperience at both quarterback and receiver makes for a painful passing game.  But this is not a unit that's going to beat itself.

Prediction: Sometimes I talk about Burd as if he hasn't done well enough up to this point, but he and Dontrelle Inman each racked up 800 yards receiving last year, good for 6th and 7th in the league.  (OK, Burd had 799.  Whatever.)  With a rookie QB and more targets - after all, we've discussed the pass-catching abilities of the RBs and FBs and have yet to get to the tight ends - that's actually going to be a challenge to maintain.  Burd could well improve on 799 yards and might look for 850 or even 900, but there won't be a second receiver with as many as that.  It won't be a tandem type thing like we had last year.  But the depth will cause problems for opponents.  You're going to giggle like a schoolgirl when we toss a four-receiver set out there.  And at least four times during the season, a receiver will do something to make you go "oh sweeeeeeeeeeeet."

Tight ends

The starter: #89 Colter Phillips
The backup: #88 Paul Freedman

At least half of you are probably wondering if Colter Phillips will become the Next Great UVA Tight End.  Answer: maybe.  For sure, weez in trouble if Phillips leads the team in receiving; that's not a knock on Phillips, it would just mean the wide receiver situation has crashed into the mountain.  Every mountain.

But while we might never again have a tight end lead the team in all receiving categories, or have a really evil 1-2 punch like with Santi and Stupar, there's no doubt that the tight end is back to stay for a while.  Phillips was a huge part of the offense last year, especially the short-yardage offense.  At 245 pounds he might be a little light to be a standout blocking tight end; that part of his game is still a work in progress, really.  But his gradual development last year was fun to watch.

As for the rest of the crew here, they're almost entirely unknown quantities.  Paul Freedman probably did not need his redshirt burned, so he's a junior like Phillips but with much less experience, and Jeremiah Mathis's presence at tight end didn't progress much beyond "what a fun experiment" last year, and as third string he probably won't get far this year either.

Best-case: Phillips becomes a workhorse and proves an excellent blocker as well.

Worst-case: Tight ends get more or less shut out of the offense.

Prediction: Phillips had 18 catches last year, and I think he'll improve on that, to about 22-25.  He got a little bit of a slow start last year, partly due to the death of his father in that plane crash, although he did haul in a couple early touchdowns.  He asserted himself more in later games.  I think this year he develops into a top red-zone option; put him down for five touchdowns, enough to give us all the warm and fuzzy that he'll be well set up for a quality senior year in 2012.

Offensive line

The starters: #72 Oday Aboushi, #63 Austin Pasztor, #68 Anthony Mihota, #70 Luke Bowanko, #78 Morgan Moses
The backups: #75 Kelby Johnson, #71 Matt Mihalik, #61 Cody Wallace, #74 Conner Davis, #79 Sean Cascarano

There's not a heck of a lot to say about the starters on the offensive line, which is a good thing.  Maybe the best thing is that this line provides us fans with a lot of confidence in the offense, and there's only two seniors on it.  Those would be Pasztor and Mihota.  Pasztor was a revelation when he was inserted into the lineup as a true freshman back in 2008; he seemed to singlehandedly revitalize a dead running game. 

The best part of the line, besides Pasztor who looks like a mid-round draft pick, is the two tackles, Aboushi and Moses.  Moses is a rare commodity, a huge player who can play either tackle or guard.  Both he and Aboushi worked their way up the ranks awfully quickly and are expected to be stalwarts.  Though Kelby Johnson is listed as the backup left guard, Sean Cascarano would probably be first in the starting lineup no matter who's coming out, which wouldn't leave too much of a drop-off in play.  It's tempting to be excited about Johnson's potential - a true freshman already on the depth chart - and in fact he does have much upside.  But his presence is more about the lack of depth than anything; not counting the injured Landon Bradley, who I fear is quickly approaching a medical scholarship, only three scholarship linemen aren't on the depth chart.  All of them true freshmen.  Somebody has to fill the spot.  The good sign for Johnson is that if he wasn't at least somewhat ready to play, the coaches would've simply listed Cascarano in both spots

Bowanko is a new starter, but he, too, has moved quickly up the charts.  The question isn't whether he or the other starters can get it done, it's what happens if someone goes down with injury.  We'd best hope the line stays healthy; three of those backups are freshmen who've never played, and Mihalik is really a stopgap rather than a long-term solution.  And again: if injuries start happening and replacements are needed on the depth chart, we're quickly going to run out of scholarship players.

Best-case: Health.

Worst-case: Not health.

Prediction: For the sake of my sanity, I predict health.  Also, a slightly fuller rotation as the season goes on and some of the guys lower down on the depth chart start gaining more trust from the coaches.  Kelby Johnson will likely play; if at all possible the other true freshmen will be redshirted.  However, as Mihota and Pasztor are seniors, the most important players needing seasoning snaps are not the backup tackles, but Cody Wallace and Conner Davis.


Tomorrow: tune in again for the defense.


Sandmeistr said...

Great preview. Fun read as always. But you have to change the last couple of sentences in the first paragraph in the TE section. And you should know why.

Brendan said...

I didn't wanna use swears like they do in that Letowski movie. Such potty mouths.