Thursday, August 28, 2014

season preview

Game week means preview week.  Time to talk offense and defense and all that good stuff, now that there's a depth chart out and everything.  This year I've got a couple special guests to talk football:

Orange Kool-Aid Guy and Eeyore are gonna point and counterpoint every position for us, and then I'll tell you who to listen to.  Got it?  Great.  Also, one more thing: I'm not splitting it up into offense and defense this year.  This is going to be one really, really big post - this is due, honestly, to time constraints and the fact I failed to work fast enough this week.  On with the show.


The starter:

#11 - Greyson Lambert

The reserves:

#5 - David Watford
#15 - Matt Johns

Last year was the David Watford show, stubbornly enough that we started wondering why we were ever so adamant that Mike London pick a guy and stick with him.  The hair-trigger QB platoon didn't work, but neither did refusing to ever pull the quarterback that eventually led UVA to the worst passing offense in the country.  Watford was sent to the bench less than halfway through spring camp, and the coaches made a few of the usual noises about competitions even while sending Greyson Lambert out for every first team rep from March to forever.  It's basically a reset button, so how will this turn out?

OKAG: Pretty well, actually; let's not forget how sought-after a recruit Lambert really was.  Quite a bit of the SEC was after him - South Carolina, Georgia, Ole Miss, not to mention Clemson, Miami, and so forth.  He's got a good arm and he's really accelerated his learning curve of the offense.  The fact that he took over the offense in the spring is a great sign - it means he was ready early and seized the job, and isn't that exactly what we've been wishing our quarterbacks would do?  And besides, it is literally impossible to play worse than Watford did, considering no team in the country averaged fewer yards per attempt than UVA did last year.  Besides, even if Lambert's not a superstar, simply having average QB play will be worth a few extra wins.


EEYORE: Remind yourself that Lambert is a sophomore, and if he's so damn good, why didn't he beat Watford out last year in the first place?  It probably had something to do with his 40-ish completion percentage in the opportunities he did get, which wasn't just garbage time.  Let's face it - you can never expect it to go all that well when you throw a new guy into the fire.  Lambert is less mobile than Watford - not an asset behind this O-line - and might have done a great job at half-speed in practice, but when the rubber meets the road, that has a way of bringing forth a lot of deficiencies.  Two years in the program, two different OCs and QB coaches - simply put, Lambert is still an underclassman, new to the job, and not being set up for success.


Listen to: OKAG when he says it can't get any worse, and Eeyore when he brings up inexperience.  Lambert will be an improvement over Watford.  That much I'm sure of.  If he's not, then you can start lobbing grenades at the coaching for screwing up the development of two QBs, but that's not going to be necessary.  That said, this is an investment in the future, not now.  Yes, Lambert is the best we got for now, but patience will be called for here.  Give it time.  If Lambert is better in November than he is in September, that's really what we're aiming for.

Running backs:

The starter:

#25 - Kevin Parks

The reserves:

#23 - Khalek Shepherd
#4 - Taquan Mizzell

Fullback starter:

#41 - Connor Wingo-Reeves

Fullback reserve:

#47 - Vincent Croce

Terrific - a position with some stability.  And real production.  Kevin Parks became the first 1,000-yard rusher at UVA since, what was it, 2004?  Alvin Pearman?  Parks is back for what should be a great senior year, and he's got some depth behind him, too; Khalek Shepherd put forth a productive year last year with a six-yard average, and Taquan Mizzell still has that five-star pedigree.  What say you, panelists?


OKAG: So, yeah, 1,000 yards.  There's really no complaining about that, is there?  Parks's style is very conducive to being the workhorse that he is.  He runs low to the ground, he's powerfully built, and he doesn't take a play off - all of which means he's a very difficult tackle, and can pick up positive yards even without a lot of room.  He's the always-falls-forward type, essentially, and who can complain about having a returning senior with his kind of leadership and production?

Plus you have to like the change of pace that Khalek Shepherd brings.  He's a bit more elusive, and he, like Parks, seems to have a pretty good eye for a hole.  He's not quite as straightforward a runner, more of a one-cut back than a zero-cut back like Parks, but he's definitely a guy who didn't have a great deal of opportunity early on and forced his way into the lineup with sheer ability.  Take two productive backs like these two and add the wild card, the man they call Smoke, and see what his skills can do for the running game.  Heck, Parks might not make 1,000 yards again simply because Taquan Mizzell is starting to eat the carries.


EEYORE: Not so fast on Mizzell, for starters; he showed almost none of that promised explosiveness last year.  His longest run: 36 yards, and he averaged a meager 4.1.  He might've been a great high school back, but the college evidence is simply lacking.  And as for Parks, he needed a lot of carries to reach that vaunted 1,000 yards; Parks is neither fast nor elusive, and his average, too, is lacking.  And how often can he get hit the way he does and stay healthy?


Listen to: Look, there aren't a lot of chances, with this offense, to chug that Kool-Aid; take your chances when you can.  Parks is legitimate - he may not be the whole package, but he's legitimate, and by the way, can catch passes too - and there's absolutely nothing wrong with having a unit that's both experienced and productive.  I'm not likely to hold lack of production against a freshman who was sitting behind two juniors in the lineup, either.  We do need to see more out of Mizzell this year if he's going to live up to his five-star label.  But the position group as a whole is very strong.

Pass catchers:

Wide receiver starters:

#6 - Darius Jennings
#17 - Miles Gooch
#85 - Keeon Johnson

Wide receiver reserves:

#14 - Andre Levrone
#9 - Canaan Severin
#19 - Doni Dowling

Tight end starter:

#49 - Zachary Swanson

Tight end reserve:

#89 - Rob Burns

A much-maligned unit last year; the question is whether or not they deserved it.  It's hard to say otherwise.  Dropped passes abounded, particularly from players like Darius Jennings who were being counted on for veteran leadership and heavy production.

This, combined with Dominique Terrell's injury that may see him redshirt the season, has flung the door open for younger players (of which this unit has more than plenty) to try and make their mark.  Keeon Johnson did a really nice job last year in about half the season, and there are freshmen like Andre Levrone and Doni Dowling looking like they're ready to step up, too.  And that freshman list so far only includes the ones actually on the depth chart.  Mike London has also said Jamil Kamara will get his shot too, though for now, he looks a little buried.  And I have no idea what to read into that.

Tight end, too, sees some opportunity for other guys, with Jake McGee's transfer to Florida.  Not so many younger guys - Zach Swanson and Rob Burns have been around the program for a while - but now's their chance to make something of it.  The offense doesn't purposely feature a tight end or purposely not feature one - you saw its use of McGee, often to good effect, but they won't force the issue if it's not there to be forced.  The upshot here is that the tight ends will be used as much or as little as they deserve to be.  Wide receiver is a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing - were they making the QB worse, or was the QB making them worse? The tight ends will produce what they produce.  Panelists, to your engines:


OKAG: The really exciting thing here is who will be the ones to step up?  Smart people will be betting on Keeon Johnson, who was a real breath of fresh air last year; in fact, his 282 yards was the most for a UVA true freshman in well over a decade.  Jennings did have the dropsies last year, but that was a flukey thing for the most part; he hadn't been nearly that stonehanded earlier, and those problems should disappear this year.  And by putting guys like Johnson, Levrone, Gooch, Severin, all in important positions on the depth chart, the receiving corps is suddenly very big.  Those guys are all 6'2", 6'3" - size will be a huge (har) advantage for the receivers this year.  The same goes for the TEs - Swanson is 6'6", Burns 6'7".  This group gets a major infusion of fresh talent this year, which should wipe clean a lot of the problems of the past.


EEYORE: All that stuff about new talent infusion just means we have almost nothing in the way of experience.  Literally the only player you'd call really and truly experienced in this bunch is Jennings, and with three seasons under his belt, he is what he is: an athletic player who shows flashes of high-level skill but isn't going to put it all together and suddenly be a star.  He's not very technically sound and will have a tough time being the focus of a secondary.  And Gooch?  Three catches in two years does not make for a starting receiver all of a sudden - expect him to get passed up, and quickly.  I could go on - the fact is, of the upperclassmen listed on the depth chart, TE and WR both, none have shown themselves to be playmakers.  Largely they've gone to waste with pointless burned redshirts, and it looks like we're about to do the same to the next big-time talent to come through the program too.  You want your brand-new quarterback to have a skilled and dependable group to lean on, not a whole crew of guys who are learning as they go, same as him.


Listen to: The donkey.  Look, it is exciting to see a bunch of new faces and names on the field, but largely for its own sake, not because they're all going to come in and instantly ride on to glory.  Who do you point to and say, there's our 800-yard receiver, right there?  Remember when we were talking about Tim Smith like, man, it's kind of disappointing he hasn't yet lived up to his potential?  He was going for 565 yards at the time, something Jennings calls his best season ever.  (OK, 568 for DJ.)

I do like the size factor.  That should help.  It gives Lambert just that little bit extra margin for error.  But this group overall was so bad last year that it's got to be show-me time this year.  There's not one single proven, consistent playmaker.  Nobody that puts even a tiny fright into a defensive coordinator.  Maybe Keeon Johnson becomes that guy?  Maybe Levrone, Dowling, or Kamara?  But all this uncertainty on both ends of a pass play just isn't a good sign.

Offensive line:

The starters:

#76 - Michael Mooney
#63 - Ryan Doull
#65 - Ross Burbank
#74 - Conner Davis
#72 - Eric Smith

The reserves:

#75 - Sadiq Olanrewaju
#61 - Cody Wallace
#68 - Eric Tetlow
#71 - Jack McDonald
#62 - Sean Karl

Another unit with a bad rap for a good reason.  I'd say it was the Pitt game last year when we realized: jeez, these guys can't move a gerbil off the line of scrimmage.  How many times did a short-yardage power play actually work?  Very few, if any.

This year, injuries have already taken their toll.  Jay Whitmire is almost certainly out for the season and Sadiq Olanrewaju - who was expected to play a big role - will miss a few weeks as well.  Conner Davis is the lone senior in the starting lineup, and after some shuffling, the depth chart is as above, except that I replaced LT second-stringer Jackson Matteo with Olanrewaju.  Still, it's way, way unlikely that what you see above is going to stay that way all season.  Reluctantly, we go to the panelists yet again, afraid of what we'll hear.


OKAG: Let's give credit where credit is due: the line didn't actually play as badly as it looked, at all.  You don't churn out a 1,000-yard season with crappy line play, do you?  Truth is, the line was good at a lot of the technical skills of blocking, and when asked to steer a defender somewhere rather than shove him somewhere, they did very well.  The pass protection wasn't bad at all, and would've looked better on the stat sheet if David Watford had decent instincts and didn't panic half the time during a pocket collapse.  Conner Davis is the kind of steady, highly dependable player you want on your line, and Eric Smith looked really good when called into action last year, especially for a true freshman.


EEYORE: This is a joke, right?  Have you noticed the crazy number of questionable moves that this coaching staff has pulled off just in the last two weeks?  Jackson Matteo works at center for a year and a half and suddenly he's the backup LT.  Ross Burbank loses the center job twice, works exclusively at guard for a year, and he's suddenly the starting center.  Jack English, all 260 pounds of him, is now an offensive lineman for some reason.  WHAT IS THIS I DON'T EVEN.

All this betrays the stunning lack of depth at this position.  The starting left tackle has played 23 offensive snaps in his college career against teams not named VMI.  The starting left guard has zero such snaps, having been almost exclusively on kick protection, which is where you stash your third-stringers.  Michael Mooney and Ryan Doull may well turn out to be perfectly good players, but we're tossing them in the fire against UCLA's defensive line and crossing our fingers til they prove anything.  The line was not at all a strong point last year and now it's lost its two best players (Morgan Moses to the NFL and Whitmire to injury) and we're supposed to believe it's gonna be better?  Nuh-uh.


Listen to: Let's break the fourth wall for just a second.  Here's how this has gone for me so far.  Both the sunshine and the gloom are things I actually do think about the team, so you can take both of them as my opinion.  Even when writing the wide receivers one, I actually almost had myself convinced when OKAG was speaking, and even more so for the other ones.  This time?  Jeez, what a reach that one was.  It's all true, mind you - I do like what we saw out of Eric Smith, for example, and he's the reason our line was one spot ahead of Wake in the ACC rankings I did.  But man was I reaching for good things, all the while thinking about how to keep Eeyore's section from being a ten-page manifesto.

Long and short, this is not good.  At all.  Depth is nonexistent, and the multiple position shuffling is a sign of an unhealthy and unsure unit.  I actually think the jury is out still on Scott Wachenheim as a coach, because I haven't been wildly enamored with, but haven't disliked, the long-term development of players.  You look at Luke Bowanko, doing nicely with the Jaguars.  Wach's been handed a mess, though, frankly.  I can't figure out how the offense is supposed to function like this.

Defensive line:

The starters:

#32 - Mike Moore
#55 - David Dean
#93 - Donte Wilkins
#7 - Eli Harold

The reserves:

#34 - Kwontie Moore
#92 - Greg Gallop
#9 - Andrew Brown
#43 - Trent Corney

One thing that's fun to watch is when you have a pass rush.  A blindsided quarterback is a thing of beauty.  Last year's D-line managed to do this more than a reasonable amount, thanks greatly to the gentleman above.  There were some graduation losses and such, but a healthy unit takes those and keeps on ticking, and it looks as though the D-line will be able to do that this year.


OKAG: You should be brimming with excitement here.  The knock on Eli Harold has been that yeah, he can get into the backfield and all, but he can't hold up against the run.  Well, he's up to 250 pounds now, a gain of 30-35 from when he first got here.  A guy with the speed he's always had, and that size, is a frightening thought.  He and David Dean are both entering their junior years, right when you expect talent like them to flip that switch and go from good to great.

And then we're adding Andrew Brown to the mix?  Donte Wilkins looks like he ought to be a solid enough player, so not only does Brown have potential from here to Mars, every inch of it is basically icing on the cake.  It's almost enough to make you forget that the other DE spot has a couple of highly-touted Moores being given their chance to jump into the spotlight.  Almost.  This unit is gon b gud.


EEYORE: As long as Andrew Brown's multiple injuries, both of the type that can really nag, don't hold him back.  And Brown and Dean haven't made that leap just yet, so it's not quite fair to assume it's already happened.  They wouldn't be the first UVA players whose development stalled out.  Depth at DE is a trouble spot, as the position consists basically of Harold and a bunch of athletes who haven't made it happen yet in terms of actual football.  Come to think of it, depth at DT is a trouble spot too if Brown doesn't stay healthy; you're looking at a converted O-lineman with not much field time, and a very large walk-on.


Listen to: Not the wet blanket, not this time.  I think the deal with D-lines is this: One really good player is nice, but most OCs will figure that out.  Two, and you've hit a critical mass.  You can't scheme around them both without sacrificing quite a bit somewhere else.  They'll start to disrupt things and really make their teammates better.  Three is a mess for an offense.  At that point your fourth guy can be a fluffy bunny rabbit, and Peter Cottontail would probably still finish the year with 2.5 sacks and 6 TFL.

Well, we've got two for (almost) sure, and several candidates for #3.  Brown is the obvious one, but I wouldn't give up on Mike Moore.  I think DE depth is a legit concern, given the lack of proven options other than Harold.  But barring injury, this is a disruptive group that'll challenge every O-line on the schedule.  Harold can hit double digits in sacks if he really gets after it, and I think we'll see multiple all-ACC honors here by the end of the year.


The starters:

#88 - Max Valles
#44 - Henry Coley
#13 - Daquan Romero

The reserves:

#59 - Mark Hall
#53 - Micah Kiser
#29 - D.J. Hill

Early last year, after watching Daquan Romero fly around the field like he'd been doing this forever, I made a prediction that Romero would lead the team in tackles for the year.  I was off by two; Henry Coley took the crown.  Still.  I guess it's a little weird being nostalgic for the very up-and-down Al Groh era, but those two were a terrific throwback to awesome linebackers of yore.


OKAG: The stats here speak for themselves.  Coley and Romero simply make the top linebacker tandem in the ACC.  Coley seems like he's been here forever, which is a good thing.  He's making the whole defense better with his play and leadership in the middle.  And Romero seems to have a knack for this - he seemed a little more natural and quick in his progression, and it's evident in things like, the way he blows up screen passes.  Then you've got Max Valles; he's been acting more as a pass-rushing athlete, almost a fifth D-lineman, or a way to go to a 4-2-5 without taking a linebacker off the field.  The terms in which he's talked about by his teammates are no less than glowing; if, or when, he points his athleticism in the right direction, and learns a few of the finer points of linebacking, he could be a frightening player.


EEYORE: As with Brown, we can slow up a bit on Valles.  He's still largely one-dimensional, and has a ton to learn yet.  Otherwise....I'm struggling here.


Listen to: Eeyore, because if that's all he's got to say, things are looking fine indeed.  Frankly, I'm having a tough time containing my enthusiasm about this linebacking corps.  By which I really mean Coley and Romero.  Even with Eli Harold, Kevin Parks, and Ant Harris around, I'm calling them the two best players on the team.  No need to overanalyze or parse the statements for meaning.


The starters:

#21 - Brandon Phelps
#26 - Maurice Canady
#3 - Quin Blanding
#8 - Anthony Harris

The reserves:

#5 - Tim Harris
#22 - DreQuan Hoskey
#28 - Wil Wahee
#38 - Kelvin Rainey

There's only one really notable position change on the defensive depth chart: Brandon Phelps's move from safety to corner.  The idea is twofold: one, Demetrious Nicholson is in the Jay Whitmire boat, and looks likely to miss the season.  And two, Quin Blanding.  Cover up a loss and make room for a wildly talented freshman at the same time - not every position change is a bad thing.  One last time to our panelists:


OKAG: Here's another statement that needs no parsing for meaning: Ant Harris led the whole damn country in interceptions last year.  So that's one star player in the secondary.  Quin Blanding only counts as one potential star even though he had five of them from the recruiting services.  UVA just put elite athletic ability into the secondary, the kind usually seen at Alabama.

And despite the probable loss of Nicholson, cornerback depth is outstanding.  You need three of 'em anyway, if you ever want to run a nickel defense, and UVA has four that it can trust.  This is to say nothing of the fifth one on the chart, Divante Walker, who played sparingly last year as a true freshman but did not make an ass of himself when he did.  Didn't look out of place at all.  That's all you ask for out of a freshman DB, frankly.  So Mike London's wild overrecruitment of the position has at least paid off.


EEYORE: Here's the problem with the Blanding hype: Free safety is the position on the field where you can least afford to have a true freshman.  I don't care how athletic you are, freshman safeties are notorious for running in the wrong direction, so sometimes this will mean all Blanding will accomplish is getting to the wrong place quicker.  It's also the position, except for probably strong safety, where athletic ability means the least.  Safety is about reading plays and being at the right spot.  Blanding's speed and athleticism will come in handy occasionally for jump balls and chasing down fly routes, but mainly it's just for laying people out.

Losing Nicholson clearly hurts, by the way, because ultimately it sapped the depth at safety.  Having a third one in Phelps would've been very, very handy, and we'd still have had the four CBs too.  Now we're looking at really, really unproven options on the second string.  And by the way, eight interceptions is an unrepeatable season.


Listen to: Sip, but don't chug, the Kool-Aid.  You should've already chugged most of it for the linebackers anyway.  There are some legit concerns here, a freshman safety being the big one.  Not that I'm looking a five-star gift horse in the mouth, but safety is the one position where I'd take an unathletic senior over an athletic freshman, every time.  That and quarterback, actually.  They're the only two positions where you can't cover up any mistakes and you can never get by just on raw athletic ability.

This said, this is certainly a solid unit.  Not elite, but you can win with a group like this.  That's the bottom line.  They can even weather another injury or two; if a safety gets hurt, most likely they'd just move Phelps back there.  I'm not overly worried about this group's performance, and only two things are holding me back from the same enthusiasm I had elsewhere on the defense: freshman safety, and need more interceptions from the cornerbacks.


Alright then: what's it all add up to?  Well, ESPN just went out on a limb and said UVA would go bowling.  The other day, I boldly predicted otherwise.  I don't think so.

There are three main reasons for that.  One is the O-line, which is in such bad shape that it could submarine the whole offense.  Two is the schedule.  The ACC did UVA no favors, and neither did UCLA by turning from a mediocre stumbler to a Pac-12 contender in between scheduling them and playing them.  And three is coaching.  We don't need to rehash the gaffes, and the truth is that a lot of the time-management stuff is only a symptom rather than a cause of the losing.  I just find it hard to have any faith that the team is receiving quality coaching, and game management in general (not just the clock) is a severe weak point of this staff.

The best-case scenario for this team is about an 8-4 record; chug enough of the orange stuff, and you can find eight wins.  The second-best case scenario is a 3-9 disaster.  Hang out with Eeyore long enough and that's not hard to envision either.  But at least that just about guarantees the regime change we'd certainly be clamoring for after that.  The worst-case scenario is a 5-7 season that doesn't result in a change at the top.

Is that plausible?  I don't know.  There are some who seem to think 5-7, if it's "a good 5-7" - that is, maybe a bunch of close losses - is enough to keep Mike London around.  To me that's a scenario so pathetically frightening I'd rather not think about it.  To say that four losing seasons in five years is good enough to warrant the reward of an extension?  (London's contract is too short not to extend if you don't fire him.)  I don't think Craig Littlepage thinks that way, but it's scary that some people think he does.

Hold a gun to my head and demand a number out of me, and I'll say this: London stays with eight wins, seven if one is in Blacksburg.  Six and a fourth-tier bowl - I just can't see myself supporting that.  It's not enough for a coach's fifth season, and while you see a lot of lowered standards after that two-win calamity (hence people saying five wins is enough) I maintain that last year forced the threshold to keep London upwards, not downwards.

This year, there's that tough schedule, but excuses are otherwise removed.  It's the second year of a new wave of assistant coaches, so no more new systems to learn.  Tons of seniors and juniors, so no more talking about how it's just inexperience.  London recruited nearly every single one of these guys.  And so on.  Regardless of what happens, it's a turning-point season - that's why there's a clock up there.  That's how long there is for London to fix things, or have them fixed for him.


Sincere apologies, but there won't be a UCLA preview.  I'm hopping a plane Thursday afternoon and I've simply run out of time.  It's partly my own procrastination and partly just plain damn being busy.  Come Monday I'll get right into the rhythm of the football season, for real.


pezhoo said...

Have a good trip, this was a great article. I wonder about the freshman safety thing though. Willie Davis played in 01 and a couple games in 02. He was fantastic. I'd never seen a Virginia player at safety move like that. I finally understood what a really good safety can do for your defense. If Blanding is as good as I remember Davis being I will have a reason to watch some games this year. Not UCLA though, I'm going to DVR it and watch it Monday if we win.

Anonymous said...

No more recruiting board?

Anonymous said...

Good Lord, so many conflicting emotions from the UCLA game. Brendan, three questions for you because I don't even know what to think about this:

1) How do you evaluate CML's pulling Lambert? Looks like a smart move after the game because Johns played so well, but at the time I was going ballistic in my living room. And I guess Johns is now the starter, but do you agree with that going forward? Is this just a recipe for another disastrous revolving door at QB?

2) WTF was up with the play calling on that last series? QB draw followed by a run up the middle when you have 10 yards to make up? I don't normally pick on play calling but that was atrocious. Is there any excuse for that? Even Millen admitted it was horrendous, and this is the same guy who earlier in the game said Tom O'Brien was doing "a fantastic job."

3) Are the Hoos kicking it to 5 yard line on kickoffs on purpose? I don't know what to make of that strategy.

OK maybe more than 3 questions but I'd appreciate your perspective nonetheless. Somehow that game was more frustrating than a blowout would have been. I need help making sense of it all.

Anonymous said...

Johns fessed up that the run on 3rd and 10 on the last series was his error. The play call was for a pass. Disappointing either way but I was unapproachable for a while after that series.

Brendan said...

I hate to say it but the recruiting board is probably dead in the water for this year. Every time I'd go through and update it, another wave of commitments would roll in and I'd have to do it all over again. Now with the class getting close to full there's hardly any point. I'm very disappointed in myself, but there's enough to keep me busy for now without still trying to catch up on that.