I started this before camp, and plan to finish it in the run-up to the opener. Sorry for the break. Norm Wood of the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., provided this breakdown of Virginia, which Georgia Tech plays Sept. 15 at Bobby Dodd Stadium. You can check out Norm’s blog here and follow him on Twitter here.
1. In a nutshell, what are Virginia’s strengths and weaknesses?
Despite losing Associated Press second team All-American left guard Austin Pasztor and honorable mention All-Atlantic Coast Conference center Anthony Mihota, U.Va. should still be very sturdy up front. Starting right guard Luke Bowanko spent his offseason rehabilitating from surgeries to each of his shoulders, but he should be ready to go for the start of practice and could slide over to center. Left tackle Oday Aboushi and right tackle Morgan Moses could be one of the best overall blocking duos in the nation.
Last season, U.Va. gave up 16 sacks, which was second-least in the ACC and least among offenses that didn’t run the option. With a still capable offensive line, and an experienced backfield, U.Va. should be just as strong in pass protection. Speaking of the backfield, Perry Jones (113 all-purpose yards per game; seventh in ACC), Kevin Parks and Clifton Richardson give U.Va. a versatile corps of running backs with speed and power running skills and the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
As far as quarterback play is concerned, depth will not be an issue with Michael Rocco, Phillip Sims, David Watford and freshmen Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns in the fold. On the defensive side, linebackers Steve Greer and LaRoy Reynolds are two very experienced leaders. Defensive tackle Will Hill will be a starter for the first time as a senior, but he gained ample field-time last season in a three-man rotation with now-graduated seniors Matt Conrath and Nick Jenkins. Replacing Conrath, Jenkins and defensive end Cam Johnson won’t be easy, but U.Va. may have bigger concerns about how green its secondary will be this season. Other than returning starting cornerback Demetrious Nicholson, none of U.Va.’s other projected first-team defensive backs has ever started a game. U.Va.’s secondary will be among the youngest in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
While Smith, Dominique Terrell and Darius Jennings are all promising players at wide receiver, it’s going to be challenging to find someone to step into the shoes of receiver Kris Burd, who left U.Va. after last season the No. 2 all-time pass-catcher (162). There’s also a lot of uncertainty in the special teams units, where a new starting kicker and punter must be identified, and a dependable punt return option must emerge.
2. It’s probably hard to say, but what do you think are Alabama transfer Phillip Sims’ chances to start this season?
Without having a feel for how long incumbent Michael Rocco’s leash will be, it is indeed difficult to gauge Sims’ chances of starting this season. Given all the expected elements – relatively short period of time to work with new teammates, very little practice implementation of the playbook – one could reasonably assume Sims’ odds of being under center for the Sept. 1 season-opener against Richmond are long.
On the other hand, it’s not unreasonable to think Sims could start at some point during the season if Rocco were to falter. For the first seven games last season, Rocco split time with true freshman David Watford, who entered each of those games on U.Va.’s fourth or fifth drive and played extensively in each game. In U.Va.’s last six games, Watford only played in three of them, and he only attempted three more passes (completed none) in those games. Though Rocco started all 13 games, he sometimes ended up playing less than Watford in those first seven games.
Obviously, none of last season’s quarterback swapping has anything to do with Sims, but it does show coach Mike London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor have a willingness to at least get creative with their quarterback situation if they deem it necessary. Sims may have a slightly less daunting learning curve because he’s already familiar with playing in the same offense as Jones and wide receiver Tim Smith. Sims, Jones and Smith all played at Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake, Va., winning a state championship together in 2008.
3. Who is the biggest loss from the team and how will that impact Virginia?
The “biggest loss” title could easily be attached to Burd, but there are experienced options to explore at the receiver spots. Johnson, who led the team in sacks last season with four, could be the most significant loss considering U.Va. has virtually no returning pass rush, but there’s potential in highly-recruited incoming freshman defensive end Eli Harold.
Instead, cornerback Chase Minnifield might be the most irreplaceable cog. Last season, he earned first team All-ACC honors after leading the team with 11 passes defended, including three interceptions. The biggest problem is U.Va. has next-to-nothing in terms of seasoned depth at cornerback. Sophomores Drequan Hoskey, Brandon Phelps and Brendan Morgan all spent most of last season playing special teams. Now, Hoskey, who came to U.Va. on a track scholarship before joining the football program in 2010, and the highly-touted Phelps will enter preseason practice as the favorites to take over for Minnifield. Hoskey and/or Phelps need to be effective. If they aren’t, U.Va. will likely have to rely on a true freshman to pick up the slack. Nicholson was able to come in last season as a true freshman, start right away and play fairly well throughout the season, but he was also considered by most recruiting analysts to be one of the nation’s top five cornerbacks and top 100 overall prospects coming out of high school. None of the incoming cornerbacks this season will arrive with that kind of rep.
4. With five returning starters on defense, how vulnerable to do you think that unit is?
Other than the linebackers and a few promising individuals (Harold, Hill and Nicholson), there are serious questions to be answered. The worries obviously start in the secondary, where Hoskey or Phelps and projected first team safeties Anthony Harris and Rijo Walker will all be first-time starters. Offenses may try to pick on the green secondary. If the young players don’t respond, U.Va. may have a difficult time even rising to last season’s unspectacular, yet reasonable overall passing defense numbers (212 yards per game, 45th in the nation; 12 interceptions, 55th in the nation).
Generating a pass rush may also be a challenge for U.Va. with Johnson and Conrath (three sacks) gone to National Football League camps. No other returning player had more than two sacks last season, but defensive coordinator Jim Reid talked about making adjustments in his 4-3 scheme to free up outside linebackers Daquan Romero (who had a combined 49 sacks in his final two seasons of high school as a defensive end) and Reynolds on blitzing opportunities, and London expressed optimism about the 6-4, 215-pound Harold’s pass-rushing ability from the edge.
5. What is the fan base’s perception of Mike London?
London has had to fight what can best be described as general fan malaise surrounding the program – a condition that took root far before he was named the coach in Dec. 2009. Attendance in U.Va.’s Scott Stadium fell in each of former coach Al Groh’s final three seasons – average of 59,824 fans in ’07, 53,815 in ’08 and 47,986 in ’09. It continued to plummet in the ’10 season (45,459) – London’s first as coach – before making a small increase last season (47,940).
On the whole, the impressions of London seem to be positive. Fans are encouraged by his staff’s recruiting acumen (could be on the brink of a top 25 national class for 2013; have made inroads to re-establish themselves as major entities in the fertile Hampton Roads and northern Virginia recruiting territories). Last season’s appearance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, which was U.Va.’s first bowl in four years, along with U.Va. contending for the Coastal Division crown into the last week of the regular season and London’s conference coach of the year award have helped raise confidence in London’s vision. Yet, until there’s sustained winning (three of the last four seasons have featured losing records) in Charlottesville, fans that were used to seven to nine-win seasons under coach George Welsh and in the early Groh years will stay away.
6. Given the team’s inexperience, if Virginia goes 4-4 in the ACC, will that be a disappointing season?
As a matter of fact, a 4-4 conference mark seems like a perfectly reasonable prediction. With road contests against Georgia Tech, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech – all of which could challenge for respective division crowns – it’s not inconceivable U.Va. could lose all three of those games. A road game against Duke and home games against Maryland and Wake Forest seem winnable, but home games against Miami and UNC aren’t gimmes by any stretch. After going 8-5 last season, U.Va. could be in for a small step back this season before it moves forward. In other words, with the addition and development of solid recruiting classes, brighter days are ahead for U.Va. – but something like a 6-6 overall, 4-4 ACC record this season is a distinct possibility.