By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When he was introduced as UVa’s football coach in December, Mike London talked about his desire to have a powerful running game.
There’s every reason to believe that will happen at Virginia. After all, that was a trademark of London’s teams at the University of Richmond.
In 2008, when the Spiders won the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision titles, they averaged 187 yards rushing per game. In ’09, when they finished 11-2, the Spiders averaged 158.8.
The offensive coordinator for those UR teams, Mike Faragallli, is now Virginia’s running backs coach. And he’s confident that the Cavaliers’ running game can thrive, too.
“Definitely,” Faragalli said after practice Wednesday. “I think the biggest thing going in [to the spring] was the fullback position, because there wasn’t any, basically.
“I feel much better now than I did two weeks ago about being able to be a physical running team when it’s third-and-1, fourth-and-1. If you put the ball on the 3- or 4-yard line, we’re gonna put it in.”
Among teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, Virginia ranked 112th in rushing offense (99.1) last season. In 2008, the Cavaliers (96.6) ranked 108th. Both years, struggles up front contributed to UVa’s inability to consistently move the ball on the ground, and that’s an issue new offensive line coach Ron Mattes is addressing this spring.
Faragalli is dividing snaps among four tailbacks: Keith Payne, Raynard Horne, Torrey Mack and Perry Jones. A fifth, Dominique Wallace, is recovering from surgery on his foot and hasn’t participated in drills.
Payne and Horne will be fifth-year seniors in the fall. Mack and Jones are rising sophomores. Wallace was granted a hardship waiver for 2009 — he appeared in only three games before getting hurt — and will be a redshirt freshman this season.
In the final years of Al Groh’s tenure, UVa rarely used a traditional fullback. Under London and his new offensive coordinator, Bill Lazor, the fullback is back.
Candidates for playing time there include rising juniors Terence Fells-Danzer and Max Milien. Fells-Danzer (6-1, 240 pounds) played linebacker last season. Milien (6-0, 210) is a converted tailback.
“It’ll be interesting to see who emerges as the frontrunner here coming out of spring,” London said.
Faragalli said he’s delighted at how “Terence, having been a defensive player, and Max, having been a tailback, have made the adjustment really, really well. And they’re both very athletic. The pleasant surprise has been their willingness to really mix it up, to be physical: kick-out blocks, iso blocks, pass blocks. I mean, they’re really knocking people back, and then you combine that with their athleticism. They’re really great character guys who are learning the system, and they’re football smart, so I’m really pleasantly surprised.”
It’s too early to say, according to Faragalli, how often the Wahoos will use a fullback.
“But I think I can go out on a limb and say that when we want to put a fullback in there, we’re going to be effective, we’re going to be physical,” he said. “However many it is, I don’t know. But when they’re in there, they’re going to be good enough to succeed.”
Of the tailbacks available this spring, only Mack and Jones carried the ball last season. Mack, who was a redshirt freshman, gained 73 yards on 23 carries, and he caught 11 passes for 70 yards. Jones, a true freshman in 2009, carried nine times for 12 yards. Wallace carried 14 times for 59 yards before he got hurt, and he was showing signs of establishing himself as UVa’s No. 1 tailback.
That’s a role Payne envisioned for himself when he enrolled at Virginia in 2006, but the former Oakton High star has not come close to reaching his potential. In 2007 and ’08, Payne totaled 255 yards and 2 touchdowns on 63 carries. His work habits didn’t please the coaching staff, though, and on the eve of the 2009 opener, Payne, unhappy with his role on the team, left the program.
He rejoined the Cavaliers after London replaced Groh, and Payne has impressed this spring.
At 6-3 and about 250 pounds, he’s easily the largest of UVa’s tailbacks. The others range in size from Wallace (6-0, 215) to Horne (6-0, 210) to Mack (6-0, 195) to the diminutive Jones (5-8, 185). And then there’s Kevin Parks, the record-setting tailback from Salisbury, N.C., whom many consider the jewel of UVa’s incoming freshman class.
Asked how many tailbacks he’s likely to use in the fall, Faragalli said, “I don’t think it’d be four. Ideally two, maybe three. Again, it kind of depends, because you got one guy out here who’s hurt, and you got a talented freshman coming in, and you got four guys that are here that are doing well, so we’ll see.
“I think they’re all doing a really good job. I mean, it’s spring, so they need to learn the system, and there’s a good mixture at running back of young guys and older guys.
“Each one has their own strengths that they bring to the table. They’re all excellent ball-carriers. Some are bigger, some are faster, some are quicker. They all bring something different to the table, so it’s a great situation to be in right now. Obviously you can’t have six guys playing in the fall, but we have lots of time to evaluate them and judge them and get them ready.”