Monday, August 31, 2015

2015 football preview: defense

The defense is both the source of most of the optimism and most of the pessimism surrounding this team. (Personnel-wise, that is; the notion that Mike London might, at any time, walk to the locker room at halftime with two timeouts in his pocket, having failed to score from the opponent's 35, accounts for a significant portion of the pessimism.)  Pessimism because a lot of really talented players departed; optimism, because the defense still has most of the best players on the team, and Jon Tenuta coaching them.

This last is why the scales should tilt toward the optimistic side.  There are a couple legitimate holy terrors on this defense, and some newcomers with the usual associated question marks, but also with a couple years of excellent coaching and experience in a scheme that works.  Starting with a rock-solid foundation at defensive tackle, this defense should keep the Hoos in most games.  I'm about as optimistic as you could ever be about a defense that loses five of its top six tacklers.


Starters: #34 Kwontie Moore, #55 David Dean, #9 Andrew Brown, #32 Mike Moore

Backups: #6 Darrious Carter, #56 Andre Miles-Redmond, #93 Donte Wilkins, #43 Trent Corney

This might be the top pairing of defensive tackles in the league.  That statement comes with two caveats: one, David Dean doesn't have the stats to back up that very bold statement, and two, it depends a great deal on Andrew Brown's development.  Nonetheless, it's out there.  Dean wasn't asked to destroy backfields last year because Eli Harold and Max Valles were doing a great job of that on their own.  But his talent has always been plain to see, and now in his senior year, he's expected to be knifing into the backfield with regularity.

Andrew Brown got a few chances to flash his five-star stuff last year, but nothing extensive; this year, his chance is for real.  How he performs will go a very long way toward determining the formations.  (That is, if he can't be kept off the field, Tenuta will feel very comfortable with a 4-2-5 nickel of four conventional linemen and two linebackers.  If Dean is the only consistently dependable DT, the nickel will be more 3-3-5ish, or else Mike Moore will move inside more often.)  He won't be doing it alone; you're not fully staffed at DT unless you've got three you can depend on, and Donte Wilkins rounds that out nicely.  Wilkins won't pile up the stats, but he can occupy the middle just fine and give Dean and Brown a breather.  Fourth tackle Andre Miles-Redmond will see a few snaps scattered around the season, but the bulk of the load and almost all the meaningful snaps will go to the top three.

End is a bit stranger of a situation.  Last year's most often-used formation was either a 4-2-5 or a 3-3-5, depending on what you called Max Valles.  The staff called him a linebacker.  Fine, but if it walks like a defensive end and quacks like a defensive end.... At any rate, Mike Moore was on the field most of the time, nickel formation or not, and playing either a real DE role or more of a three-tech DT.  This year I would guess the formations will be a bit more conventional, as the linebacking corps lacks a hyper-athlete suitable for playing with his hand on the ground.  Moore is therefore the only really experienced DE and likely to actually play that role in earnest this year.

The other options are a pair of seniors who came highly touted (in different ways) but have yet to make a major contribution.  Kwontie Moore was a four-star linebacker who damn well should've redshirted, didn't, grew out of the position, and has had to spend a while behind some unstoppable talents.  He's not going to play just because he's listed as a starter; he'll play as much as he shows he should.  Same for Trent Corney, another nonsensically burned redshirt whose toutedness was more about his exceptional athletic talents that have never translated into usable football skills.  If they do, Corney could remind everyone of Valles.

There won't be the fearsome pass rush that UVA featured last year.  There just won't.  There's no substitute for being able to bring a freak of nature to flank both sides of the line.  Mike Moore is a capable and sometimes dangerous player, but that's not the same as Eli Harold being a threat on every play.  Corney is the best chance at providing a big-time edge rush.  Otherwise, most of the pressure is going to come right up the middle.  Not kidding when I say Dean and Brown have a chance to be the top DT pair in the league, and there are some worthy players at that position in the ACC.  Depends on a thing or two, sure, but the chance is there all the same.


Starters: #59 Mark Hall, #53 Micah Kiser, #51 Zach Bradshaw

Backups: #27 Malcolm Cook, #22 Jahvoni Simmons, #15 C.J. Stalker

If you want to find most of the question marks on this defense, you've come to the right place.  That's no knock on the players above, it's just the natural thing when all your starters depart and said starters were some of the best players of the position in recent memory.  Henry Coley and Daquan Romero, plus Valles in his Darryl Blackstock role, gave UVA a linebacking corps that Al Groh would've been thrilled with.

That's the past, though.  How to replace them is the thing.  By all accounts, Micah Kiser is ready for the job in the middle.  A highly-ranked recruit a couple years ago, Kiser has been apprenticing for this role ever since, and expectations are high.  He's not likely to play at the level of senior-year Coley, but he's ready.  Zach Bradshaw, too, has been touted as a ready replacement on the weak side.

They'd better be up for it.  The answer behind them is: nobody, until you dip into the ranks of the true freshmen.  Bradshaw will be getting a very hard push from behind, because C.J. Stalker was an early enrollee this past spring, and has been getting more press than the usual true freshman this fall.  Stalker isn't likely to redshirt.  Neither is Jahvoni Simmons.  The freshman class of linebackers was so deep that there's no way London can resist using some of them, and frankly it might even make sense to.

That leaves the strong side, which was technically what Valles played.  Mark Hall is more of a traditional-mold linebacker, capable probably of taking on a tight end's downfield block but unlikely to play a pass-rush-terror role.  His backup, at least coming out of the spring, is Malcolm Cook, who weighs 205 pounds.  Cook is not a linebacker, he's a moonlighting safety, to be used if the coaches decide the nickel package calls for a third safety rather than a cornerback.  Hall might be listed as a starter for the majority of the games, but I expect his snaps to be much more limited than for his compatriots.

Frankly, the productivity of this unit isn't going to be what we were used to these past couple years.  It's unrealistic to expect Kiser, Bradshaw, and a bunch of true freshmen to jump right in with the instincts that Coley and Romero had developed.  There's reason to believe in the future, though, and reason as well to believe that future might arrive in a couple months rather than a couple years.


Starters: #1 Demetrious Nicholson, #26 Maurice Canady, #38 Kelvin Rainey, #3 Quin Blanding

Backups: #5 Tim Harris, #11 Divante Walker, #28 Wil Wahee, #16 Mason Thomas

As with defensive tackles, you've got a hole in your depth chart if you don't have three cornerbacks.  And as with defensive tackles, UVA has three starter-quality guys all lined up.  The return of Demetrious Nicholson after a medical redshirt season is a tremendously welcome development.  Nicholson spent the first half of last year rehabbing from injury, gave it a shot, and was obviously unready.  In one of the better redshirt decisions this staff has made, they decided a full year of rehab and then a full year of healthy football was a better option than trying to work out on a bum wheel.

It's a safe bet, therefore, that he, Canady, and Tim Harris will all be on the field at the same time for a lot of snaps.  Harris is probably the odd man out (most of the time) in more traditional formations, but he'll play basically starter's snaps anyway.  And he should be ready to take a big step forward; he's been working his way toward a big-time role for a couple years now.  Along with fourth corner Divante Walker, who proved a solid option as a backup last year, the cornerback unit is a veteran bunch and top-to-bottom the strongest position on the team.

But they don't have the best player on the team.  That's Quin Blanding and there's no argument.  Only a sophomore, Blanding had a brilliant debut last year.  There's an old heuristic that says if your safeties have the most tackles on the team, your defense sucks.  But you can flip that on its head when the defense is among the best in the country at basic defense stuff like stopping the run.  Then when your safeties lead the team in tackles, that means you have really frickin' good safeties.  Not only did Blanding lead the team by a lot, he was 3rd in the whole damn conference.

His partner in crime, Anthony Harris, has graduated, so UVA promotes Kelvin Rainey to the starting strong safety spot.  It's hard to get a read on how he looked last year because Blanding and Harris rarely left the field.  I don't recall any major screw-ups, which is nice, but he didn't have much chance to.  Rainey is a downgrade from Harris for sure, but that's in the same vein as the linebackers; you just can't immediately and seamlessly replace players that good.

Like last year, though, I don't expect to see much of the backups.  Blanding is going to be on the field for every snap that might remotely affect the outcome of a game.  On the other hand, Wil Wahee could push Rainey, and the more you see him the more you'll know the coaches are having some indecision.  Safeties doesn't need to be rotated the way, say, DTs do.

Blanding alone would make the secondary something for opposing QBs to worry about, but they'll also have those excellent cornerbacks to worry about.  If there's anything resembling a pass rush, it'll be an exponential help to the turnover numbers, and Blanding is like having an extra linebacker and running a 4-4-4 defense.


Here's the individual prediction for every scholarship defender on the roster:

#1 - CB Demetrious Nicholson - Assuming he's healthy, and nobody's ever said he isn't, he's top cornerback dog again by mid-October.  Probably takes him a few games to really get back up to speed.

#2 - CB Kirk Garner - Hasn't yet caught up to Divante Walker on the depth chart, which is ominous even though Walker is a year older.  As the fifth cornerback in the pecking order, will play sporadically.

#3 - FS Quin Blanding - Tackles leader again, probably with even more than last year's total of 123.  Will play every snap unless the game is out of reach one way or the other.  First-team all-ACC is the goal here - I don't see two other better safeties in the league.

#5 - CB Tim Harris - Third cornerback, which still means basically starters' reps.  He needs to get plenty of looks this year because it's his turn next year to draw all the top assignments.

#6 - DE Darrious Carter - His height could give him an edge on Chris Peace as they battle to pick up the scraps of the reps at DE.  Those scraps usually come on passing downs where you need someone fresh to just rip it after the QB.  I don't think we'll see a lot of Carter, but somewhere along the line he'll do something that keeps him fresh in a lot of minds, similar to Thompson Brown's moment of glory against Miami.

#7 - CB Kareem Gibson - Redshirt if all we're talking about is defense, but just watch him make two special teams tackles this year and cause gnashing of teeth over the redshirt policy.

#9 - DT Andrew Brown - Breakout season the same way his classmate Blanding opened eyes last year.  Brown is going to get a lot of chances early as teams decide David Dean is the one they should be double-teaming.  He'll make someone pay for it.  Nose tackles don't usually have eye-popping numbers, so maybe I should back off a skosh on the breakout season stuff (national media needs to see stats or they don't care) but he's ready to be a force this year.

#11 - CB Divante Walker - He'll be visible.  Admittedly, that doesn't sound like a lot, but he's the clear fourth cornerback, which means he'll get quite a bit more playing time than the guys below him on the depth chart, and quite a bit less than the guys above.  Don't expect a major impact; if he just keeps receivers in front of him we'll be happy and declare him ready to move up the ladder next year.

#13 - CB Myles Robinson - Redshirt, with the same special teams caveat we give all of London's freshman "don't quite know where we'll put you yet but sign here anyway" athletes.

#15 - LB C.J. Stalker - Stalker will play.  I know, trading his best year for his worst.  We hardly have a choice.  The roster doesn't have six non-true-freshman linebackers.  The guy listed behind Stalker on the post-spring depth chart was Jordan Jackson, who left the team.  Those aren't likely to be unrelated developments.  Truth is, the competition at WLB probably isn't over, and may not be for a few games.

#16 - S Mason Thomas - Is backing up Blanding, therefore garbage time only.  Special teamer most of the time.

#21 - FS Juan Thornhill - Redshirt, plus usual caveat.  Won't see any time on defense.

#22 - LB Jahvoni Simmons - See Stalker, except that the tea leaves suggest Micah Kiser has a stronger grip on the MLB job, which doesn't give Simmons as much room to operate.  Still, he's not redshirting.

#26 - CB Maurice Canady - Will probably lead the team in interceptions, unless Blanding does.  He's the most physical of the three starting corners, in contrast to Nicholson's rather technical game, which means Nicholson will generally cover the most dangerous receivers while Canady takes the slot guys and operates closer to the middle of the field.

#27 - LB Malcolm Cook - And by LB we really mean safety that plays closer to the line.  I think the position switch is ominous.  After he was hyped as all that and a bag of chips, as a safety he should've been able to pass the oft-injured Wil Wahee.  Now he's moved to a position where there are way more talented freshmen than you'd expect.  I could be wrong.  Could be the coaches plan on using him as a third safety in a three-safety nickel package.  But Canady can do that pretty well, if you're looking for run support, and has more experience and better cover skills besides.  The opinions I've seen seem to think Cook is going to be used heavily.  I'm preparing to eat the ol' crow dinner, but I believe otherwise.

#28 - SS Wilfred Wahee - Backup strong safety for now, and if Rainey pans out he'll stay that way.  But along with WLB this is one of the more open positions on the defense, and Wahee should be at least as visible as Divante Walker.

#29 - LB Eric Gallon - Redshirt with usual caveat.

#30 - LB Dominic Sheppard - Let's say 50/50 chance he plays, and on defense too.  But he's at best a clear third in the freshman-LB pecking order.

#31 - DE Chris Peace - To be honest I think Peace is on his way to bulking up more and becoming more of a strongside DE like Mike Moore.  He's fairly short and unless he's just super-lightning-quick he'll be overwhelmed by most OTs.  Probably going to see him only sporadically, as I don't think he's fully physically developed into the player the coaches have in mind.

#32 - DE Mike Moore - Has dropped 10 or so pounds, a sign the coaches want him to play actual DE and not the tackle-ish role he played in the past.  Not going to match Eli Harold's production, but still the likely sack leader on the team.

#34 - DE Kwontie Moore - All the way up to 280 pounds, he's going to take that job that Mike Moore was doing in the past.  Ideally can be a run-stopping anchor on one side of the line, but I have no idea how much he'll actually play because nobody outside the coaches has much idea if he's really - finally - ready to contribute.

#36 - LB Gladimir Paul - Redshirt + caveat.

#38 - SS Kelvin Rainey - Has huge shoes to fill, and if you think that means matching Anthony Harris's production then he hasn't a prayer.  But you would be piling on unreasonable expectations.  Rainey should be just fine; even with a push from Wahee and maybe even Cook, I expect him to hold down the job just fine.

#39 - CB Darious Latimore - Sixth cornerback, redshirt freshman - garbage time only.

#43 - DE Trent Corney - He'll play more snaps this year than his previous three years combined, and while he won't be a complete monster, he'll do just enough that his burnt redshirt alone is enough for a fresh run on the goods at Charlottesville Torch & Pitchfork.

#47 - LB Tucker Gamble - Likely to be passed up by the newly-arrived freshman class.

#51 - LB Zach Bradshaw - Will dogfight with C.J. Stalker to hold down the WLB spot.  I'm not fool enough to try and handicap that race, because I could easily see a platoon lasting all season.  I could just as easily see one or the other clearly pulling ahead.

#53 - LB Micah Kiser - On the other hand, I think Kiser becomes a fixture, and the leading tackler not named Blanding.

#54 - LB Cory Jones - Hard to see where his role is this year.  His best shot is in a Valles-like role, but we'd've heard by now if he was making any noise along those lines.  Very few snaps available.

#55 - DT David Dean - For UVA's defense to be at its best, Dean can't just occupy blockers, he needs to be able to slash and rip past them.  He's the marquee player in the front seven and has to play like it.  Has a respectable chance at first-team all-ACC, especially if Brown blows up too, though the competition is reasonably strong.

#56 - DT Andre Miles-Redmond - He's the fourth DT, so there is some playing time available.  He got into all of two games last year; he won't be an every-game player but he'll see more than two.

#57 - DT James Trucilla - Redshirt, and no caveat even.

#58 - DT Eli Hanback - Ditto.

#59 - LB Mark Hall - "Starting strong-side linebacker" doesn't mean what it means on most teams.  Hall is likely to be a running-down player and be the first guy off the field on passing downs.  He'll play and be visible, but he'll play less than some so-called backups.

#93 - DT Donte Wilkins - Third DT who will play about half as much as Brown and Dean.  He'll be a regular and a solid one, though unlikely to set off fireworks.

#94 - DE Naji Abdullah - Redshirt.

#96 - DE Steven Wright - Ditto.

That's a wrap on the season preview.  This week there'll be a UCLA preview, and I do have a full-blown ACC preview cooking, but it'll have to wait til next week.

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.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

identity crisis

Football season is underway.  Could you tell?  Probably not from inside a UVA bubble.  There's little excitement, little buzz, and little attention being paid to the Hoos by anyone outside the state.  When attention is paid, it's almost always to the proverbial hot seat under Mike London's proverbial posterior.  UVA fans weren't alone in being incredulous that London was kept around after last season.  Grantland calls it "the utterly baffling phenomenon that is his continued employment by the Commonwealth of Virginia" as the grand finale to their hot-seat preview.  The only other theme you ever really see is "tough schedule"; ESPN's ACC power rankings have UVA 12th out of 14, on the premise of "gee, this team is talented but that schedule is so hard."  This more or less ignores their own player rankings which gave UVA exactly one player in the nation's top 100 and ACC's top 25.  (Quin Blanding.)

The truth is the schedule isn't that hard.  Sure, the nonconference schedule isn't piled high with weenies.  It's basically Three Men and a Baby William & Mary.  It's also two-thirds ACC.  The Coastal Conference is the most milquetoast division in all of college football.  If you think the conference schedule is overly challenging, there's a saying about suckers at the poker table, which applies here.

Sooner or later, and probably sooner but I've been burned by that assumption before, I'll write the obit for the London regime.  It'll say the words quarterbacks about a hundred times.  The list of things London has mismanaged is long and distinguished and - here's the scary part - mostly unfixable this year.  He could address a few things, like the crappy special teams and his nonsensical clock management, but truly fixing them - no, that would take a couple years.  In some cases because the issues are structural and in some cases because we need a couple years of evidence to call them fixed.

There is one place he can make tangible progress, though.  Besides winning, there's one absolutely huge, glaring difference between the football team and the other major programs at this school: Identity.  Basketball, baseball, lacrosse, you've seen what they've built and the reputations they have.  A program's identity and its relationship to success is a little bit of a chicken-or-egg question, but a coach has gotta know what he stands for, and I don't mean getting his players to go to class.  That's what drives your recruiting and your teaching and your coaching.

I know Mike London is a man of character and he wants his players to be great guys and hard-working and all that, but that's not really it.  That doesn't translate into coaching and to the extent that it's translated into recruiting, it hasn't driven the on-field direction of the team.  Tony Bennett recruits players of tremendous character, not just for the sake of it but because his incredibly successful system requires a ton of selflessness and trust in your teammates.  Brian O'Connor recruits only college-enthusiastic players because it means he doesn't have to sweat out the draft and because they see Omaha as more than just a place where scouts gather.

What's Mike London's philosophy?  Best I can tell, it's that athletes and speed make a football team and you can recruit a bunch of them and mold them into football players.  Besides the obvious roster-management problems with this (essentially, these guys can only play three positions - WR, CB, S) it's sort of telling: even the one thing that London can be said to be consistent about is essentially a scattershot lottery.  Take a decent-looking athlete and hope he develops.  Trent Corney has for years now tantalized with his immense raw talent, and played almost never.

There are hopeful glimmers.  They're not likely to be enough to save the regime, but they're out there, and all on defense, where the one truly credible name on the coaching staff resides.  In just a couple short years Jon Tenuta has established his identity on his side of the ball, and you saw it emerge last year.  Offense is a so-far hopeless cause; it's just kind of there and the coaches are still talking about changing its aims and goals.  Now we want to be a power-running team, right after spending years neglecting O-line recruiting.  That should work.  Defense, though, is Tenuta's blitzy-blitz scheme and his disruption, and you can actually tell what he's trying to do.

This is the challenge that awaits the football team this year: On offense, start developing some kind of identity.  Most successful football teams are known by what they do on offense.  If they're going to put their chips on the power running game, that means they can't go out to Pasadena and start going all screen-happy again.  The defense has to be able to keep up this year what they did last year, with almost entirely new front-seven personnel.

If London, Tenuta, and Steve Fairchild are successful in finally moving the football team toward a defined plan, an identity, a meaning, then they'll probably be at least somewhat successful in the one metric that matters, and they just might keep their jobs.  If they can't, they won't get another chance.

Monday, August 3, 2015

off the deep end

First, it's time to put on your voting hats.  UVA finished its most successful season ever, with six ACC titles (most in the league) and three national titles (also far most in the league) and the Capital One Cup in men's sports.  Virginia athletes competed in the U.S. Open, the FIFA Women's World Cup, the FINA world championships.  They brought home individual national championships and individual ACC championships to go along with the team ones.  They rewrote the school record book.  They won trophies for being the top athlete in the country, the top scholar in the conference, the top tournament performer, there were multiple ACC Freshmen of the Year, there were more all-Americans than you can count on your hands.

Now all you have to do is decide the Cavalier of the Year.  It's the strongest field I can think of.  You get one vote.  Use it wisely.  To help you with that, here's the list of candidates, with links to their nomination profiles:

Eric Bird
Quin Blanding
Morgan Brian
Malcolm Brogdon
Denny McCarthy
Josh Sborz
Ryan Shane
Leah Smith
Nick Sulzer
Courtney Swan
Tara Vittese
Jordan Young

Voting lasts for two weeks.  Enjoy.


Back to the music.  It's August, and that means football preseason.  In the past that's meant full-blown ACC previews, but this year I'm backing off.  Much of that work will still be done behind the scenes so I can still put out an abbreviated preview.  August will still be pretty much football preview month, though, just, differently.

Today we're gonna start with the roster turnover.  Not the graduating seniors or the incoming freshmen - we're talking attrition and transfers.  And then I'll digress into a bit of a recruiting diatribe because it's such an easy target.

Anyway.  Best I can tell, the list of non-senior losses looks like this:

Greyson Lambert
David Watford
Eli Harold
Max Valles
Darius Lee
George Adeosun
Mario Nixon
Dominique Terrell
Jamil Kamara
Michael Biesemier
Jordan Jackson
Caanan Brown

The last three - all front-seven defensive players - would've been redshirt freshmen and simply don't appear on the roster; there is no Googlable article on their departure nor any mention on the official site.  Would any have played a major role this year?  Rather unlikely.  It's basically three lost lottery tickets and a year each of developmental depth.

That's a ton of attrition, though.  13 players, two of which left early for the league.  Also two quarterbacks, which is not helpful.  Two names that were once-promising receiver talent and never lived up to the hype.  A couple medical scholarships.  It's a combination of factors, but successful programs do not see that much attrition.  If there's a coaching transition this winter, UVA could see that kind of attrition again.

To the staff's credit, though, they were very, very active on the transfer market, plugging quite a few holes with veterans.  Again, this is not that healthy.  Football is not basketball; it's very, very rare to find an Anthony Gill on the transfer market.  Successful programs generally don't see that much in-and-out in from transfers.  It's mostly guys who didn't pan out at their first choices.  Nevertheless, under the circumstances it's remarkable work by the staff.  Just about everyone should play a visible role, and a very important one.  UVA's free-agent acquisitions, alphabetically:

-- QB Connor Brewer.  Really intriguing pickup here.  And badly needed, too, after losing Greyson Lambert.  Brewer was a highly-coveted four-star recruit who originally picked Texas.  Big-time stuff.  After one redshirt year, his OC left and the Longhorns recruited over him, and he used a year of eligibility to transfer close to home to Arizona.  It was kind of a poor choice, career-wise - Brewer isn't a runner, but he transferred right into the Rich Rodriguez spread, where he naturally spent two years on the bench.  Having graduated from Arizona, he's eligible to play right now with two seasons left on his clock.  UVA was looking at having three quarterbacks and Matt Johns being the only one with any experience.  Johns enters camp as the starter, and Brewer really doesn't have any game experience to speak of either, but at the very worst he can enter a three-way competition for the backup job.  That itself is pretty crucial.

-- TE Charlie Hopkins.  Hopkins graduated from Stanford and is eligible right away for one season.  Tight end was looking just as desperate as quarterback, and Hopkins, though lightly-used as a receiver, does have a fair amount of game time under his belt.  The TE situation was as follows: one little-used converted DE, one never-used converted QB, and three freshmen (one redshirt.)  Hopkins should step right in and be a heavy contributor.

-- RB Albert Reid.  Thanks to an injury waiver and a degree in hand from Maryland, Reid is immediately eligible as well for two seasons.  Taquan Mizzell is the heir apparent at RB, but he still has a metric ton to prove, and other than him there's, again, precious little experience.  Reid has a solid resume from his time in College Park and really upgrades the competition.

-- WR T.J. Thorpe.  A really intriguing player.  Wide receiver really wasn't in need of much of a boost (that changed somewhat with Doni Dowling likely out for a while, but Thorpe was brought in before that happened) but even so, Thorpe has exciting possibilities.  He's instantly the fastest guy on the team; his lightning-quick feet set kick return records as a freshman at North Carolina, but his career has been hampered by injury and he never really got far off the ground as a regular WR.  This is definitely a boom-or-bust acquisition.  It's not hard to believe Thorpe could go for 1,000 yards and just light up ACC defenses.  He has that potential.  He could also break his foot again or something.  It'd be a huge shame, but at least, if that happens, UVA has the depth to absorb the loss.  If one of these other guys turns out to be a dud, the position can't really handle the disappointment.  With Thorpe, there's nothing but upside.

Those depth chart issues are the source of a lot of London angst.  UVA is overloaded in some places and badly undermanned in others.  His backers like to argue it's just a lot of bad luck.  The incoming 2016 recruiting class says otherwise.  A quick count of the 20 players so far:

-- 1 quarterback.  Fine.  Take one every year, I'll never complain.
-- 1 running back.  Also fine, as none graduate this year.
-- 0 fullbacks.  Not helpful for a coaching staff claiming to want to establish a power running game.
-- 2 tight ends.  Fine.  Two graduate this year, the position will at least have bodies if not much experience.
-- 3 OL.  It was four, but one dude was basically placeholding in case he didn't get other offers.  Replace him and I'm OK with the numbers.  They'll need four more again next year, and four the year after that, and maybe the year after that too, but chances are a non-crazy coaching staff will be making those decisions.
-- 0 defensive tackles.  Unhelpful.
-- 1 defensive end.
-- 1 linebacker.  Normally not enough of either, but the staff went apeshit last year, so piling up at these positions would be wasteful.  They need to spread out the huge glob they created, though.

This amount of players does not remotely fill out a team.  Good thing, then, that the staff has chosen to pile on eleven WR/DB types!

There's a bit of a necessity at safety.  Cornerback technically needs two starters but in real life needs three, so you can pile up a bit there.  A bit.  Then again I also count six players likely slated for wide receiver.  At least you can't say these guys are afraid of competition.

When Tom O'Brien was brought in, word was that he immediately convinced Mike London the O-line needed more bodies, and recruited some.  When he left, it was whispered he ended up not doing much.  I wonder if the first impression wasn't correct and maybe he was providing some adult supervision after all.  The 20-man recruiting class currently has 11 WR/DBs and 9 of everything else.  That is completely insane.  I can't tell whether London's philosophy is to fill the team with athletes or just if he sees a shiny object at a camp and can't help but offer.  Either way, what he's doing is bizarre.

There'll probably be a decommitment or two.  It's damn near inevitable.  That means I'm probably overreacting and the final result will be rather less crazy.  Maybe.  The real point is - as much as I like the transfers we've brought in, London is making damn good and sure we'll need plenty more in the future.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

FOV Cavalier of the Year #11/#12

From Old Virginia celebrates its birthday (a bit late this year) in a unique way: by recognizing one of Virginia's student-athletes as the Cavalier of the Year. What are the criteria for the award? You decide; that's the beauty. I nominate the 12 athletes that I think have been the most outstanding during the latest season of UVA athletics, and provide a short summary of their accomplishments. You choose the winner in a poll that goes up after all 12 have had their moment in the spotlight. The full list of nominees is here.

 Over the next few weeks, two athletes at a time will be profiled, and you'll hear about what they've accomplished while representing Mr. Jefferson's University this year. The athletes are presented in a totally random order so as to hopefully not imply any endorsement one way or another. Athletes from all fields are considered; the point is to emphasize that UVA is about excellence across the entire department and doesn't shortchange its so-called non-revenue sports simply because they don't make headlines. Today's athletes: Eric Bird and Jordan Young.

Eric Bird - Men's soccer - Midfield

Team accomplishments:

-- National champions
-- Record 34th straight NCAA tournament appearance

Personal accomplishments:

-- NSCAA 2nd-team all-American
-- 1st-team all-ACC
-- Team leader in goals, points
-- 2nd-round selection in MLS SuperDraft
-- Preseason Herrman Trophy watch list
-- ACC all-academic team (2nd selection)

Maybe we should be rooting extra-hard for men's soccer.  In each of the last six seasons, a UVA team has won a national title in all but one of them.  In two of those years, the Hoos brought home more than one title; both years, men's soccer was the first.

The Hoos' run to - and through - the College Cup was a chip right off the old Tony Bennett block.  Defense, defense, defense, so much so that the College Cup announcers ripped the tactics every chance they got.  Eff 'em.  These tactics, plus a season that was at best, pretty good, left little chance for statistical stardom; Bird's team-leading goal total was just five, the lowest total for a team leader in forever.  Bird also missed most of the NCAA tournament with a groin injury.  This team didn't have much firepower.

Nevertheless, Bird was an all-American anyway, for the second year in a row.  And for the second year in a row, team captain and all-academic student.  And it was just getting here that was hard enough; Bird's first two seasons were effectively wasted by a severe knee injury that saw two torn ligaments and over a year of rehab.  From being held up on crutches to holding up both a team and a trophy, that's one hell of a journey.

Jordan Young - Men's track and field - Throws

Team accomplishments:

-- 2nd place at ACC meet
-- 17th place at NCAA championships
-- 5th place in USTFCCCA program standings

Personal accomplishments:

-- 6th-place finish in discus (1st-team all-American)
-- 7th-place finish in hammer throw (1st-team all-American)
-- 10th-place finish in shot put (2nd-team all-American)
-- Only male athlete to qualify for three individual events at NCAAs
-- ACC meet Field MVP
-- Set school records in hammer throw and weight throw

Quietly, the men's track and field program is, pardon the pun, making strides.  Good things are happening.  This small revolution is being led by guys who chuck heavy things as far as they can.  Jordan Young has some competition in the form of fellow sophomore Filip Mihaljevic.  Both are changing the school record books, and both look like really strong candidates for the Rio Olympics next year; Young for Canada, Mihaljevic for Croatia.

For now, Young is the more accomplished of the two.  He was the only athlete in the country to qualify for three individual events at the NCAAs, and he finished as an all-American in all three.  That combined with his trophy for Field MVP at the ACCs firmly establishes him as the conference's top thrower.  Only a sophomore, it's likely that what Young is doing now, impressive as it is, is only a precursor to much greater things.