By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — “All right, 1-6. It’s football time now.”
That was Mike London’s message to No. 16, rising sophomore Javanti Sparrow, punctuated by a pat on the cornerback’s helmet. But UVa’s new coach could have been talking to any of the 90-some players stretching on the practice field closest to the McCue Center.
The season-opener against the University of Richmond is still about six months away, but Monday afternoon marked the first opportunity for London and his assistants to be on the field with all of the Cavaliers’ returning players.
After dismissing Al Groh, UVa hired London in early December. Since then he’s spent untold hours hiring his staff, pitching his program to high school prospects, putting together a playbook, and meeting with alumni and fans.
“Now we do the football part of it,” London said before the first of Virginia’s 15 spring practices, “so I’m ready to go.”
The Cavaliers’ first seven practices, including a March 27 intrasquad scrimmage at Old Dominion University, are open to the public. Practice No. 2 is Wednesday, starting at 3:50 p.m. and the team again will be in helmets and shorts.
Until the pads are on, London said, “I want to see how guys are moving, running, how the quarterbacks throw, how we run our routes, things you have to be really good at if you’re going to go on.
“We’re excited about evaluating these guys, because before we just [watched them in the strength-and-conditioning program]. Now we get to do some football things with them.”
The Wahoos finished 3-9 in 2009, their ninth season under Groh. Starters return at several positions, but practice performance will determine who ends up on the first team, London said.
“It’s wide open,” he said. “It’s a clean slate. A lot of these guys, with the whole aspect of changing the culture, a lot of these guys have second opportunities here. A lot of guys have had opportunities that maybe they didn’t take advantage of … They have a new lease on life, so we’ll see how they perform.”
Of the players who worked at quarterback Monday — Marc Verica, Ross Metheny, Michael Strauss and Quintin Hunter — only Verica has taken a snap in a college game.
So Verica, who’ll be a fifth-year senior in the fall, started the spring atop the depth chart. But he’ll have to play well to stay there.
“I want to see the best quarterback earn the job and take it and run with it,” London said, “whether it’s Marc or anybody else. So it’s a wide-open approach. He’s been the guy who’s been taking snaps. We’ll see what happens. But all those quarterbacks know, you’re going to be evaluated daily, and we’ll see how you perform.”
London, head coach at UR in 2008 and ’09, had two stints as an assistant under Groh, so he’s spent plenty of the time on UVa’s practice fields. Not until Monday, however, had he been out there as the man in charge.
“It’s kind of a surreal experience,” London said.
VOICE OF EXPERIENCE: Verica, who started nine games for UVa in 2008, backed up Jameel Sewell for most of last season. On a team that will be dominated by underclassmen this fall, Verica stands out.
“I’ve tried to embrace my role as an older guy and as a leader on this team and in this locker room,” Verica said after practice Monday. “I think I’ve taken it to another level, maybe, with the vocal presence. I think I’ve become more vocal.
“I’m the only quarterback with any playing experience, so I think people respond to that and look to that, because I’ve been there before. I’m just trying to set a good example for the younger players.”
MAN IN THE MIDDLE: Starting center Jack Shields’ decision not to return for his final season at UVa created an opportunity for Anthony Mihota, who’ll be a redshirt junior in the fall.
Mihota backed up Shields in 2008 and ’09.
“It’s like you gotta pay your dues,” Mihota said after practice Monday. “I feel like I got better every year. And so it’s finally my turn, so it’s time for me to step up.”
With Shields injured, Mihota started and went the whole way against Virginia Tech in the 2008 regular-season finale at Lane Stadium.
“I felt like I did as well as I could have,” said Mihota, who’s from Fredericksburg. “It was a great game to play in. I had a lot of fun. I never heard that many people boo us when we came on the field before.
“It was nice getting a taste of it for Virginia Tech, but I’m ready to get back out there.”
Mihota, who’s listed at 6-4, 270 pounds, had not resigned himself to more reserve duty in 2010.
“I’ve always thought I had a shot, so if [Shields] was here or he wasn’t here, I was still going to battle for the spot,” Mihota said.
MAN ON THE MOVE: At Orange County High, Quintin Hunter played several positions, including quarterback, tailback, wideout and defensive back.
As a true freshman at UVa last season, he played receiver and caught one pass for 13 yards. He’s back at QB this spring, though the change may not be permanent.
“Quintin is probably a multi-purpose athlete right now, and I think the quarterback position is one he wants to try out at,” London said. “We’ll see if he can handle that the things that are required to be a good quarterback. If he can, he’ll stay there. If not, then we’ll put him in a position where he can help us.
“With most of these guys, I kind of asked them where they wanted to be. Some of them moved to different positions to help serve on the show team or scout team last year. Some of them played the position in high school. In the concept of having a clean slate, a lot of these guys just wanted an opportunity to be evaluated at [another] position. So that’s where they’re going to start out, and later on we’ll see whether or not we move them to somewhere else.”
CHOW DOWN: Since he shifted from safety to outside linebacker, Ausar Walcott’s life has changed.
“I don’t gotta watch what I eat now,” he said Monday.
As a redshirt freshman in 2009, the 6-4 Walcott played exclusively on special teams. Under London, the Cavaliers have switched from a 3-4 scheme to the 4-3 on defense. Walcott has the size and speed to be a prototypical outside linebacker in the 4-3.
The coaches “came to me about it and told me how I would fit there,” Walcott said. “I was happy with it. As long as it’s going to help the team.”
There was always a chance, anyway, that Walcott would outgrow the safety position.
“I had to worry about lifting weights, not lifting too hard, because I’d blow up too fast,” he said. “But now, since they made me an outside linebacker, it’s a better decision for all of us.”
Walcott said he weighs 225 pounds now and hopes to play at 230 in the fall.