A frenetic Saturday for Wahoo sports (a 5-2 win over #9 Miami in baseball, a 12-9 come-from-behind win over #14 Georgetown in lacrosse, a track meet, and a 502 victory over the Hokies in women’s tennis) was capped off by Virginia’s spring football game.
Despite claims that it was “just another practice” and the efforts to create such an aura, a perceptible intensity pervaded the Carl Smith Center on Saturday evening. Following a widely criticized termination to last season, in which Director Craig Littlepaige assured coach Mike London’s 2011 contract extension would continue into the 2016 season prior to a final showdown with Virginia Tech and each team sitting at 5-6 and desperately seeking a win in order to secure bowl eligibility, in which Virginia was defeated as Greyson Lambert took shot after shot, it was clear Coach London and his team understood what was on the line.
Despite continuing to espouse total confidence in Lambert, who maintained a grip on the starting role as quarterback last year, Matt Johns garnered extensive playing time in a play-making performance emblematic of last year; this position battle appears to be heating up and coach London’s vacillations are evident.
The Hoos looked better on the defensive side of the ball than the offensive side of the ball, but the quarterbacks are still adjusting to taking snaps under center and having the offensive line separated into two groups for the two different quarterbacks means that neither had optimal protection.
Despite some decent performances overall and a great game from Quin Blanding, the team has much work to do as it begins the season with back-to-back games against preseason top-10 squads, opening on the road at UCLA and then returning home to Scott Stadium for a showdown with Notre Dame. It represents the first time Notre Dame will ever have played here and is only the second time the Cavaliers will have ever had a chance to play the Fighting Irish.
Coach London emphasized his desire for the team to establish a strong running identity this fall. This was readily apparent during the game and thoroughly understandable given the overall lack of precision by the quarterbacks. Let’s go ahead and lay it out there: it is imperative that the Cavaliers step up the running game in order to be successful this season. Given that “Kevin Parks the ball carrier” will echo nevermore over the ears of the Scott Stadium faithful, the Hoos need someone to step up opposite Taquan Mizzell at tailback or else will be forced to resort to running back by committee, which can be effective but is less likely to utilize players used to in-game blocking schemes etc.
The first step towards that goal is establishing a more aggressive offensive line able to push against the teeth of the defense, and redshirt first year Steve Moss, an ESPN 300 recruit last year, displayed the level of tenacity that could earn him a prime role on this year’s squad. The second key performance on Saturday came from the fullbacks, who rarely appeared previously under Coach London but who appear as though they will be featured prominently going forward. The third feature of this potentially revamped offense that sets up the 2015 team as a running team is having the quarterbacks take the majority of snaps under center.
This sets up every play as a potential power run and also allows Virginia to look to establish a play action pass game, which would give the quarterbacks a lot of easier throws with which to settle down, as the threat of a running play draws up the safeties closer to the box. Taquan Mizzell delivered a strong performance overall aside from an unfortunate fumble returned for 6, it was unclear what direction the coaches would like to head in terms of a second running back; several backs were able to gash the defense behind the improved offensive line, with Daniel Hamm looking like a promising candidate to finally get some carries this fall after a strong spring.
On the passing side of the offense, things did not necessarily look so promising. Quarterbacks Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns each got off to strong starts throwing the ball but were unable to maintain enough accuracy to be particularly effective; despite shining early on with a couple of brilliant early throws, each struggled to put together complete possessions.
In the opening drive, typical of the red zone performance last season, upon getting down to the 3 yard line, the offense produced a rush of -6 yards and a 1 yard followed by a beautiful Lambert scoring strike to Canaan Severin called back on penalty. However, in a moment Cavalier fans hope proves prescient, Greyson Lambert remained cool calm and collected and threw his receiver open to the front pylon of the end zone for an easy score.
Overall, Lambert at times exhibited flashes of the prototypical pro-style quarterback into which he was always expected to develop, but also demonstrated poor decision-making such as holding his shoulders in the direction of his receiver for the entirety of a play, resulting in an interception by Quin Blanding, and instead of wrapping up the ball before impact he unleashed a floater that was nearly intercepted.
Matt Johns, ever-intriguing with his uncanny escapability, also had some fine moments, particularly a gorgeous outside shoulder downfield throw to Andre Levrone and a nice scoring pass over the middle to tight end Brendan Marshall. However, both quarterbacks finished with completion percentages under 50 and it is clear that they have not yet adjusted to playing under center.
With the loss of Darius Jennings, UVa’s most consistent receiver last year and leader in all-purpose yards, to graduation UVa needs a few things to happen in order to be effective in the passing game. The first is that either Canaan Severin or another returning receiver (Keeon Johnson?) develop consistency. Severin produced a SportsCenter top play last year but the quarterbacks need to find a way to get him the ball in space several times per game.
The second is that transfer TJ Thorpe steps up to become the top player he was never quite able to become at North Carolina. He has the elite speed to become a solid returner and to take the top off of defenses with vertical routes and UVa needs him to do that. The third is that Brendan Marshall establish himself as a tight end capable of blocking effectively and especially as a receiver. He elevated nicely in order to catch Johns’ scoring strike and his 6’5” frame is too large for corner backs and safeties to defend on the pass, so he poses a nice matchup problem over the middle of the field.
UVa needs to find a way to spread the ball around and pass the ball just often enough and having a few deep threats from TJ Thorpe per game would be more than enough to keep the defense on its toes in order to set up the running game, which the coaches espouse as this team’s focus.
Though Virginia has struggled to establish an offensive identity under Coach London, the Wahoos have excelled on the defensive side of the ball. However, after losing 5 2-year starters off of Jon Tenuta’s defense there remains much work to be done. Last year safety Quin Blanding came in as the number 3 overall recruit in the nation and immediately started, maintaining his starting role in all 12 games.
However, he had the benefit of playing opposite safety Anthony Harris, a feared NFL prospect who is graduating and led the nation in 2013 with 8 interceptions, last season and will not be afforded that luxury again. In order for the Cavaliers defense to function properly he needs to make the transition from serviceable starter to the elite player anticipated upon his enrollment. As a free safety he will be expected to quarterback the defense, setting up alignments based upon the offensive alignments, which is a lot to demand from a true second year. His football instincts and film-room preparation will be tested extensively.
Physically, he is an elite talent and demonstrated that on Saturday, delivering heavy blows including one on which he popped his own helmet straps off and then finished the tackle helmetless. He also read Greyson Lamberts body language excellently and jumped a route in the first half for an interception. The other main concern for the defense will be the ability to pressure the quarterback after losing two elite edge setters in third year defensive end Eli Harold (though he could play standup in a 3-4 defensive scheme in the NFL) and redshirt second year Max Valles (who is talented but may have prematurely declared for the draft according to some analysts given his unpolished pass-rushing technique) to the NFL draft.
However, the defense proved adept at getting to the quarterback on Saturday as Lambert was pressured several times in the pocket and brought down hard once as OLB Mark Hall and defensive tackle Andrew Brown converged simultaneously upon him for a huge loss on an obvious passing situation on 3rd and 10. Tenuta’s scheme, hall-marked by edge pressure and good safety play, has simplified the defense to a level able to be implemented at the college level, has resulted in the defense becoming the best part of UVa’s squad over the last couple of seasons and UVa will need new pass rushers to step up in order to be effective.
Special teams proved particularly interesting during Saturday’s scrimmage as there were players from both the orange squad and the blue squad on each side of the ball. Furthermore, one drive was marred by a missed field goal and another drive terminated in a 6 yard punt shanked out of bounds.
The starters looked good, however. Of special importance will be fourth year transfer wide receiver TJ Thorpe, who set the UNC single season record for kickoff return yards with 960 in 2011 and will have huge shoes to fill in a role vacated by Darius Jennings.
Special Teams: C (Starters: A)
By The Virginia Advocate Sports Staff
Correction: the article originally reported that Coach Mike London’s contract was renewed, rather than reassured under the original terms of the 2011 contract extension.