By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — A small group of reporters peppered Mike London with questions Friday afternoon at Scott Stadium, asking him about the football team he took over in December.
On many topics, London can speak with authority. This is his first year as UVa’s head coach, but he had two stints as an assistant under his predecessor, Al Groh, so London is not unfamiliar with the program or the University.
Some questions, though, he’s not yet able to answer.
“I’m like you guys,” London told his audience. “I’m waiting to see, too, how we’re going to look and how they’re going to run around and move, and I’ll see that on March 15.”
That’s when spring practice starts for the Cavaliers, who went 3-9 in their final season under Groh. It concludes April 10 with the Spring Football Festival at Scott Stadium.
Noteworthy dates in between include March 27, when the Wahoos will play an intrasquad scrimmage at Old Dominion University’s Foreman Field.
London wants his program to “to get out there, to be accessible, to be available, to get out in front of people, and that’s part of that,” he said of the visit to Norfolk. “And hopefully next year [and] the year after that, there are opportunities to go somewhere else in the state.”
Several players, including defensive end Matt Conrath, safety Corey Mosley and tailback Dominique Wallace, are recovering from injuries and won’t fully participate in spring drills, London said.
Several other ‘Hoos have new positions. On defense, UVa is switching from Groh’s trademark 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme, and Cameron Johnson and Jeremiah Mathis have moved from outside linebacker to end. Justin Renfrow and Brent Urban, formerly ends, are now tackles. Ausar Walcott and LoVanté Battle have shifted from safety to outside linebacker, London said.
On offense, London wants to use a traditional fullback. New at that position are Terence Fells-Danzer, an inside linebacker under Groh, and Max Milien, formerly a tailback.
The only quarterback in the program who’s taken a snap in a college game is Marc Verica, who’ll be a redshirt senior in the fall. Verica started most of the 2008 season and had several stellar games. He was a backup for most of ’09, however, and struggled when he played, completing only 44.4 percent of his passes.
The Cavaliers’ roster includes two players who were admitted midyear: defensive end Will Hill in January 2009 and quarterback Michael Strauss this January.
“The important thing to me is that the ones we do get in in midyear,” London said, “that they do well, because then that may lend itself to having opportunities later on down the road.”
Hill has distinguished himself at UVa. If Straus does well, too, then perhaps the admissions department will “look upon us favorably” when the football staff presents another candidate for midyear enrollment, London said.
At his introductory press conference in December, London was asked about the talent level in UVa’s program. Too early to say, he replied. The same question Friday drew a similar response.
“I’ll get back to you on that,” London said, smiling.
Some other highlights of the session, which lasted about 45 minutes:
On the quarterback situation:
“I’m excited to see Marc Verica and the rest of the quarterbacks play under a system where, hopefully, we can make throws, based on everybody’s ability, be able to get the ball downfield, be able to get the ball to the playmakers, throw it to the backs coming out of the backfield. Do some things to try to utilize everyone’s skill and spread the field out, but not have a spread-offense type of approach.”
On whether the coaches need to boost Verica’s confidence level:
“That’s a large part of it. Quarterbacks are human like everybody else, and listening to the criticism and things like that, you ask him did it affect him, and he’d tell you on the outside, no. But anyone of us in this room, if you got ridiculed and things like that, had people throw stuff at you, it would affect you. But I think the thing now with Marc is, we’ve had a chance to go through some early-morning runs and lifts and things like that. He’s emerged as a leader … And I think being an older guy, having played the position, understanding some of the aspects of playing the position, he sees this as a new lease on life, and we welcome that.”
On whether the transition to linebacker will be difficult for the 6-4, 220-pound Walcott:
“I don’t think tough at all. I think it’s something he welcomes, because Mother Nature’s still working on him, and it’s hard sometimes to be a DB and try to keep your weight down when he’s 6-4-plus and you’re starting to lift … I think he welcomes the position. It’s more natural to him being able to run, come off the edge. He’s got safety cover skills as a linebacker, which provides us hopefully with an edge.”
On the decision of Ras-I Dowling, an All-America candidate at cornerback, to return for his senior year:
“He’s the biggest recruit we had in the 2010 class. He was a five-star signee … He’s a great young man. He is emerging as our team leader. We’re so proud to have him back and be one of our leaders.”
On UVa’s tailbacks, a group that includes Dominique Wallace, Torrey Mack and Perry Jones:
“I see speed and I see athleticism.”
On Strauss’ progress in the program:
“Michael’s doing well now, getting adjusted to college life. We’ve had a couple early-morning workouts, and he’s overslept on two of them. He hasn’t got up at 5:30 in the morning much, but we’re training him to be ready at any time, and we’re excited about seeing what he can do also.”
On the 6-4, 260-pound Johnson’s move to defensive end:
“He’s a great, great young man. Again it goes back to Mother Nature saying, ‘You’re going to be a big man,’ and he’s going to be a big man before it’s all said and done. I think Cam relishes the opportunity to put his hands down on the ground and come off the edge. He welcomes the change, he welcomes to opportunity to start there Day One, going out there with the defense and doing what he can do. And I think it’s going to help him pass rush-wise also … He’s one of the players defensively that we’re going to look for big things from.”
On whether the 6-7, 270-pound Conrath will stay at defensive end:
“With Matt’s foot injury, it’s kind of precluded him from developing his lower body. It’s hard to squat and power clean when you’re having foot problems as a lineman. He just had his surgery not too long ago, and so now it’s going to be interesting to see his strength, growth and development, whether that takes him to the weight of a defensive end or the weight of an inside defensive tackle. Over the summer will be an important barometer for him about where he’s going to end up.”
On whether John-Kevin Dolce, at 250 pounds, is big enough to play defensive tackle:
“In spring practice we’ll see. We’ll put guys at different positions to make sure they’re at the right position, and then we’ll go from there.
“He’s probably one of the strongest guys on the team. John has worked hard, as all these guys have, and the fun part about it, again, is we get to evaluate them coming in like we don’t know who’s who. And then we’ll see who’s who.”
On outside linebacker Jared Detrick, who took a medical redshirt last season:
“It appears he’s 100 percent. When I recruited him out of high school, he was running track, he was a hurdler, a sprinter. And now, barring any other injuries, he’s back to running around like he used to.”
On the need for playmakers:
“Defensively, you gotta have guys that can rush the quarterback, hit the quarterback, and those are [linemen]. And then if you have that, the cover guys …. I think Ras-I Dowling is just chomping at the bit to play bump coverage, to get up in somebody’s face and dare ’em to throw the ball over him, instead of playing off. So we’re going to try to do some things to utilize what his skills are. If you can do that and find those playmakers in some of those key areas, then I think you have a chance. I think we have some of those players in those skill areas, so we’ll see what happens [in spring practice].”
On offensive tackle Oday Aboushi, who was in for 95 snaps as a true freshman in 2009:
“I’m just gonna go out on a limb to say this: I think he’s going to be really, really good, really special … I think Aboushi’s got the skills to be a left tackle, right tackle. He’s going to be in the mix as one of the five [starting linemen].
“The best about competition is the best player plays there. I’m excited about that left tackle position, because I think there’s some candidates there that could be pretty good.
“It’ll be great to see those guys out there competing, because you can imagine Cam Johnson and Aboushi going against each other. That’s going to be a pretty good matchup there.”