Thursday, August 30, 2012

game preview: Richmond

Date/Time: Saturday, September 1; 3:00


Record against the Spiders: 26-2-2

Last matchup: UVA 34, UR 13; 9/4/10; Charlottesville

Last weekend: N/A

Line: ???

Opposing blogs: none

Injury report: none (only for ACC games)

It's easy to see why teams usually schedule pattycake games for the first week of the season.  I'm pretty excited for the Michigan-Alabama game, but then again I'm just as excited for this one, even though most other weeks of the year I'll tell you I don't like playing I-AA teams.  It's GIMME FOOTBALL time.

-- UVA run offense vs. UR run defense

(all stats 2011)

Top backs:
Perry Jones: 184 carries, 915 yards, 5.0 avg., 5 TDs
Kevin Parks: 152 carries, 709 yards, 4.7 avg., 9 TDs

UVA offense:
162.08 yards/game, 4.25 yards/attempt
52nd of 120 (national); 5th of 12 (ACC)

UR defense:
174.55 yards/game, 4.56 yards/attempt
93rd of 120 (national); 10th of 11 (CAA)

I don't know why I insist on calling attention to Heather Dinich, as she consistently holds a low opinion of UVA.  This week, her prediction is UVA by three.  This area of the game is why she's a fool.

Those are not good stats above, and they're one of the biggest reasons Richmond sputtered to a 3-8 record last season.  (Really, Heather?  A three-point win for an 8-4 FBS team against a 3-8 FCS one?  You must really hate you some UVA.)  UVA's offensive line will have a huge size advantage against Richmond's defensive front.  Among the starters, only sophomore DT Evan Kelly has the size to compete regularly, at 280 pounds - the rest fall in the 255-260 range.  In order to compensate, Richmond might use 315-pound Adam Farley next to Kelly, but it would mean taking their best D-lineman, DT Kerry Wynn, off the field.  Wynn is 260 pounds but is probably the most talented of Richmond's front four.  Obvious running downs such as 3rd and short will probably see Farley inserted in favor of Wynn.

At linebacker, the player to keep an eye on is MLB Darius McMillan, who's earned various all-American and all-conference honors during his career, and piled up 133 tackles (in just 11 games, remember) last season.  Richmond will also run safety Cooper Taylor up in run support.

It all matters little, though.  UVA should be able to do what it likes on the ground.  The size advantage will see to that, as will some relative inexperience on Richmond's side of the ball.  At linebacker they did a good job of getting this year's new starters some snaps in the past, but two new bodies on the D-line and two at linebacker make this a real challenge for the Spiders.  Somebody is running for 100 yards, maybe two somebodies, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Khalek Shepherd equal or surpass his 2011 season total for carries in just this one game.  Good game to rack up the rushing attempts and spread the ball around.

-- UVA pass offense vs. UR pass defense

(all stats 2011)

Mike Rocco: 222/366, 60.7%; 2,671 yards, 13 TD, 12 INT; 7.3 yards/attempt

Top receivers:
Perry Jones: 48 rec., 506 yards, 3 TDs
Tim Smith: 33 rec., 565 yards, 3 TDs

UVA offense:
237.7 yards/game, 7.0 yards/attempt
62nd of 120 (national); 8th of 12 (ACC)

UR defense:
194.5 yards/game, 6.6 yards/attempt
41st of 120 (national); 3rd of 12 (CAA)

As a team, Richmond is better in this department.  Looking at individual stats, you wonder how that ever happened.  They picked off just six passes all of last year, and defended only 36 (compared to 14 and 61 for their opponents.)  DT Kerry Wynn is a good pass-rusher, with four sacks in eight games last year, but that was one-third of the team's measly total of 12.

They will have some experienced cover players in the secondary, and the 4-2-5 Richmond runs allows them to switch easily to a nickel look without having to substitute personnel.  (That may help explain why Richmond's pass defense was better than their run defense.)  However, the starting cornerbacks are midgets; Wayne Pettus is 5'8" and Darryl Hamilton, 5'9".  Hamilton is the #1 CB and will probably draw Tim Smith as his assignment, who'll have three inches on him.

I don't expect a conservative game plan from the coaches, though.  In fact I half expect Rocco to unleash the dragon and go deep on the first drive, maybe on the first play from scrimmage.  That's as much for the benefit of our future film-watching opponents as anything.  The run game will be heavily utilized and I don't see Rocco getting, like, 30 pass attempts, but what passes there are will be fairly audacious compared to what you're used to seeing.  I think Rocco ends up averaging about 10 yards per attempt.

And let's not forget about Phillip Sims.  Are we going to see a scripted exchange like we did last year?  I don't think so.  But as long as the game goes as it should, I think the coaches will have an itchy trigger finger on Sims and we should see him take over in the fourth quarter, maybe for all of it.

-- UR run offense vs. UVA run defense

(all stats 2011)

Top backs:
Kendall Gaskins: 168 carries, 688 yards, 3.9 avg., 10 TDs
Jovan Smith: 58 carries, 266 yards, 4.6 avg., 1 TD (2010 stats)

UR offense:
76.82 yards/game, 2.58 yards/attempt
110th of 120 (national); 12th of 12 (CAA)

UVA defense:
139.46 yards/game, 3.94 yards/attempt
50th of 120 (national); 5th of 12 (ACC) (nice symmetry, there)

This has to get better for the Spiders, you would think.  Lord knows what their offensive line looked like from week to week last year, but it wasn't pretty; injuries hamstrung the unit and the list of reliable running backs was short.  The latter problem isn't fixed, either.  Fullback Kendall Gaskins is the only player returning from 2011 who had any meaningful amount of carries, and he's about what you expect out of a fullback: bruising and hard to take down, and not likely to break any big ones nor run for a spectacular average.  (Except, of course, for the 70-yarder he had against us two years ago.  Oops.)

Outside of Gaskins, who is a quality lead blocker as well as ballcarrier, experience is really light at running back.  Jovan Smith was a reserve ballcarrier in 2010 but missed all of 2011 with an injury.  If he can simply average 4.5, 4.6 yards again, it would be a vast improvement over the Spiders' 2011 efforts.  Richmond will also break out scatback Jacobi Green, a true freshman who rose up the depth chart in fall camp.

The interior line should be at least respectable.  The Spiders like center Austin Gund; he was given the starting center job as a true freshman last year, but got hurt and missed the second half of the season.  325-pound redshirt freshman Sedale Young is at LG, and RG Mark Speir is far and away their most experienced lineman.  Truthfully, though, it's a pretty green line overall; Speir is the only upperclassman starter.

So, UVA's relatively veteran D-line should have an upper hand in that regard.  Ultimately, Richmond has a lot of potential to be better than they were last season, but there's no reason to expect that we can't stop them consistently.

-- UR pass offense vs. UVA pass defense

(all stats 2011)

John Laub: 8/17, 47.1%; 116 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT; 6.8 yards/attempt

Top receivers:
Ben Edwards: 44 rec., 509 yards, 6 TDs
Stephen Barnette: 32 rec., 440 yards, 5 TDs

UR offense:
256.6 yards/game, 6.88 yards/attempt
60th of 120 (national); 6th of 11 (CAA)

UVA defense:
212.2 yards/game, 6.8 yards/attempt
45th of 120 (national); 4th of 12 (ACC)

I really shouldn't bother with these stats.  Richmond breaks in a new quarterback and graduated their top receiver by far last year, the dangerous Tre Gray.  Our secondary... you know.  Let's see if we can make heads or tails of this anyway.

John Laub beat out UVA transfer Michael Strauss for the starting job, but don't shed any tears for Strauss just yet; Laub is a 5th-year senior, so Strauss is the likely heir apparent.  Hopefully for the Spiders, Laub has developed a lot since his last meaningful playing time: in 2010 when Aaron Corp was injured, Laub started the final three games and threw nine picks.  He's a sub-50% thrower for his career.

The receivers are a decent first test for this secondary of ours, though.  Tre Gray gobbled up most of the opportunities last season, but Ben Edwards and Stephen Barnette were good enough second options to keep defenses honest.  Tight end Kevin Finney is another weapon that the Spiders will try to find, so there's a quality trio of players for Laub to aim for.  Freshman receiver Reggie Diggs stands 6'4", and is likely to be at least a red-zone target if not a regular all-day possession receiver; he presents something of a matchup problem since we're not running with particularly tall cornerbacks.

I'd expect a heavy does of early play-action from the Richmond play-callers to try and take advantage of the inexperience in our secondary.  Physically our guys are more than a match, but it doesn't take a BCS team to coach circles around freshman safeties.  Laub doesn't strike fear in anyone, and Richmond allowed a ton of sacks last year (32) so if our pass rush can't get to the relatively immobile Laub, it won't be able to get to anyone.  I expect at least a couple wide-open receivers to be missed on Saturday.  I also expect Richmond to be able to move the ball some, enough at least to prevent the game from being an early slaughter.


All the press goes to the relationship between our quarterback and their new coach (kind of a nephew-uncle thing) but the UVA connection is strong at Richmond - Wayne Lineburg, Bob Trott, and Levern Belin all coached under Al Groh at some point, and you ought to remember the names of their LB and WR coaches: Byron Thweatt and Fontel Mines.  So there'll be some guys on the coaching staff who want to win this game.

Fortunately for us, Richmond isn't that good.  Are they better than the 3-8 team that took the field last year?  Probably.  They started 3-0 and got smacked hard with injuries.  But they don't resemble London's old national championship squads, either.  UVA should be able to have its way on offense, particularly when running the ball, and Laub isn't good enough to take advantage of our biggest weakness.  We'll start the season on a high note.

Prediction summary:

-- One of our runners gets 100 yards.
-- Khalek Shepherd gets at least five carries to meet or surpass his 2011 total.
-- Mike Rocco averages around 10 yards per attempt.
-- Phillip Sims plays most of the fourth quarter, but not before.
-- Bill Lazor tries a deep bomb on the first drive.  I get double points** if it's the first play.

Final score: UVA 31, UR 10

**I'll be keeping track of these predictions all season.  How many other blabbermouth writers do you know that do that?

Rest of the ACC:

NC State vs. Tennessee - Fri., 7:30 (I wish we scheduled SEC teams as often as NC State does.)

North Carolina vs. Elon - 12:30 (Still the Fightin' Christians as far as I'm concerned.)

Maryland vs. William & Mary - 3:00 (Heather picked 2-10 Maryland with a freshman QB to win by 10, and 8-4 UVA to win by 3.  No, I'm not letting this go.)

Miami @ Boston College - 3:30 (ACC schedulin' all the good games early in the season.)

Florida State vs. Murray State - 6:00 (FSU thinks having to play Florida every year is an excuse to schedule two I-AA teams.)

Wake Forest vs. Liberty - 6:30 (I can think of nothing clever to say about this.)

Clemson vs. Auburn - 7:00 (Tigerfight!  Which Clemson will win even without Sammy Watkins, by the way.)

Duke vs. Florida Int'l - 7:00 (It's possible Duke picked the wrong wimpy Florida I-A newbie to mess with.  FIU doesn't totally suck any more.)

Georgia Tech @ Virginia Tech - Mon., 8:00 (Monday??  Are you effin' serious with this shit?)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

season preview: defense

Not so much with the formalities and talk, more with the substance.  The season preview continues today with the defense, and for your perusal, the start-of-season depth chart.


Starters: #90 Jake Snyder, #99 Brent Urban, #93 Will Hill, #47 Billy Schautz
Backups: #3 Ausar Walcott, #54 Justin Renfrow, #56 Chris Brathwaite, #7 Eli Harold

If you like run-stopping D-lines, this is your bag.  This line is full of proven run-stoppers, and there's finally some size appearing on the depth chart; when Mike London took over, he did some shuffling and what used to be a monster-sized 3-4 D-line got smaller and quicker, particularly when London deployed 250-pound John-Kevin Dolce as a defensive tackle.  That worked out fine in passing situations but as badly as you'd expect in run situations.  You understand, of course, that it takes a while to bulk back up and keep the quickness, and we're finally getting to that point.

Not that anyone would confuse these guys with mammoth lane-cloggers.  Only Justin Renfrow checks in at over 300 pounds (310, to be exact, an impressive feat for a guy who came in at 260) and the rest are nowhere close.  (Renfrow is essentially the third member of a three-man rotation, rather than a true backup, so his bulk will get put to good use.)  But they're finally big enough.

And they'll stop the run just fine.  Big things are expected of Will Hill in that department.  He's going into his senior year, and he's got an array of moves to use on blockers.  I think he's a perfectly good replacement for Matt Conrath's disruptiveness.  And Jake Snyder is basically a third DT on the field.  Normally when you hear words like "unsung" or "overshadowed" you think DTs; this year, that's Snyder at strongside DE.  He'll be asked to take on tight ends and double-teams and generally be an immovable object.  Opposite him, Billy Schautz is also a senior and one of the craftiest and smartest players UVA has had in a long time.  He's basically Will Sherrill in pads.

That said, he's got about that relative level of athleticism, too.  Hill is the most athletic of the four starters and he's good, not great, in that department.  This is an experienced bunch that knows their moves, but there's a serious lack of blowbyability here.  London and Jim Reid are hoping safety-turned-linebacker-turned defensive end Ausar Walcott provides that, but the cavalry is arriving, too, in the form of super-recruit Eli Harold.  Harold is incredibly light for a DE at 225 pounds, so I hope Reid is kidding when he says Harold can be used on running downs.  That will come with time, but the truth is, Harold is in to do one thing and do it well: make quarterbacks go EEK.  He'll have to take on charging 300-pound OTs if they run at him, and that won't go well; it's best he be the one charging.

On the fringes of playing time at DT are Chris Brathwaite and David Dean, and freshman Mike Moore at DE.  The coaches are on the fence about whether or not to redshirt Moore, and ultimately I don't think they will.  We should also get to see the wraps taken off of Brathwaite and Dean, both of whom have to get their technique sharpened but have a lot of athleticism and potential to make a mess in someone's backfield.

Whether or not this group can generate a pass rush is the question of the year, though.  The coaches are going to have to get creative to help out an inexperienced secondary.  UVA only managed 20 sacks last year, not an especially good number, and 11 of them are gone.  The line as it stands represents five of them.  Five is a really, really low number.  Harold may lead the team in sacks, which is a ballsy thing to say about a freshman, but his non-sack-having compatriots make it less of a stretch.

Best-case: The run-stopping is as good as advertised - truthfully, part of what I'm saying here is intended to convince me as much as anyone.  And in the pass-rush department, a repeat of last-year's below-average-but-not-terrible production would be about right.

Worst-case: Harold isn't ready for the rigors of the college game and his snaps decrease, rather than increase, as the year goes on.  And moving Walcott to the front lines proves fairly useless.  The worst pass-rushing team last year was Boston College with eight sacks - that's worst in the country, mind you, not just the ACC - and it's not hard to envision this group dropping to that level.


Starters: #44 Henry Coley, #53 Steve Greer, #9 Laroy Reynolds

Backups: #13 Daquan Romero, #34 Kwontie Moore, #29 D.J. Hill

Al Groh would be proud.  Three of his recruits starting at linebacker, and comprising the defense's best unit to boot.  The only thing missing is the quasi-DE sackmaster, but that's a scheme thing, not a personnel thing, and probably never to return.  (Either that or just pretend Ausar Walcott never changed positions.)

You've got Steve Greer patrolling the middle, which is a huge plus: Greer is your prototypical tackling machine and defensive quarterback.  Chances are this is your defensive MVP right here.  Greer racked up 103 tackles last year and it wouldn't surprise to see him approach 120 this year.  He's that good.  You wish he could get to the sidelines a little quicker than he does, but that's nitpicking.

And Reynolds is a team captain for a reason.  I remember an article that I linked many moons ago that pointed out his leadership qualities in high school, including an anecdote about how he would pitch in with the freshman chores as a senior.  Leadership baby.  Two team captains among three starters at linebacker - that's a wonderful thing to have.

Nobody here is a major-league thumper, so you won't see screaming athleticism, bone-jarring hits, or wide-receiver-esque wheels week in and week out.  They make their statements with very sound fundamentals, picture-perfect tackling (remember Reynolds stuffing the Miami tailback on fourth-and-one?) and excellent reads.  With luck, Henry Coley will fit right in - he's paid his dues, impressed the staff, and should blend seamlessly into the unit.

He didn't get there without a fight, though.  Among the under-the-radar position battles was that between Coley and Daquan Romero for the strongside linebacker position.  Coley put his claws into the job early, but not before Romero made his case.  Romero will play, and more than he did last year as a true freshman.

But the real exciting possibility is at middle linebacker, where Kwontie Moore is apprenticing under Greer and being groomed for the role next year.  It's a tricky deal for the coaches: you wish Greer could take every snap, but Moore needs reps.  (Solution: have a 50-point lead at halftime, every week.)  Nevertheless, hopefully this year will provide a nice glimpse of the future the way Demetrious Nicholson did last year.  If Greer fails to reach the aforementioned 120 tackles, the best reason would be that Moore played enough to keep Greer nice and fresh for fourth quarters.

Best-case: That Greer, Reynolds, and Coley are 1-2-3 on the team in tackles.  That would take a lot of pressure off the secondary, cleaning up ballcarriers before they make it to that level.

Worst-case: Not much worse than the best-case, actually.  This group is too good to have an apocalyptic worst-case scenario.  I guess if there is one, it's that Greer and Reynolds have leveled off and that Coley turns out to be unprepared for the starting job.  I can't see them regressing, though.  At any rate, even if they've leveled off and won't play any better this year than last, that's still pretty darn good.  Also, I'd prefer not to see a rotation between Coley and Romero like we had when London decided to put Aaron Taliaferro in the lineup come hell or high water.  Best if Coley takes three-fourths of the snaps.


Starters: #1 Demetrious Nicholson, #22 Drequan Hoskey, #21 Brandon Phelps, #8 Anthony Harris
Backups: #30 C.J. Moore, #26 Maurice Canady, #41 Pablo Alvarez, #27 Rijo Walker

Oh boy.  Here we go.  There's a lot of raw unproven talent in the receiving corps, waiting to break out and make big plays.  And that's a good thing, because when someone messes up, pretty much what usually happens is the quarterback heaves the ball out of bounds, the punt team comes on, and we have a little Learning Time on the sideline.  There's a lot of raw, unproven talent with big-time potential on defense, too, but when the secondary messes up, the next play is also special teams, but it's the kick return team this time because argh they just scored a 74-yard touchdown, and it's still Learning Time but it's also Drinky Time for the fans.  This is why 6-6 or 7-5 is going to be considered a reasonably successful season.

Tre Nicholson had a very freshmany year last year, mixing veteran-looking plays with ones that said "I was at my prom four months ago, lay off me."  He was also small as hell and got run over on a regular basis.  This year, he's up to 170 pounds, which is still smallish but much better than the 155 he was running at last year.  That alone should save some yardage.  This year, there ought to be a big jump in the quality of his play, although he's also going to be called on to defend everyone's best receiver.  Thing is, receiver talent in the ACC is pretty shallow, so most weeks, Nicholson ought to be more than up to the task.

On the other side was where the most pitched battle of any in fall camp took place.  The loser is still not really a "loser" - cornerbacks rotate like DTs and often show up three at a time on the field, so the fact that Drequan Hoskey is listed as the starter over Maurice Canady is no loss of playing time for Canady.  All three of these guys have a big role to play.  And there's hope that Hoskey will be ready for the responsibility, rooted mainly in the game-saving pass breakup he made against Florida State last season.  Sure, he got beat on a nice move by Bert Reed, but Reed was a veteran, Hoskey was a freshman, and Hoskey had the speed to get back in time.

That speed will be put to good use this year.  If nothing else, this group of cornerbacks is fast.  Like, roadrunner fast.  Hoskey is a star hurdler on track team.  Nicholson is Nicholson.  Canady put his speed and athleticism on display last year as quarterback for his high school team, and then picked up the nuances of the defense fast enough to rocket near the top of the depth chart in two days at camp.  And the fourth cornerback, C.J. Moore (who probably will not redshirt) has some pretty legendary speed of his own - he's easily the fastest member of the incoming freshman class, and that's to be expected since he's the nephew of Olympic sprint champion Gail Devers.  Sometimes that speed will just mean they get to the wrong place faster, but there'll be times you just giggle at the possibilities.

Cornerback is still pretty scary, though: two true freshmen, one true sophomore, and a former walk-on.  Yeah.  Safety is even scarier; in terms of pure time in the program, there's more experience, but none of these guys have ever been counted on for real responsibilities.  Rijo Walker - I dunno, man.  You can't help but notice that he's spinning his wheels.  He was given a lot of chances to earn playing time last year, even got a couple starts and a nifty INT against Indiana, but his snaps dwindled as the year went on.  He entered fall camp as a nominal starter, and left it playing second string.  Brandon Phelps moved over from cornerback once it became clear we had three that could do the job and that Phelps was needed at safety, and now he's the starter.  Again: ton of talent, never been in this position before, probably going to run the wrong direction more than a few times.  Same holds true for Anthony Harris.

There might be some experimenting going on early in the year, too.  Actually scratch that - there'll probably be a ton of experimenting.  Pablo Alvarez is a completely unknown quantity.  Anthony Cooper moved from WR early in camp, and will probably get some snaps to see what he might bring to the table.  It's absolutely certain that when the game action goes live, this group is going to make mistakes.  What remains to be seen is how quickly they learn from those mistakes, and how frequent they are.  That in turn will determine what the lineup looks like come November.  It might be the same - the players on the field are the most physically talented of the candidates - or it might be completely different.  What we do know is to prepare for some scary moments.

Best-case: Whatever mistakes are made don't hurt the team too badly.  Sure, these guys are raw, but they're also the future of the position, hopefully for the next three years.  If they sometimes look like it, that should be good enough.

Worst-case: Complete anarchy, replete with torched cars and barricaded streets and a lot of watching helpless cornerbacks providing a rearguard escort to the endzone for some receiver in the other colors because the CB thought he had safety help over the top and the safety wandered over to help double-cover a tight end.


A couple weeks ago I wrote a schedule preview for Inside The ACC; instead of replicating the whole thing I'll just direct you there and let you read that.  The Cliff Notes version is that October is easyish, November is rather difficult, but September holds all the keys.  If UVA can win just one game from Penn State, TCU, or Georgia Tech, they'll be 2-2 going into a relatively easy October with a very good shot at being bowl-eligible by Halloween.  If not, most of the fanbase will be demanding a new quarterback.  Amazing the difference between 2-2 and 1-3.

There are a couple other ways the schedule shakes out that should give us confidence.  Late bye week.  Late-season stretch spent mostly at home.  And - one of the real kickers here - no Florida State or Clemson, the only two real competitors for the Atlantic Division.  We caught a nice break in that respect.

There are some folks that think we should be very happy with 6-6.  Since I usually find myself annoyed by the annual overexuberance of our fanbase, I won't begrudge those people their opinion.  The secondary alone is enough that you should temper your wildest expectations.  Secondaries that inexperienced usually get declared federal disaster zones.  But 6-6 probably means losses to TCU, Penn State, GT, NC State, VT, and UNC.  Going 7-5 means we beat Richmond, La. Tech, Duke, Maryland, Wake, Miami, and one of the aforementioned teams.  Does that sound so hard?  Five of those six "assumed wins" are home games, with only Duke on the road.  Saying we should be happy to be at 6-6 means we shouldn't necessarily expect to beat teams like Wake or Miami.  Where we are in our development, I say we should, and further we shouldn't expect to be cannon fodder for teams like PSU or NC State.  We have an underrated quarterback, a hell of a running game, a lot of talent at receiver, a solid defensive line, and an outstanding linebacking corps.

Simply put, if we think we're going to win ACC titles and take back the top dog label in the state, we can't live under our "pleasantly surprised" rock any more.  Good teams do things like install a new center and still succeed.  Good teams find ways to make up for their glaring weaknesses.  6-6 would mean we go bowling, and I like bowling, especially two years in a row, but changing the culture means no longer being happy about backing into the postseason. 

Am I talking Orange Bowl Or Bust here?  Good heavens, no.  As much as anyone I preach the doctrine that this is a process and it takes time.  I've got no illusions or any thoughts of being something we're not.  However, it is literally impossible to take any steps forward as a program without winning some games that you're not "supposed" to, or while losing games you should win.  Fine, we're not supposed to beat PSU or NC State or whatever.  Let's do it anyway.  You can't follow up an 8-4 regular season by going 6-6 and saying, oh good, I didn't expect to do this well.  Personally, I'll be disappointed with anything less than a 7-5 season.  6-6 will be cool in that it's a bowl season, but it's not a step forward.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

season preview: offense

This is it boys and girls.  After a solid month of focusing on the rest of the opposition, you're now better-informed about the enemy than 98% of UVA fans out there.  But it's time to put all that aside and deal with what really matters.  Time to dispense with the rest of the chitchat and get right to the drill.


Starter: #16 Mike Rocco
Backups: #14 Phillip Sims, #5 David Watford

The biggest surprise of Monday's depth-chart release was not who was ahead of whom, but that Mike London was so candid about his quarterbacks after a month of playing shy.  The summary: Mike Rocco is the starter, Phillip Sims has passed David Watford for #2, and London will try and redshirt Watford.  In other words, it'll probably take an injury to get Watford on the field, maybe two depending on how strongly London feels about that redshirt.

A misguided wing of the fanbase assumes it's only a matter of time before Sims takes the starting job from Rocco, possibly by October.  Bill Lazor gave a press conference in which he praised Sims's downfield abilities, which only fueled that particular fire.  Overlooked in Lazor's words by those who read only what they wanted to read was that Rocco, too, had improved his accuracy downfield, and oh by the way knows the offense better.  The test of whether you've crossed the line from admiring Sims's physical skills to straight-up being a slappy is whether that latter phrase surprises you.  Rocco enters his third year in the system, and is the most experienced guy we've got.

As I like to point out, after London ended the rotation last year and handed the job to Rocco exclusively, his passer rating improved to 141 in the second half.  That's only decimal points behind Tajh Boyd, to whom the media awarded preseason ACC POY.  It's also better than the season-long ratings of Logan Thomas, Mike Glennon, Tanner Price, and Sean Renfree.  Rocco has a chance to be UVA's secret weapon.

Still, it would be helpful if Rocco can connect on some downfield passes.  UVA's offense was remarkably potent last year considering it didn't really have the home-run pass in its arsenal.  Rocco's two longest passes last year: a 78-yarder against Miami and a 46-yarder against Indiana - and both were mostly YAC by Perry Jones, particularly the Miami one.  What made up for that was that Rocco was good at getting yards in medium chunks rather than all at once or five at a time.  That comes from accuracy and an excellent grip on the concept of where his receivers will be two seconds from now.

There's no doubt we'll get to see at least a little bit of Sims, and probably soon if the Richmond game goes according to plan.  That's an exciting prospect.  Sims probably won't have the full playbook at his disposal, but you're likely to notice an uptick in velocity when #14 enters the game.  If those are accurate throws, it'll keep a little pressure on Rocco to keep performing; a good problem for the coaches to have, but certain to spark yet more factionalism on the message boards.

Best-case: Rocco keeps the job all season and puts up numbers good enough to put him in the top tier of ACC quarterbacks going into 2013.  There'll be some that figure the actual best case is for Sims to take the job sooner rather than later, but that ain't so, and here's why: it means we're losing games.  London isn't going to switch midstream if things are going well.  Sims isn't going to catch Rocco until Rocco falters, or until the offseason.  For this year, you want the team - and Rocco - to play well enough that it leaves no doubt from week to week who'll start.

Worst-case: Rocco falters against tough defenses brought to bear by Penn State, Georgia Tech, and TCU in September, and a full-on firestorm, complete with grenades and napalm, erupts on message boards, demanding Sims take over.  He does, and shows flashes of talent, but unfamiliarity with the playbook limits him severely.  And then someone gets hurt, forcing Watford to the field for another year and a wasted chance to redshirt him.


Starters: #20 Tim Smith, #6 Darius Jennings
Backups: #2 Dominique Terrell, #19 E.J. Scott

This is an interesting opportunity right here.  It's rare that you have a position filled with so many unknowns and yet so much potential.  The WR corps is completely loaded with four-star talent.  Tim Smith, Darius Jennings, Dominique Terrell, Canaan Severin - all four stars.  And they come from a veritable who's-who of East Coast powerhouse high schools: Smith from Oscar Smith, Jennings from Gilman, E.J. Scott from Good Counsel, and were recruited by just about every school across the ACC, Big East, and SEC, as well as the Big Ten.  It's the best collection of sheer talent UVA has seen at receiver, maybe ever.

And the time has come for that talent to shine.  Tim Smith has put together some respectable seasons, but the time is past for "respectable."  Darius Jennings had a nice little debut season last year, but he's at the grown-ups' table now.  So is fellow Wondertwin Dominique Terrell.  Terrell ought to be able to find a niche in the slot, catching screens, and being used on end-arounds and reverses.  He probably won't lead the team in any categories, but he's the kind of weapon that can add exciting wrinkles to an offense and drive opposing DCs batshit.  Jennings and Smith are more your typical stretch-the-field types, and if Rocco consistently finds them downfield, look out.

Scott is the only other receiver listed on the depth chart, so he should be in for a few catches this season.  It's hard to guess just what his role will be, though - he's yet to catch a pass in his college career.  It'll also be hard to keep Adrian Gamble and Canaan Severin off the field.  Both are true freshmen, but older than the rest of their class; Severin reclassified back a year, and Gamble prepped at FUMA.  Physically, they're ready for a role, especially Severin, whose size and hands could find him a role similar to what Matt Snyder used to do as a possession receiver.  Miles Gooch is another wild-card - he's a big, big guy who occasionally wows with his athleticism but also occasionally gets the dropsies.

Best-case: Both Smith and Jennings break out of their shells and morph into a poor man's version of what Clemson has with Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins.  The actual guess is that one or the other jumps out to seize the #1 role, and the other is an obvious #2.  But they both could do it, which would make UVA's passing attack a scary one.

Worst-case: By the same token, it's possible that neither is ready to break out.  If that's the case, Smith probably never will - this is his big year and his big chance.  If the best case is that both are good for 800-900 yards or so, the worst is that neither gets more than about 600.  That's only cool if someone else like Terrell surprises and turns into the destroyer of worlds, but that's not that likely.  Smith and Jennings are the big guns, and this is the year they have to prove it.


Starter: #88 Paul Freedman
Backups: #89 Colter Phillips, #81 Jeremiah Mathis, #83 Jake McGee

It was a little bit of a surprise that Freedman was atop the depth chart, but in retrospect, it shouldn't have been.  Freedman had 11 catches last year to Colter Phillips's three, so in reality it's been that way for a while.

What it means is not to go expecting a big tight end renaissance this year.  Freedman simply doesn't have the athleticism to be a stretch-the-field type like Al Groh used to find everywhere he looked.  He's a big guy who blocks very well, and will be a real asset in the run game.  I'd look for him to be used in short-yardage situations, the classic example being the 2PC he caught against Indiana last year.  Occasionally he'll be open deepish, but not so often that you look for it the way you looked for Heath Miller or, say, Tom Santi.

Phillips and Mathis are similar players.  My view of Phillips's blocking is colored by when he was trying to do it in 2010 with a bum-ass shoulder, with predictable results, so that's not too reliable.  Still, he's not better than Freedman, and Mathis is pretty much buried.  McGee is different.  Even though he's listed fourth, he's the guy with the most potential to be found downfield consistently.  Maybe not this year, as the coaches will probably be content with letting the receivers and running backs handle most of the passcatching and having the TEs block - and right now, McGee is behind in the latter category.

Best-case: Freedman earns about 18-20 catches or so.  That'd make him about as heavily involved in the passing game as you can expect.

Worst-case: Nobody gets more than about eight.  Even though we're not placing a world of expectations on the tight ends, this is the point of disappointment.


Starters: #33 Perry Jones, #25 Kevin Parks
Backups: #10 Clifton Richardson, #23 Khalek Shepherd

Let's face it: I am a running backs fan.  It's weird: it's the position I stress about least because I figure if you got a good quarterback and a good offensive line, you can move the ball.  Even a lousy running back can get four yards if the line consistently pushes the line of scrimmage that way, and even a good running back will suck if the line sucks.

But I love having really good running backs.  It's my favorite position on the field.  I got spoiled growing up because I got to watch Barry Sanders every Sunday, and guys like Tshimanga Biakabutuka and the A-Train, Anthony Thomas, on Saturdays as a Michigan fan.  Nothing is more fun than watching a really good running back own a game.  So this is a lot of fun right here.

The coaches will probably try and find ways to get Khalek Shepherd more involved, because he's been playing too well in practice to be relegated to fourth string.  The problem is, the other three guys are playing even better.  Perry Jones is full of all-purpose awesomeness.  Hand him the ball, throw it to him, whatever, he makes it work.  Kevin Parks is every bit the bowling ball we expected.  Clifton Richardson is a little behind on knowledge of the offense (and blocking) but got a lot better this offseason and has got a ton of untapped talent.  It was actually Richardson who averaged the most yards per carry in 2011 at 5.1.

Bottom line here: this is the most dependable and productive position group in the whole offense.  And it's incredibly versatile.  You want a receiver out of the backfield, you want a guy who can take handoff after handoff, you want a short-yardage smashing ball, anything you hope to get out of a running back, you can probably find it here. 

Best-case: Pretty much basic awesomeness.  Any one of these guys could be a 1,000-yard rusher, easily.  The only thing that keeps that from happening is the spreading around of the carries, and even then Jones didn't miss by much last year.  Shepherd will probably get more than the five carries had last year, which will spread things around even further, so the impact of this group will be seen in their averages and not their totals.  And the best-case is that they all go over 5.5 yards a carry.  Not implausible.

Worst-case: Someone gets hurt.  That or a woefully disappointing offensive line is the only thing that can stop these guys.


Starter: #49 Zach Swanson
Backups: #37 Billy Skrobacz, #4 LoVante' Battle

Swanson likely has the talent to make an impact, but we have absolutely no idea how much.  He spent his redshirt year at tight end and switched to fullback last year, where he sat behind two seniors and bulked up.  The bulking up definitely worked; he's up to 255 pounds, which means he's got the build now to be a helluva blocker and a truck in the pass-catching game - which he ought to be good at seeing as how he used to be a tight end and all.

But the coaches' plans for the fullback position are a mystery.  Can Swanson replicate Max Milien's 22 catches from last year?  That'd be cool.  Will he be used as more of a traditional lead blocker, heading into the middle to open up holes for Kevin Parks?  I'd dig that too.  Whatever the plans, they'll have to be executed almost entirely by Swanson: Billy Skrobacz has done some nice things in camp but is 30 pounds lighter, and Battle is listed at 205, which means he's actually a tailback and not going to see much of the field.

Best-case: Swanson can play Milien's pass-catching role and also be a wrecking-ball blocker.  There's a chance this guy could be a revelation.

Worst-case: Swanson gets hurt, which would basically take the fullback role completely out of the offense.  Skrobacz and Battle might be serviceable pass-catchers, but they're too small for the Hoos to get the full benefit of having a fullback in the offense.


Starters: #72 Oday Aboushi, #61 Cody Wallace, #70 Luke Bowanko, #79 Sean Cascarano, #78 Morgan Moses
Backups: #75 Kelby Johnson, #71 Matt Mihalik, #65 Ross Burbank, #74 Conner Davis, #77 Jay Whitmire

Let's start with the good: the tackles.  Have I mentioned yet that Moses and Aboushi are the best pair of tackles in the league?  I have?  About a million times?  Make it a million and one.  Outside rushes and pass protection are no problem here.

So the outside is taken care of.  But the inside.....hmmm.  There are a couple ways to look at it.  One is that Sean Cascarano has basically been playing at the level of a starter for a while, and only needed to wait his turn.  And the fact that Conner Davis is listed essentially as a co-starter, with the OR designation, is a good reflection on Davis, not a bad one on Cascarano.  Plus, Luke Bowanko has already been a starter, and his blocking skills aren't in question, so the move to center shouldn't be a big leap.  That's scenario #1.

Scenario #2 is that Bowanko is a center because Matt Mihalik was given first crack and then fired, so he's basically the third choice for the job since Cody Wallace was also being groomed for center before his move to guard.  That means we're gonna see a lot of confusion this year, since the center is responsible for the blocking assignments and Bowanko hasn't been doing this real long.  Mihalik basically proved unable to hold down any O-line job, giving way to Wallace at left guard.  And Cascarano played in 11 games in 2010 but only six in 2011, so how ready he really is, that's a scary question.

My actual guess is that Bowanko is at center because he's got the best combination of blocking skills and knowledge of the playbook.  I lean more toward the best-case than the worst-case here; it's always a little scary to have a new center, but Bowanko does have that year of starting experience at right guard, so he's likely to do just fine.  And Cascarano played less last year because the line last year was a much more cohesive and effective unit than it was in 2010, with much less room - or need - for rotation.

My other guess is that the depth chart as it is won't last.  First off, Kelby Johnson is suspended for the first two games of the season, so even though Michael Mooney (an interesting choice) is the backup at LT, Jay Whitmire is probably going to see time at both positions until Johnson returns; it'd be a shame to waste Mooney's redshirt for two games.  Second, the coaches are always pushing the notion of playing the best five players.  Is Cody Wallace one of the best five players?  Maybe.  But it is a little surprising that Cascarano gets a co-starter while Wallace has no such restriction.  If there's a shuffle in the future, the most likely one is to start both Cascarano and Davis at guard.

I think, though, that if there's a little bit of a drop-off at guard from last year when we had Bowanko and Austin Pasztor, it won't be a huge deal.  It's not ideal, but it won't sabotage the offense.  Cascarano is ready for the job, for one.  And for two, the real pivot point is at center.  Bowanko's good to go from a blocking perspective, and that's half the battle.  If he's good to go on the intangibles too, that'll free up 90% of the concerns on the line.  This group should be just fine.

Best-case: See scenario #1 above.

Worst-case: See scenario #2 above.

Tomorrow: the defense, and the revamped depth chart by class.

Monday, August 27, 2012

weekend review, acc preview


It's game week.  That by itself should put a hop in your step, and the thought of a week full of wildly optimistic content out of yours truly should be a nice bonus.  ACC roundup-style preview today, which includes:

-- Best and worst units
-- Hot seat coaches
-- Best non-rivalry OOC games
-- Bowl predictions


-- Best starting quarterback: E.J. Manuel, Florida State
-- Worst starting quarterback: Perry Hills, Maryland

My, how times change.  Last year I was so bereft of ideas for "best" that I went with the guy who ended up benched and transferring to Wisconsin.  (Though, to be fair, he's now starting there.)  This year we're full of choices.  You could legitimately pick Bryn Renner (last year's top passer rating), Tajh Boyd (the media's pick for ACC POY), Logan Thomas (what he occasionally lacks in decision-making he more than makes up for by being impossible to take down.)  Mike Glennon, Sean Renfree, Tanner Price, and Mike Rocco are all solid-to-excellent QBs in their own right.  But we'll go with E.J. Manuel, who has the best combination of elusiveness and passing skills.  He didn't own the absolute gaudiest of stat lines, but he's ruthlessly efficient, and enough of a running threat to create a lot of space for himself to maneuver.  You could make a great argument for half the rest of the conference, but that's my opinion and I'm sticking to it.

Again with the times-change motif, Randy Edsall managed to coach his way from having the best returning QB in the league to - oh Lord.  C.J. Brown is out for the season with a blowed-up knee, and he was seriously in the running for "worst" anyway because he passes like Taylor Martinez on meth.  Now the Terps are closing their eyes and praying that Perry Hills doesn't get completely murdered.  He's a true freshman, and it's not like he was the hottest commodity around last year - Maryland landed him by outmaneuvering four MAC schools and Old Dominion.  In a year when 11 of 12 teams like their situation at quarterback, Maryland is bringing foam noodles to a gunfight.

-- Best receivers: Clemson
-- Worst receivers: Georgia Tech

Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins comprise one of the scariest tandems in the country.  With our secondary comprised of fresh-faced urchins, it is a GREAT year not to be playing Clemson.  As for GT, when you pretty much only ever have one receiver who does anything, and that guy graduates, you're kind of a shoo-in for this.  Most of the "worst" candidates at least have a quality second option returning to be the top gun this year (think Tobais Palmer, Michael Campanaro, Allen Hurns) but GT probably still doesn't know who's the best they got.

If it's any consolation for the Jackets, last year I put Wake in this spot and they replied with Chris Givens and Campanaro, and all Givens did was get himself drafted in like the third round or something.

-- Best running backs: Virginia
-- Worst running backs: Duke

Yes sir.  There are some better individual backs scattered around the league - Andre Ellington and Giovani Bernard come to mind - but nobody has a deeper stable of backs that they can rotate in and out and see wildly differing styles but no drop in production.  Duke, on the other hand, has seniors (Desmond Scott, specifically) that have never been productive and are at risk of being displaced by true freshmen.  I'm also not especially sold on what NC State and Wake Forest bring to the table.

-- Best offensive line: Georgia Tech
-- Worst offensive line: Wake Forest

I didn't even have to think about "worst" here.  There are a couple lines in the league that replace four starters (VT) but Wake is such a damn disaster it'll be a miracle if there are any rushing yards to speak of after the season.  As for "best," a tip of the cap to the lines at UNC and NC State, but Georgia Tech is the only team returning all five starters, and they're actually very good starters, particularly NFL candidate Omoregie Uzzi.  Another flip-flop from last year, when I had GT down as the worst.  They done proved me wrong.

By the way, if I were to split this up into "best tackles" and "best interior linemen", UVA would've won the tackles category hands down.  Nobody even comes close.  But you can't win best line with a big shuffle on the interior like that.

-- Best defensive line: Florida State
-- Worst defensive line: Duke

Apologies to the Hokies, but FSU is deep, nasty talented, and as a tiebreaking factor, mostly seniors.  Tech comes close here, but this one is FSU by a nose.  Brandon Jenkins is legitimate as hell, and the Noles run a three-man rotation at DT that's at times totally unstoppable.  Remember how Wake Forest upset FSU last season?  Not gonna happen this year, not matching up that O-line against this crew.

By the same token, BC is strongly in the running for the flip side of this coin, but when it comes down to it, Duke is who I'm least sold on.  The only player that flashes any ability to scare is Kenny Anunike, and that's mostly potential since he was hurt most of last year.  The rest of the line, to borrow the terminology I used in the Duke preview, is a turnstile.

-- Best linebackers: Virginia Tech
-- Worst linebackers: NC State

This comes with the caveat that Jeron Gouveia-Winslow needs to get his shit together and also stay healthy.  In 2010 he had the latter but not the former; in 2011, it was the reverse.  If he puts it together, Tech's got an excellent trio of linebackers.  Other schools in the running here, but several steps behind: BC, UVA, and, yup, Maryland.  NC State, on the other hand, has a bunch of noobs, and the always-worrisome fifth-year senior who's just now getting a chance to start and who played less last year than he did the year before.  That's a guy just waiting to have his spot yoinked.

-- Best secondary: NC State
-- Worst secondary: Boston College

Thank you, Eagles, for having a way-unsettled secondary without much star power in it and saving me from having to ignomiously dump UVA from best secondary last year to worst this year.  So many underclassmen.  Aiiieee.  The difference is that at least UVA has one position on lockdown with Tre Nicholson, and at BC it's a battle everywhere, and with a bunch of guys who didn't do very much last year.

The Wolfpack, on the other hand, have possibly the nation's best cornerback in David Amerson and a huge load of experience everywhere else.  That's a multitalented secondary, and it has to be because of the linebackers.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I skipped this part of the preview last year, because none of the coaches in the league were fixin' to be fired.  Except for Everett Withers, and that didn't count.  A year is long enough for seats to start warming on up, though.  First, here are the coaches that are perfectly safe:

-- Dabo Swinney: Winning an ACC title gives you a few years' reprieve.
-- Paul Johnson: Very popular, and not going anywhere for a little while.
-- Randy Edsall: Only because Maryland's broke ass can't afford to fire him.
-- Larry Fedora: Just hired.
-- Tom O'Brien: Getting a lot out of his team.
-- Mike London: Not going anywhere.
-- Frank Beamer: Could personally shoot the President and be allowed to coach the team from solitary confinement.
-- Jim Grobe: Probably gets to also write down his own retirement date.

That leaves four coaches who are under some pressure to produce:

4. David Cutcliffe: Probably not at much risk of being fired, since four and five win seasons at Duke are like ten win seasons anywhere else.  But you never quite know.
3. Al Golden: Only in his second year, so not so much for on-field performance, but if that report has any legs - that Miami's recruiting shenanigans continued on his watch - it might affect things a little.
2. Jimbo Fisher: This isn't to suggest that he's actually at major risk here.  But the natives will get restless if such a talented roster fails to win an ACC title.  That said, there's an enormous chasm between #2 and #1.
1. Frank Spaziani: BC has gone nothing but backwards on his watch and there's a feeling among Eagles fans that Spaz is leading them into a decade of irrelevance.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

For this section, scratch all game that are rivalries, because otherwise this list would just be a yearly list of the same old rivalry games.  Instead, here are the most compelling OOC matchups this year that aren't played all the time, and not in any order:

-- NC State vs. Tennessee
-- Clemson vs. Auburn: Two good chances for the ACC to notch a win over SEC squads.
-- Virginia vs. Penn State: Love a good ACC-Big Ten matchup.
-- Virginia at TCU: When we scheduled this - and played the home game - TCU was in the MWC.  Since then they've jumped from the MWC to the Big East to the Big 12.
-- Georgia Tech vs. BYU: Kind of random, but fun.
-- Maryland @ Temple: Hee hee.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

And now the part you've been waiting for: where I put my ass on the line with actual predictions.  I did pretty good last year, missed some, nailed others, but I'd especially like to point out that I was one of the few - if not only - savants who picked UVA to go to a bowl.  And even then I was underestimating the Hoos.  This year's prediction:

-- Orange: Florida State
-- ex-Peach: Clemson
-- ex-Tangerine: Virginia Tech
-- Sun: Georgia Tech
-- ex-Tire: NC State
-- Music City: Virginia
-- Independence: none
-- Military: none
-- Hunger: none

Rough year for the ACC?  Yep.  Just six bowl-eligible teams - not a good sign.  Keep in mind, UNC is banned from the postseason this year.  That bumps a few teams up a notch in the pecking order.  And I have, honestly, a really hard time seeing where the rest of these teams are gonna find six wins.  Even Miami.  That could be a four-win team this year.  If BC beats them, then the Eagles have the best chance of the other five teams to make a bowl.  Wake as well, but you're not gonna see both the Deacs and Eagles go bowling.  The schedules simply don't work in favor of the bad teams.  Either there'll be a colossal jumble this year, as usual, or the ACC will sort itself out into a pretty clear couple of tiers - one good, one bad.  I think it'll be the latter.  And in that case, the ACC will leave a lot of bowl slots unfilled.  Let's hope the Hoos are in the good section.


Now as promised: Senior Seasons.  High school football is underway, which knowing typical UVA luck, naturally means we've already got one of our commits hurt.  The North Carolina season started two weeks ago, with Keeon Johnson's A.L. Brown team getting off to a nice start, winning 44-0.  LaChaston Smith and South Iredell also won, but the bad news there was Smith's broken leg, which will keep him out half the season.

This past weekend's results are a little meatier:

Archbishop Moeller (OH) 35, Gilman 14: Lousy start for Gilman, but Micah Kiser at least had 9.5 tackles, not too shabby.  Gilman is 0-1.

Bishop Gorman (NV) 27, Good Counsel 22: Out-of-state games against bishop schools didn't go too well.  Brendan Marshall tried to rally the Falcons and threw for 182 yards, but came up short.  OLGC is 0-1.

A.L. Brown 62, South Rowan 6: Keeon Johnson didn't catch any touchdowns but he did throw one, a 53-yarder off a lateral.  It's not like they needed him to dominate.  Brown is 2-0.

Ocean Lakes 60, Tallwood 0: Corwin Cutler needed only the first half to rack up 300 passing yards and four TDs, and finished with five.  Told you I was interested to see this guy play.  Ocean Lakes is 1-0.

Bayside 28, First Colonial 3: A workmanlike 119 yards and 2 TDs for Smoke.  Bayside is 1-0.

Statesville 30, South Iredell 20 (LaChaston Smith - South Iredell is 1-1)
Byrnes (SC) 42, Oscar Smith 21 (Zack Jones - Oscar Smith is 0-1)
Potomac 28, Stafford 10 (Donta Wilkins - Potomac is 1-0)
Hermitage 38, FUMA 0 (Malcolm Cook - FUMA is 0-1)

So if you were getting yourself really excited for nationally televised high school football this weekend, and there was a lot of it involving our recruits, it didn't turn out so well.  Byrnes is one of the nation's elite teams, and Oscar Smith was totally outclassed.  I didn't watch any of these games, but folks who did said Gilman looked flatter than flat.  Only Good Counsel came even close to a win.

Next week, just about everyone is playing, and the Big Deal of the Week is Gilman's visit to Good Counsel in the first Hoo vs. Hoo matchup of the season. There are a couple more on tap later on.  Also of interest next week: Bayside vs. Salem and Bucky Hodges.


-- The depth chart came out today, and there are few, if any surprises.  We'll discuss tomorrow and Wednesday.

-- Speaking of surprises, how about our first 2014 commitment?  Chris Nelson is a former teammate of Demeitre Brim at Victory Christian in Florida, and in two years he'll sign with UVA.  Not going to add him to the Senior Seasons feature because it's called Senior Seasons for a reason.  But with 150 or so tackles as a sophomore, he promises to be a good one.  The only shame: now that he's committed, nobody will scout him and he'll just get some generic three-star rating.  Minor deal.

-- Don't forget that you're supposed to be reading my columns at Inside The ACC.  And I should probably be pimping them more than I am.  So here's the latest.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

preseason blogpoll ballot

It's finally that time - that time when I get to act like a bigshot because I vote in a poll.  Starting now, and every week til the end of the football season, Sunday is Blogpoll Day.  I have a vote in a poll which is comprised of football bloggers, and here is that vote for the preseason tally.  If it looks a little weird, read on for methodology:

Preseason polls tend to be half popularity contest and half dartboard, so a couple years ago I came up with a (slightly) better system.  Rather than flail around with a half-assed guess, I count each team's entries on the preaseason watch lists of 13 of the biggest positional awards.  These are:

Bednarik - best defensive player
Biletnikoff - best WR
Butkus - best LB
Groza - best kicker
Guy - best punter
Lombardi - best lineman/linebacker
Mackey - best TE
Maxwell - best overall
O'Brien - best QB
Outland - best lineman
Rimington - best center
Thorpe - best DB
Walker - best RB

Yes, some players might get counted two or three times, but generally those are linemen, football is won in the trenches, etc. etc.  Inevitable ties are broken first by eliminating the Ray Guy Award, because come on (for example, this is how FSU ended up ahead of LSU, and A&M ahead of Oregon - they did it without having to include their punter), and then by me making a SWAG.  The Maxwell and O'Brien awards are given double weight.

FWIW, teams just missing the cut - all of them tied with West Virginia, but West Virginia chosen as a reward for their big Orange Bowl win last year - are BYU, Illinois, Kansas State, and Pitt.

The Blogpoll encourages voters to strictly vote a team's resume during the season, and not vote as a prediction-type thing, or "ladder" teams, where you move up if you win and down if you lose and that's that.  Some people take that very literally and vote resume in Week 1, which results in weird ballots.  I usually ladder in the first couple weeks, include a few teams that had early big wins, and move to a strict resume system by about the third or fourth week.  So you know.


Blogschedulewise, this is it, man: game week rhythm starts NOW.  Tomorrow's post will be a two-parter: we start with an ACC roundup of sorts, similar to last year's, and then Senior Seasons, a regular Monday feature where I glean the newspapers and reports for updates on the high school seasons of our current commitments for 2013.

Tuesday and Wednesday during game week are whatever-I-want days, and Thursday is each week's game preview.  Friday and Saturday are offdays.  This week, Tuesday and Wednesday will contain my offense and defense previews.  I cheat by waiting til the depth chart and everything is out so I have less of a chance to look a fool.

season preview: Wake Forest Demon Deacons


9/1: Liberty
9/8: North Carolina
9/15: @ Florida State
9/22: Army
9/29: Duke
10/6: @ Maryland
10/13: @ Virginia
10/20: BYE
10/25: Clemson (Thu.)
11/3: Boston College
11/10: @ NC State
11/17: @ Notre Dame
11/24: Vanderbilt

Skip: Georgia Tech, Miami, Virginia Tech

Projected starters:

QB: Tanner Price (Jr.)
RB: Josh Harris (rJr.)
FB: Tommy Bohanan (Sr.)
WR: Michael Campanaro (rJr.)
WR: Terence Davis (5Sr.)
TE: Spencer Bishop (rJr.)
LT: Ramon Booi (5Sr.)
LG: Antonio Ford (rSo.)
C: Garrick Williams (5Sr.)
RG: Frank Souza (rJr.)
RT: Colin Summers (rSo.)

DE: Zach Thompson (rJr.)
NT: Nikita Whitlock (rJr.)
DE: Kris Redding (rJr.)
OLB: Joey Ehrmann (5Sr.)
ILB: Scott Betros (5Sr.)
ILB: Riley Haynes (5Sr.)
OLB: Zachary Allen (rSo.)
CB: Merrill Noel (rSo.)
CB: Kenny Okoro (5Sr.)
SS: Duran Lowe (rJr.)
FS: Daniel Mack (rJr.)

K: Jimmy Newman (Sr.)
P: Alexander Kinal (rFr.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: Jim Grobe (12th season)

Media prediction: 4th place, Atlantic Division


2011 1st team: WR Chris Givens, S Josh Bush
2011 2nd team: G Joe Looney, DT Nikita Whitlock
2011 HM: CB Merrill Noel
2012 preseason: DT Nikita Whitlock

(Italics indicate departed player.)

Last year, the Deacons surpassed a lot of expectations by getting to a bowl game after a two-year postseason absence.  They lost it, though, cementing their third straight losing season.  Jim Grobe is the program's best coach since the 1940's, but he's got precious little margin for error this season if he wants to avoid the longest losing-season streak in his tenure at Wake Forest.


Quarterback Tanner Price was a big part of the reason for Wake's better-than-expected season last year.  Price made a big development leap from his freshman year, and in 2011 was unspectacular but ruthlessly efficient.  In 422 pass attempts he was intercepted just six times, against 20 touchdown throws and a 60% completion rate.

Price lost his favorite target to the NFL, though.  Michael Campanaro will be the new #1 receiver for the Deacons, and he's an excellent player and more than capable of the job.  But he'll need some help the way he himself opened the door for Chris Givens last year.  The only other remotely experienced receive on the roster is senior Terence Davis, who only caught 20 passes last year - but five for touchdowns.  Wake also has zero tight ends who've ever caught a pass in a game.

The running backs are a big question mark with big potential.  Josh Harris has a penchant for busting off really, really big games, such as his 250-yarder against VT two years ago, or a 136-yard effort against Florida State last year.  In between, though, he goes MIA and fails to be a factor.  Harris is the top back this year, and Wake must get consistency out of him and more of those big games if they're going to pull off any upsets.  Orville Reynolds has a chance to be a nice change-of-pace back, and he'll get plenty of carries to ensure the Deacons aren't relying too heavily on Harris.

But then we get to the offensive line - the biggest headache by far for Grobe and his staff.  Garrick Williams provides the only measure of stability and predictability on this line, starting at center for the second year.  Beyond that - well, the starter predictions above are the biggest crapshoot of the year.  Wake has seen successive possible starters either leave the team or blow out an ACL as the offseason and fall camp have progressed, and the result is a wildly unpredictable mess.  Some of these guys (Ramon Booi, Frank Souza) are converted D-linemen, others are massively inexperienced.  Colin Summers is the only one with experience in the regular rotation, and that was at right guard.  Where he'll actually play is still a bit of a mystery.  Bottom line: I stand by none of those predictions, and will accept no blame if Wake ends the year with five players not even listed there.  This line is a mess.

Even with the consistency and talent that Price brings under center, this offense has too many question marks.  The offensive line will probably shuffle and shuffle again over the course of the season, and Wake fans are anxiously hoping Harris can finally break out of his shell and be the back they want him to be, rather than the one he is most of the time.  The possibilities for this group range from respectable to frighteningly bad.


Nikita Whitlock is an enigma: a 3-4 nose guard who weighs 260 pounds and yet is good enough to earn preseason all-ACC honors.  He's a disruptive player who led the team in TFL and sacks last year.  He's a bright spot on the line.  The rest of the line, though, is also woefully undersized, not as talented as Whitlock, and therefore woefully underproductive.  Zach Thompson played a full season as a DE starter last year and only earned half a sack.  Al Groh would look at this way undersized 3-4 line and go "UR DOIN IT WRONG" and he'd have a point: Wake has not been good at run defense since switching to the 3-4, and gets no pressure on opposing quarterbacks with only 11 sacks last year.

At ILB, Wake actually uses a three-man rotation and splits the snaps fairly evenly.  Scott Betros and Riley Haynes are nominally the starters, and both are fifth-year seniors with a load of experience.  Justin Jackson is the other member of the unit, and he's equally productive as the other two.  The stats of all three take a slight hit from the nature of the rotation, but all three are steady, solid players, though none will stand out either.  On the outside, Joey Ehrmann is just as steady as the inside backers, although you'd like to see some flashier stats from your OLBs in a 3-4.  Zach Allen played pretty well as a backup OLB in 2011 and is ready for the starting job.  Overall, you've got a Wake Forest linebacking unit that perfectly mirrors the image of the team: they get the job done, but they don't make headlines.

Sophomore cornerback Merrill Noel was the ACC DROY last season, and had a total of 21 passes defensed, so there are high hopes for his play this year.  Kenny Okoro won honors as a freshman, too, but since has struggled with his consistency.  Now a senior, Wake's expectations are that he and Noel will form one of the better cornerback tandems in the league.  At safety, though, the Deacs will be hard-pressed to replicate the success they had last year - the two departed starters were the team's tackle leader and INT leader.  Both Daniel Mack and Duran Lowe earned a fair amount of playing time last season, though, and so should at least be ready for the new responsibility.


Jimmy Newman should be a good, reliable option for the Deacons this season, as long as he overcomes the shanks he picked up at the tail end of last season.  Expect Alexander Kinal to take over punting duties sooner or later, as his leg is much stronger than that of previous starter Alex Wulfeck.


Ultimately, I guess I won't be surprised if Jim Grobe once again squeezes water from a rock and gets this team into a bowl game.  But I'll be less surprised if he can't.  The defense is adequate, but probably not good enough to stop a really good, focused offense.  The question is whether the scary-looking offensive line will ever open up any room for the offense to work.  Opposing defensive lines will be licking their chops at the chance to wreak some havoc.  And beyond that there's no guarantee that the running backs will strike fear into anyone, or that Tanner Price will have enough weapons at his disposal to be effective.  Wake will have to pull off at least one upset, and avoid being upset by anyone else, in order to get to the postseason again.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

the recruit: Corwin Cutler

Name: Corwin "Turtle" Cutler
Position: QB
Hometown: Virginia Beach
School: Ocean Lakes
Height: 6'3"
Weight: 180

24/7: 87; three stars; #25 pro-style QB; VA #19
ESPN: 82; four stars; #19 pro-style QB; VA #14; Atlantic #40
Rivals: 5.7; three stars; #25 pro-style QB; VA #22
Scout: three stars; #54 QB

Other offers: Connecticut, East Carolina, Marshall

I officially give up when it comes to guessing how many quarterbacks Mike London wants in any given class.  Just when it looks absolutely ripe to take one and only one, and Brendan Marshall is in the fold, another one comes down the pipe.  Fortunately, there's a plethora of quality nicknames coming out of the Tidewater area lately (Turtle, Big Cat, Smoke) and we seem to be in on that action pretty strongly.

Still - too many quarterbacks?  Actually, London just might know what he's doing in this case.  Corwin Cutler got offers from not a whole lot of places, and it didn't take him long to follow through with a commitment to the UVA one.  Shortly after his commitment, though, ESPN gave a knowing nod in London's direction and said: well played, indeed.  Their scouting report begins thusly: "This is a prospect that for whatever reason has flown under the radar throughout the process, but we believe Cutler is going to start seeing a lot more attention after the spring evaluation period. ... This guy should have a lot more offers."

ESPN is known for being more than occasionally divergent from the consensus opinion on a recruit, but that's an unusually blunt assessment.  They were confident enough in Cutler's abilities to rate him our best commitment until this Tuesday, when Taquan Mizzell jumped on board - above bonafide players like Tim Harris, Kirk Garner, and Micah Kiser.  And they might be onto something: Rivals' latest re-rank bumped Cutler upwards to high-three-star level, and 24/7's assessment of Cutler's performance at the New Level Athletics 7-on-7 tournament in New York, two months ago, was consistently higher than that of Mizzell.  High praise, given Smoke's own ratings.

This makes the upcoming high school season an interesting one.  Cutler definitely hit up the camp scene - his dad is involved in that in his own way, more on that in a bit.  He plays in the high-visibility 757, and Ocean Lakes was among the top teams in the district last year.  Even a middling three-star quarterback ought to have had offers, and now that the services have got a load of Turtle over the summer, they certainly like him better than "middling three star."  (Except Scout, which is so damn lazy and useless that they're listing Tech commit Parker Osterloh under our section.  Their lack of enthusiasm can be easily dismissed.)  Possibly all the quarterback attention in Virginia was being given to the "big three" of Hackenberg, Hodges, and Burns.  Regardless, now that Cutler's a UVA commit, folks will be watching this season, myself included.  And I'm very interested to see if Cutler will live up to the rankings.

Cutler could prove to be one of UVA's most important recruits in a while, though, and not just for what happens on the field.  All that rubbish from Hokies fans about a shadowy "Godfather" that steers players to UVA, and the supposed shadiness of the 757 Sports Academy (where Hampton Roads players train in the summer) really got the goat of a certain Carson Cutler - Corwin's father and a coach at the academy.  How can I put this delicately.... Carson was really, really pissed about that shit.  The PG version of his feelings was: "The rumors going around about being an AAU team and coaches being street agents are ridiculous and very unfortunate."  The not-so-PG version, as posted on the Wahoos247 board:

I feel its absolutely disgusting how people are taking shots at men they don't even know. ... I followed VT football because of past relationship[s] I had with past and present players. I used to have a lot of respect for what they have done with talent have gotten over the years but now I have lost all of respect for them and their fans .... Now you can take my words and twist it all you want to, I can and will be a HUGE supporter of Coach Mike London and his staff because of the man that he is and the word that he keeps with the parents and players, the only thing he promised me is that my son will get his degree. So all [you] ignorant ASS S.O.B that have been calling him "BLACK SANTA" (giving gifts to us funding our trips etc) is fucking crazzzy but you showed your true colors!!!!! And its not BLACK OR WHITE thing, it's just your arrogance in thinking that every kid should go to VT....

It goes on in that vein.  I did a little cleaning up for readability but that's basically the direct quote from the elder Cutler.  UVA's recruitment of the younger Cutler is the kind of thing that's giving Mike London powerful allies in the best recruiting grounds in the state, and the way Hokie fans react to it doesn't help the cause in Blacksburg.  Pissing off a group of people who see it as their mission to help football players find exposure for themselves, and ultimately, find homes in college somewhere, is How Not To Recruit 101, and the best part is, it's not like the VT coaches have much control over it.

Anyway.  The part where we discuss the future.  Turtle, obviously, finds a crowded depth chart.  London has all but declared Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns will redshirt, which means that the QB pipeline is being established and Cutler and Marshall will certainly get the same treatment.  Cutler won't play in 2014 either; Phillip Sims and David Watford will be seniors.  That sets up a battle in 2015, when Cutler is a redshirt sophomore and Lambert and Johns are redshirt juniors.  If the services are right about Cutler, he'll fend off Marshall, but it'll still be a major fight.  There's sure to be some twists between now and then, but it's still very likely to be several years before Turtle is truly on the radar for the starting job.  I don't pretend to know just what'll happen in a QB competition three months from now, let alone three years, but if Cutler is going to be the starting QB at UVA eventually, the window for that is 2015 to 2017 - the depth chart ahead of him may work out such that it's his fifth year before the job is truly his.


-- You know we finally got Smoke Mizzell, right?  You heard about that already.  I don't need to repeat incessantly that Mizzell committed to UVA this week.  Mizzell's commitment to UVA, in which he committed to UVA, was the first five-star commitment for the Hoos since Eugene Monroe.  Mizzell's commitment to UVA is bound to be a recruiting chip for the future as well, so I'm really glad Taquan Mizzell committed to UVA.

-- London and the coaches were surprisingly open about the depth chart this week - it was like bizzarro week in that respect, and certainly nice to hear something beyond the usual denials of ever even having heard of a "depth chart."  London promised the official real preseason depth chart would be out Monday, which got a lot of people assuming we'll know who the starting quarterback is.  Well, I'm pretty sure it'll be Rocco, but I still also think the Monday depth chart is gonna have a lot of "OR" in the QB section.

-- Besides that, some position changes were discussed: DE to TE for Rob Burns, WR to DB for Anthony Cooper, FB to DE for Trent Corney.  When that happens, if a true freshman is involved, it's code for "this guy's redshirting" although Corney could be a special teams guy.  Corney's getting something of an annoying legend built up around him, which Jeff White fed yesterday - annoying because this is the same kind of thing that happened with Keith Payne, who UVA fans were, in hindsight, wildly overrating and heaping just stupid expectations on.  That, and you just know that some of the folks who want to see him "blowing people up" this year are gonna be some of the same moaning about redshirting in a few years.  Truth is, he's just raw as all hell and probably needs that redshirt year.