Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Virginia Season Preview: Can Mike London Turn UVA Around?

Virginia enters a new era with first year head coach Mike London taking over the program after leading Richmond to a FCS title two years ago.

ACC fans will see a new offense, new defense, and a new attitude in Charlottesville. To get a better look at UVA I contacted From Old Virginia for their take on the Cavaliers this season.

Q: How has the hiring of former UVA assistant Mike London been received?

A: With something just shy of euphoria. Some are pleased to have a name they already knew and trusted and who "knows how to win at Virginia." I don't buy this much, since these same people are usually some of Al Groh's loudest critics, and it's almost like they forgot who London served as DC under.

Some see AD Craig Littlepage's track record of hiring younger, talented coaches (O'Connor for baseball, Vigilante for track, etc.) who've conducted remarkable turnarounds, and see the same in London.

Nearly everyone loves his creativity and improved focus on recruiting the state of Virginia. Many different reasons, but what it boils down to is that it couldn't be plainer that everyone in the UVA fan base has found something to love in Mike London. He'll have an extensive grace period to work with.

Q: Virginia really struggled on offense last year. What kind of system is London going to implement?

A: London has ditched the spread offense almost entirely and is working with a pro-style (whatever that means to you) offense, spearheaded by Bill Lazor, whose experience is almost entirely in the NFL ranks. No more five-receiver sets and plenty of two-back and two-TE formations to replace them.

Q: Is Marc Verica the starter at QB or could a dark horse emerge?

A: Verica hasn't locked down the job yet, but he holds the lead going into fall camp. If the offense sputters and the team falls out of contention early, he'll probably be replaced, but I fully expect Verica to be under center on September 4.

Q: The skill positions were really lacking in game breaking ability last year. Is there a back or receiver who can step up this year?

A: We know almost nothing about our running backs. None of them have been a regular starter at the college level, and frankly the upperclassmen have already shown what they are, and there is not a game breaker.

Most of them appear to have the ability. Groh used to rave about Torrey Mack but unfortunately he couldn't pass-block well enough to stay in the lineup last year.

Dominique Wallace looked promising in 2009 until he broke his foot. K.P. Parks had a stellar high school career but will be a true freshman. Someone should be able to step up, but we don't know who yet.

As for the receivers, if anyone is going to break out it'll have to be Tim Smith. Kris Burd is a solid, quality pass catcher but not a #1 guy. The only one with that ability is Smith. He'll be one of the single most important players on the team this year that makes or breaks the season.

Q: One area UVA has usually been strong is the offensive line. How does this unit look heading into fall?

A: Like a huge question mark, and young. Starting center Jack Shields quit football in the spring, leaving us with an open spot right in the middle.

There is also a new starting right tackle in sophomore Oday Aboushi and the left tackle spot is still really shaky, as it was all last year - shaky enough that if he's in shape and ready to go, you could see true freshman Morgan Moses manning the spot by the end of the year.

Of the 16 scholarship linemen on the roster, 11 are underclassmen. Any assessment of the offense has to begin and end with "if the offensive line."

Q: London has a defensive background and is switching from Al Groh's 3-4 to a 4-3. Which players does this benefit the most? Where could the transition cause issues?

A: I think the two guys who'll get the biggest boost are DE Cam Johnson and MLB Steve Greer. Johnson has always been a little bit of a man without a position: too small to play DE in the 3-4 and too big for the every-down OLB responsibilities.

Groh was a huge Cam Johnson fan and tried to get him on the field, but mostly as a pass-rushing OLB. At DE in the 4-3, Johnson can better use his freakish athleticism and be an every-down player; he's already used to playing with a hand on the ground.

Greer is not a big guy, but he's a really smart one and he'll flourish in the middle without having to take the play-after-play beating that a 3-4 ILB has to take.

As you might expect, switching to the 4-3 means suddenly you don't have enough linemen, and the main deal is we really don't have a proper DT on the roster, especially a three-technique guy. That will be completely new.

Right now the DT corps is almost entirely made up of former DE's moved inside, along with a couple NTs who have to get used to doing something other than just clogging up the middle.

My biggest concern, though, is that London has moved a lot of players a slot closer to the line of scrimmage in an effort to make the defense faster as a whole. This is in keeping with what London wants to do on defense but the nasty side effect is a secondary that's absurdly thin.

One or two injuries, that's all it'll take and walk-ons are going to start making appearances on the depth chart.

Q: Virginia has not recruited well the past few seasons and it showed last year. How is London changing the recruiting style to close the gap in the state of Virginia?

A: Well hey now. I wouldn't say we've done that badly. The '09 and '07 classes were really solid. Seems like even years have been pretty weak though…disastrous, maybe even.

But London has had a lot of work to do in the state. Groh could be pretty prickly, and London & Pals hit the road hard early in the year to sell the new and improved UVA to high school coaches around the state. And in DC and Maryland, too, London sees those areas as "in-state" for recruiting purposes.

Then there was that open scrimmage at ODU that had VT fans a little bit green with envy that Beamer didn't think of that first. The results have been that out of 19 recruits that have given their commitment to London for 2011 (two more committed earlier to Groh), all but one are from VA, DC, or MD - and that one is the most recent, from Pittsburgh.

Q: Who are some freshman that could see significant playing time this season?

A: First, if Verica falters in fall camp or if he loses the job mid season, it'll be a freshman stepping in - most likely either red shirt Ross Metheny or true frosh and early enrollee Michael Strauss.

Running back is a fantastic opportunity for a freshman right now, with the aforementioned Wallace (RS) and Parks (true) likely to see carries. Morgan Moses might well have the talent (though we'll see about the conditioning and polish) to play left tackle right now.

RS freshman Jeremiah Mathis came out of the spring listed on the two-deep at DE - if he stays there, he definitely gets his share of snaps, and the DT lineup is thin enough that Brent Urban ought to get time as well.

Q: How do you think Groh will do as Defensive Coordinator at Georgia Tech this year? Is there any bad blood on either side from his exit?

A: Bad blood? Hmmm...well, maybe a little. Well, some. Quite a bit, actually. Loads and loads and loads, now you mention it.

Groh departed by grumpily taking a few questions at the post-VT press conference and then reading a poem called "The Man in the Glass" that was basically his way of saying he was cool with himself and all the critics, his boss included, could get stuffed.

Then he signed a contract with GT that still left UVA on the hook for most of his buyout.

Lttlepage didn't exactly go out of his way to support Groh during his last couple years - in fact, he undermined Groh rather heavily by booting Peter Lalich off the team when Groh thought he was done with that particular bit of discipline. Groh's still pissed about that one.

You didn't see it come out in the papers or anything, but something tells me Groh and Littlepage aren't planning on exchanging Christmas cards any time soon.

For the fans' part, Groh hadn't been a real popular guy beforehand and his acrimonious departure gave his haters a lot of vindication, and turned a lot of other fans against him to boot.

There's a lot of bitterness, bubbling over to the point where it can get pretty shameful and obnoxious. You won't hear me badmouth Groh, but the fan base at large was happy to see the backside of him.

As far as how he'll do as GT's DC? Brilliantly. Without having to deal with pesky distractions like "the offense" and "the media," he can focus on what he knows best, and he's a really outstanding defensive mind.

It might be a little rough in year 1 as they go from a standard 4-3 to Groh's 3-4, but left to his own devices to coach nothing but defense, Groh will have a lot of surprises for Georgia Tech's opponents.

Q: Describe a successful season in Charlottesville this year. Describe a disappointing one.

A: I'm not sure there is such a thing as a disappointing season, not in the first year of the tenure of a head coach who's immensely popular.

Nobody expects this team to do real well (although if there's one thing that ever plagues the average UVA fan, it is a propensity to wildly overrate the team's talent, especially if that talent is Virginia-born.)

2-10 would be an ugly season, though, not outside the realm of possibility at all, and opening the season with a loss to Richmond would bring things crashing down to reality in a hurry.

But if you close your eyes and imagine everything going perfectly, you can find six or seven wins on the schedule. If that happened - especially if one of them happened to be in Lane Stadium - it'd justifiably set off fireworks of wild expectations for 2011.

Q: What is your prediction for the season?

A: Likely wins: EMU, VMI, Maryland, and oh, hell, Richmond, though it's kinda scary.

Likely losses: USC, FSU, Miami, VT, GT.

Tossups: UNC, Duke, BC. But there are different flavors of toss-up, and these aren't the could-go-either-way type - more like the kind that we're still not really likely to win but it wouldn't be the upset of the century either. Best guess is they're all losses, and I'd set the over-under for win at 4.

4-8 would still be an improvement over last year, but it still makes for a long football season.

My take of Virginia…
I thought the UVA program made the right move in hiring Mike London. He knows the state of Virginia and has won in the state of Virginia.

Groh’s record while not stellar was not terrible and not much different than many of his predecessors. Where he failed miserably was in beating rival Virginia Tech. You can draw some comparisons between him and Chan Gailey.

The first year will be tough for London though because the cupboard is not exactly full, especially on the offensive side. The switch to a new defensive will have some bumps too. But I think London will have the UVA program on the right track by year two or three.

Though the team will be better, I am not sure how much better the record will be because of how tough the Coastal Division is this year. Road trips include Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech in the division. From the Atlantic they draw two of the top teams in FSU and BC.

If the Wahoos want to become bowl eligible they have to steal two wins by keeping their home winning streak against UNC alive and beating Duke on the road.

4-8, 6th in Coastal Division

Thanks again to From Old Virginia for their insight.

Next Up: Maryland

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