Pretty good season so far. That's the kind of cutting insight you've come to expect, I know. Maybe I'm just speechless, because if you'd offered 3-3 before the season began, I'd've taken it.** Four wins offers a lot of hope, as does the rest of the ACC itself. A lot has gone right to make that happen.
The halfway-point bye week is a perfect time to take stock. For no other reason than I feel like it, we'll do a basic report card and grade the team A to F. Small spoiler: nobody gets an F. Passing grades for all, which we certainly wouldn't have said after 12 games last season.
**In the sense of trying to maximize our wins, that is. 3-3 actually would've been more likely to put us on a path for a middle-of-the-road season, which as we know is really the worst case. Either let's have a really good season or let's have a coaching change, as you know.
I've been very anti-platoon, for the most part, but truth is, I think this one's over once Greyson Lambert is healthy. The reason I have to qualify that is because Matt Johns hasn't played like a guy just keeping the seat warm. Both these guys are redshirt sophomores, and let's not get carried away, they're not lighting the stadium on fire. They can be a little slow in their progressions, and there are the occasional head-scratcher throws, as with any rookie QB. But they both look good under pressure - both the game-on-the-line kind and the oh-crap-the-defense-is-here kind. And they've done a fantastic job of making the split time work out, keeping things harmonious, and the team follows the lead of both because of it. We've seen more QB platoons, swaps, and occasional straight-up indecision in the last decade and a half than anyone would consider healthy; this is the first one that actually seems to be working.
With the QBs, it's easy because they both get the same grade. Here, it's more a question of how to weight the entrants. Kevin Parks doesn't need any introduction. The UVA run game puts out about 4.2 yards a carry, and it'd be a lot less without Parks's post-contact abilities. At the end of the Louisville game, for example, when UVA could either clinch the win with a first down or kick a field goal and have to give the ball back to the Cardinals, Parks unleashed a manly-man run and dragged the whole pile three yards when two would've sufficed.
Parks plays big-boy football. I also like Khalek Shepherd, who probably wouldn't distinguish himself much as a feature back but is just quick enough to provide an effective change of pace to Parks, and who knows how to find the holes. I just wish we could see the five-star abilities that Taquan Mizzell supposedly brought. In an effort to get him the ball in space, the playcalling has provided him with 21 receptions, enough to tie for the team lead, but he's not even averaging 5 yards a catch. I'm not grading individual players, and further I wonder if it's fair to grade based on expectations, but Mizzell brings down the unit's GPA a notch.
There's nobody you look at here and think, "that's the go-to guy, right there." Yet someone's usually open regardless. There's a general lack of explosiveness; you'd have thought Darius Jennings should be that X-factor guy, but he hasn't been a gameplanning threat, with only 11 catches. Actually, the most consistent deepish-ball guy is Andre Levrone; only nine catches, but most of them over 18 yards.
Still, most of these guys are pretty big, and the size has worked in their favor. The quarterbacks spread the ball around a lot, so nobody's putting up huge stats, but Canaan Severin is having a breakout season all the same, and Miles Gooch is the offense's feel-good story of the year. And there are times when I think to myself, man, we are really going to like Doni Dowling in the future. Consistency escapes him, but c'mon, he's a true freshman.
Lack of speed and a true go-to player holds the grade for this unit back, but despite that, they get the job done. Most of the players on the unit will have the chance to develop along with their quarterback(s), so the future is fairly bright as well.
I don't know how their blocking is, but as I'm about to talk about being unimpressed by the run-blocking, it's probably not any great shakes. There's no production at all in the passing game; Zach Swanson has probably dropped at least as many passes as he's caught, and he and Rob Burns have combined for all of four catches. Swanson is a particular disappointment because he looked like a useful player last year.
On the one hand, you have to give the line credit for even playing as well as they have with the constant shuffling. The first three games saw three different starting lineups. And the pass-blocking has been undeniably decent. Only decent, because one, our QBs are much better at avoiding a rush than Watford was last year, and two, Steve Fairchild's short passing game and relative tilt toward the run really limit the chances for the rush to produce a sack. UVA has allowed just five sacks in six games, an average that's good for 16th in the country. I don't think the pass-blocking is as good as that stat shows, but you can't deprive the line of a fair share of credit, either.
Still, the run-blocking problems have carried over from last year. It's the same deal - the line generates little if any push. They're not bad at steering a lineman out of the way, but they can't shove him out of the way. (I've also grumbled to myself about the quality of blocks from pulling guards, who simply miss them too often.) The way Kevin Parks runs, if the line could get half a yard of push it'd probably boost his average by a yard, and he'd be on pace for another 1,000-yard season.
Only held back from a straight A because there are usually only three of them; it's a lineman and not a linebacker that comes out for the nickel package. That and there's less rotation than I'd like.
Picky picky, though. Eli Harold is beastly, and the scary thing for ACC offenses is that he's become an every-down lineman instead of a pass-rush specialist. David Dean's development curve has taken off nicely, and he's made quite a few more tackles than a team should be able to expect out of an interior lineman. And Mike Moore has blossomed after a slow start to his career; he's the defense's Canaan Severin. P.S. - none of those guys are seniors. The ACC is invited to come and get some next year.
So good. Such sweet goody goodness. On a scale from 1 to 10, these guys go all the way to Tony Bennett. Daquan Romero has 48 tackles, 5 for loss, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 2 recoveries, an interception, and the least flashy stat line of the three starting linebackers, which is mind-boggling. Romero's specialty is sniffing out screen passes. This is a guy that can blow them up like nobody else.
Henry Coley is going to play on Sundays. Ask people around the program and they'll tell you who quarterbacks the defense on the field. Jon Tenuta likes to get all blitzy, as per his reputation, so Coley has six sacks to go along with the rest of the good stuff he does, but he's found his way into the backfield on run plays too. Two years ago I did a midseason review and called Coley "decent, but not, like, amazing or anything." Exact words to describe how I felt about his backup work with Steve Greer playing in front. Last year at the same time I was duly impressed. This year, I mean, damn.
And then we come to Max Valles - the Justin Anderson of football. Last year he rushed the passer and had a lot to learn about the rest of linebacking. This year he's playing both defensive end and actual linebacker, and the results: five sacks, one pick-six, seven swatted passes, a fumble recovery. And this is a true sophomore (albeit also with a FUMA-shirt season.) We've been told since last fall that Valles was the most freakish guy on the team; watching him channel that into actual football skills makes me drool with anticipation.
The only thing on the defense that's been a disappointment. And even then, not a huge disappointment. Statistically, things aren't terrible. The only regular CB without a pick is DreQuan Hoskey, who was a pleasant surprise but has probably hit his development ceiling. Maurice Canady has two, and five breakups as well, not bad. Brandon Phelps looks like he's playing his natural position now; he's a better cornerback than safety.
Still, sometimes the unit just misses on the eye test. Tim Harris in particular looks overmatched. Phelps and even Canady get beat more often than should've been expected. The quality of play can change series to series and even play to play. Like many things with this UVA team, a little consistency would go a long way.
I had this idea a while ago that you could evaluate the play of defenders, particularly safeties and linebackers, by the average gain of plays on tackles they made. If a safety has a ton of tackles but on average they're pretty far from the line of scrimmage, it's not that he's a fantastic safety, it's just that the defense in front of him probably blows. I never followed through on it because it turns out it takes a really long damn time to put together.
I bring this up because I'm fairly sure it's a metric where Quin Blanding and Anthony Harris would shine. Harris is another player who's going to the big leagues next year. The eight interceptions from last year aren't getting repeated and never were, but he's showing off a lot of instinctiveness in run support.
Same goes for Blanding, only, Blanding is a true freshman. True freshmen at free safety are scary, because that's where wrong decisions become touchdowns instead of four extra yards. And UVA has allowed nine pass plays of 30 yards or more (what I consider the threshold for "long"), which is a high-ish number. On the other hand, have we ever watched the offense chuck to some guy who's all kinds of open with nary a soul behind him? No. Blanding was an absolutely elite recruit, and he's playing like it.
Let's stop and give some credit to the footy part of football, too. Alec Vozenilek is averaging 44 yards per punt, an excellent number for college that would put UVA a shade outside the top-20 in average if not for the blocked one that went nine yards (and was attributed to "team" rather than Voz's average.) Ian Frye has only missed one FG, a 46-yarder, and is 4-for-5 from beyond 40 with a season long of 47 so we forgive him for that. College teams don't always have dependable placekicking and solid punting like this.
So, like I said - pretty good. Last year I gave the receivers an F and the quarterback a D+; it's that drastic improvement in the passing game that's as responsible as anything for the turnaround from 2-4 (and clearly on the way to 2-10, which was noticeable even then) to 4-2.
There's still work to be done. This team could easily be 2-4 and winless in the ACC right now, because they did a poor job in both games of holding onto leads. They led Louisville 20-7 and Pitt 24-3 (and for that matter, led BYU at halftime), and failed to finish the chokehold. Louisville took a 21-20 lead and then gift-wrapped a muffed punt; Pitt simply ran out of time.
That said, the Hoos didn't lose; they might've done a few things wrong, but they did more things right, and closed out when they had to. They didn't stumble into 2-0 by accident. The second quarter against Pitt was as good as they've looked at any time in years.
So - because there's a little bit of duct tape and wishes in the equation that holds the winning record together, this team could conceivably drop right out of bowl eligibility. And because the defense is so full of NFL-y goodness (and I have decreed that we will call it the sack-line defense) and the Coastal just as flawed as it looked before the season, this team could conceivably play in the ACC CG. (I mean, North Carolina's defense is a freak show, and not in a good way.) Next week, bring on the Dookies.
Also, thanks to everyone who offered feedback on the upcoming format change; I'm compiling and sorting the responses - really - so if you haven't put in your two cents, feel free to do so, as it's a great help in deciding what exactly the future of the blog will look like.