Tuesday, October 15, 2013

midseason review

The sun is dark in my eyes and I relish neither the taste of food nor the release of sleep, yet we must press on with duties regardless.  Here we are halfway through the football season, and it's time to take stock of what's been going on.  The traditional way is position by position, and why break with tradition?

-- Quarterback

Grade: D+

On purpose, I didn't do anything resembling a best-case-worst-case thing for the positional previews this year, after having done that for a few years running.  (I found that in many cases I wasn't being imaginative enough on what constituted a worst case.)  Had I done so, I'd probably have found that what's going on under center these days is pretty close to whatever worst-case scenario I could've dreamed up.

David Watford is saved from a worse grade by displaying tangible improvement over the past two games after bottoming out against Pitt, and because his scrambles are a significant source of offense.  However, it's clear by now he's the worst passer in the conference. By a lot.  His QB rating of 101.2 is 14 points worse than the next guy up, NC State's Pete Thomas.  Watford hasn't even flashed the ability to go through progressions, and his accuracy is little more than a prayer when asked to throw the ball more than 10 yards in any direction.

Granted, Watford would look a lot better if his receivers were playing better.  But the reason there isn't a clamor for change is twofold: one, fans are fed up with the quarterback carousel after it was a major failure last year, and two, Greyson Lambert hasn't been able to hit the broad side of a stamping plant.  Barring anything spectacular and unforeseen, the upcoming offseason will once again feature an all-out quarterback competition.

-- Wide receivers

Grade: F

The whole damn unit has been replaced on the depth chart.  That says all you need to know right there.  I've been impressed with Keeon Johnson simply because he seems to be on the receiving end of a target from Watford whenever the play breaks down and Watford is trying to make chicken salad out of chicken shit.  This tells me that at least one receiver, somewhere, is working his butt off to help his quarterback.  This should also tell you how low my standards have dipped for quality receiver play.  They should all be doing that.

To say I'm disappointed in the play of the receivers is to say something at Chernobyl went bang.  It's possible some of their lack of production has to do with the Fairchild offense, but even so, if Fairchild knew he had receivers that could mess with the heads of opposing DCs, he'd use them.  I suggested the top two receivers should combine for 1,300 yards this season.  They're on pace for 552.  That's pathetic.

There's no excuse for it.  Not with the across-the-board four-star talent sitting there.  These guys are just murdering the offense and letting their QB down.  They're dropping passes, quitting on plays, and completely failing to get open.  I don't mean to single out Kyle Dockins since he shouldn't be at the top of the depth chart, but he is, even though he has one catch for six yards.  That's not a knock on Dockins - it's a really, really damning statement about the guys who should be starting.

-- Tight ends

Grade: B-

They don't block well, and that's a sizable demerit.  Zach Swanson is probably the best all-around blocker of the group, and he's OK.  However, without their skills in the receiving department the passing game would just be a bunch of guys sitting around staring at the wall plus the occasional screen.  Swanson, for starters, has looked good catching the ball, and he presents the kind of big, hittable target you want out of your tight end.

Jake McGee was a major dropsies culprit during the Pitt game, but he's otherwise done a good job living up to the standard he set last year.  He continues to make impossible catches and he's a significant matchup problem for opposing DCs.  And he has more than twice the receptions of almost anyone on the team.  I'd like to see these guys make a better contribution to the run game, but overall I can't complain too much.

-- Running backs

Grade: B+

This is the highest grade of anyone on the offense, and for good reason.  To make it higher there would have to be someone who strikes genuine fear into the opposition.  We have nobody like that.  None of these guys have shown us any breakaway speed and elusiveness (in the case of Taquan Mizzell, we hope we can at least add "yet" to that statement.)

However, at the halfway point here, Kevin Parks has 510 yards, which puts him on pace to be the first 1,000-yard rusher in a while.  Parks has developed into a real workhorse, earning the lion's share of the carries and running well when given room.  Parks also breathes some life into a moribund passing game.  And Khalek Shepherd is starting to prove himself as a very viable change-of-pace option.  If given workhorse-level carries, I don't think he'd average anywhere near the 7.7 yards he's making, but two games in a row now with good numbers suggest that he's bringing to game day the good work he's done on the practice field.

-- Offensive line

Grade: C-

I don't know what to think.  Did you know that UVA is among the better teams in the conference (and country) at protecting the quarterback?  Or that the run game has averaged 239 yards each of the last two games?  Consecutive 100-yard games for Kevin Parks?

Yet when you line this group up in a power formation in short-yardage situations and try to slam ahead for half a yard, invariably they end up sitting on their butts in their own backfield.  That's been a pretty big handicap for the offense and it cost us Maryland.  The line seems highly capable of executing the technical side of their game.  The run game is becoming fairly effective out of the shotgun, because the linemen are steering their assignment in a direction rather than shoving him the hell out of the way.

However, there's a ways to go in just plain ol' cloud-of-dust football.  That, plus the miserable showing early on, keeps this grade from being any higher.  However, given the right scheming from Steve Fairchild, there's also the biggest chance of improvement of any unit on the offense.

-- Defensive line

Grade: B+

I just - I can't give out an A-something regardless of how badly I want to here.  They got gashed a little too often against Oregon and didn't generate enough of a pass rush against Ball State.  I guess I'm nitpicking some, but that's a third of the season there.

Still, when this unit is on, it's a terror.  Brent Urban is nasty and has knocked down eight passes.  The entire defense is going to suffer for his absence.  He and David Dean have been making themselves at home in enemy backfields.  Dean is a better pass rusher, and Urban has been a complete monster against the run.

This is not even to speak of Eli Harold, yet.  Harold has taken a few silly penalties, but they're almost (almost) excusable because they're mostly emotion penalties.  5.5 sacks at the halfway point, man.  Harold has become exactly what he was advertised to be: a holy terror on the edge.  And I'd be awfully remiss not also singing the praises of Jake Snyder, who has broken up some passes himself and is an excellent strong-side end, and very strong against the run.

I just wish we could see their Pitt performance every week.  That was amazing.  They made the line of scrimmage completely theirs.  A little more consistency is demanded, and there's a pretty clear drop-off between the starting four and the next four.  The Pitt game was A+ stuff - if they add that consistency to their game and if I see a few plays here and there out of guys like Mike Moore and Donte Wilkins, this group will be in the A-range by the end of the year.

-- Linebackers

Grade: A

It's an entertaining three-way race between Ant Harris, Henry Coley, and Daquan Romero for the tackles lead; they have 45, 46, and 44, respectively.  I can't count Harris's production here, on account of he's a safety, but Coley and Romero deserve every accolade they get.

These are two players who know something about being in the right place at the right time. Their tackling is outstanding, and so is their diagnosis of plays.  Romero has been outstanding at sniffing out screens and such.  Coley fills his gaps exceedingly well and as an MLB, moves side-to-side better than Steve Greer did.  Coley won't finish with as many tackles as Greer because his counterparts are snarfing up too many, but that's a good problem to have.

I suppose Max Valles is technically a linebacker, so his pass-rushing gets a mention here, but I don't know how sustainable that is, as Valles is still working his way out of one-trick-pony territory.  Coley and Romero have played so well that the only backup that gets much time is Demeitre Brim; he's playing solidly but only gets into the game in fits and starts.

-- Cornerbacks

Grade: B+

A little downgrade here for never coming up with any picks; Demetrious Nicholson has the only one of the unit.  However, these guys have played well, particularly Nicholson, whose absence was pretty heavily felt against Maryland.  The sooner he gets back the better.  Nicholson has been very good in coverage.  Maurice Canady and Drequan Hoskey are competing very, very hard with each other for playing time, and they've both been rewarded for their efforts.  Canady has more pass breakups (six) than Hoskey, but I always seem to get this feeling that when one makes a play, the other isn't far behind.  Like brothers determined not to be outdone by the other.

Overall it's been a very good unit.  Like the D-line, a few holes here and there.  The Ball State game, as with all defensive units, could've gone better.  But they're not the reason for the four losses, either.

-- Safeties

Grade: B

Harris, we've already mentioned.  Doing a good job in run support, and has two picks as well.  He gets around the field quite a bit and is really thriving in Jon Tenuta's defense, which is really demanding on a strong safety.  Tenuta is asking Harris to be everywhere from the offensive backfield to thirty yards deep in coverage, and he's doing it.

I don't know what to think about free safety Brandon Phelps.  There's a feeling on message boards that Phelps isn't making plays and therefore isn't doing his job.  I don't fully agree with it; an invisible free safety is the best free safety.  Usually if you know who your free safety is, it's because the TV shows him from the back, failing to catch up to the receiver he just let by him.

That said, those long pass plays are starting to show up where they didn't before.  Maryland confounded Phelps somewhat and was able to find their receivers deep, and UVA allowed too many big run plays to the Terps in which Phelps was nowhere to be seen.  This is probably the (simplistic) reason that Phelps finds himself competing with Rijo Walker for the starting job these days.  I'm not anti-Phelps by any stretch, but I don't think it'd be too much of a shakeup to increase Walker's playing time, either.


Overall, the defense carries a 3.38 GPA - pretty decent honors-level stuff - and the offense sits at 1.8.  Not even good enough to stay eligible.  Barely a C-minus.  But what do you expect at 2-4?  Both must get better if a bowl season is to be scrounged from the jaws of defeat, because the defense has been on something of a downward trend the last two weeks and the offense hasn't improved nearly enough to make up for it.


Sandmeistr said...

You strike me as a "watch the tape" kind of guy. Assuming you have our games recorded, go back and watch Harris. He might make big plays, but he's out of position often.

Anonymous said...

How do you feel about the who "Fire London" hoopla?

Anonymous said...

As disappointed as I am in the lack of progress this year and as pessimistic as I am about ML's ability to lead the program to respectability, I do think we should see it through with him and evaluate him at the end of next year's season. He will probably be released then, but he will have had a fair shot and any future coaching prospects would be aware of that as a plus when considering UVa.

Brendan said...

I think there's nothing to be gained by jumping on a Fire London bandwagon right now because the admin has made it perfectly clear he'll be around through 2014. But I also subscribe to the theory that the worse this year is, the better next year needs to be. Not making a bowl this year basically demands an 8-win season next year (which may include a bowl win for 8-5.)

BostonHoo said...

Your column makes clear what I have been thinking for a while. No team can be successful without a solid, competent quarterback. A great weakness in the ML program is his inability to identify, recruit, and develop a quality quarterback. Obviously it was a huge mistake to bring Simms in last year and clearly a case of not being able to properly evaluate what Simms could and could not contribute to the program. But is far deeper than just the Simms/Rocco debacle. UVa cannot be competitive in the ACC without a competitive quarterback and London for whatever and numerous reasons has been unable to provide that.

Anonymous said...

Ok, so clearly the wheels have come off this season. But I think if they beat Duke, beat a struggling UNC squad, and take down VT, I'll consider that enough of a turnaround to feel optimistic again about 2014. Not a successful season by any means, but a turnaround.

I really want London to be successful, but man, this is getting tough to watch.