This is it boys and girls. After a solid month of focusing on the rest of the opposition, you're now better-informed about the enemy than 98% of UVA fans out there. But it's time to put all that aside and deal with what really matters. Time to dispense with the rest of the chitchat and get right to the drill.
Starter: #16 Mike Rocco
Backups: #14 Phillip Sims, #5 David Watford
The biggest surprise of Monday's depth-chart release was not who was ahead of whom, but that Mike London was so candid about his quarterbacks after a month of playing shy. The summary: Mike Rocco is the starter, Phillip Sims has passed David Watford for #2, and London will try and redshirt Watford. In other words, it'll probably take an injury to get Watford on the field, maybe two depending on how strongly London feels about that redshirt.
A misguided wing of the fanbase assumes it's only a matter of time before Sims takes the starting job from Rocco, possibly by October. Bill Lazor gave a press conference in which he praised Sims's downfield abilities, which only fueled that particular fire. Overlooked in Lazor's words by those who read only what they wanted to read was that Rocco, too, had improved his accuracy downfield, and oh by the way knows the offense better. The test of whether you've crossed the line from admiring Sims's physical skills to straight-up being a slappy is whether that latter phrase surprises you. Rocco enters his third year in the system, and is the most experienced guy we've got.
As I like to point out, after London ended the rotation last year and handed the job to Rocco exclusively, his passer rating improved to 141 in the second half. That's only decimal points behind Tajh Boyd, to whom the media awarded preseason ACC POY. It's also better than the season-long ratings of Logan Thomas, Mike Glennon, Tanner Price, and Sean Renfree. Rocco has a chance to be UVA's secret weapon.
Still, it would be helpful if Rocco can connect on some downfield passes. UVA's offense was remarkably potent last year considering it didn't really have the home-run pass in its arsenal. Rocco's two longest passes last year: a 78-yarder against Miami and a 46-yarder against Indiana - and both were mostly YAC by Perry Jones, particularly the Miami one. What made up for that was that Rocco was good at getting yards in medium chunks rather than all at once or five at a time. That comes from accuracy and an excellent grip on the concept of where his receivers will be two seconds from now.
There's no doubt we'll get to see at least a little bit of Sims, and probably soon if the Richmond game goes according to plan. That's an exciting prospect. Sims probably won't have the full playbook at his disposal, but you're likely to notice an uptick in velocity when #14 enters the game. If those are accurate throws, it'll keep a little pressure on Rocco to keep performing; a good problem for the coaches to have, but certain to spark yet more factionalism on the message boards.
Best-case: Rocco keeps the job all season and puts up numbers good enough to put him in the top tier of ACC quarterbacks going into 2013. There'll be some that figure the actual best case is for Sims to take the job sooner rather than later, but that ain't so, and here's why: it means we're losing games. London isn't going to switch midstream if things are going well. Sims isn't going to catch Rocco until Rocco falters, or until the offseason. For this year, you want the team - and Rocco - to play well enough that it leaves no doubt from week to week who'll start.
Worst-case: Rocco falters against tough defenses brought to bear by Penn State, Georgia Tech, and TCU in September, and a full-on firestorm, complete with grenades and napalm, erupts on message boards, demanding Sims take over. He does, and shows flashes of talent, but unfamiliarity with the playbook limits him severely. And then someone gets hurt, forcing Watford to the field for another year and a wasted chance to redshirt him.
Starters: #20 Tim Smith, #6 Darius Jennings
Backups: #2 Dominique Terrell, #19 E.J. Scott
This is an interesting opportunity right here. It's rare that you have a position filled with so many unknowns and yet so much potential. The WR corps is completely loaded with four-star talent. Tim Smith, Darius Jennings, Dominique Terrell, Canaan Severin - all four stars. And they come from a veritable who's-who of East Coast powerhouse high schools: Smith from Oscar Smith, Jennings from Gilman, E.J. Scott from Good Counsel, and were recruited by just about every school across the ACC, Big East, and SEC, as well as the Big Ten. It's the best collection of sheer talent UVA has seen at receiver, maybe ever.
And the time has come for that talent to shine. Tim Smith has put together some respectable seasons, but the time is past for "respectable." Darius Jennings had a nice little debut season last year, but he's at the grown-ups' table now. So is fellow Wondertwin Dominique Terrell. Terrell ought to be able to find a niche in the slot, catching screens, and being used on end-arounds and reverses. He probably won't lead the team in any categories, but he's the kind of weapon that can add exciting wrinkles to an offense and drive opposing DCs batshit. Jennings and Smith are more your typical stretch-the-field types, and if Rocco consistently finds them downfield, look out.
Scott is the only other receiver listed on the depth chart, so he should be in for a few catches this season. It's hard to guess just what his role will be, though - he's yet to catch a pass in his college career. It'll also be hard to keep Adrian Gamble and Canaan Severin off the field. Both are true freshmen, but older than the rest of their class; Severin reclassified back a year, and Gamble prepped at FUMA. Physically, they're ready for a role, especially Severin, whose size and hands could find him a role similar to what Matt Snyder used to do as a possession receiver. Miles Gooch is another wild-card - he's a big, big guy who occasionally wows with his athleticism but also occasionally gets the dropsies.
Best-case: Both Smith and Jennings break out of their shells and morph into a poor man's version of what Clemson has with Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins. The actual guess is that one or the other jumps out to seize the #1 role, and the other is an obvious #2. But they both could do it, which would make UVA's passing attack a scary one.
Worst-case: By the same token, it's possible that neither is ready to break out. If that's the case, Smith probably never will - this is his big year and his big chance. If the best case is that both are good for 800-900 yards or so, the worst is that neither gets more than about 600. That's only cool if someone else like Terrell surprises and turns into the destroyer of worlds, but that's not that likely. Smith and Jennings are the big guns, and this is the year they have to prove it.
Starter: #88 Paul Freedman
Backups: #89 Colter Phillips, #81 Jeremiah Mathis, #83 Jake McGee
It was a little bit of a surprise that Freedman was atop the depth chart, but in retrospect, it shouldn't have been. Freedman had 11 catches last year to Colter Phillips's three, so in reality it's been that way for a while.
What it means is not to go expecting a big tight end renaissance this year. Freedman simply doesn't have the athleticism to be a stretch-the-field type like Al Groh used to find everywhere he looked. He's a big guy who blocks very well, and will be a real asset in the run game. I'd look for him to be used in short-yardage situations, the classic example being the 2PC he caught against Indiana last year. Occasionally he'll be open deepish, but not so often that you look for it the way you looked for Heath Miller or, say, Tom Santi.
Phillips and Mathis are similar players. My view of Phillips's blocking is colored by when he was trying to do it in 2010 with a bum-ass shoulder, with predictable results, so that's not too reliable. Still, he's not better than Freedman, and Mathis is pretty much buried. McGee is different. Even though he's listed fourth, he's the guy with the most potential to be found downfield consistently. Maybe not this year, as the coaches will probably be content with letting the receivers and running backs handle most of the passcatching and having the TEs block - and right now, McGee is behind in the latter category.
Best-case: Freedman earns about 18-20 catches or so. That'd make him about as heavily involved in the passing game as you can expect.
Worst-case: Nobody gets more than about eight. Even though we're not placing a world of expectations on the tight ends, this is the point of disappointment.
Starters: #33 Perry Jones, #25 Kevin Parks
Backups: #10 Clifton Richardson, #23 Khalek Shepherd
Let's face it: I am a running backs fan. It's weird: it's the position I stress about least because I figure if you got a good quarterback and a good offensive line, you can move the ball. Even a lousy running back can get four yards if the line consistently pushes the line of scrimmage that way, and even a good running back will suck if the line sucks.
But I love having really good running backs. It's my favorite position on the field. I got spoiled growing up because I got to watch Barry Sanders every Sunday, and guys like Tshimanga Biakabutuka and the A-Train, Anthony Thomas, on Saturdays as a Michigan fan. Nothing is more fun than watching a really good running back own a game. So this is a lot of fun right here.
The coaches will probably try and find ways to get Khalek Shepherd more involved, because he's been playing too well in practice to be relegated to fourth string. The problem is, the other three guys are playing even better. Perry Jones is full of all-purpose awesomeness. Hand him the ball, throw it to him, whatever, he makes it work. Kevin Parks is every bit the bowling ball we expected. Clifton Richardson is a little behind on knowledge of the offense (and blocking) but got a lot better this offseason and has got a ton of untapped talent. It was actually Richardson who averaged the most yards per carry in 2011 at 5.1.
Bottom line here: this is the most dependable and productive position group in the whole offense. And it's incredibly versatile. You want a receiver out of the backfield, you want a guy who can take handoff after handoff, you want a short-yardage smashing ball, anything you hope to get out of a running back, you can probably find it here.
Best-case: Pretty much basic awesomeness. Any one of these guys could be a 1,000-yard rusher, easily. The only thing that keeps that from happening is the spreading around of the carries, and even then Jones didn't miss by much last year. Shepherd will probably get more than the five carries had last year, which will spread things around even further, so the impact of this group will be seen in their averages and not their totals. And the best-case is that they all go over 5.5 yards a carry. Not implausible.
Worst-case: Someone gets hurt. That or a woefully disappointing offensive line is the only thing that can stop these guys.
Starter: #49 Zach Swanson
Backups: #37 Billy Skrobacz, #4 LoVante' Battle
Swanson likely has the talent to make an impact, but we have absolutely no idea how much. He spent his redshirt year at tight end and switched to fullback last year, where he sat behind two seniors and bulked up. The bulking up definitely worked; he's up to 255 pounds, which means he's got the build now to be a helluva blocker and a truck in the pass-catching game - which he ought to be good at seeing as how he used to be a tight end and all.
But the coaches' plans for the fullback position are a mystery. Can Swanson replicate Max Milien's 22 catches from last year? That'd be cool. Will he be used as more of a traditional lead blocker, heading into the middle to open up holes for Kevin Parks? I'd dig that too. Whatever the plans, they'll have to be executed almost entirely by Swanson: Billy Skrobacz has done some nice things in camp but is 30 pounds lighter, and Battle is listed at 205, which means he's actually a tailback and not going to see much of the field.
Best-case: Swanson can play Milien's pass-catching role and also be a wrecking-ball blocker. There's a chance this guy could be a revelation.
Worst-case: Swanson gets hurt, which would basically take the fullback role completely out of the offense. Skrobacz and Battle might be serviceable pass-catchers, but they're too small for the Hoos to get the full benefit of having a fullback in the offense.
Starters: #72 Oday Aboushi, #61 Cody Wallace, #70 Luke Bowanko, #79 Sean Cascarano, #78 Morgan Moses
Backups: #75 Kelby Johnson, #71 Matt Mihalik, #65 Ross Burbank, #74 Conner Davis, #77 Jay Whitmire
Let's start with the good: the tackles. Have I mentioned yet that Moses and Aboushi are the best pair of tackles in the league? I have? About a million times? Make it a million and one. Outside rushes and pass protection are no problem here.
So the outside is taken care of. But the inside.....hmmm. There are a couple ways to look at it. One is that Sean Cascarano has basically been playing at the level of a starter for a while, and only needed to wait his turn. And the fact that Conner Davis is listed essentially as a co-starter, with the OR designation, is a good reflection on Davis, not a bad one on Cascarano. Plus, Luke Bowanko has already been a starter, and his blocking skills aren't in question, so the move to center shouldn't be a big leap. That's scenario #1.
Scenario #2 is that Bowanko is a center because Matt Mihalik was given first crack and then fired, so he's basically the third choice for the job since Cody Wallace was also being groomed for center before his move to guard. That means we're gonna see a lot of confusion this year, since the center is responsible for the blocking assignments and Bowanko hasn't been doing this real long. Mihalik basically proved unable to hold down any O-line job, giving way to Wallace at left guard. And Cascarano played in 11 games in 2010 but only six in 2011, so how ready he really is, that's a scary question.
My actual guess is that Bowanko is at center because he's got the best combination of blocking skills and knowledge of the playbook. I lean more toward the best-case than the worst-case here; it's always a little scary to have a new center, but Bowanko does have that year of starting experience at right guard, so he's likely to do just fine. And Cascarano played less last year because the line last year was a much more cohesive and effective unit than it was in 2010, with much less room - or need - for rotation.
My other guess is that the depth chart as it is won't last. First off, Kelby Johnson is suspended for the first two games of the season, so even though Michael Mooney (an interesting choice) is the backup at LT, Jay Whitmire is probably going to see time at both positions until Johnson returns; it'd be a shame to waste Mooney's redshirt for two games. Second, the coaches are always pushing the notion of playing the best five players. Is Cody Wallace one of the best five players? Maybe. But it is a little surprising that Cascarano gets a co-starter while Wallace has no such restriction. If there's a shuffle in the future, the most likely one is to start both Cascarano and Davis at guard.
I think, though, that if there's a little bit of a drop-off at guard from last year when we had Bowanko and Austin Pasztor, it won't be a huge deal. It's not ideal, but it won't sabotage the offense. Cascarano is ready for the job, for one. And for two, the real pivot point is at center. Bowanko's good to go from a blocking perspective, and that's half the battle. If he's good to go on the intangibles too, that'll free up 90% of the concerns on the line. This group should be just fine.
Best-case: See scenario #1 above.
Worst-case: See scenario #2 above.
Tomorrow: the defense, and the revamped depth chart by class.