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.


Anonymous said...

It's crass, very crass, but maybe my favorite development at QB is no longer having to look at Phillip Sims. That man is ugly to the point of distraction.
Told you it was crass.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the thorough analysis, Brendan - good stuff as always.

I've gone from hesitant to cautiously optimistic to totally bought in on Watford. He's got a strong RB and WR corps around him, and hopefully his athleticism will make up for an unproven O-line. He appears to have the drive, focus and dedication it takes to succeed at the QB position. The fact that this team has zero expectations this season probably works in his favor, too.

I'm back to feeling good about the future. London learned some hard lessons last year, but I believe he's the right guy to lead the team. If last year's struggles made him a better, smarter coach, then they were totally worth it.

Anonymous said...

SSFR, my favorite development is no longer having to look at Phillip Sims throwing the ball into the turf ten yards short of his intended receiver, or flinging the ball downfield "because it's fun".

Actually, my real favorite development is sticking with just one quarterback. Assuming we do that. (Please please)