Thursday, August 29, 2013

game preview: Brigham Young

Date/Time: Saturday, August 31; 3:30


Record against the Cougars: 2-1

Last meeting: BYU 38, UVA 35; 9/2/00, Charlottesville

Last weekend: N/A

Line: BYU by 1

Injury report: N/A

Ah, football.  BYU is a very special team in my heart because they introduced me to the rest of my life as a UVA fan by pulling off a big comeback and then winning in overtime in my first-ever UVA football game.  It didn't take long for my friend (who'd come with me to UVA from our Michigan high school) and I to decide that this was going to be just like rooting for the Lions.  (And that was before they'd ever hired Matt Millen.)  Just an early, primitive way of saying We Can't Have Nice Things.

This game ought to set the tone nicely for the season.  No guessing about what a 30-point win over Richmond means; we'll get a pretty good idea at least of what the next six or seven weeks will look like by how this game goes.

-- UVA run offense vs. BYU run defense

(all stats 2012)

Top backs:

Kevin Parks: 160 carries, 734 yards, 4.6 ypc, 5 TDs
Khalek Shepherd: 19 carries, 122 yards, 6.4 ypc, 1 TD

UVA offense:

128.5 yards/game, 3.70 yards/attempt
95th of 124 (national); 8th of 12 (ACC)

BYU defense:

86.92 yards/game, 2.74 yards/attempt
3rd of 124 (national)

So, those stats from last year already present a difficulty.  One thing we know (or at least, believe) is that the O-line hasn't suddenly made major improvements between last year and this, and to add to that, BYU runs a 3-4 defense.  That'll just give the line a new look to deal with, and one that's a little more flexible and changeable than the standard 4-3.

BYU also brings back linebacker Kyle Van Noy; I'd be remiss not starting off the discussion with him, because that's what Mike London did, identifying Van Noy as the player they wanted to scheme around.  Van Noy plays weakside LB in BYU's 4-3, so actually, he's less of a factor in the run game than the phrase "terrifying linebacker" would imply.  He can be run away from, and if I interpret the stats rightly, teams often did - Van Noy only had 53 tackles last year, much less than you'd expect from the team's star defender.  That said, 22 of those were in the backfield, which is a terrifying number.

The Cougars will be doing this with largely a brand-new defensive line.  First-round draft phenom Ziggy Ansah is gone, and the only currently-starting member of the line that did so as well last year is nose tackle Eathyn Manumaleuna, who played only four games.  And the only holdover starter in the linebacking corps, besides Van Noy, is the other outside LB, strong-sider Spencer Beck.  If UVA wants to run away from Van Noy, though, they'll have to run at Beck.

The other option: run it up the middle, testing our weakness (relative to the OTs) against their new faces.  Since coaches love to try and establish the middle, expect a few shots in that direction within the first couple offensive series.

What excites me, though, is that there's no opportunity here for the coaches to hide their intentions regarding the workload split.  It's very safe to assume Kevin Parks starts out as the primary back, but the truth is, I don't think the coaches have precise intentions about the rest of it.  I'd guess that Khalek Shepherd and Taquan Mizzell will roughly split the remainder of the carries in the first half as the coaches evaluate them in live action; if the game is close, we'll then learn who they're most comfortable with.

I also think, simply due to turnover on the BYU defense, we should be able to outperform the sub-3 yards per carry that the Cougars held opponents to last year.  Our own blocking leaves something to be desired until they prove it doesn't, but does about 3.5 yards a carry sound about right?  I think it does.  I don't think our run game will be enough to control the action, but it won't be a total wreck.

-- UVA pass offense vs. BYU pass defense

(all stats 2012)

David Watford: 0/0, N/A%, 0 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs, N/A yards/attempt

Top receivers:
Darius Jennings: 48 rec., 568 yards, 5 TDs
Dominique Terrell: 38 rec., 475 yards, 0 TDs

UVA offense:
268.0 yards/game, 6.8 yards/attempt
85th of 124 (national); 9th of 12 (ACC)

BYU defense:
179.2 yards/game, 6.2 yards/attempt
21st of 124 (national)

Another thing we might learn, about the coaches themselves this time: How nasty is their playcalling?  Will Steve Fairchild be out for blood upon looking at BYU's injury-ravaged cornerback corps?  Three of the four guys listed on BYU's post-spring depth chart are out, if not for the season then at least for this game.  The fourth, senior Skye PoVey, is called a "tough veteran with skills" by a cheerleading media wonk in Utah, but is a career special-teamer who played in three games last year.

PoVey probably won't start.  Another media outlet - which in the same article refers to the cornerback situation as an "outright nightmare" - suggests that BYU will use true freshman Dallin Leavitt and juco transfer Robertson Daniel (I didn't write his name backwards) as starters.  Daniel has looked decent in camp, but didn't play last year as he was getting his classroom work in order.

So if Steve Fairchild wants be nasty, and we should really be hoping he does, he'll use three- and four-receiver sets until Bronco Mendenhall's eyes bleed.  Force BYU to take their linebackers off the field for thoroughly inexperienced cornerbacks - or see if those linebackers can cover Dominique Terrell and maybe Adrian Gamble, it's all the same to me.

All is not a total disaster in BYU's pass defense.  Kyle Van Noy is not coming off the field, because he's a devastating pass rusher, racking up 13 sacks last year.  Daniel Sorenson is one of the better safeties out west; he had three INTs in 2012.  The safeties overall are still respectable and should be able to help out the cornerbacks effectively.

Still.  We have a damn deep group of receivers and BYU has a damn shallow cornerback set.  David Watford will probably see zone coverages out the wazoo to try and cover up their coverage deficiencies.  But I'm going to go ahead and assume our coaches are both smart and out for blood, and that our wide receivers will get a lot of field time until BYU proves they can deal with that.  Dominique Terrell should have a big, big game; if PoVey is used as a nickel back, he flat out can't cover Terrell.  I'm just gonna say six catches at a minimum, but I wouldn't be surprised to see 8 or 10; it's that bad in BYU's secondary.

-- BYU run offense vs. UVA pass defense

(all stats 2012)

Top backs:
Jamaal Williams: 166 carries, 775 yards, 4.7 ypc, 12 TDs
Michael Alisa: 58 carries, 222 yards, 3.8 ypc, 1 TD

BYU offense:
153.15 yards/game, 3.94 yards/attempt
82nd of 124 (national)

UVA defense:
144.92 yards/game, 3.99 yards/attempt
51st of 124 (national), 5th of 12 (ACC)

BYU brought in a new offensive coordinator this year - sort of.  Robert Anae was BYU's OC until 2010, when he left for Arizona to work with Rich Rodriguez.  Now he's back, in a move that is raising some eyebrows and being absolutely ripped in some quarters.  (Some of the choicest quotes: "Anae stacked and lit the offense into a burning heap [in 2010]."  "He had the charisma of a pile of bricks.")

So this is his first game back after picking up the no-huddle concept from Rodriguez.  BYU has always been a run-the-quarterback team, and that won't change.  RB Jamaal Williams remains the focus of the rushing offense; Williams has decent skills, but BYU doesn't have a great deal of depth behind him.  Michael Alisa isn't a scary talent.  But new quarterback Taysom Hill has some legs, too; his 68-yard touchdown run last season was BYU's longest.  Hill got some quality playing time in as a freshman last year, outrunning starting QB Riley Nelson, and BYU is justifiably high on his skills.

The questions will be around their O-line, which doesn't have a single senior on it.  There's less experience than would be ideal, and the BYU staff didn't nail down the rotation until just this week.  They plan to do a lot of rotating and subbing in and out - something that would be necessary to keep them fresh in a fast-paced no-huddle - and that's something that our coaches need to be on top of.  They need to take assholish advantage of the rule that says if the offense subs, the defense has to be allowed to sub too.  Sub when they sub, but nice and easy and slow and take your sweet time about it, and let the BYU offense stand around waiting.

As for the run game itself, if Anae has brought back some wider line splits from Arizona, it's another thing our guys need to take advantage of.  We do have some athleticism at DT - David Dean can move, and Mike Moore, too, when he slides inside.  Williams is a good, not great, running back, but Hill remains the wild card.  UVA can win if Williams gets his yards, but they can't let Hill burn them with his feet.  If he gets 80-100 yards of his own, BYU has probably won the game.

-- BYU pass offense vs. UVA pass defense

(all stats 2012)

Taysom Hill: 42/71, 59.2%; 425 yards, 4 TDs, 2 INTs; 5.99 yards/attempt

Top receivers:
Cody Hoffman: 100 rec., 1,248 yards, 11 TDs
J.D. Falslev: 37 rec., 274 yards, 2 TDs

BYU offense:
247.2 yards/game, 6.5 yards/attempt
95th of 124 (national)

UVA defense:
208.4 yards/game, 6.3 yards/attempt
25th of 124 (national), 3rd of 12 (ACC)

It's pretty plain from just the above stats that Cody Hoffman dominates the BYU receiving corps.  Hoffman is a tall, smooth receiver (6'4") whom Phil Steele named a preseason all-American.  The rest of the group isn't a bunch of schmos, but Hoffman gets almost all the catches, because he's open so often.  Demetrious Nicholson will have his hands full, and will probably get a lot of safety help.

The no-huddle that BYU is installing, however, probably means a little bit more of a spread-around.  Just about everyone else who got significant catches last year also returns for BYU, and guys like Skyler Ridley and J.D. Falslev aren't electric but will demand your attention.  BYU also involves the running backs and tight ends just as much as the non-Hoffman receivers, and ultimately the wide array of legitimate options will be very taxing for our pass defense.

Taysom Hill is also a concern.  Hill actually had a better passer rating than starter Riley Nelson last season, although he didn't play after the sixth game of the year.  He'll be running a new offense in which he doesn't have a world of experience, but he's got the makings of a talented quarterback, and of course he'll get a lot of help from Hoffman.

One thing I think will remain unknown until we actually see it is the nature of the passing attack; meaning that last year, it was a very dink-and-dunk approach.  Nelson and Hill both averaged fewer yards per completion than did Mike Rocco; Hill's was just over 10.  If I had to guess, and I probably will, I'd say that won't change much; dinking your way downfield is very conducive to the no-huddle, because deep downfield throws usually result in incompletions, and incompletions slow you down, not to mention force your receiver to trot the whole way back to the line.

I think this will be the toughest aspect of the game for UVA to deal with, however.  We have a good secondary, but I don't think we'll be able to generate a big pass rush just because of the nature of BYU's expected offense, and Hoffman is one of the best receivers we'll face all year.  (Good prep for Oregon, though.)  I'd say even though Hill won't average more than 11.5 yards per completion or so, he'll still top 250 for the game.

-- Favorability ratings

A new thing I'm introducing this year.  This is a 0-10 scale; 5 means evenly balanced, 0 means we're totally screwed, and 10 means the other guy is.

UVA run offense: 3.5
UVA pass offense: 7
UVA run defense: 5.5
UVA pass defense: 3

Average: 4.75

-- Outlook

BYU is a good team - but a flawed one.  They've got some weapons on both sides of the ball, and, I'd have to say for now, the advantage at quarterback; Hill has demonstrated something on the field, and Watford hasn't yet.  But there are major holes which can be exploited.  Unsettlement on the O-line, a new offensive style, and basically no cornerbacks.  It's fair to say we don't really know yet if our team is talented enough, or with enough of a killer instinct, to go after those holes.  That goes for both the players and the coaches.  We also don't really know if BYU has the full ability to take advantage of our weaknesses, either; our offensive line is shaky, but their D-line is new and so are their middle linebackers.  If we can jump out to a lead, we'll see if that killer instinct turns on; it ought to.  If we're playing from behind, well, at least that will force us to go pass-heavy, right into BYU's weakness at cornerback.

Prediction summary:

-- Khalek Shepherd and Taquan Mizzell split carries and targets in the first half, but as the game goes on, one or the other takes a back seat.

-- Dominique Terrell has a huge day, to the tune of at least six catches.

-- The run offense generates about 3.5 yards per carry from the primary backs.

-- If Taysom Hill rushes for 90+ yards, BYU wins.

-- Hill will average no more than 11.5 yards a completion, but rack up over 250 yards passing.

-- The first team to go up by two scores wins.  Killer instinct.

Final score: BYU 21, UVA 17

-- Rest of the ACC:

North Carolina @ South Carolina - Thu., 6:00 - Battle of the Carolinas.

Wake Forest vs. Presbyterian - Thu., 6:30 - Wake always plays this team for some reason.

Miami vs. Florida Atlantic - Fri., 8:00 - You don't come into the OB, baby - wait, that was the other nondescript Florida Something team.  Nobody knows the difference anyway.

Georgia Tech vs. Elon - 12:00 - Fighting Christians forever.

Boston College vs. Villanova - 12:00 - The Jesuits vs. the Augustinians.

Maryland vs. Florida International - 12:30 - Oh, yeah, it was this Florida Something.

NC State vs. Louisiana Tech - 12:30 - The Bulldogs have set out to conquer the ACC, one team and one year at a time.

Syracuse @ Penn State - 3:30 - The joke here is both too easy and way too wrong.

Duke vs. NC Central - 4:00 - UNC is fighting for supremacy of two states; Duke is focusing just on Durham.

Virginia Tech vs. Alabama - 5:30 - The uglier, the better.

Clemson vs. Georgia - 8:00 - Definitely the top ACC game of the week, and what better chance to take the SEC down a peg?  UGA is ranked #5, so it won't be easy.

Florida State @ Pittsburgh - Mon., 8:00 - I've got a bad feeling this could be nasty for the home team.  I'm lower on Pitt than most; we'll see if I'm right.

season preview: defense and everything else

Once again the formalities are dispensed with.

-- Defensive line

The starters:

#90 - Jake Snyder
#99 - Brent Urban
#55 - David Dean
#7 - Eli Harold

The reserves:

#32 - Mike Moore
#93 - Donte Wilkins
#56 - Andre Miles-Redmond
#43 - Trent Corney

Like the offensive line, the defensive side of the trenches is displaying cracks in the depth with an overabundance of freshmen in the two-deep.  Defensive tackle is specifically the culprit; five scholarship DTs currently exist on the roster, and since two are true freshmen, one was going to have to be on the two-deep regardless.  That turned out to be Donte Wilkins, who beat out Tyrell Chavis in camp despite Chavis being a year older thanks to his FUMA-shirt.  (Small note: Wilkins has changed the spelling of his name from Donta to Donte.)

There's good reason to think the starting two on the inside should be stout.  Brent Urban has developed very well, and David Dean started to appear on the field in the second half of last year and was impressive in his limited time.  However, the coaches have already been open about their plans to sometimes move Mike Moore inside to play tackle.  Moore's another one who looked good as a freshman last year, so in some ways it's an avenue to get their four most athletic linemen on the field at once; however, it's also a vote of small confidence in the backups at DT.

Really, end is where the athletes are.  Moore is one.  Jake Snyder is really more of a tackle playing end; he'll probably spend most of his time on the strong side, taking on tight ends and stuffing the run.  The guy everyone will be looking at, though, is his opposite side, Eli Harold.  Weighing in at 230 pounds (a gain of 10 from last year) he's got to take a big step forward.  Harold is a speed rusher through and through, and he's got to improve on his two sacks from last year.  That's a harsh level of expectations for a true sophomore, but the pass rush is otherwise pretty anemic, and Harold's athleticism makes him the prime candidate to fix that.

Speaking of athleticism - passing downs could be interesting if the coaches decide to put Harold and his backup, Trent Corney, on the field at the same time.  The book on Corney has been the same ever since he was recruited: freaky athlete, all the polish of 50-grit sandpaper.  Without watching Corney specifically on each play it would be tough to know just how far his technique has advanced, but we ought to get a pretty good approximation simply by how much he's on the field.  He's the only lineman whose speed can approach Harold's, and he's probably stronger.  He'll play as much as his learning allows him to.

Truth is, last year's production out of the D-line was low, and a great deal of what production there was got academically suspended from the school.  Getting Chris Brathwaite back would've been tremendous for the DT depth.  The defense was still pretty good, but there were also two senior linebackers that don't exist any more either.  However, one of the areas where Mike London has done his best recruiting is on the D-line - no coincidence there, he's a D-line coach.  That talent is starting to mature, so if they start to really show up this year, they're right on schedule.  Notice I said "start to."  Let's not expect these guys to suddenly become destroyers of men.  Even Urban, a senior, would be on schedule if he had just this one really good year, due to his rawness upon arrival.

Still, it's within reason to want to see some numbers go up.  Now that Harold is playing in a starting role and not backing anyone up, he ought to be able to scrape together five sacks this year.  Nobody even had four last year.  Jake Snyder had a good year last year and frankly I'll take exactly that this year, too, which numbers-wise was 44 tackles, 5.5 for loss, and 2.5 sacks.  I'm not sure what goals I'd set for the DTs - stay healthy, mainly, for the same reason as the O-line has to.

-- Linebackers

The starters:

#42 - Demeitre Brim
#44 - Henry Coley
#13 - Daquan Romero

The reserves:

#51 - Zach Bradshaw
#34 - Kwontie Moore
#29 - D.J. Hill

Postseason, one thing that might serve as a caution when interpreting the production of the defensive line is the production of the linebackers.  If the D-line does a great job of stuffing the line, the linebackers we have ought to be good enough to cannibalize the production and look a lot better themselves.  That's partly why the D-line from last year looks unproductive in the tackles department.

This looks like a relatively inexperienced group, since it only returns one starter and that one missed a third of the season last year, on suspension.  It's more experienced than it seems, though.  Henry Coley is the daddy of the group, as a redshirt junior, but he's been in and out of the lineup each of the past two seasons - once on injury, once on suspension.  However, the coaches think highly enough of his knowledge of the defense to give him a permanent move to the middle; in the past he's played both on the inside and outside.

Demeitre Brim was a special teams monster last year; I completely forget which game but the play sticks out in my head, in which Brim raced from the other side of the field and ran down a kick returner who was about two steps from housing yet another offering.  The defense then held, and I considered the four points worth Brim's redshirt.  The man's got speed.  Now we'll get the chance to see how that translates to defense.

The last starter is the one I have the best hopes for, though.  That's Daquan Romero, who stepped in as a starter last year when Coley was suspended and averaged 6.25 tackles in those four games.  Projected over the season that would have been 75 tackles.  Would I take that kind of production out of a true sophomore linebacker in his first year of starting?  All day long, man.  Romero's been playing with the defensive units since he was a true freshman, and made the best of his turn to start.  Now that the weakside job permanently belongs to him, he has a chance to really be the star of the unit.

On the second-string, the second-biggest surprise of the depth chart release was probably seeing Zach Bradshaw in ahead of Mark Hall.  I'm not sure what that means for Hall - could be the first sign of him being passed up - but should I be surprised?  As a high-schooler, Bradshaw gave the impression of a guy who possessed a ton of football sense that he used to magnify his athleticism.  Kwontie Moore kind of floated on and off the depth chart as a freshman last year and now occupies a more permanent place; his development should also be fun to watch.  D.J. Hill did a nice job at times filling in last year and knows the right place to be, but his athleticism is overshadowed by most of the rest of the unit.  As a backup, he's less like the other two, whose stars are on the rise, and more like a Cody Wallace where you don't hold your breath when he comes in but you don't plan on him Wally Pipping anyone either.

I think we'll see good things here.  More so than any other unit I'm a little bit irrationally exuberant about the linebackers.  I'm exuberant about the running backs, yes, but not irrationally.  Brim put some playmaking skills on display on an otherwise awful special teams unit, and Romero is poised for a breakthrough.  There's a ton of athleticism on the second line, too.  Steve Greer and Laroy Reynolds will be missed.... but probably not for long, and that's no slight on those two.

-- Defensive backs

Cornerback starters:

#1 - Demetrious Nicholson
#22 - DreQuan Hoskey

Cornerback reserves:

#26 - Maurice Canady
#5 - Tim Harris

Safety starters:

#8 - Anthony Harris
#21 - Brandon Phelps

Safety reserves:

#38 - Kelvin Rainey
#27 - Rijo Walker

Let's start off with one assertion: Just because Maurice Canady is listed as a backup does not mean his playing time will be minimal.  I just want to get that out there because now that there's no quarterback to argue over, one of the most common complaints on message boards is that Canady isn't starting.**  It doesn't matter.  Between rotations and the nickel defense, the third cornerback is basically a starter.  Canady was the only cornerback to intercept a pass last year, and he did it twice (accounting for half the team's INTs) which is the source of much of the angst.  One thing that doesn't always occur to folks is that both of those picks were over the middle - which is to say that being the nickel corner directly put Canady in position to make those interceptions.

Besides, Hoskey's, you know, pretty good.  Fast, too - the Hoskey play that stands out is the game-saver against Florida State two years ago.  Exactly what a good, fast, and reasonably instinctual cornerback needs to do.

Neither of them are the star of the secondary, though.  That honor goes to Demetrious Nicholson, a starter since Day 1.  Nicholson has rarely ever looked out of place, not even as a freshman, and his 15 pass breakups last year is an excellent stat.  The one real blemish: Nicholson didn't register a single interception last year.  That needs to change.  A cornerback of Nicholson's stature, coming into his junior year with 25 starts under his belt - three, four, or five INTs should be the expectation.  He never comes off the field - his official bio notes that he's been on the field for over 97% of the defensive snaps the past two years - so there is ample opportunity.  The turnover margin last year was pretty bad, and little to no interception production was a big part of that.  Nicholson has to be the one to turn that around.

In one of the ACC team previews - might've been the Wake Forest one - I mentioned that a sign of a good safety is when the team plays good defense and yet the safety has a ton of tackles.  That's sort of the corollary to the theory that it's a sign of a bad defense when the safeties lead the team in tackles.  UVA's defense was #4 in the conference last year in yards per play, and Anthony Harris had 87 tackles (and incidentally, one of the team's INTs) - the conclusion is another big positive in the secondary.  I think Harris is ahead of Brandon Phelps, but Phelps's development has also been encouraging.

Plus, I like having Rijo Walker as a safety (ha) blanket.  Walker has also been a career backup, but he might be UVA's best such player right now.  The interesting player: Kelvin Rainey, who has leapfrogged a whole bunch of other contenders to appear as the backup to Harris at strong safety.  There are three sophomores on the roster - Kyrrel Latimer, Mason Thomas, and Anthony Cooper - and Rainey's placement bodes ill for all three of them, particulary Cooper, whose star was a lot brighter at this time last year.

Besides Canady on the second string (if you can call it that), Tim Harris shares the fourth cornerback spot with Divante Walker, both apparently moving ahead, for now, of Kirk Garner and C.J. Moore.  This was going to be Wil Wahee until a season-ending knee injury.

Most of the expectations for this unit this season will probably be heaped on Nicholson.  Comes with being the star.  But more so than any of the other defensive units, this is a mature group.  Four juniors starting, and a rare senior backup.  The secondary will be a strength this year, particularly if it produces some turnovers.

**It also makes me want to slap people when they say they can't understand why the coaches won't start Canady when they - the keyboard coaches - can so obviously see what a better playmaker Canady is.  There must be something about observing players in practice, the film room, the weight room, and the locker room every day that makes coaches always make the wrong decisions.


So.  The problem with everything I just wrote, yesterday and today, is that it really doesn't do this season justice.  This year is as close to a brand-new start as you can get without a wholesale head coaching change.  Everything but the head coach has changed.  There's someone new in charge of all three units - offense, defense, and special teams.  There's a new quarterback.  With Steve Greer gone, there's a new quarterback on defense, too, a job which falls to Henry Coley, or perhaps Ant Harris.  The man in charge as the same, so technically it's the same regime, same uniforms, same players mostly since we didn't see the coaching-change exodus, and there's little change in the recruiting philosophy.  But look back 15 or 20 years and you'd have a hard time finding a team that has so much that's brand-new without changing the head coach too.

It's tempting to read this as a vote of no confidence in London, particularly the hiring of Tom O'Brien; there's even historical precedent in the form of Littlepage hiring Gregg Brandon.  However, we're three years into the London regime.  This is year four.  A full vote of no confidence would simply have come in the form of "you're fired."  While the staff changes are an indication that the previous group wasn't working, it's also a message: London can do this, but he needs a little help.

Of course, they're not going to do this twice.  The next time there needs to be a change, the head coach goes too.  That's why I think it's inaccurate to say there aren't any expectations whatsoever.  There are now three and a half years' worth of London recruits in the program.  The best of the bunch from the heralded 2011 class are now upperclassmen.  Guys like Darius Jennings, Demetrious Nicholson, Dominique Terrell, Brandon Phelps, Daquan Romero - they've gone from being the future to the present.  They're the team now.  London brought them in, they came with a pedigree - they have to produce.

The schedule, naturally, is not doing any favors.  The ACC schedule is rough; we were the unlucky Coastal team to draw Clemson, and the Coastal itself is much deeper than the Atlantic.  BYU, not an instate I-AA team, opens the slate, and just when it was already going to be difficult to find wins, the brass decided to add Oregon as well.  Nasty.

London is essentially being given five years, which is enough time to churn through and make the entire team his own recruits, but year four can't be a mess.  Last year was a mess.  This team has to at least look good.  And that's where special teams come in.

There's no separate special teams preview, but maybe there should be.  That unit sabotaged the season last year.  No getting around that.  I looked for it and couldn't find it, but I'm sure at some point last year, or after the end of it, I averred that we would've gone bowling if we'd just had average special teams play.  I think that's still true.  This year, the schedule is too tough, a bowl game is too important, and, simply put, we cannot have the special teams losing games for us.  That's why they went out and hired an actual special teams coach.  If, say, we end up 5-7 and not 6-6, and one of those losses is by less than a touchdown because the special teams gave up a 100-yard KR?  No.  No margin for error here.

The schedule breaks down like so: we should expect to beat VMI, Ball State, Pitt, Maryland, and maybe Duke.  (And I'm sort of out on a limb in having a much lower opinion of Pitt than most pundits and keyboard analysts.)  So that's four, maybe five wins.  We probably lose to Oregon, Clemson, and on the road at UNC.  This means we need to find one or two wins among BYU, GT, Miami, and VT.  Win half those games, probably.  Not easy.  I could be wrong about Pitt.  You see what I mean about no margin for error.

A poor season - 4-8, a bad-looking, bumbling 5-7 - and London is on notice.  Worse, everyone will be talking about London being on notice, and suddenly he'll be recruiting into a headwind.  Go 6-6, or even, saints preserve us, 7-5, and London can brag to recruits about going bowling in a rebuilding year against such a hard schedule (Oregon!) and just wait til we actually aren't rebuilding anymore and UVA will be on everyone's breakout list in 2014.  What a difference a single win makes.  We're the toast of the town if we can do it.  If not, the only toast will be Mike London's butt.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

season preview: offense

You've been waiting for it.  Here it is.  It's time to dispense with the formalities and get to work.

-- Quarterback

The starter:

#5 - David Watford

The reserves:

#11 - Greyson Lambert
#15 - Matt Johns

If I and the entire rest of the world have been oversaying it, too bad - it's getting said one more time.  The important thing is that we have a #1 quarterback.  Making the right choice is important, yes, but so is making a choice.  It's possible that Mike London came to that conclusion on his own, but it's also a lock that Tom O'Brien mentioned this to him.  This is the same guy who told Russell Wilson to stop playing baseball or transfer** so this is not a guy with decision issues.

The reason I harp on this so much, and everyone harps on this so much, is because it's very likely London was engineering nothing less than the total sabotage of his coaching career.  Not only was this indecisiveness submarining the UVA program, but would you hire a head coach who looked that scared of making the one decision that is demanded of a head coach?  London's best hope would've been to have some major success as a DC somewhere and probably wouldn't have returned to the head coaching ranks for 10 years, minimum, because "why couldn't you pick a quarterback at Virginia?" would've been asked in every interview.

Anyway.  Here he is, David Watford: not, perhaps, the savior of the program and London's career just yet, but at least representative of such.  Watford has little playing experience, but his innate leadership skills are by now well-documented; it's been oft-mentioned that both the Navy SEALs and Watford's own teammates identified him as the team's top leader.  Regardless of the lip service paid to a competition early in camp, that kind of endorsement was always going to give him a major head start in the derby.

As mentioned, Watford got some playing time as a true freshman in 2011.  He wasn't good.  In fact, he was pretty bad.  His passer rating was a miserable 82.4, the result of a completion percentage of barely 40%.  He wasn't a threat to run; 15 of his 42 total yard came on one run, and the rest of the time he averaged 1.35 yards an attempt.  And his putrid 4-for-16 performance against NC State was a huge blessing in disguise, because it put a stop to the platoon, after which Mike Rocco engineered a Peach Bowl season.

None of that matters.  Watford will be running a brand-new offense, which, if the pistol and read-option rumors are true (and they are), is better-suited to his presumed mobility.  Bill Lazor didn't exactly chain Watford's feet to the ground, but the offense was the same as Rocco's.  The difference came in the playcalling.  Including read-option plays, however, is something that Steve Fairchild probably definitely wouldn't do if it were Greyson Lambert running the show.

Watford is also a brand-new quarterback, having been given a year to sit back and observe.  "Sit back" may not be the right term; Watford was last year's scout-team guy, and was seen to be very active on the sidelines during games.  If he succeeds, it could be a big point in favor of tossing a true freshman onto the field and then redshirting him the year after; there's something to be said for knowing which parts of your game need work and having some live experience to fall back on in your learning.

But will he succeed?  That's what you're here to find out, isn't it?  If I were writing this preview the same way I write the other ACC previews, I'd assume that the ride would be awfully rough.  You're looking at a sophomore quarterback who hasn't played a live game for almost two years, and who was awful when he did play.  Plus the guy was a mid-to-low three-star recruit who landed only one out-of-state offer.  And finally, his competition for the QB job was two redshirt freshmen.  Could you fault a neutral observer for thinking this is more likely to go badly than well?

So, in a fit of brutal honesty, Watford will struggle sometimes.  He'll see defenses he's never seen, and he's going to be asked to make throws he's never made, and all against players probably better and more athletic than he's played against.  (Most of his playing time in 2011 came against teams like Idaho.)  But, in believing what I read, he's also got the tools to get over that.  Watford will probably have three games this year where he looks like pig shit.  And he'll probably have three games this year where he looks amazing.  And in between is where we'll find out if he's really going to be a good quarterback.

Holding the clipboard, you've got redshirt freshmen Lambert and Johns.  Johns didn't get much scrutiny in camp because he missed the spring and came into the fall as the clear #3.  Lambert is still learning his way around a defense, and threw a few too many interceptions in practice for comfort.  Watford is the more polished product, which says something rather negative about Lambert's polish.  But he does have a stronger arm.

Assuming health, I don't think either of them will see much of the field.  TOB should be able to act as a damper on London's Captain Hook instincts during Watford's inevitable bad games.  Watford, for his part, should finish the season with about a 55-57% completion percentage and, given the whole year, between 28 and 3200 passing yards.  That'll be the range in which I think he'll have proven his ability to hang onto the job during the offseason without requiring another open competition.

**Ironically, Wilson then transferred to a school without a baseball program.

-- Running backs

The starter:

#25 - Kevin Parks

The reserves:

#23 - Khalek Shepherd
#4 - Taquan Mizzell

Fullback starter:

#3 - Billy Skrobacz

Fullback reserve:

#41 - Connor Wingo-Reeves

Unlike at quarterback, here a neutral observer would have to look at this and say things were looking pretty good.  Kevin Parks, plain and simple, has become a weapon, running for 734 yards last year and supplanting 2011 star Perry Jones as the primary ballcarrier.  Helping in that regard is that Parks can be a receiver, too; though Jones was the main backfield target of passes with 49 catches, Parks had 24.

Parks doesn't have breakaway speed, but he's compact and difficult to bring down; he's not Barry Sanders but he's got just enough elusiveness to add a yard or two to most runs, and he's kind of a very poor man's Sanders in that he's short with big strong legs and a little bit elusive, which means that it takes a very athletic play to bring him down one-on-one.

Parks, unlike Jones, is probably capable of carrying the full load if he has to.  He's veteran enough to be a third-down pass protector, he can move a line of scrimmage, and he's a pass-catcher.  If he did carry the load, he'd pile up 1,000 yards.  He won't have to, though.  Meet Smoke Mizzell, the guy we've been waiting to see for a long time.

The questions around Mizzell will all be mental.  As in, does he grasp the schemes; can he be in the right place at the right time as a blocker; will his eyes adjust to the faster-paced college game?  The usual.  He was a five-star recruit and Rivals' #1 back in the country for a reason.  And at some 7-on-7 camps, he lined up as a slot receiver and blew the crowd away with his pass-catching skills.  Even though we lost Perry Jones to graduation, as long as Mizzell proves ready for the college game, there won't be any dropoff in the participation of our backs in the passing game.

Then you've got Khalek Shepherd.  Shepherd has been kind of the offense's version of Billy Schautz lately.  Al Groh, and later London, used to say great things about Schautz during spring and fall practice and then he would be nowhere to be found on Saturdays.  It took a few years before Schautz became a regular.  Shepherd the same.  He was almost exclusively a kick returner last year, with only 19 carries as the focus stayed on Parks and Jones.  Those were productive carries though, even if they did come mostly against Richmond and opponents' second strings in blowouts.  And by the way, Shepherd can also catch the ball.  It'll be interesting to watch and see if his role expands this year; Mizzell, if he's all he's cracked up to be, will make that pretty tough.

There aren't very many tailbacks on this roster.  The only other scholarship one is redshirt freshman Kye Morgan; looking at Shepherd's 19 carries last year and Clifton Richardson's 24, it's likely that we'll also catch a few glimpses of Morgan here and there.  Probably not in a bigger role than that, though.

At fullback, Billy Skrobacz is spending his senior season on scholarship, a reward for his work of the past few years.  His blocking still needs work, though (I can't remember the game from last year but I can't get the play out of my head where Skrobacz plunged into the line, right past the linebacker he ought to have blocked, and got the ballcarrier killed), and he'll likely be pushed for playing time by Wingo-Reeves.  Poor Vincent Croce can't catch a break, having been passed up already by CWR, but then, he's still only a redshirt freshman, and Skrobacz is a senior; Croce's time will come.  In any case, Fairchild's offense is still an unknown, which means the amount of snaps for fullbacks is also unknown, but I don't see a ballcarrier in the group.

-- Receiver

The starters:

#6 - Darius Jennings
#20 - Tim Smith
#2 - Dominique Terrell

The reserves:

#87 - Kyle Dockins
#17 - Miles Gooch
#19 - E.J. Scott

I never really looked at the final receiving stats last year, until very recently when I started putting together the full ACC preview.  And man - that was a little surprising.  Not to even have a 600-yard receiver in the whole bunch.  I did not expect that.

Part of it was that the running backs sucked up a lot of catches, and the offense was often predicated on getting them the ball instead of the receivers.  Part of it also was that Mike Rocco wasn't strong-armed enough to consistently get the ball downfield and Phillip Sims wasn't accurate enough to get the ball downfield to the right place.  Whether we'll see all these phenomena again, I'm not totally sure.  To some extent, probably.

That said, I'm willing to accept all that for last season - but this is a talented group of receivers.  We're at the point now where it's time for them to go out and make the plays.  Too many balls going to the tailbacks?  This year, instead of calling that a function of the offense and the situation, we need our receivers to change the situation.  All three of the top group are four-star players; they need to put that to work and force the coaches and their quarterback to get them the ball.  That top group is all juniors and seniors, and that's the level of expectations that comes with the "upperclassmen" label.

Darius Jennings, in particular, needs to emerge and be the man.  A 48-catch season is respectable; this is his year to build on that.  Tim Smith is a senior, and though he's been held back with injuries his whole career, it's not likely now that he'll suddenly be the primary, #1 guy.  But he'd make a great complement to Jennings if Jennings is breaking out.

Expectations and demands should be high - but they're also very doable.  An encouraging trend is the upward trajectory of practically everyone here.  Nobody has stalled out or peaked and then dropped - except for Smith, who has the injury bug.  Dominique Terrell had a very nice sophomore campaign last year after a tough freshman season.  E.J. Scott - who will probably be the first guy on the field in a four-receiver formation - was a pleasant surprise last year, and should continue to be about a 25-catch guy.  Miles Gooch is slowly but surely putting his big frame to good use, and Kyle Dockins is a mild surprise as the backup to Jennings.

So this is what the deep end of the potential pool looks like.  This isn't even to mention, yet, what Adrian Gamble might be able to do for us, and Canaan Severin is also sitting there on the depth chart, albeit at the very bottom.  (It might be a good idea, if possible, to give Severin the Watford treatment, since there are so many folks above him on the depth chart, and he only caught one pass last season and another season of that would seem like a waste.  The importance of possibly redshirting Severin, however, will probably be overshadowed by the sheer number of message-board coaches demanding that it happen.)

I tell you what I'd like to see as a baseline minimum improvement from each of the three starters: 10 extra catches and 1 extra yard tacked on to their average.  That would put Jennings and Terrell at 742 and 648 yards, respectively.  With such a deep pool of potential, there's a little bit of a paradox: if everyone improves enough to fulfill these expectations, it's likely that nobody will stand out enough to be hailed as a star.  But they'll prove their depth and talent.  Remember which team's receivers I labeled the best in the league: Florida State.  Despite the lack of a single standout star in the numbers columns.  Those guys powered one of the league's best passing attacks last year - third in YPA, and 1st was Georgia Tech which is a skewed number as ever.  So really second, and by only a tenth of a yard.

Short of having a freak like a Calvin Johnson, that's really the best you can aim for.  We don't have a freak, but we do have a large group of talented players who can, at their best, force defenses to stay honest and try to cover them one on one.  If there's one thing I wish we had that doesn't seem to be there, it's a leaper who can turn every jump ball into a win, but maybe I'm getting picky.  I'd say that whoever ends up as the leading receiver (Jennings, probably) tops out around 850 yards, with 750-800 as the more likely, but more important will be seeing the top two or three combined.  Last year the top two added up to 1,043 and the top three, 1,448.  Let's see those numbers pushed up to about 1,300 and 1,700 and I'd say we're in the right place.

-- Tight ends

The starter:

#49 - Zachary Swanson

The reserves:

#89 - Rob Burns
#83 - Jake McGee

The top surprise when the depth chart came out yesterday: Jake McGee sitting at third.  If you're like any good fan, you half panicked and half cocked your head skeptically in Mike London's direction.  This was of course the first thing that London got asked in the press conference, and London, in just this many words, said "don't read too much into that."

OK, I won't, but I still will.  The deal is this: McGee missed some time in camp with an injury.  Not a big thing, but still a shoulder thing that prevented him from working on the blocking that he needs to work on.  So it might be that the coaches are saying he doesn't block so good.  But remember: McGee really had a breakout season last year, and the coaches aren't stupid to the fact that he's a major weapon in the passing game.  They know his value.  Given that, what I read into this depth chart is that Zach Swanson, and possibly Rob Burns too, are more ready for playing time than we thought.

That's a good thing, right?  Seeing Swanson back at tight end is a plus, because fullback was the wrong position for him unless it was going to be that sort of tight-end-in-the-backfield H-back position.  Who ever heard of a 6'6" fullback?  He's got precisely the build, however, for tight end, and if he's ready for the field at tight end, we can put him to work.  Who would mind seeing a two-TE set with Swanson and McGee that betrays nothing about the intent of the play?  Not me.

Anyway, even though I went strictly by the season-opening depth chart and called Swanson the starter, I take London at his coachspeaking word when he says there are multiple sets (as if I ever expected the offense to run just one formation all year) and McGee will be in there.  I mean, I complained about the lack of a pass-catching high jumper just now, but hello.  McGee basically won half our games last year by reaching passes most other players could not have.  Swanson may be the official starter at the moment, but it's McGee that has the chance to be a big star.

-- Offensive line

The starters:

#78 - Morgan Moses
#70 - Luke Bowanko
#65 - Ross Burbank
#74 - Conner Davis
#77 - Jay Whitmire

The reserves:

#75 - Sadiq Olanrewaju
#76 - Michael Mooney
#67 - Jackson Matteo
#61 - Cody Wallace
#72 - Eric Smith

Here is the uh-oh moment.  I have plenty of confidence in the receivers, the running backs, and Watford.  I have.... rather less confidence in the offensive line.

Let's start with Morgan Moses.  There are questions even here; Moses is being asked to protect Watford's back side, which is a change from his right tackle position last year.  And even last year you could see his side-to-side footwork was too often slow and beatable with a good speed rush.  Dollars to donuts the NFL drafts him as a guard; Moses, when engaged in a strength contest, has few equals.  That's him standing up Maryland's Joe Vellano, not an easy task.  I love Moses's straight-ahead skills; when you want to run behind him, he just mauls.  I'm glad he spent all of fall camp trying to block Eli Harold; he won't see many faster defensive ends in the ACC, although he will see ones with better technique.

The battle at center might have been the closest one in all of camp.  Jackson Matteo came in as the leader, then missed a few days, during which Ross Burbank gave the coaches reason to ponder.  Thus, Burbank is the starter.  Both he and Matteo are a little scary because Matteo is a freshman and Burbank has been in and out of the center job his whole career, even though he's just a redshirt sophomore.

That makes Luke Bowanko maybe the most important member of the line.  Bowanko has played center, and could do so again, but facts are, he's a guard.  Whoever is snapping the ball doesn't have to make the line calls with no backup; Bowanko is a fifth-year senior and knows the drill.  His help will be invaluable, and the kind of thing we will never see.

Conner Davis saw his first extended action last season, starting 11 games; he was OK.  It's hard to go farther in his praise when the line's interior struggles were so clear last season.  Lastly among the starters, Jay Whitmire inherits the right tackle spot.  Actually, I have fairly high hopes for Whitmire.  For one thing, he was a highly-sought-after recruit, and then spent his two years in the pipeline (including quite a few snaps on offense as a backup last year) and now has left no room for drama at right tackle.  It's his position and that's it, and it's that lack of drama that makes me optimistic about his abilities.

So, as with last year, the line sets up with at least a respectable look on the outside, and the need to prove itself inside, albeit with Bowanko on the inside to help that process along.  The starting five have a lot to prove, but it's a group that leaves as much room for optimism as pessimism.  We'll see how things start to trend.

The scary thing is the second string.  I see four freshmen and one guy (Cody Wallace) who's got career backup written all over him.  It's not so bad if those freshmen get into the game strictly on the coaches' terms - when and where and how they want to give them their snaps.  It's going to be ugly if a starter gets hurt long-term.  And it's not like we have a choice - there literally are six non-freshmen on the whole depth chart.  You see what losing Sean Cascarano means.  This offense is liable to fall directly apart if it sustains just two injuries to the O-line starters.


Coming tomorrow: Defense!  And the seasonal outlook too.

Monday, August 26, 2013

weekend review

So.  Back from vacation.  Going on a long trip means things get a little out of date, so today I catch up a little.  And because it's my blog you also have to sit through the dreaded vacation slides.

Some people get a thrill out of meeting celebrities. I get mine from visiting celebrity cities. Standing on top of the Arc de Triomphe with all of Paris spread before you is like a personal dinner with Marilyn Monroe. I like my kicks better, because you can't meet Marilyn Monroe anymore. This first view of Paris - we went straight from the airport to the hotel to here - was indescribably sublime in a way that a stitched-up panorama on the screen could never convey.  It's above the city but not way above the city, so it's like being in all of Paris at once.  And it instantly became one of my favorite moments of my life.

-- Fortunately, UVA got through fall camp without getting too banged up in the injury department.  The only major camp casualty (besides Sean Cascarano's hip, which developed into a problem long ago) was Wil Wahee, who was coming along nicely as the fourth cornerback on the roster and now will miss the season.  It's a blow to the depth (and to special teams as well), and probably means peeling the redshirt off of Tim Harris.  But worse things have happened.

-- The same can't be said for Virginia Tech.  Injuries and just plain departures were rampant in Blacksburg this year.  Let's see if I can remember them all:

- Whip linebacker Ronny Vandyke and RB Tony Gregory are out for the season.
- OL Mark Shuman and RB J.C. Coleman are both in the 4-6 weeks range.
- A whole bunch of players simply left the program.  OLs Jake Goins and Adam Taraschke quit football, safety Davion Tookes left the team along with a couple defensive linemen, and CB Donaldven Manning transferred out after losing a camp battle.
- DL Corey Marshall is, according to Tech, "out indefinitely while resolving some personal issues."

Our Hokie friends like to spin this as just normal attrition, but normal attrition happens in the spring and summer.  It's not exactly the total unraveling of their progam either, but that is not how a good, healthy training camp goes.  They've had to move Wyatt Teller away from his more natural defensive end position to try and shore up the offensive line, which is unraveling.

We also visited Cologne, Germany.  I had never had Cologne on a list of places I just had to see, but the opportunity presented itself and we took it.  Paris is awesome in the most literal sense of the word, but I also get a kick out of going to unexpected places, which is to say, ones that it never even crossed my mind to visit.  In that sense it's like Jakarta, Indonesia.  I've always loved traveling and have a really long list of places I want to see.  Neither Jakarta nor Cologne were ever on them.  The difference is, though, I'd go back to Cologne.  

-- I don't think I'm done talking about VT just yet.  I've already gone over their offensive troubles in the previews, but their recent fall camp scrimmage really drives it home.  The two quotes I like best from Bitter's article on it:

"As mentioned before, the protection wasn’t great. The first-team o-line was (from right to left) Laurence Gibson, Andrew Miller, David Wang, Caleb Farris and Jonathan McLaughlin. Even the second-team defensive line was giving them trouble, though."

"Likely starter Trey Edmunds only got one carry. Running backs coach Shane Beamer didn’t want either Edmunds or Mangus running behind the second-team offensive line."

The second-team offensive line at VT is so bad that the coaches were afraid they'd get their running backs hurt.  That is priceless.

-- Regarding our own offense, Steve Fairchild recently gave his end-of-camp press conference, in which I thought his utter refusal to answer anything worth answering was telling in and of itself.  Several of the questions asked ("How much has working with Mike Martz influenced you?") were cleverly but fairly obviously designed to see how much he'd reveal about his plans for the offense, and Fairchild was too smart to take any of the bait.

Nevertheless, I think there's a lot to be learned even from that.  The scrimmage highlights on VSTV included at least one read-option run, and word has leaked out all during camp about things like the pistol formation.  I don't think we're looking at a major tear-down and revamp such as what Gregg Brandon attempted to do, but pistols and read-options have never been a thing at UVA before.  Bill Lazor ran a pro-style offense, and they're calling this one a pro-style offense too, but I think it's plain to see that the changes will be much bigger than that bit of terminology would indicate.

Victor Hugo wrote, in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, "There exists in this era, for thoughts written in stone, a privilege absolutely comparable to our current freedom of the press. It is the freedom of architecture."  Those medieval architects, given the freedom to build what they couldn't write down, knew what they were doing.  It's a tremendous testament to their abilities that their creations, 700 years later, still have the power to awe and amaze - and survive four years' worth of visits from Allied B-17s to boot.

-- Baseball is generating some news too.  Phil Gosselin, this past week, became the 32nd former Hoo to appear in the major leagues, getting the call-up from the Braves and making his mark pretty well with a 2-for-4 game in which he scored what would eventually be the winning run.  Gosselin made his debut against the Nationals, and if Stephen Strasburg hadn't been ejected from the game (actually Gosselin's second, but he was only a defensive replacement in his first game), might well have had his first MLB at-bat against him.  Gosselin's claim to fame, of course, is drilling the home run in Irvine that handed Strasburg and San Diego State the loss in the opening game of the regional.

Also, his old teammate Tyler Cannon is coming back to UVA as a student assistant coach - probably a one-year deal unless a more regular spot opens up, since he's back mainly to finish his degree.  Cannon made it as high as AA-ball in his career.

-- The hoops schedule came out, and I have to say it's not impressive.  I think we might well be in for another season of worrying about whether the OOC SOS will drag us down again.  The marquee game is Wisconsin in the ACC/B1G Challenge; elsewise, as far as headliners go, there's a trip to Tennessee, a neutral-site game against Davidson, and VCU.  Most of the rest of it is filler; assuming we don't make a mess of our preseason tournament, the prize at the end is a game against Texas A&M.  Which isn't a good team, residing in the dregs of a decent-not-great basketball conference.  This doesn't capture the imagination.  We're stuck basically hoping A&M isn't bad enough to lose to whatever mid-major they drew in their end of the preseason tournament and that Larry Brown can get SMU (also on the schedule) up to speed in record time.

I'm not really complaining about being the star attraction in this Corpus Christi Whatever preseason tournament (it's brand-new, so without looking, it probably has the word "Classic" in the name); I mean, we can't go to Maui every year.  But another big game or two would go a long way on this schedule, which still has too many sub-250 RPI teams on it.  I continue to say we need to schedule a regular series with Georgetown just to stick it Maryland's eye.

Paris, of course, is one of the most popular literary (and dramatic, cinematic, etc.) settings of all time.  To me, if I'm standing where an angry mob tore down the Bastille or where Marius first caught a glimpse of Cosette, or whether it's the location of an early Middle-Age siege of the city or a fictional masquerade, it's all the same.  You have to use your imagination to picture either one, so landmarks made famous by literature are just as interesting as those made famous by history.  Often they're made famous by both anyway.  This is why I felt the gentleman who, during our tour, challenged the veracity of the relics of the Magi (which are held by the Cologne Cathedral) was completely and utterly missing the point - as well as being a bit of an asshole.
-- I need to do a little bit of a recruiting board update, if only because one of the events of my vacation was Gary Wunderlich's highly disappointing decommitment.  Don't know what appeal an Ole Miss diploma holds when you've got an offer to get a Virginia one, but fandom came into play here, I think.  The changes:

- Moved K Gary Wunderlich from orange to maroon.

- Removed RB Madre London from yellow.

- Removed RB Joe Mixon from red.

I suspect there will be new offers going out as the coaches have a chance to see some players during their senior seasons.

And speaking of which, it's time for that feature to get a start as well.  Unless some people commit quickly, this is gonna be a very short feature this year; there are only nine players to follow.  Four were in action this weekend, two in preseason games.  Caanan Brown and Evan Butts were those.  Following the proper format for the other two....

Peachtree Ridge 23, Walton 17 - Jordan Ellis had a very good start, scoring what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown and grinding out 136 yards.  Ellis flashed a little pass-catching ability too.

Western Alamance 37, Cummings 0 (Will Richardson)

Next week, everyone but Andrew Brown and Oscar Smith are in action.

We visited the Louvre.  You have to visit the Louvre.  It's way cheaper than you'd think, for one thing.  About $15 to look at as many Virgin-Mary-with-Child's as you can cram into your eyeballs, and for the privilege of getting elbowed in the gut by little Chinese ladies for the right to stand as close to the Mona Lisa as they'll let you.  It's a little hilarious how much morbid shit these Renaissance artists churned out, too.  It's like there was this competition to see who could depict St. Sebastian with the most arrows sticking out of his ribs.  I've never been confused with an art connisseur, but I know what I like.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

full-fledged acc preview

You've just almost finished reading what I will boldly state is the best - well, most thorough, at least - freely available ACC preview anywhere.  I'm not even kidding.  ESPN's little bloggy previews were nothing compared to this.  Sure, they do a lot more work than just that.  But.  I don't know of anyone else who goes as indepth and doesn't charge you for it.  I've always made the claim that my readers are the best-informed Virginia fans on the competition, and you might just be able to make that statement without qualifying it with "Virginia."

Now that I'm done loudly singing my own praises, I say "almost finished" because I've saved the best for last, and the UVA stuff is this coming week.  However, it's time to pull it all together for one, big, comprehensive preview.  One that goes even further than what we've had in the past.  Big enough to need a table of contents:

-- Position unit rankings
-- Schedule rankings
-- Hot seat coaches
-- Top OOC games (non-rivalry)
-- Bowl predictions

Much is based off of the positional rankings; most every prediction is derived from there.  Time to get a move-on:

-- Quarterback rankings

1. Clemson - Tajh Boyd
2. North Carolina - Bryn Renner
3. Miami - Stephen Morris
4. Georgia Tech - Vad Lee
5. Duke - Anthony Boone
6. Virginia Tech - Logan Thomas
7. Boston College - Chase Rettig
8. Florida State - Jameis Winston
9. Wake Forest - Tanner Price
10. Pittsburgh - Tom Savage
11. Virginia - David Watford
12. NC State - Pete Thomas
13. Maryland - C.J. Brown
14. Syracuse - Drew Allen

This is as good a time to any to explain that while I may be awfully optimistic about David Watford and various other portions of the UVA roster as well, I had to look at UVA through the same as-neutral-as possible lens in which I looked at other teams as well.  And the truth is, through that lens you see a guy who had a lousy 2011, is rumored to have improved, and sat out last season.

It's a little bit of a down-year in the conference for QBs, actually.  Several good ones - Mike Glennon, E.J. Manuel, for example - have departed the scene, and thus we have to put a barely 50% passer 6th in the rankings.  Returning players like Rettig and Price don't impress much either.  All the teams below UVA have some uncertainty at quarterback with at least a fair chance that the guy listed won't be the starter, and the alternatives aren't a lot better.  Actually, Pitt as well, but Savage has at least some pedigree.  And the gap between Renner and Morris is large.

The other thing that might loom as strange is Vad Lee as high as fourth, but the fact is he's come across as a terrific fit for what GT is trying to do.  The big wild card: Winston, who has room to make a big upward move, but is probably the single most unknown quantity of the whole gang.

-- Wide receiver/tight end rankings

1. Florida State - Rashad Greene, Kenny Shaw
2. NC State - Quintin Payton, Brian Underwood
3. Clemson - Sammy Watkins, Charone Peake
4. Maryland - Stefon Diggs, Deon Long
5. Boston College - Alex Amidon, Spiffy Evans
6. Duke - Jamison Crowder, Issac Blakeney
7. Miami - Phillip Dorsett, Allen Hurns
8. Virginia - Darius Jennings, Tim Smith
9. North Carolina - Quinshad Davis, Sean Tapley
10. Wake Forest - Michael Campanaro, Brandon Terry
11. Pittsburgh - Devin Street, Tyler Boyd
12. Virginia Tech - D.J. Coles, Demetri Knowles
13. Syracuse - Jarrod West, Adrian Flemming
14. Georgia Tech - Corey Dennis, Darren Waller

The best two receivers in the league will probably prove to be Clemson's Watkins and Maryland's Diggs - that's the conventional wisdom, and it makes sense.  But the top two receiving units on this list are here because of their depth.  FSU and NC State both return a ton of production.  Just about everyone in the league that has a top-notch, national-level receiving talent also has depth questions behind them.  We're talking about Maryland and Clemson, yes, but also teams like Wake and Pitt.  Pitt has Devin Street, who is very good, and a nuclear disaster zone, hence their low ranking.  Wake is not much better off.  Duke and BC fit this mold as well, but both bring back 1,000-yard receivers and at least a smidge of depth.

UVA is actually in an interesting position, with more potential depth than most teams but low returning production.  Very similar to UNC, actually, as both teams have a big weapon at tight end to complement the wide receivers (Jake McGee and Eric Ebron), and UVA gets the edge for a little extra depth from guys like E.J. Scott.

Thanks to Street, Pitt avoids what I'd consider the bottomest tier, where the resident teams bring back almost nothing from their successes of last year and are starting almost completely fresh.  GT sits at the bottom owing to a stunning lack of depth that comes partly by design.  Even for GT they're thin, though.  I'd penalize them less if they had a big-time returning player, but they don't.

Overall, though, I'd call the competition for an all-ACC spot pretty tough.  Street, Campanaro, Crowder, Diggs, Watkins, Amidon - all these guys could put together 1,000-yard seasons.  Most have already.  Deon Long is a potential major threat, as is Quinshad Davis.  There could be 800- or 900-yard seasons relegated to honorable mention or even going voteless.

-- Running back rankings

1. Syracuse - Jerome Smith, Prince-Tyson Gulley
2. Florida State - James Wilder, Devonta Freeman
3. Miami - Duke Johnson
4. Virginia - Kevin Parks, Taquan Mizzell
5. North Carolina - A.J. Blue, Romar Morris
6. Duke - Jela Duncan, Juwan Thompson, Josh Snead
7. Georgia Tech - David Sims, Robert Godhigh, B.J. Bostic
8. Clemson - Roderick McDowell
9. Wake Forest - Josh Harris, DeAndre Martin
10. Boston College - Andre Williams
11. NC State - Shadrach Thornton, Tony Creecy
12. Virginia Tech - J.C. Coleman, Trey Edmunds
13. Pittsburgh - Isaac Bennett, Malcolm Crockett
14. Maryland - Brandon Ross, Albert Reid

Here is one area on offense where UVA looks to be in great shape compared to the conference.  We have a returning 700-yard rusher and easily the best incoming freshman.  And the truth is, most of the proven commodities in the league are proven to be sort of mediocre.  NC State's tandem is the prime example; Shadrach Thornton and Tony Creecy are stunningly average.  Players like Andre Williams, Josh Harris, and Jela Duncan are decent, but not going to capture the nation's imagination.

You have to like what Duke Johnson brings to the table, and Syracuse has easily the best pair of proven backs in the league; it's nigh-impossible to look at their 2012 production and conclude otherwise.  FSU also looks to be in great shape.  But if there's a nationally-relevant back in the ACC, it's just as likely to come from the ranks of the unknown as the known.  UNC is a prime example of this, as is perhaps Clemson's McDowell.  (Clemson is penalized, however, for having no depth.)  Even J.C. Coleman could have a breakout season.  But I don't look at ACC tailbacks this year and see a very strong collection of talent.

-- Offensive line rankings

1. Florida State - C Bryan Stork
2. Clemson - LT Brandon Thomas
3. Georgia Tech - C Jay Finch
4. Miami - LG Jon Feliciano
5. Duke - RT Perry Simmons
6. North Carolina - LT James Hurst
7. Syracuse - C Macky MacPherson
8. NC State - LG Duran Christophe
9. Virginia - LT Morgan Moses
10. Boston College - RT Ian White
11. Virginia Tech - C David Wang
12. Pittsburgh - LG Cory King
13. Maryland - C Sal Conaboy
14. Wake Forest - C Whit Barnes

There's a pretty big rich-poor divide at offensive line in the ACC this year.  The top five are experienced all the way around and talented for the most part, with lots of senior leadership and at least decently playable depth.  Holes start appearing at #6, and starting around #9 or #10, large and potentially offense-crippling questions begin to appear.

UVA would be quite a bit lower, frankly, if it weren't for Moses.  We're talking about a team that's looking at starting a redshirt freshman walk-on at center and lost one of its best players to a hip injury.  Through any glasses not colored blue and orange, that's a big, big issue.  At 9th, UVA is both as low as I can place a team with talent like Moses, and as high as I can put a team with such major questions.

Below UVA, you've got BC whose line is just kind of average to below average without a standout player, but without a large pile of question marks - after them is when teams are getting awfully nervous about certain things.  In VT's case it's injury and general lousiness.  For Wake, it's having eight healthy linemen, most of whom are freshmen and none of whom are especially good.  At Maryland, the usual factors of stability and experience are in decent shape, except that that was the single worst line in the whole league last year, and still would've been if Pitt and Cuse had been around.

However, the league's two flag-carriers are looking good here.  I'd worry for the fate of the ACC if FSU and Clemson had foundational issues, but I can't help but say the league's top two teams also have the best two O-lines.  And David Cutcliffe's relentless work at Duke to finally develop a cohesive, experienced offensive line that isn't a toxic waste dump has paid off nicely.

-- Offense cumulative rankings

1. Florida State
2. Clemson
3. Miami
4. North Carolina (tie)
4. Duke (tie)
6. Georgia Tech
7. Boston College (tie)
7. Virginia (tie)
9. NC State
10. Syracuse
11. Virginia Tech
12. Wake Forest
13. Maryland
14. Pittsburgh

So you can pretty easily tell that the top two is the top two.  No surprise there.  The next four teams, however, all reside in the Coastal Conference, five if you decide that UVA wins whatever tiebreaker you like against BC.  Tough race there.  UVA is actually not above eighth in any category but RB, where they're fourth, but a lack of complete disaster zones gives our Hoos a slightly surprising ranking.  The same holds true, for that matter, for BC.

That middle four of BC through Syracuse is actually very, very close in terms of the point totals.  Then there's a sizable drop to 11th.  Could the Hokies be in for a rude surprise this year?  Looks that way.  The other slight surprise is that Miami is actually pretty close to Clemson.  Closer to Clemson than they are to the Tobacco Roadies behind them. 

-- Defensive line rankings

1. NC State - T.Y. McGill
2. Virginia Tech - James Gayle
3. Wake Forest - Nikita Whitlock
4. Florida State - Timmy Jernigan
5. North Carolina - Kareem Martin
6. Clemson - Grady Jarrett
7. Georgia Tech - Jeremiah Attaochu
8. Pittsburgh - Aaron Donald
9. Miami - Anthony Chickillo
10. Virginia - Brent Urban
11. Maryland - Darius Kilgo
12. Duke - Kenny Anunike
13. Boston College - Kaleb Ramsey
14. Syracuse - Jay Bromley

This is kinda scary.  I think we have a pretty good defensive line going into this season (although having Chris Brathwaite would've been worth another rank upwards or two) but there are just some damn good defensive lines in the conference this year.  The best and deepest is surprisingly NC State's.  They will go seven or eight deep and not lose a lot, they have one of the best DTs in the conference (T.Y. McGill), and they can bring a consistent pass rush from both sides.

But playmakers abound.  NC State might have the deepest unit, but you can rattle off at least half a dozen players, all on different teams, that are matchup nightmares.  Nikita Whitlock, Kareem Martin, Jeremiah Attaochu, Aaron Donald, the list goes on.  VT and FSU both run awfully deep and Wake's 3-4 boasts three fifth-year seniors on the line.  Really, the top eight lines are all deep and talented.  It starts to teeter a bit at 9 and 10.  Miami has good-to-very-good players at end but is lousy at tackle, and UVA's depth is largely untested.  The cliff comes at #11; the bottom four D-lines in the conference are really junky.  Boston College absolutely sucks at generating a pass rush and it should tell you how bad Syracuse's line looks when I put them below the last-place team in the country in sacks.

-- Linebacker rankings

1. Clemson - Spencer Shuey
2. Boston College - Kevin Pierre-Louis
3. Syracuse - Dyshawn Davis
4. Florida State - Christian Jones
5. Maryland - Cole Farrand
6. Miami - Denzel Perryman
7. Wake Forest - Justin Jackson
8. Georgia Tech - Quayshawn Nealy
9. Virginia Tech - Jack Tyler
10. Pittsburgh - Shane Gordon
11. North Carolina - Tommy Heffernan
12. Virginia - Henry Coley
13. Duke - Kelby Brown
14. NC State - D.J. Green

This was the toughest section to rank.  There's not a lot to separate most of the middle teams; in general, they can all be described by saying there is a good - usually not great - playmaker at the top of the list, some decent but unremarkable players, and some holes to fill.  The top four teams are there because they can claim to return two high-quality players instead of just one.  Depth can be a concern even there, however.

I was tempted to put UVA 13th below even Duke, on the basis that Duke has two starters they like (in a 4-2-5 base defense) and the two backups have 50+ tackles each, but then I figured - that's because they were last year's starters and not good enough to keep their jobs.  That's basically the state of Duke's linebackers: proven to be bad.  NC State's problems are even worse; the battles in camp have been largely between players who entirely lack experience other than some special teams plays.  Just to spoil the surprise, I also rated the Pack's secondary as the worst in the conference, which gives them a very odd 1-14-14 set of defensive rankings.

The other potential oddity on the list is VT and Jack Tyler at 9th; Tyler is among the best LBs in the league, but Tech is otherwise so thin at linebacker they almost use the nickel defense as the base defense.

-- Secondary rankings

1. North Carolina - Tim Scott
2. Florida State - Lamarcus Joyner
3. Pittsburgh - Jason Hendricks
4. Virginia Tech - Kyle Fuller
5. Virginia - Demetrious Nicholson
6. Boston College - Sean Sylvia
7. Maryland - Dexter McDougle
8. Georgia Tech - Jemea Thomas
9. Syracuse - Keon Lyn
10. Wake Forest - Kevin Johnson
11. Clemson - Travis Blanks
12. Miami - Ladarius Gunter
13. Duke - Ross Cockrell
14. NC State - Juston Burris

The major caveat here is that Wake Forest's #10 ranking relies partly on them needing to use a freshman safety - a major problem for a defense and one that exposes a huge lack of depth.  Consider them two spots higher if Anthony Wooding gets his waiver from the NCAA.

There are few spectacularly good players among ACC secondaries; Pitt's Jason Hendricks might immediately be the league's best safety.  There aren't too many disaster areas, either, though.  Ross Cockrell is among the league's best cornerbacks and it's his presence that moves Duke ahead of NC State at the bottom, but even the Pack have a few building blocks, even if it's mainly potential at this point.

UVA's ranking is earned with depth at corner, the same way VT's is.  Both teams can claim to run a very solid three deep at corner, with the caveat that Tech does so with two true freshmen.  Those true freshmen won a pretty legitimate camp competition, though, and Tech has more experience at safety than does UVA.

-- Defense cumulative rankings
1. Florida State
2. Virginia Tech
3. North Carolina
4. Clemson
5. Wake Forest
6. Boston College
7. Pittsburgh
8. Georgia Tech
9. Maryland
10. Syracuse
11. Miami
12. Virginia
13. NC State
14. Duke

This is why I warn against thinking VT's day in the sun is over.  That sun might be setting, but it's not there yet; they have a very good defense still.  The interesting thing here is that Clemson comes in fourth while FSU takes first in both categories.  That makes the Atlantic Conference race interesting. Clemson was picked to win it by virtue of having a senior quarterback against FSU's freshman, and that's a very defensible position.  But overall, FSU edges out the Tigers in both offense and defense, meaning....

-- Total rankings

1. Florida State
2. Clemson
3. North Carolina
4. Miami
5. Georgia Tech
6. Boston College
7. Virginia Tech
8. Virginia
9. Duke
10. Syracuse
11. NC State
12. Wake Forest
13. Pittsburgh (tie)
13. Maryland (tie)

....that they look like the conference's best team, and frankly, it's not close.  Clemson is second-best, and well ahead of third-best North Carolina, which just became my pick for the Coastal Conference championship, ahead of Miami.

The surprise here: Boston College.  The third-best team in the Atlantic? (???)  Could be an indictment of the severe flaws of Atlantic teams.  Overall, four of the five worst teams are Atlantic teams, with the caveat that one point is the difference between each team from 8 to 12.  The fact that BC put a relatively biggish margin between them and the next teams down - better even than Tech thanks to the Hokies' awful-looking offense - gives me no choice but to go out on that limb and call the Eagles the ACC's surprise team this year.  Even if they're not quite the 6th-best team in the conference, they play four really bad-looking teams in their division.  The real shame is that we can't take BC's shitty defensive line and trade it with NC State's outstanding one - that would create the league's best defense, at least in these rankings.

Split up by division, the rankings look like this:


1. Florida State
2. Clemson
3. Boston College
4. Syracuse
5. NC State
6. Wake Forest
7. Maryland


1. North Carolina
2. Miami
3. Georgia Tech
4. Virginia Tech
5. Virginia
6. Duke
7. Pittsburgh

-- Schedule rankings

Now, in order to come to some final determinations, we have to rank the schedule difficulties.  The main thing is within the conference, so let's do that and then rank OOC schedules in order to applaud teams for their ballsiness or mock them for their cowardice.  This will simply be a point system using the rankings above, with a multiplier for home and road games.  The team with the lowest point total has the hardest schedule, so a 0.75 multiplier applies to road games and a 1.25 multiplier for home games.

1. Pittsburgh
2. Virginia
3. Maryland
4. NC State
5. North Carolina
6. Boston College
7. Georgia Tech
8. Miami
9. Wake Forest
10. Duke
11. Syracuse
12. Clemson
13. Virginia Tech
14. Florida State

I think you know what conclusions I'm drawing from this.

Purely subjectively, here is a ranking of each team's OOC schedule:

1. Clemson
2. Virginia
3. Georgia Tech
4. Syracuse
5. Virginia Tech
6. Miami
7. Florida State
8. North Carolina
9. Boston College
10. Maryland
11. Pittsburgh
12. Wake Forest
13. Duke
14. NC State

Most teams are playing a BCS-level opponent.  A few play two, and even a few more if you consider BYU a BCS-level team.  (Both UVA and GT play them.)  Cowardly Lion awards go to Duke and NC State for their pitiful schedules.  Duke's actually is worse just team-by-team, but I gave them points for going on the road.

-- Hot seat coaches

First, the ones that are safe no matter what.  These guys aren't going anywhere regardless of what happens, short of criminal behavior perpetrated by their own person, this season.

Steve Addazio - Boston College
Frank Beamer - VT
Paul Chryst - Pitt
David Cutcliffe - Duke
Dave Doeren - NC State
Larry Fedora - UNC
Scott Shafer - Syracuse

Most of these guys are on their first (Addazio, Doeren, Shafer) or second (Chryst, Fedora) season in their job.  The newcomer schools aren't likely to fire a coach in their first year adjusting to the ACC, either.  Beamer isn't to the Bobby Bowden point yet where the school would consider gently nudging him aside, and Cutcliffe has done too much for Duke for his job to be in danger any time soon.

Then we have:

Jimbo Fisher - FSU
Al Golden - Miami
Jim Grobe - Wake
Paul Johnson - GT
Mike London - UVA
Dabo Sweeney - Clemson

These are the guys who won't get fired after this season, but if the season doesn't go well, they'll be on notice next year.  Sweeney and Fisher, by virtue of coaching where they coach, sort of live life perpetually in this state thanks to restless boosters who demand satisfaction, or at least, Orange Bowls.  London isn't getting fired, but if the team has a disappointing year this year, the Damoclean sword will be affixed over his head in 2014.  Grobe is probably the same way; Wake probably doesn't have the cash to just fire him whenever, and he's done really good things for that program, but needs to get out of the doldrums.  As for Johnson, I think his job is pretty darn safe but not so much I'd put him so squarely in the top list.  He's not a program miracle worker like Cutcliffe or Beamer and he's been around a while.  Golden is similar; as long as Miami is doing sort of alright in moving through their turbulent times, he'll be around, but he can't have a major blown gasket, either.

That leaves the only real hot-seat coach in the league:

Randy Edsall - Maryland

And it's not like they'll be around for us to give a shit if he gets canned.

-- Top games

These are the OOC games most worth watching, leaving out rivalry games because they happen every year (chronologically ordered):

North Carolina at South Carolina: Battle of the Carolinas, which you wonder why it doesn't take place more often.  (Probably because South Carolina feels the same way FSU does: we play one really good OOC rival every year, so why strain to play another decent game?)

Clemson vs. Georgia: This actually is kind of a rivalry game, but it doesn't go down all the time.  And it's a great chance for the ACC to get an SEC scalp.

Syracuse vs. Penn State: The Cuse also plays Northwestern in the Big Ten, but this is probably more interesting if for no other reason than to see if PSU is starting to feel the scholarship sanctions yet.

Virginia Tech vs. Alabama: This is the same as our Oregon game - there's an outside chance VT is good enough to pull off a surprise of some kind, but more likely it'll just be a curbstomping.

Virginia vs. Brigham Young: Really, our chance to see if UVA can be a little bit of an ACC surprise.

Miami vs. Florida: I'm not counting this as a rivalry game either, since these teams refuse to play it most of the time.  If Miami is as good as the media believes, though, it could be a good one, and a rare chance to watch these two instate occupants.

Virginia vs. Oregon: See VT vs. Alabama.  However, there's this: Bama and UO are basically the marquee-est teams in the country right now.  If Alabama wipes the field with Tech, and we can keep it even remotely close against Oregon, you instantly have the ability to talk to recruits about how the on-field results are proof positive of the turning of the tide in the state.  (Particularly if we can actually back it up for once on Thanksgiving weekend.)

Georgia Tech at Brigham Young: BYU brought a serious no-huddle OC on board this year, and the contrast between that and GT's triple-option should be fun.

-- Bowl predictions

(Can I just go off on a small tangent here?  The new ACC website is stupid as fuck.  It is incredibly eager to tell me that Luke Kuechly "shined" in the NFL preseason, and has no information whatever on actual informational things, like, oh, I dunno, the current bowl lineup, or historical statistics.  Not even, like, 2011 statistics.  And the news archive is totally gone.  Nice work on that, morons.)

Anyway, the part you've been waiting for.  No thanks to the ACC itself.

ACC CG: Florida State over North Carolina

Orange Bowl: Florida State
Peach Bowl: Clemson - as long as its opponent is not UGA or South Carolina
RA Bowl: Miami - due to proximity, and as long as they're eligible
Sun Bowl: North Carolina
Tire Bowl: Georgia Tech
Music City Bowl: Virginia Tech
Independence Bowl: NC State
Military Bowl: Virginia - because I have to

The Hunger Bowl in San Fran also has ACC ties, as long as the Pac-12 or BYU can't fill a spot, but they probably will.  That's eight bowl eligible teams, and I'll add Boston College and Duke to the rolls.  There'll probably be a bowl or two unable to fill their quota from their contracted conferences, so I'm not worried about the ACC's ability to place all its teams.  Staying home: Syracuse, Pitt, Maryland, Wake.