Wednesday, August 31, 2011

season preview: defense

Time for the part that makes folks squeamish.  The defense was a strength under Al Groh while the offense bogged down in the mud.  Even so, the 3-4 wasn't popular.  Too much of an "NFL" defense.  Fans got their wish, Mike London instituted the 4-3, simplified everything, and made personnel changes to emphasize speed over size.....and the defense promptly transformed itself into a train wreck.  The 3-4 started to look pretty good again around the time Duke (DUKE) was putting 55 points on the scoreboard.  Things gotta be better this season, right?

Defensive line

The starters: #90 Jake Snyder, #94 Matt Conrath, #96 Nick Jenkins, #56 Cam Johnson
The backups: #99 Brent Urban, #54 Justin Renfrow, #93 Will Hill, #47 Bill Schautz

The question on everyone's mind is going to be: What's the ceiling on what Cam Johnson can do?  Johnson impressed as a true freshman and has been getting better every year of his career....and at the same time has always left the impression he's got more in him.  Johnson put together a solid season last year; kind of quietly, in fact, as he was top five in the conference in tackles for loss and added six sacks.  But the feeling remains that he can do even better.  The numbers are good but Johnson truly dominated only in fits and starts.

With Nick Jenkins it feels like he's the one that's been around forever, even though most of his fellow starting linemates are also seniors.  Jenkins is the steadiest player on the whole team, that's why.  That's what you want out of a nose tackle.  For a defensive tackle, Jenkins (and his next door neighbor on the line, Matt Conrath) is a little undersized, but it's never mattered.  UVA was horrible against the run last year but not, generally, up the middle.  (Unless the coaches were using the woefully undersized John-Kevin Dolce on running downs again.)  The problem was losing contain on the edges and piss-poor tackling; Jenkins and Conrath will see to it that the middle doesn't break.

Maybe the biggest surprise is Justin Renfrow at 6'6" and 300 pounds; that's a bitchin' growth spurt because he was recruited at 6'4" 260.  Guys who put on 40 pounds in two or three years usually started off at like 220.  Renfrow's the only inexperienced player on the interior; the defensive ends are a different story with a pair of sophomores and Bill Schautz, an afterthought of a linebacker who moved to defensive end shortly before Groh left and has given two different coaching staffs something to think about.  Still, Schautz's impressions have been left mostly on the practice field; game time has seen him once again mostly out of the rotation.  Lots of youth in the rotation at defensive end now, and more on the way.  Jake Snyder showed a few things last year but it remains to be seen how he'll hold up to the grind.  Brent Urban has barely stepped on the field.  If Schautz doesn't join the rotation for real this year - in other words, if Urban is the first DE off the bench and some of the freshmen start getting looks too - then he's been passed up pretty much officially, despite the really nice things the coaches are always saying about him.

Best-case: Johnson is, in fact, a complete natural disaster in the backfield and makes all-conference honors.  Conrath demands a double team, freeing up Snyder to look really good opposite Johnson and make bad things happen to good offenses.

Worst-case: Johnson kind of levels off, and Snyder is unproductive.  There are too many good players on the interior for things to fall apart there without the help of the injury fairy, but a lack of productivity from the ends combined with a pretty shaky situation at outside linebacker could leave the defense unbelievably vulnerable outside the hashmarks.

Prediction: The tackles are really too good to envision a major problem there.  Conrath and Jenkins won't dazzle but they'll also be the least of our worries most days.  And Johnson is too good and sounding too motivated to not continue to improve.  At the risk of leaping to hyped-up conclusions, Johnson's stats as a junior were much better than Chris Long's.  So I expect the kind of year that makes NFL scouts take very serious interest.  Johnson's goal should be 10 sacks.  He's good enough to make that happen. 

Linebackers

The starters: #52 Aaron Taliaferro, #53 Steve Greer, #9 Laroy Reynolds
The backups: #26 Ausar Walcott, #44 Henry Coley, #30 Daquan Romero

To be pretty blunt, the play of the linebackers last year contributed probably more than anything else to the defensive struggles.  This was a predictable unit.  Defensive coordinator Jim Reid admitted as much in the offseason.  That combined with a ton of inexperience was a deadly combo.  Things got worse, rather than better, as the season went on, because offensive coordinators were finding easily exploitable tendencies and making the Hoos pay for them.

The poster child for all this was Laroy Reynolds.  Early on he looked great, flying into the backfield and making highlight tackles behind the line.  Later he looked awful, flying into the backfield past the counter play that was being run to take advantage of the fact that he'd be in the backfield and not paying attention to the ball.  The other thing that was perplexing UVA fans was why Steve Greer - who'd led the team in tackles as a true freshman - was suddenly platooning.  It turned out to be a justified complaint when his platoonmate, Aaron Taliaferro, moved outside - and yet still Greer platooned.

This year, the coaches have committed to Greer as the middle linebacker.  That alone should help shore things up.  Greer could use about ten extra pounds (thirty if he has NFL dreams) and isn't fast enough to go sideline-to-sideline but is otherwise tailor-made for the middle linebacker spot in a 4-3.  Smart, moves through the trash well because he knows where he's going, and a sure tackler.  With the aforementioned solidity at defensive tackle, I like how the middle shapes up.

But we'll see about the outside.  Taliaferro's listed as the starter, and he's a decent tackler but a limited mover.  His backup, Ausar Walcott, is much more athletically gifted.  Walcott has done an impressive job of moving up the depth chart after being buried at the bottom of the DE food chain (which was more about sending him a message than where he fit best on the field.)  There's little doubt that Walcott can do things that Taliaferro cannot.

Still, it's really the weak side that brings up the most questions.  Reynolds is at a fork in the road.  As a junior it's time for him to figure things out, but his backup is a true freshman.  Daquan Romero was inserted into the two-deep almost from the very beginning of spring camp, but he might as well have been because there's hardly anyone else.  If not for him it'd be another true freshman instead - the only other non-freshman option is Tucker Windle, who finds himself somewhat out of a job with Walcott's ascension back into the two-deep.  (The cynical point of view on Walcott is that at least part of the reason for putting him back at linebacker is Windle not performing.)

A lot of eyes will be on the linebackers this year, because the unit is the weakest link in the defense.  That's the last sentence you'd ever have expected to hear under Al Groh, but the play of the linebackers - the outside backers especially - will go a long way toward determining whether the defense gets back to a successful level or not.

Best-case: Greer leads the team in tackles and the outside 'backers at least hold down their jobs, with their backups coming in only just enough to get the experience they'll need later when it's their turn.  Reynolds flashed a lot of athleticism last year and a willingness to fly to the ball, but much of it misplaced; he's the biggest X-factor on the defense this year and if he points that athleticism in the right direction, he could challenge Greer for the team tackle lead.

Worst-case: The unit continues to shuffle like it did last year, and only Greer can hold down a steady job with the other two positions seeing multiple starters.  It'll be a bad sign if Henry Coley is forced to move outside; it could mean that Greer is crushing people and showing no sign of ever coming off the field, but it could just as likely mean Coley is needed to help shore up the outside somewhere.

Prediction: I think Greer will flourish this year.  That platoon thing was basically garbage and sapped him of his usefulness.  Given the solid majority of the snaps, I think he'll get back up to 90 or more tackles; 100 should be the goal.  As the year goes on, I expect Walcott's athleticism to trump Taliaferro's experience and I think by the end of the year Walcott will have regained his position as a starter.  As for Reynolds, I'd almost feel more comfortable predicting next year's starting quarterback.  I don't think this unit as a whole will be especially dominant, but Greer should put up good numbers, and with the secondary looking excellent and D-line showing much promise, in this case, "good enough" is good enough.

Cornerbacks

The starters: #13 Chase Minnifield, #1 Demetrious Nicholson
The backups: #23 Dom Joseph, #22 Drequan Hoskey


You want to know where the star power is; it's right here.  For the second year in a row UVA will very likely have a cornerback taken in the very early stages of the NFL draft.  Chase Minnifield came into his own last year when Ras-I Dowling spent most of the year hurt, and finished with six interceptions.  He's not a secret any more, so teams will probably try and test the other side of the field.

Why?  Because that's the domain of a really skinny, 165-pound true freshman.  That would be scary if it weren't Demetrious Nicholson, a name already almost as familiar to the UVA fanbase as Minnifield.  Nicholson, apparently, plays as good a cornerback as was advertised during his recruitment, because he beat out Rijo Walker for the starting job; Walker was moved to safety as a result.

Normally a freshman cornerback is a big problem.  Trust me, I watched Michigan try that for three years with the worst results imaginable.  It wasn't pretty.  I'm willing to buy in yet again to the hype, though.  Walker was moved to safety not because "he couldn't beat a freshman" but because it offered him a better path to the field; he's a quality player in his own right.  It's encouraging that Nicholson's presence atop the depth chart is the result of winning a legitimate competition and not because there was just nobody else.

The problem will be in the run game, really.  Last year the run support from the secondary suffered because Devin Wallace was a miserable tackler.  At 165 pounds, Nicholson might not be much of an improvement there, and he's going to have just an awful time against bigger receivers.

The nickel corner is Dom Joseph, who'll be the first cornerback off the bench in any situation.  Joseph can play safety, but Walker really is the one that has a future there since Joseph's a senior.  If he has to, Joseph can bounce back and forth, but his main job will be as a cornerback and chances are he'll get plenty of snaps.  If worse comes to worst he's a good insurance policy if Nicholson struggles.

Best-case: Minnifield is the ACC DPOY - yes, he's a legit candidate - and Nicholson has his growing pains at times but also shows just why we were so damn happy to get him on board in the first place.

Worst-case: Nicholson struggles and teams never, ever throw in Minnifield's direction.  Joseph ends up being the quasi-starter if not the outright one.  And the redshirt comes off of Brandon Phelps.

Prediction: Good times.  I think the run support from the cornerbacks will at times be problematic, just because neither is very big, especially Nicholson.  And I think we'll definitely get some freshman moments out of Nicholson.  But I also think he's a legitimately good player and not on the field because nobody else was good enough; after all, if he wasn't ready, Dom Joseph could easily have gotten the starting nod himself.  Hopefully we can keep the redshirt on Brandon Phelps, who has just a ton of potential of his own, and this year and next set us up for the future with a pair of otherworldly corners.  Not that Minnifield is too shabby himself; he's a potential first-round and won't drop past the middle second round if he has the kind of year that he should.

Safeties

The starters: #4 Rodney McLeod, #7 Corey Mosley
The backups: #28 Anthony Harris, #27 Rijo Walker


Another reason Rijo Walker was moved to safety is oh my god the depth.  Whereas Demetrious Nicholson won his job in a way that gives me the warm and fuzzy, Anthony Harris is on the depth chart because LoVante' Battle just isn't a legitimate option, particularly after being bounced from safety to linebacker and back every offseason.  Not to take away from Harris but if he's on the field this year for anything other than garbage time, problems are happening.  Walker provides at least a threadbare security blanket.

Fortunately, the actual starters offer a lot of promise.  Both are seniors, so the future is shaky, but this year at least we're in good shape as long as they're both healthy.  Rodney McLeod is the better of the two players, but Corey Mosley has been on the field enough to show that he gets it, despite the occasional hotheaded dumb penalty and his annoying penchant for the shoulder-tackle.**

The upside of that is that Mosley loves to bring the wood, and McLeod has some background playing cornerback so his pass coverage skills are a plus.  (Which makes it a little weird that Mosley is the free safety and McLeod the strong safety.  It feels like it ought to be reversed.)  Anyway, McLeod is a better player than he showed last year, having missed a couple games with injury and wasn't right all season.  A healthy McLeod will be a major improvement.  Actually, the way the depth chart shakes out, a healthy McLeod will be a basic necessity.

Best-case: Health all season, and a slightly cooler head from Mosley.

Worst-case: Mosley gets too hotheaded and not only takes dumb, badly-timed penalties, but gets overaggressive and gives up big plays, too, and gets pulled in favor of Walker.  That's another thing that's weird about their positioning, actually: the hothead ought to be the run-supporting strong safety and the cooler customer should be playing free so as to be comfortable being the last line of defense.  Anyway, if we start seeing freshmen trickle onto the field in actual important situations, you'll know to start holding your breath.

Prediction: As with the offensive line, for the sake of my sanity I'll predict health.  Safety play is an amazingly frustrating thing to watch when it goes bad.  No, I don't actually think Mosley will go so crazy as to require benching, but I'm sure he'll do something that makes me crazy at some point in the season.  Even so, this should be a strength of the defense, all things considered.

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There you have it: two days' worth of team breakdown.  Time for the ultimate question: what do I think the result of all this is?  What does this season look like when we've come through to the other side?

Last year at this time, this was my take on the upcoming season:

So 7-5 is the upper limit of realism; any more than that and we can replace one of the light towers with a giant, laser-eyed, marble statue of Mike London. 2-10 is the lower limit, but be assured, it's about as likely as 7-5. The baseline expectation should be 4-8: it represents an improvement over last year while being realistic about the rate of improvement. 5-7 would represent a clear boost above the status of "obviously worst in ACC" that we enjoy right now, and that'd really be nice. Anything more is either taking advantage of UNC's instant descent into a very long stay in purgatory, or putting the ACC on notice, or both.


As it turned out, 4-8 was exactly what happened.  I did think we'd beat Duke on the way to that record; I didn't exactly expect Miami to be our ACC victim.

This year, the schedule is friendler.  No trip to USC on the docket.  The OOC sets up very well.  Idaho is garbage.  William & Mary is supposed to be one of the top teams in I-AA ball but if we can't beat them then there's no point analyzing the rest of the season either.  Indiana is going through a coaching change and isn't good.  The toughest test on the OOC most likely is the home game against Southern Miss, a middling C-USA team.  4-0 in the OOC is where this team ought to be, although 3-1 wouldn't come as a shock.

The conference schedule presents a test.  VT, FSU, and UNC are most likely out of our reach, and Miami will be back at full strength before we visit them.  NC State could be sneaky good.  The most winnable games are Maryland, Duke, and, believe it or not, Georgia Tech, which is going through a lot of roster upheaval this season.  (On the other hand, our defense does not match up well with their offense if it's clicking.)

The offense has a lot of shiny toys, but lacks a quarterback to really put that fear of God into the opposition.  The defense almost has to be better this season; there are too many good players like Cam Johnson and Chase Minnifield for it to be garbage like it was last year.  Steve Greer getting more snaps and Rodney McLeod getting more healthy snaps should make for a better time too.

Even so, realism must set in.  This team is still finding its way.  Against teams like FSU there will still be a talent deficit large enough to make a nasty difference on the scoreboard. 

But the schedule, as I said, sets up real friendly-like.  And you can see improvements in places across the board and all over the field.  Not giant ones, not yet, but they exist.  Enough that Heather Dinich is going to eat her words so hard.  The words that placed UVA 12th of 12 in her conference power rankings.  Those words.

And the ones that said "no bowl for Virginia."  I let it slip in the roundtable answers on Sunday, but the answer to the ultimate question is Yes.  I think you know what the question is.  I'm setting this season's base expectations at 6-6.  Going 5-7 would be a disappointment because it either means no improvement at all inside the conference or a nasty slip-up outside of it.  6-6 represents taking care of business in the OOC, and improving within the conference.  This team is never going to be confused with a championship contender, but it doesn't have to be to be called successful.  Getting to a bowl will validate Mike London's recruiting pitch that this is a team on the upswing.  It's been four years since this team played in the postseason, and they will return this season.

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.

Quarterbacks

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:

Positives:
-- 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.

Negatives:
-- 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.

Tailbacks

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.

Fullbacks

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.

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Tomorrow: tune in again for the defense.

Monday, August 29, 2011

the recruit: Tyrell Chavis

There's a lot of newsish stuff to catch up on, mainly the highly-anticipated publishing of the depth chart, but I also don't want to get too far behind on the recruit profiles.  So today is a two for the price of one special.

Name: Tyrell Chavis
Position: DT
Hometown: Richmond
School: Varina
Height: 6'3"
Weight: 300

24/7: 83; three stars
ESPN: 78; three stars; #44 OG; VA #16; Atl. Reg. #104
Rivals: 5.5; three stars; VA #24
Scout: two stars; #99 OG

Other offers: Boston College, Vanderbilt

Tyrell Chavis is an important recruit for a couple of reasons.  Actually about 300 reasons.  Chavis is really the only true defensive tackle in the class right now, and unless Korren Kirven comes on board - highly unlikely - it'll stay that way.  There will be others that might grow into DTs, but Chavis is already one, and the only one like him in the class.  So of course, all the sites rate him for his play on the offensive line instead.

Yes, Chavis plays both sides of the line, and his 6'3" height screams guard all the way, but there are plenty of those guys in the class.  So despite any rumblings about the "possibility" he'll play on the offensive side, I expect defense.  Chavis looks like a true nose guard.  I say this from looking at the one highlight film available since all the evaluations are on offense.  He's got one move: go forward regardless of what is in the way.  Technique isn't his strong suit; being physical is.

So I expect Chavis to develop as a middle-clogging zero-tech or one-tech nose tackle.  (Meaning he plays right over top of the center or just a shade over in the gap.)  But not for a couple years.  It's a little bit of an open secret that Chavis will likely end up having to prep for a year, probably at FUMA, the usual designated place for UVA recruits who need a little help making the grade.  Chavis's academic challenges are said not to be the product of laziness or incorrect priorities, rather, a family situation.  The other schools to offer him actual scholarships were Boston College and Vanderbilt, which should give you an idea of the concern level. 

So even if a prep year is in the cards it's not the worst thing.  Chavis needs a year anyway to get rid of some baby fat and turn into a 300-pound person-crusher instead of merely a large obstacle, so he'd have simply spent the year redshirting.  Right now, Chris Brathwaite is the fifth defensive tackle as a redshirt freshman; after Chavis FUMA-shirts, it wouldn't surprise too greatly to see him filling that role in technically his true freshman season in 2013.  It depends on how many other guys move inside to DT.  I don't think Chavis will develop into a major pass-rush threat, as he doesn't really have the quicks for it; he'll probably rotate out during passing situations.  Rather, his potential is as a big run-stuffer who creates those passing situations in the first place.

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Let's talk depth chart.  Actually, no.  Let's save that til the end just to make you crazy.  Let's talk Senior Seasons instead.  High schools around the country got into the game for real this weekend, even here in Michigan as the GP South Blue Devils got off to a fine start with a shutout against U-D Jesuit and ended the week ranked #4 in the Eastern region of Metro Detroit.  A fine start to build on last year's surprise appearance in the state semifinals.  It's my blog, I get to write what I want.

But you're here to read about my other alma mater, so let's see what UVA's recruits did this weekend.  A little under half of them were in action this weekend.  Sort of.  The 757 guys got postponed thanks to Irene.  Norfolk Christian is playing as I type, so, update on that next week.  So really all there is, is the Georgia games again.

Wayne County 28, Windsor Forest 28: Yes, a tie.  Greyson Lambert threw two touchdowns for Wayne but also two picks, and was just 13/27 overall for 127 yards.  Wayne was up 28-6 to start the fourth, but turnovers cost them the win.  Wayne County is 0-0-1.

Also playing:

Buford 49, Gainesville 0 (C.J. Moore. Buford is 2-0.)

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OK, now we can have some sweet sweet depth chart action.  The official two-deep is here, and the FOV depth chart has been updated as well.  The items of interest:

-- Demetrious Nicholson has indeed won the starting position at cornerback opposite Chase Minnifield; the real news, though, is Rijo Walker's surprise move to safety.  That makes Dom Joseph basically the nickel corner and walk-on Drequan Hoskey the fourth cornerback.  (For now; Brandon Phelps may overtake Hoskey in the rotation.)  This is actually excellent news for Walker, whose path to a starting job at corner was going to be very difficult with Nicholson and Phelps around; Walker is now the backup free safety, which means plenty of playing time and a starting job to inherit as a junior.  We'll see how his talents translate to safety.

-- The other backup at safety is true freshman Anthony Harris.  Walker's move and Harris's promotion is bad news for Groh recruits LoVante' Battle and Pablo Alvarez.  Alvarez is still only a redshirt freshman so no big deal yet; Battle is a junior without a spot on the two-deep, which makes it pretty official that he's been passed up.  I think the Nicholson promotion is a good sign and Harris's promotion a bad one; Nicholson beat out someone who'd been establishing a quality rep.  Harris beat someone who's never distinguished himself and has bounced from safety to linebacker and back without hardly ever seeing the field.  Fortunately there's a very strong starter at strong safety in Rodney McLeod, but Harris is probably in for a baptism by fire.

-- Ausar Walcott is working his way back up the depth chart very nicely; now listed as Aaron Taliaferro's backup at Sam linebacker.  It wouldn't surprise me at all to see him overtake Taliaferro by season's end; Walcott is much more physically gifted and needs only to match Taliaferro's mental grasp of the position.  Good to see Walcott recovering from his misstep in January.

-- Conner Davis as the backup right guard gives me more confidence than when that was Billy Cuffee.

-- Good things have been said about Kelby Johnson this fall; even so, his position on the depth chart as backup left tackle is mainly due to Landon Bradley's ongoing injury saga.  (FWIW, I don't think Bradley will be able to make it back, unfortunately.)  There are some very good players at offensive tackle but not a world of depth.

-- It's interesting how Matt Snyder keeps hanging around.  He must be doing something right.  Looks like he, Kris Burd, and Tim Smith are the starting rotation at wide receiver with the wondertwins, Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell, backing up and sharing kick/punt return duties.

-- Reading the tea leaves from the press conference and the depth chart, it sounds like Mike Rocco and Ross Metheny are interchangeable - that is, Metheny is Rocco's backup - and David Watford has his own specially carved out role.  I think this will be different than when Bryson Spinner and Matt Schaub were on the play-til-you-screw-up schedule in 2001.  I hope I'm right.

-- Lot of freshman types, both redshirt and true, on the two-deep here.  I count 12, not including long snapper Matt Fortin.  Unless injuries start running crazy on our starters, this actually looks like a very promising setup since of those 12, only one is a starter and he's got a very good reason to be there that doesn't involve the suckiness of the competition.  We have veteran starters in most positions with underclassmen being heavily worked into the rotation; I like how that works for both now and the future.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

preseason acc roundtable


Would you rather have a square one? No, round'll be fine.

After far too long a hiatus, the ACC Roundtable returns. Goody, because I like this stuff. BC Interruption hosts this season's kickoff roundtable, so, look for an entertaining roundup in that corner of the internet by the end of the week.  An initiation for the unfamiliar: one host blog fires off a list of questions, the rest of us answer, and a roundup is posted by the host later in such a way as to entertain and beguile.  Let's begin this therapy session:

1. Most ACC programs are hitting the snooze button for the first two weeks of the season before hosting four preseason top 25 programs in week 3 -- #1 Oklahoma, #18 Ohio State, #23 Auburn and #24 West Virginia. How's week 3 in the ACC go down? Can the conference win a majority of those four high-profile games on Sept. 17?

Miami is going to get crushed.  So is Maryland, probably.  Either team winning would be a pretty big upset, despite Ohio State having personnel issues of its own.  Clemson and FSU are in better shape; probably 50/50 games for both teams unless I'm underrating Oklahoma, which is possible because everyone seems to think they're a major-league national title competitor.  But the game's in Tallahassee, so.

Anyway, no, I definitely do not think the ACC goes 3-1.  2-2 is the realistic best-case scenario, I think.  0-4 is more likely than 3-1, and yes that would suck for the conference so Clemson and FSU and the rest of those guys better get on their horses.

2. What's the one game on the schedule that your respective fan bases have circled on this year's sched? (Conference-wide bloggers -- what are the handful of can't miss games on the regular season sched?).

Spoken like a fan of a team without a set end-of-year rivalry game.  (OK, that was mean.)  The answer is obviously Tech and not the Atlanta version, but I also think a lot of Virginia fans - myself included - are secretly looking forward to the Duke game, on account of having lost to them entirely too much recently.  Beating Duke would let us breathe a sigh of relief that the football program is at least out of the doldrums and headed for bluer skies.

3. Name one ACC program that's not Florida State or Virginia Tech that has a legitimate shot at winning this year's ACC football title. Your ACC's football champion dark horse is:

North Carolina.  They have questions to answer in the passing game on both sides of the ball and a new head coach, but they have no excuses not to be able to run the ball at will against just about anyone.  If Bryn Renner is halfway decent and the secondary isn't a toxic disaster zone, they stand a good chance.

Plus, I'll throw a shameless suck-up bone to the hosts and say that if Boston College plays defense like they did last year and the offense is even slightly mediocre, they'll make a case too.  But the Eagles have a much tougher row to hoe on their schedule.

4. It's been an offseason to forget with major NCAA infractions / investigations into the North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Miami programs. Can the conference as a whole move forward from this whole mess? How do you expect this all to shake out?

Well, GT got the instant car-wash instead of the anal probe and came out little the worse for wear as far as their future ability to compete goes.  UNC's hearing is October 28, too late to have any effect on this season other than the distraction aspect; the NCAA doesn't hand down punishments til like six weeks afterwards, minimum, which means December when the Heels have already accepted a bowl invite.  Awkward timing, really, because I expect the NCAA to ban them from postseason competition for perhaps one season and they'll probably have to announce that after UNC has already accepted a bowl invite.  I don't think anything for this year, but they'll probably have to go into 2012 knowing they can't have their bowl game swag bags.

Miami....whooph.  After what UNC went through last season I can't imagine Miami will get to use most of those 12 or 13 players for a huge chunk of the season, if not all of it.  That's just for starters.  I don't know where the NCAA stands on its investigation but I would hazard a bet that their Notice of Allegations drops sometime during the season.  NOAs detail everything - like, every five dollar Happy Meal an athlete takes or every two minute phone call from Bruce Pearl or every fifteen minute stretching session over the limit - so this NOA is going to cost us a national forest somewhere.  So that's going to be a media orgy right there.  Given the pace of NCAA procedures - the school gets ages to gin up a response, for example - there won't be a hearing until at least next summer, I figure. 

But the punishment?  People talk death penalty and I don't think Miami will get that, but in this case it's fair to at least include it in the discussion.  The NCAA might have to get creative.  Something people don't always remember is that the NCAA only banned SMU for one season (1987) and for 1988, banned them from playing home games.  (It was SMU that decided not to play the 1988 season either.)  In this day and age where TV bans are impractical, scheduling is halfway to impossible and back because games are agreed upon five years in advance, and revenue is king and lord, the death penalty carries tricky implications.  Forcing a team to play all road games does not.  The NCAA might keep this bit of ammo handy.

I've also argued that the ACC needs to study the implications of giving Miami the boot, and I'm sticking with my guns on that one.

5. You can also add conference realignment rumors to the 2011 offseason to forget. With A&M set to divorce the Big 12 and move to the SEC, rumors swirl about a 14th program coming from the ACC. Now's the time to pledge your allegiance to John Swofford and the ACC. Or don't. Either way, tell us what you think the endgame is for the next round of conference musical chairs.

I suppose there are those who'd call me an ostrich for this, but the ACC is in much better shape than some of our brother conferences.  Namely the Big 12 with its uneasy love-hate relationship with Texas and the teetering conglomeration that is the Big East, which I think will last only about as long it takes to sign a disappointing TV deal that doesn't live up to their expectations.

I don't expect the SEC to take any ACC teams, for two reasons: I believe the rumors about there being a bloc of SEC teams voting down any expansion from their respective states, which rules out FSU, Clemson, GT, and Miami.  And I don't think the remaining teams (VT mostly, but also NC State) would be willing to go.  VT likes the academic association with the ACC (and so, importantly, does the Va. legislature, which kicked up the original hissy fit to get VT in the club in the first place.)  NC State, I can't see them leaving their Triangle brethren behind just to fill a numbers game.  So I think the SEC's 14th team will also be from outside the footprint - think Mizzou or West Virginia - and the ACC will be intact.  Even if not, the ACC shouldn't have much trouble bringing Syracuse aboard if a team gets poached, and we just keep going on as before.

I don't think there's an "endgame" per se, since I don't believe in the 4x16 model of superconferences.  That'd require conferences to bring on teams they don't want and wouldn't really help the per-team revenue numbers.  People who say things like that also say things like Cincinnati will end up in the Big Ten and ECU in the ACC, which is basically retarded and proof positive they pulled that shit right out of their hairy colon.

So yes, I think UVA's just fine in the ACC, with no reason to panic and try and bolt anywhere.  In the second shameless plug in a row for an archive post, I'll tell you why UVA would fare very badly in the Big Ten (the usual non-ACC suggestion for UVA's end location.)  The Cliff Notes version is that our recruiting would be in shambles since we wouldn't really recruit any better in Big Ten territory like Ohio and Chicago, but all those guys - particularly Michigan and Ohio State - would be raiding the state of Virginia like it had a Free Cookies sign.  Texas A&M is going to learn this lesson the hard way in five years.

6. Last one, and recycled from last year. a) What do you expect out of your team, b) What kind of season would keep you content and happy, c) What kind of season would be a disappointment?

UVA is at that special place where there's no point getting greedy about what bowl we go to, but eligibility itself is possible, even plausible.  The schedule allows it.  The rebuilding procedure half demands it, especially given next year's extremely demanding schedule that puts both TCU and Penn State on the slate.  That big bold line between bowl eligibility and not bowl eligibility looms large, and it's the season's only goal.  Six wins good, five wins bad.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

acc preview extraordinaire

So. With the team previews complete, it's time for one man's views on the conference as a whole.  I'll even do something I never done did before, which is to predict the bowl shakeout.  I want to see if I'm better than the experts at it.  The first order of business, though, is to do things the usual way, which is position-by-position, and in this case we'll name the ACC's best and worst of each.

Best starting quarterback: Danny O'Brien, Maryland
Worst starting quarterback: Chase Rettig, Boston College

I'm sure a neutral observer would be awfully likely to pick Mike Rocco for that latter category.  And with so many new starters at quarterback in the ACC, there are some real candidates here; Tevin Washington at GT is another serious possibility.  But I'm going with Rettig for the worst.  Rocco's unproven and his stats weren't good last year, but Rocco was throwing largely to second and third string receivers and in very rigid evaluation conditions.  Rettig won the job at BC even by not actually being much better than the competition, and his stats were unimpressive even with one of the conference's better O-lines and WR corps.  Washington's stats were even worse, but passing is not his primary job.

As for the best, I refuse to pick someone like E.J. Manuel based mostly on the hype.  O'Brien threw 22 touchdowns and 8 picks; that is outstanding, and good enough to go into the year with the best-in-show crown, for now.  Maryland isn't actually very good, so it's quite likely someone like Manuel will  steal it from O'Brien as the season goes on.  But right now, Maryland has the league's top QB.

Best receivers: Duke
Worst receivers: Wake Forest

This was a tough call last year and it's a tough call this year.  You could hardly go wrong with a lot of choices; FSU and VT have a couple of great pass catchers, as does Miami if they don't all end up suspended, and UNC and UVA bring some great potential to the table too.  But Duke is the only team in the conference with two players on the Biletnikoff watch list (though I'm kinda surprised FSU's Bert Reed isn't.)  Conner Vernon and Donovan Varner are the best 1-2 punch in the league, just nipping VT's combo of Boykin and Coale.

As for worst, Maryland has a bunch of newbies and would make a great pick, but Wake's got one returning starter in Chris Givens who actually isn't real amazing, and otherwise basically a whole bunch of nobody.

Best running backs: Boston College
Worst running backs: NC State

When your running game is waiting for a guy with fewer than 600 yards the previous season to get healthy before it can start to scare anyone, that is when your running game has a problem.  NC State will be using James Washington - and all of his three yards per carry - until Mustafa Greene gets healthy some indeterminate time in October.

On the other end of the spectrum we have Montel Harris at Boston College, which is all you need.

Best offensive line: Virginia Tech
Worst offensive line: Georgia Tech

This comes with the caveat that Blake DeChristopher has to get healthy, otherwise the answer here is Clemson.  Actually, the ACC is strong all around on the offensive line.  Very few of these previews caused me go "ewwww" when checking out the O-line situations.  VT and Clemson are the best of a strong bunch, but Miami is exceptional up the middle, UNC is huge, and most teams have a very solid crew of veterans.  Georgia Tech and Maryland are probably the two biggest exceptions; Maryland's situation is pretty fluid at the moment but less so than GT, so GT takes home the dubious honor here even with the presence of Omoregie Uzzi at guard.

Best defensive line: North Carolina
Worst defensive line: Duke

By himself, Brandon Jenkins makes a strong case for calling FSU the best D-line in the league, and his linemates aren't exactly terrible either.  But UNC landed two of the four spots on the ACC preseason team (Tydreke Powell and Quinton Coples) and opposite Coples, Donte Paige-Moss is no slouch either.  Probably the best bookend pair of ends in the league.  As for worst, whenever I use the words "who will pressure the quarterback is anyone's guess" in a preview, things are bad.  Duke is in a major trouble spot here; Maryland isn't far behind (ahead?) and really the only thing that keeps them off the header instead is Joe Vellano.

Best linebackers: Boston College
Worst linebackers: Duke

You could line up a beanstalk next to Luke Kuechly and Kevin Pierre-Louis and it wouldn't keep BC from having the best linebackers in the league.  Kuechly is a legitimate threat to rack up 200 tackles in a season, which would be absolutely mind-boggling, and you'd think that would be hogging them all, but Pierre-Louis still had almost 100 last year.  He'd have led half the teams in the conference in tackles himself.

Duke is going the all-time nickel package route to cover for the fact that they don't have linebackers worth half a damn, and this is a team with a lousy secondary too so we're approaching desperation territory here.  Kelby Brown is decent, and then most of the rest of the depth chart says "freshman." 

Best secondary: Virginia
Worst secondary: North Carolina

No, I'm not kidding.  With what is likely the conference's best corner and two senior safeties, UVA has the best starting four in the conference.  NC State makes a good case, but they don't have Chase Minnifield.  And it's fair to expect big things out of Demetrious Nicholson despite being only a freshman, because the guy he beat out for the starting job isn't a schmo.

UNC recovered well on the defensive line from the suspension party last year year; they did not recover so well in the secondary, which was basically devastated.  Charles Brown is a solid player, and the rest are shuffled in from other positions or third-stringers forced into action because of ineligibility, injuries, and just plain ol' departures.

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Last year I ranked coaches on the hot seat.  There were six; the rest of the conference's coaches were basically safe.  Three of the hot seat guys have been fired; two had better-than-expected seasons and one is still pretty much on the hot seat but gets to stay mainly because nobody cares.  This year, there's just no point in that exercise, since most of the coaches are still in their third year, or less, with their team, and those that aren't are Frank Beamer or something, and not going anywhere.

I also don't feel like ranking the teams' OOC schedules this year, largely because for the second year in a row, ours is the damn worst.  Actually scratch that.  NC State's is the worst for playing Liberty and South Alabama.  And VT isn't playing any BCS opponents.  Still, half the conference is playing Notre Dame and we're playing Idaho.  Instead, here are the most compelling OOC games that don't involve a rivalry (so, GT-UGA and the like aren't eligible.)

4. Duke vs. Stanford.  The Academics Bowl.  Stanford will definitely crush Duke because Duke has no defense and Stanford has Andrew Luck.  But Duke could put some points on the board too.  If you like games that end up 66-38, this is your thing right here.
3. Clemson vs. Auburn.  Auburn doesn't actually return any starters and the conventional wisdom has them dropping back to mediocrity in the SEC.  Good chance for an ACC team to make a ripple.
2. Florida State vs. Oklahoma.  Probably the one game that the ACC will play all season - other than maybe the ACCCG if two worthy teams make it there - that has actual national title implications for both teams.
1. Miami vs. Ohio State.  The IneligiBowl!  Come see two proud, scandal-ridden programs play their second-stringers!  C'mon, you know you'll be watching if only to play a drinking game that involves a shot every time the word "scandal" is mentioned.  Caution: Do not play this drinking game because your liver will try to escape out your butthole.

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The other thing I promised is a bowl prediction, so here goes nothing.  I don't usually do this but I wanna see how I stack up to the people who do this for a living.

In the event Miami's eventual suspensions don't affect them too badly:

Orange Bowl: Florida State
BCS at-large: Virginia Tech
ex-Peach Bowl: North Carolina
ex-Tangerine Bowl: Miami
Sun Bowl: Boston College
ex-Tire Bowl: NC State
Music City Bowl: Clemson
Independence Bowl: Georgia Tech
Military Bowl: Virginia

No, in case you're wondering, I don't roll with corporate bowl names. 

Anyway, in the event Miami is decimated by the eventual suspensions:

Orange Bowl: Florida State
BCS at-large: Virginia Tech
ex-Peach Bowl: North Carolina
ex-Tangerine Bowl: Boston College
Sun Bowl: NC State
ex-Tire Bowl: Clemson
Music City Bowl: Georgia Tech
Independence Bowl: Miami
Military Bowl: Virginia

Yes, I'm being a bitch and hedging my bets.  No way of knowing what Miami's gonna be like this year.  But I do think they'll go bowling either way as long as something crazy doesn't happen like self-banning themselves from postseason play.  And yes, I do insist on predicting UVA to land in a bowl.  With that OOC schedule we really should.  If we're 6-6 and bowl eligible, you know the outfit in DC will want a nice local team to fill seats.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

season preview: Wake Forest

Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Schedule:

9/1: @ Syracuse (Thu.)
9/10: NC State
9/17: Gardner-Webb
9/24: BYE
10/1: @ Boston College
10/8: Florida State
10/15: Virginia Tech
10/22: @ Duke
10/29: @ North Carolina
11/5: Notre Dame
11/12: @ Clemson
11/19: Maryland
11/26: Vanderbilt

Skip: Georgia Tech, Miami, Virginia

Projected starters:

QB: Tanner Price (So.)
RB: Josh Harris (rSo.)
FB: Tommy Bohanon (Jr.)
WR: Chris Givens (rJr.)
WR: Michael Campanaro (rSo.)
TE: Cameron Ford (5Sr.)
LT: Doug Weaver (5Sr.)
LG: Joe Looney (Sr.)
C: Garrick Williams (rJr.)
RG: Michael Hoag (5Sr.)
RT: Dennis Godfrey (5Sr.)

DE: Tristan Dorty (5Sr.)
NT: Nikita Whitlock (rSo.)
DE: Zach Thompson (rSo.)
OLB: Kyle Wilber (5Sr.)
ILB: Riley Haynes (rJr.)
ILB: Scott Betros (rJr.)
OLB: Joey Ehrmann (rJr.)
CB: Kenny Okoro (rJr.)
CB: A.J. Marshall (So.)
SS: Cyhl Quarles (5Sr.)
FS: Daniel Mack (rSo.)

K: Jimmy Newman (Jr.)
P: Alex Wulfeck (So.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: Jim Grobe (16th season)

Media prediction: 6th place, Atlantic Division

All-ACC:

2010 1st team: none
2010 2nd team: none
2010 HM: none
2011 preseason: none

(Italics indicate departed player.)

Wake Forest's main problem lies about two inches up: the fact that nobody thinks their players are any good.  Despite being one of the few ACC teams not to be breaking in a new quarterback, the 71 media members that voted in the ACC preseason poll gave Wake just 80 points and put them in last place in the Atlantic by a huge margin.

OFFENSE

The winner of last year's quarterback derby at Wake was true freshman Tanner Price; the rest of the competition turned out to be pretty bad, actually.  Price wasn't terrible, but he still played like a freshman.  Actually, he's not the only returner; most of the starting offense comes back.  This was one of the conference's least productive offenses last year - only 5.7 yards per passing attempt, for example, 110th in the country - but the rushing offense was not bad, and improved once Josh Harris became the feature back.  Harris, too, was a freshman and had the usual freshman inconsistencies.  He ran for 241 yards and 12 per carry against Virginia Tech; in other games, he was held to 27, 20, and 38.  There aren't many other experienced backs on the roster, so Brandon Pendergrass's role should increase.  Pendergrass had a decent freshman season three years ago but has regressed since.  If he gets rid of his severe case of the fumblies (he dropped two in a one-point loss to Navy last year and never carried again the rest of the season) he could return to his freshman level of productivity.

The line they run behind is nothing if not experienced, as four starters return, all seniors.  The only newcomer to the starting lineup is center Garrick Williams, converted from guard where he's seen some spot starts.  None of these guys have ever come in for any all-conference honors, but with so many seniors here, if they can't put together a good year this year then they never will.

The question on the offense is, who will catch the ball?  Chris Givens is a decent start, but most of Wake's production last season in this department has left.  Tight end Cameron Ford is only an occasional option in the passing game.  Wake needs someone to step up and show out as a receiving threat, or the passing game will continue to be anemic.

DEFENSE

Wake started last year as a 4-3 team but evolved their way to a 3-4 by season's end, and top defensive lineman Kyle Wilber is now an outside linebacker.  He'll probably be that Cam Johnson type that plays with his hand on the ground at times.  Wilber is a solid player, but his counterpart on the other side, Joey Ehrmann, will need to be more productive this year, and the inside is still heavily unsettled.

Adding to the concern is that defensive ends Tristan Dorty and Zach Thompson only check in at 250-255 pounds, rather undersized to be DEs in the 3-4.  Thompson is inexperienced besides.  Nose tackle Nikita Whitlock is even smaller for his position at 260.  Whitlock, though, earned second-team freshman all-America recognition last year and was generally a pleasant surprise at defensive tackle after converting from linebacker.  At 260 pounds he won't be the traditional kind of 3-4 nose guard that can clog the middle while taking on a double-team, but he does have playmaking talent.

The secondary has potential and some options, but the players have to produce.  Cornerback Kenny Okoro was a little disappointing last year after being a freshman all-American himself in 2009.  A.J. Marshall played last year as a true freshman and started a few games; Dominique Tate also played as a true freshman and did fairly well, but that was in 2009, and he missed last year with academic issues.  Tate and Marshall will push each other for the starting job and both will be in the rotation, but all three cornerbacks have to turn potential into production or the pass defense will continue to be poor.

Fortunately, things look decent at safety, where Cyhl Quarles is a steady presence.  Daniel Mack and Josh Bush are competing for the free safety position; as with cornerback, the loser will still be in the rotation and must turn potential into production.  If things fall into place this could be among the better secondaries in the conference, but that requires a lot of pieces to work.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Jimmy Newman is a good, solid kicker when he gets the chance; he missed only one field goal last year but only attempted 13.  He may also end up with the punting chores; that job remains unsettled, as does punt returner.  Michael Campanaro averaged a decent 24.5 yards returning kicks in 2010, which offers hope that he can bring some of that ability to the starting wide receiver role opposite Givens.

OUTLOOK

Chances are pretty good that the media got this one right.  The Atlantic Division looks more competitive than in recent years, and Wake is a likely victim of that rather than a beneficiary.  The OOC schedule is tough, too; Notre Dame, plus two revitalized teams in Syracuse and Vanderbilt.  Barring some major improvements in things like the passing game (both offense and defense in that regard) - or a couple teams like Maryland being worse than expected - it's tough to see where Wake Forest can even find much improvement over their 3-win season last year.  Definitely no bowl game.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

preseason blogpoll ballot

One of many signs that it's getting to be That Time of Year is the advent of the polls.  And far more entertaining and interesting than the AP poll or the coaches' poll, in which you have to stretch the bounds of your googlehunting skills to find who voted how, is the Blogpoll.

You don't have to go very far to find one of the ballots: for the fourth year running, there's one right here.  Yours truly is a voter, along with, oh, about 80 or 90 other blogs, and the best part is that you can easily track down who voted for whom and why and all the good stuff you wish you knew about the monolithic and mysterious Serious Media Polls.  Actually, maybe the best best part is that you can, with a persuasive enough argument, influence the ballot itself.

See, the Blogpoll is like this: Every Monday during the season, it posts, and therefore every Sunday I sit down and compile my ballot, and post it for your amusement, edification, or whatever you get out of it.  That's the routine.  For the preseason version, which is released next Monday, I was just bursting with anticipation of voting, and couldn't hold it any longer, so here is my ballot.  This also gives you a chance to make your criticisms, but be forewarned that in this case I'm a little less receptive to them here because of the fairly rigid methodology that goes into the preseason one.  The later ones are more resume-based but also can be rather subjective.
There you have it; now, the methodology.  Last year, see, I had a bit of an epiphany.  I've completed most of the ACC previews so I'm smarter than the average bear about who's good inside the conference, but the other 108 teams are a challenge.  I could just parrot the AP poll then and ladder a few teams up and down based on some sort of lame gut feeling, but that's not very satisfying and nigh-impossible to defend.  If only there were a way to find out which teams still had good players besides the five or so that find their way into the news cycle.

Then I had an apostrophe.  Lightning struck my brain.  There is a way: the individual award preseason watch lists.  Somebody's already gone through and found out who the likely best players are at all the positions, I just had to tally them up.  So I did.  I took 13 of the biggest awards, which are:

Bednarik - best defensive player
Biletnikoff - best wide receiver
Butkus - best linebacker
Groza - best kicker
Guy - best punter
Lombardi - best lineman/linebacker
Mackey - best tight end
Maxwell - best overall
O'Brien - best quarterback
Outland - best lineman
Rimington - best center
Thorpe - best defensive back
Walker - best running back

That covers pretty much every position.  Each team gets a point for every player it has on each of these watch lists, except for the O'Brien and Maxwell, where each team gets two.  It's all based on the loony theory that the team with the best players ought to be the best team.  I realize there's some overlap and some players are on multiple lists, and I don't really care, because the overlap involves some of the really important positions like the lines and linebacker.  And if a guy is good enough to be on the list for the best defensive player and not just his position-specific trophy, that should be worth extra points.

So I just add all those up, and there's the list.  There are many ties, of course, and these are broken somewhat subjectively.  Like, there was a tie between USC, Okie State, and UGA, and USC was the only one that got its points without a punter being nominated for the Ray Guy award.  Punter should only be worth half a point anyway, so USC goes on top.  So that's kinda your glimpse into the thought process there.

By the way, Miami's ranking is extremely provisional, as every single one of their watchlist players is in the shadow of the NCAA banhammer.  If said hammer strikes between now and Monday when final ballots are due, I obviously reserve the right to adjust accordingly.

In case you're wondering about UVA's performance in this deal, it's somewhat heartening, actually.  BC tied with three other teams with a total of 11 points - I picked them because they had nominees for more of the trophies than the other three, and didn't need no punter award either.  UVA comes in with five points.  The downside is that ties us with NC State for second-worst total in the conference ahead of Georgia Tech and Wake Forest with 1 each.  The plus side is that five is three more points than we had last year, and they come from Chase Minnifield, Kris Burd, and Colter Phillips when last year's two points were just Ras-I Dowling getting nominated for two awards.  Talent, we do not has it all the way yet but we are getting there.

OK, anyway.  Blogpoll Central is here.  Enjoy.

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Now for some quick programming notes.  Tomorrow runs the last of the ACC team previews in Wake Forest, and then on Friday, a roundup and compendium of the ACC.  This weekend, compressed versions of these previews for each of our OOC opponents.  Monday will be a weekend review type thing, maybe appended on to the bottom of another recruit profile, maybe not.  Tuesday and Wednesday, the real deal preview of our own season, offense and defense again each getting their own post.  Thursday is GO TIME BITCHES as we bring to you the first game preview of the year.  Thursday, in fact, is game preview time all season, and then Friday and Saturday are my off days as Sunday is Blogpoll day, with Sunday and/or Monday being game reaction stuff depending on how I feel about the game.  This particular weekend it's not quite that way because I'm out of town and on a boat starting Thursday evening (you'll still get your game preview) and won't be back til Monday.  But it's a routine otherwise.  Time to strap in.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

season preview: Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech Hokies

Schedule:

9/3: Appalachian State
9/10: @ East Carolina
9/17: Arkansas State
9/24: @ Marshall
10/1: Clemson
10/8: Miami
10/15: @ Wake Forest
10/22: Boston College
10/29: @ Duke
11/5: BYE
11/10: @ Georgia Tech (Thu.)
11/17: North Carolina (Thu.)
11/26: @ Virginia

Skip: Florida State, Maryland, NC State

Projected starters:

QB: Logan Thomas (rSo.)
RB: David Wilson (Jr.)
FB: Joey Phillips (rJr.)
WR: Danny Coale (5Sr.)
WR: Jarrett Boykin (Sr.)
TE: Chris Drager (5Sr.)
LT: Andrew Lanier (5Sr.)
LG: Greg Nosal (5Sr.)
C: Andrew Miller (rSo.)
RG: Jaymes Brooks (5Sr.)
RT: Blake DeChristopher (5Sr.)

DE: James Gayle (rSo.)
DT: Derrick Hopkins (So.)
DT: Antoine Hopkins (rJr.)
DE: J.R. Collins (rSo.)
WHLB: Jeron Gouveia-Winslow (rJr.)
LB: Bruce Taylor (rJr.)
LB: Tariq Edwards (rSo.)
CB: Kyle Fuller (So.)
CB: Jayron Hosley (Jr.)
R: Antone Exum (So.)
FS: Eddie Whitley (Sr.)

K: Cody Journell (rSo.)
P: Ethan Keyserling (rFr.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: Frank Beamer (25th season)

Media prediction: 1st, Coastal Division

All-ACC:

2010 1st team: QB Tyrod Taylor, K Chris Hazley, CB Jayron Hosley
2010 2nd team: OT Blake DeChristopher, G Jaymes Brooks, KR David Wilson, DE Steven Friday, DT John Graves, LB Bruce Taylor, S Davon Morgan, P Brian Saunders
2010 HM: C Beau Warren, TE Andre Smith
2011 preseason: OT Blake DeChristopher, CB Jayron Hosley, S Eddie Whitley

(Italics indicate departed player.)

Kind of a transition year for the Hokies - not only do they move on from the Tyrod Taylor era, but the coaching staff got a shuffling in response to Mike London's success in recruiting the state of Virginia last year.  A few guys got shunted to desk jobs, but the awkward part is that offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring got relieved of playcalling duties in favor of QB coach Mike O'Cain.  The changes paid off in the recruiting world, but it remains to be seen how the new staff meshes on game day.  (What does an OC do if he's not calling plays?  Coach the quarterback?  Doesn't that make him the QB coach and not the OC?)

OFFENSE

Tech joins the new-quarterback club as the wraps are taken off Logan Thomas, whom UVA had recruited as a tight end.  At 6'6", 254, he's the biggest QB in the conference, and isn't quite as shifty or mobile as Taylor was, but is more than athletic enough to make plays with his feet.

The quarterback won't be as involved in the running game as last year, and Tech also doesn't have as huge a stable of running backs as they've had in recent years; still, when David Wilson carries, which he'll do a lot, there won't be much drop-off in production.  Wilson was on the slightly lower end of the work split with Darren Evans and Ryan Williams last year (as well as Taylor) but will probably get just a ton of work this season.  Josh Oglesby was seldom used last year (or in most of his prior seasons) but should also get his moments in the sun in 2011 as well, as Tech is a run-heavy team.

They'll run behind a great offensive line, too, as long as there isn't much dropoff at center, the only place where Tech must replace a starter.  (And assuming Blake DeChristopher comes back healthy from a pec injury, which he should be after a couple games.)  DeChristopher is probably the line's best player, and he and Jaymes Brooks make a formidable right side.

Likewise, Tech has a ton of experience at receiver as well, where Danny Coale is in roughly his eighth season.  (I swear I thought he'd graduated by now.)  He's evolved from obnoxious white-guy possession receiver to legitimate outside threat, and Jarrett Boykin is as good if not better.  These two will be as productive as Logan Thomas allows, and Wilson is a major threat in the passing game as well.

DEFENSE

A re-engineered defensive line is Tech's biggest question on the defensive side of the ball, but there's actually very little trouble with inexperience here.  Tackle Antoine Hopkins is the only returning regular starter, but ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins were just as productive (or more) in a reserve role, and either should be a good bet to replace Steven Friday's excellent production.  Hopkins's brother Derrick is the other starting tackle; there should be little drop-off from last year here, and the only major depth question is the loss (again) of Kwamaine Battle for the season.

At the "whip" position, Jeron Gouveia-Winslow was horrendously inconsistent and was yo-yoed in and out of the lineup last season in his first year of starting, but he's back in alongside leading tackler Bruce Taylor.  If Lyndell Gibson hadn't transferred to Hampton after the season this would have a fair chance to be the ACC's best linebacking unit; as it is there's some gelling to do.

There shouldn't be any uncertainty in the secondary, though.  Jayron Hosley runs neck-and-neck with Chase Minnifield as the conference's best corner, and picked off nine passes last year.  Kyle Fuller, the other cornerback, and Antone Exum at rover (more or less what Tech, in its quest to be different, calls a strong safety) got some starting experience last year; Exum led the team in pass-breakups.  (Gouveia-Winslow's at times lousy play put Exum in the lineup when Tech eliminated the whip position entirely and went straight to a nickel package with three safeties.)  Eddie Whitley is very experienced at free safety and had 80 tackles last year.  The only real problem with Tech's secondary depth chart is how many freshmen appear in backup roles.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Tech yet again breaks in a new kicker this year in Cody Journell, and they're still on the lookout for a punter.  None other than Danny Coale tops the depth chart, but when the bullets start flying, they wouldn't risk their best receiver getting hurt this way....would they?  They might.  David Wilson and Jayron Hosley will do the honors again as kick and punt returners, respectively, and they both brought kicks to the house last season.

OUTLOOK

Partly because of Tech's schedule, which includes no challenges outside the conference and skips FSU in the regular season, Tech is again getting pub as a possible national title contender.  It's completely within the realm of realistic possibilities that they could run the table.  Still, this is a team that's very good in most places and not really dominant in anything.  In the ACC, that's more than enough to sit at the top, but I think - on paper - FSU is just pips better.  VT should certainly be in the ACCCG - anything less would be a huge failure - and would be a slight underdog if the opponent is FSU and a huge favorite otherwise.  If they run the table up til the ACCCG and then falter (and the same being true for FSU) then they would be a good candidate to give the ACC a second BCS representative.