Monday, August 24, 2015

2015 football preview: offense

Of the two main position units (no, special teams is not one-third of the game, it just feels that way when they screw up) it's obvious which one has been Mike London's undoing so far.  Only one of London's teams has finished in the top half of the ACC in passing offense (keeping in mind: I use yards per play, not per game, for metrics like this) and weirdly it was the one with Marc Verica in charge.  The same holds true for running offense, but it wasn't the same team - it was, unsurprisingly, London's only bowl team.

Therefore any hope of rescuing London's tenure lies here.  Yes, London's fate rests largely in Steve Fairchild's hands.  When you put it that way, it just might be tantamount to putting a For Sale sign in front of London's house right now.  Nevertheless, it's sink or swim with the group we got.


Starter: #15 Matt Johns

Backups: #2 Connor Brewer, #3 Corwin Cutler

It's been a different name in that starter's role every season at this time for literally every year of Mike London's tenure.  If you're looking for How To Screw Up An Offense 101, you're in the right room.  Even so, this year offers a bit more stability than usual.  Not saying much, but it's true.  Johns did start three games last year while London did his usual waffle job on the quarterbacks, and played enough (and well enough) that a lot of fans expressed a legitimate preference for his game.

Backup envy is a pretty common affliction among fans of any sport and any team, and it's especially prevalent among UVA fans.  But there was a shade of legitimacy to this.  Johns was less accurate than the usual starter, Greyson Lambert, but less intercepty, too, more scrambly, and more willing to air it out a little.

Johns got plenty of experience last year, but sat out three of the last five games and had very limited action in the other two.  But Johns got a leg up in the competition during spring practice and Lambert transferred shortly after, meaning Johns spent the summer as the unquestioned, obvious starter.  And that's something nobody's really had the chance to do under London.  Johns has no competition in fall camp and unless London decides to get especially capricious, shouldn't face any during the season, either.  A coach would simply have to have a pathological addiction to controversy to create any issues when the starter is so far ahead of the backups.  Johns is a redshirt junior, too, making him the most senior player since Verica to start at QB for London.

No UVA quarterback has ever passed for 3,000 yards in a season.  Matt Schaub fell fewer than 50 yards short - twice.  It's not that difficult of a milestone; a few times, even recently, during London's time, the quarterbacks have combined to do it.  But nobody's done it by themselves.  This could well be the year for it.  Some receivers will have to step up, and the offense needs a little less reliance on finding new and innovative ways to dump it to the running backs.  But if Johns is as much the unquestioned starter in November as he is in August, he's got a shot to do it.

As for the backups, I'm not even sure the coaches will make a decision until the very minute they have to put one in.  Corwin Cutler didn't get much useful learning time last year and Connor Brewer is new to the whole system, not to mention reportedly rather shorter than the 6'2" he's listed at.  Neither has anything resembling useful game experience.  As much as UVA fans always like to think the backup can step in and do better than the starter, that's not going to be the case this year.


Starter: #4 Taquan Mizzell

Backups: #22 Daniel Hamm, #5 Albert Reid, #10 Jordan Ellis

Polar opposite from the QB situation is the RB competition.  Kind of a funny reversal, after so much stability at this position lately.  Perry Jones held down the job for a while, and Kevin Parks was a three-year workhorse.  There's always been some platooning, but this year we're looking at a genuine competition.

Taquan Mizzell looks like the front-runner; at least, he's the one with the most experience, having basically spent the last two years apprenticing for the job.  And despite perceptions of disappointment, he averaged more yards a carry than either of the starters last year.  No, he didn't really look like a five-star player, but neither did he look unready.  He also caught more passes than anyone but Canaan Severin.

So really, it's Mizzell.  But UVA doesn't pile the load on just one guy, and there'll be carries to go around.  Daniel Hamm has played sparingly but impressively, against low-end competition, and earned a scholarship along the way.  He's likely to take a front-seat role of some kind this year.  Transfer back Albert Reid and redshirt freshman Jordan Ellis - at least one of them - are going to be as much in the mix for carries as Mizzell was last year, which is to say, they'll be more than visible.

The thing that worries me is this: The coaches talked about having a "power running game."  With which backs, exactly?  Other than LaChaston Smith, who barely plays and ought to have been a linebacker, size is not a feature of this group.  Mizzell is the kind of guy you want to put out in space.  Hamm is a one-cut hole-finder.  Reid is a bit more of a bowling ball, and Ellis came in with a rep as more of a pounder than a slasher, but neither is exactly in line for 200 carries this year.

There's intriguing potential here, but the group needs to be used correctly and, obviously, needs the blocking to improve.  I don't see a 1,000-yard rusher happening, and a bad season could see all of them fail to top 600 yards.  Mizzell could become a star, it's very possible.  He wouldn't even really need to reach 1,000 yards to do it.  He'll almost definitely be an enormous part of the passing game.  But this unit has a lot to prove, and is just as likely to disappoint as to pleasantly surprise.  UVA fans should brace for both.


Starters: #9 Canaan Severin, #14 Andre Levrone, #85 Keeon Johnson

Backups: #17 Kyle Dockins, #19 Doni Dowling, #82 David Eldridge

This is what's known in the business as a wild-ass guess.  Largely that's because injuries have already started to slam this unit left and right.  The most disappointing, of course, was the broken collarbone suffered by T.J. Thorpe.  Scheduled to miss 10 weeks after his surgery, I'd guess he'll return sometime in October.  A real disappointment not only on the team level - he's capable, when healthy, of a dimension that really no one else brings - but also personally, since it was clear he was looking forward to a healthy, fresh-start year.

There've also been some ding-ups to a few other guys like Severin and Levrone, but they haven't sounded serious and my guess is that with Thorpe hurt and Doni Dowling not to be cleared til at least September, the coaches were being hypercautious in holding them out too.  Come the start of the season, Severin looks ready to be the breakout star of the unit.  He had a very nice season last year, and he and Matt Johns have a rapport going.  If he doesn't lead the team in just about every receiving category this year, either he was hurt or someone else made a supernova impact.

Many of the remaining players have a story where they've all teased with some solid production over a stretch of games, but haven't yet put it together.  Levrone, Johnson, Dowling, Dockins, they've all had their moments.  But none has really stepped up yet to grab control.  If even one of them (and that's probably all there's room for) can string together 12 really and truly dependable games, alongside Severin as a bona fide #1, then there's a good chance 12 games can become 13.  The goal for all four of them is to make the question of how to re-integrate Thorpe more difficult.

There's room, too, for another contributor or two.  The best bet right now looks like freshman David Eldridge.  His name keeps popping up, and he's got some speed going for him.  Eldridge looks likely to have the kind of season that sparks redshirt arguments - he might easily be one of the top six receivers, especially if bodies are stuck on the sideline.  He also probably won't top 15 catches, but he'll provide a moment or two.  Enough for some people to say "you gotta play your best players" and for others to say "too bad he can't go five years now" and for both to be right.  That's the prediction here and I'm sticking to it.


Starter: #86 Charlie Hopkins

Backups: #89 Rob Burns, #45 Evan Butts

By contrast to the other pass-catchers, there might be even less doubt about this position than about the quarterbacks.  Rob Burns might get some pass-catching action, but he's too tall and thin to be a consistently effective run-blocker.  Evan Butts is likewise not bulked all the way up, and still only a redshirt freshman.

Hopkins, though, has spent considerable time learning the ways of blocking as a tight end.  He's also absolutely itching to show off his pass-catching abilities, having been used almost exclusively as a blocker at Stanford.  Mike London simply has not recruited many tight ends, trusting that the generic athletes he recruits can be turned into them.  That turned up Jake McGee, a great pass-catcher but no blocker at all, and so far not much else.  Hopkins is UVA's chance to have its first true traditional dual-use tight end since John Phillips in 2008.


Starters: #76 Michael Mooney, #63 Ryan Doull, #65 Ross Burbank, #71 Jack McDonald, #72 Eric Smith

Backups: #77 Jay Whitmire, #62 Sean Karl, #50 Jackson Matteo, #68 Eric Tetlow, #64 Jake Fieler

Let's be honest.  You can read media reports, watch practices, and glean every available hint from every leak and every source.  And if you're asked for a definitive answer as to who the starters are on this line, and your answer is anything other than "lol i dunno," you're lying.

There are a lot of players with some experience here.  There are very few players with a lot of experience.  Two players - Whitmire and Burbank - are seniors, but Whitmire is coming off a serious back injury and nobody can really say whether he'll be able to return to form.  "Form" for him is pretty darn good - Whitmire was well on his way to being an all-ACC lineman.  But now, he's another unknown quantity.  Burbank has bounced between center and guard all his career, because despite the fact that he's never really jumped out and seized the center position, neither has anyone else.

So maybe he's the center, maybe it's Jackson Matteo.  Maybe Whitmire can grab the LT spot, or maybe it falls to Michael Mooney.  Maybe Jake Fieler comes out of nowhere and steals RT from budding star Eric Smith.  Maybe Jack McDonald plays one of the guard spots, or else Burbank does, or maybe Ryan Doull can hold off Sean Karl.  (This latter idea is scary.  Karl played turnstile on two blocked punts last year, including the Tech game one.)  Maybe Sadiq Olanrewaju comes back from injury and bumps someone.

Right now, not even the coaches know what's going to happen.  That's a statement that'll hold true possibly even through game week.  Almost everyone here has game experience of some kind, but not everyone here was impressive in said game experience, nor was said game experience necessarily useful.  On the plus side, UVA shouldn't have to rely much on underclassmen; most of these guys now have multiple seasons in the conditioning program and have at least been coached up some.

Still.  This group has a lot to prove.  I mean a hell of a lot.  We're not far removed from watching the O-line get stood up almost literally every time they needed just two feet of forward push.  Now Fairchild's talking power running.  Fullbacks, tight ends, the works.  For that to work you simply can't finesse your way around the field, and the truth is, finesse-blocking is really what this gang has been much better at under Fairchild.  When asked to steer defenders a certain way, they've done quite well opening holes.  When asked to shove defenders a certain way, it doesn't work.

The above is my bestest guess at a first-snap lineup.  From there, anything can happen.  I expect a lot of rotation early in the year.  Burbank played most of the year at center last year, so ultimately I think he'll end up back there most of the time.  At tackle, Whitmire could easily break back into the first group, maybe even as early as the second quarter against UCLA.  Smith is too experienced to lose the RT job.  The guards will basically just be the best available players left after that.

But about the only thing that seems like a sure bet is that the same five guys won't start every game.  In 12 games you might see five or six different starting combos.  Is all that rotation and uncertainty healthy?  No, not really, but it's the best we can do right now until somebody puts a little authority into their performance.


Finally, for the offensive preview, a quick prediction for each offensive scholarship player in numerical order:

#1 - WR Warren Craft - Redshirt.

#2 - QB Connor Brewer - Will win the backup job and play some in garbage time.

#3 - QB Corwin Cutler - Third quarterback; best chance at seeing the field is in the fourth quarter against William & Mary.

#4 - RB Taquan Mizzell - Gets the majority or at least a plurality of carries.  Runs for 600-750 yards, gathers about 40 receptions.

#5 - RB Albert Reid - Splits time about evenly with Daniel Hamm as the secondary back.  200-some yards, maybe a bit over 300.

#6 - QB Nick Johns - Redshirt.

#8 - WR T.J. Thorpe - Returns for the Syracuse game.  Plays a somewhat complementary role for the season, but immediately starts returning punts.  Has one play at some point this year that makes us really wish he'd gotten the whole season in.  Ultimately catches about 20 passes and runs the ball 15 or so times.  All this is assuming he stays healthy.

#9 - WR Canaan Severin - By the end of the year we're talking about him as the season's breakout player and lamenting the fact he never redshirted.  Leads team in receiving yards and catches.

#10 - RB Jordan Ellis - Sparse carries as the fourth tailback.

#14 - WR Andre Levrone - I think Levrone wins the derby as the early second option at wide receiver and catches about 25-30 passes.

#15 - QB Matt Johns - Doesn't quite reach that 3,000 yard mark, but does throw for more yards than any UVA QB since Marc Verica in 2010, and possibly more.  That sounds like damnation with faint praise, but remember, Verica was actually pretty solid as a senior that year, his main issue being the occasional bizarre interception.  Johns will also finish with more touchdowns than INTs, which is something all starting quarterbacks should do but hasn't been done by a UVA starter since Mike Rocco in 2012.

#16 - TE Brendan Marshall - Very little use, if any, since this is his first crack at the position and there are at least three options in front of him.

#17 - WR Kyle Dockins - Something like the fourth or fifth receiver.  Dockins hasn't had double-digit receptions yet in his career, and if that does change this year it won't be by much.

#19 - WR Doni Dowling - Slow start since he won't even be cleared to run around til next month.  Most likely that'll cost him, and we're not going to see him up to speed until early October.  Probably 10-15 catches this year.

#22 - RB Daniel Hamm - See Albert Reid.  This is Hamm's year to break into the rotation, and he'll do so as a solid complementary back.

#25 - RB Chris Sharp - Redshirt, with the caveat that London's redshirt policies are not always sane.

#30 - RB LaChaston Smith - Not really in the plans.  Probably will get some W&M carries.  Because of his size, may be called on for a very-short-yardage carry at some point.

#33 - RB Olamide Zacchaeus - Redshirt, but see Sharp, Chris.  It wouldn't surprise at all to see a teeth-gnashing burnt redshirt for one of these guys at the tail end of the W&M game and then never see them again til 2016.

#41 - FB Connor Wingo-Reeves - Most likely ahead of LaChaston Smith in the pecking order for short-yardage carries.  No fullbacks got any carries last year, but they might dole out a few more this year to the FBs, and Wingo-Reeves is the top candidate.

#44 - TE Tanner Cowley - Redshirt.

#45 - TE Evan Butts - Think he'll leapfrog Rob Burns as the second tight end option behind Hopkins, and pull down a small handful of receptions.

#47 - FB Vincent Croce - Croce is a team captain this year, so the coaches will find a role for him.  He'll get some carries, because senior captain, though Wingo-Reeves is a better option as a surprise pass-catcher.  He'll also get plenty of chances to knock heads with linebackers.  It'll be up to the offensive line whether that means he springs a big gain or just plugs the last remnants of the already-closing tiny gap in the scrum.

#50 - C Jackson Matteo - Spends most of the year as the backup center, but gets his snaps in here and there.

#52 - OT Grant Polk - Redshirt.

#62 - OG Sean Karl - Second-team lineman, but with limited snaps.

#63 - OG Ryan Doull - Spends a lot of time bouncing between starter and second-team, but plays a significant number of snaps either way.

#64 - OT Jake Fieler - Offensive winner of the annual award for most-hyped player in the preseason only to disappear in the regular season.  Not exactly his fault, he's a redshirt freshman competing with a whole bunch of upperclassmen.  Fieler won't be around much, yet.  Wait till 2017.

#65 - C Ross Burbank - Holds down the center job for most if not all the season.  I'd have a lot more confidence if there was anything at all out of practice saying, yes, Burbank is absolutely the center, no more questions about it, but that's not the case.  Still, the coaches have a best-five philosophy, and the only real way to put the best five on the field is if Burbank plays center.

#67 - OT Jack English - At least he's not trying to play LT as a 260-pounder anymore - hooray for a minimum amount of functional depth this year - but the competition at tackle is too much for now and he's bound for a year of watching and learning.

#68 - C Eric Tetlow - Listed as a center, but I think most of the time he sees this year will be as a second-string guard rotating in to let others have a breather.  Should get a few series a game.

#70 - OG Steven Moss - Not quite ready for the two-deep, but he's had his redshirt season, and should get a handful of snaps, likely making his debut against W&M.

#71 - OG Jack McDonald - Like Doull, probably bounces between starting and second line, but will be a major contributor.

#72 - OT Eric Smith - Wasn't the starting RT when practice began, but I refuse to believe that was anything but a motivational ploy.  He's started too many games and experience is too badly needed on the line to not start him.  Along with Burbank, the player most likely to start all 12 games on the line.

#74 - OT Ryan Bischoff - Redshirt.

#75 - OT Sadiq Olanrewaju - Interesting options when he gets back.  Likely to begin as a second-string tackle, and could move back into the starting lineup where he's made cameos in the past.  If so, Mooney or Whitmire can handle guard perfectly well.

#76 - OT Michael Mooney - Should start the season at LT, but will be looking over his shoulder at Whitmire.  Probably will be a role for him no matter what, but his job isn't secure.

#77 - OT Jay Whitmire - If really and truly healthy, Whitmire is the best lineman on the team, and will play wherever there's a weak point on the line to be shored up.  If Mooney is handling LT just fine, Whitmire would probably play guard and really shore up the running game.  If not, Whitmire plays LT and ensures solid blind-side protection.  If he's not playing at all, it means his back is killing him.

#78 - C R.J. Proctor - Redshirt.  The OL still isn't the most rock-solid position unit on the team and one of the shakier OLs in the league til proven otherwise, but there is one very big improvement from years past: I just put redshirts on every single one of the freshmen.  Even just the ability to do that is very helpful.

#81 - WR Jamall Brown - Not in the plans.  The post-spring depth chart had him behind walk-on Ryan Santoro.

#82 - WR David Eldridge - Likely to play as a true freshman.  Not real likely to be the star wide receiver or even the #2 complement, but he'll play and probably catch 8-10 passes this year.

#85 - WR Keeon Johnson - Ends up as third wide receiver option behind Severin and Levrone, but at risk of seeing his role reduced when Thorpe returns.

#86 - TE Charlie Hopkins - Biggest role of any of UVA's transfers.  He'll be a workhorse tight end, and should catch about 35 passes and be a huge part of the run-blocking game.

#87 - TE Richard Burney - Redshirt.

#89 - TE Rob Burns - Burns is so darn tall - and a senior besides - that I think somewhere along the line he'll catch a feel-good touchdown pass, which will be fun to watch.  But his role will be limited at best since Hopkins is going to take most of the TE snaps and Butts is really more of a natural TE than Burns is.

Stay tuned later, even possibly soonish, for the upcoming preview of the defense.

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