By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — There have been days this spring when UVa’s first-team offense shredded the first-team defense.
Saturday was not one of them.
The line struggled to open holes for the running backs, and quarterback Marc Verica had trouble connecting with his receivers. Of course, the guys on the other side of the ball had a lot to do with the offense’s woes.
“I think we got a chance to be pretty decent on defense,” Mike London said after the Cavaliers’ spring game on a gorgeous afternoon at Scott Stadium.
The 3-4 is no longer Virginia’s base defense. It departed in December when UVa fired Al Groh and hired London as his replacement. London favors the 4-3, as does his defensive coordinator, Jim Reid, and the players have taken to it as well.
“Every day we’re just trying to make progress,” junior Cameron Johnson said. “The coaches are doing a great job relating the defense to us, and everybody’s picking it up on pace.
“We’re just trying to play fast and play hard every day and every down.”
Johnson, an outside linebacker in the 3-4, is now a starting defensive end. Billy Schautz and Jeremiah Mathis, the second-team ends, are former outside linebackers, and defensive tackles Justin Renfrow and Will Hill were ends last year. Ausar Walcott and LaRoy Reynolds have shifted from safety to outside linebacker.
“We’ve been trying to get our athletes on the edge more and using their athleticism to get upfield now,” Verica said. “We’ve converted some lighter, faster guys to outside linebackers, and they can really run. Overall, you can definitely see, when you’re playing against them on a day-to-day basis, that the defense has increased its speed. So that’s exciting to see.”
Verica has had a strong spring, but he completed only 8 of 23 passes for 83 yards and threw two interceptions Saturday. On the first turnover, outside linebacker Jared Detrick deflected a Verica pass. Johnson plucked the ball out of the air and rumbled 51 yards to the end zone, breaking two tackles along the way.
On the second, junior safety Rodney McLeod picked off a Verica pass.
“I haven’t thrown many interceptions this spring at all,” said Verica, who’ll compete as a graduate student in the fall. “I’ve thrown none in team periods. It just happens that today I threw two, but that’s all right. We’ve really done a great job [on offense] this spring. Although it wasn’t that great today, I’m not worried about it.”
The spring game wasn’t a true scrimmage. The Orange team consisted of the first-team defense and the offensive reserves. The starting offense and the defensive reserves made up the Blue team, and they faced each other in various situations, with the offenses starting drives at predetermined spots on the field.
Final score: Orange 30, Blue 3.
The starting tailback, sophomore Torrey Mack, finished with minus-6 yards on 6 carries, but his backup, sophomore Perry Jones, ran 4 times for 24 yards. Starting wideouts Tim Smith and Kris Burd combined to catch 5 passes for 45 yards, and fullback Terence Fells-Danzer had a 26-yard reception on which he flashed impressive speed. Overall, though, the No. 1 offense produced few highlights.
Fells-Danzer said he’s not concerned.
“We made progress,” he said. “We just have to clean up a few little things.”
Johnson said: “Every day it goes back and forth [between the offense and defense]. Sometimes they beat us up, sometimes we beat them up, and that’s how we get better.”
No. 2 quarterback Ross Metheny sparkled, completing 6 of 10 passes for 140 yards, with no interceptions. A good chunk of that yardage came on the final play of the game, a fourth-and-7 pass from Metheny to wideout Raymond Keys.
It should have been a 23-yard gain, but cornerback Mike Parker missed a tackle at the 34, and Keys broke into the open field. He raced to the end zone to complete a 57-yard scoring play.
On the previous play, Keys had dropped a pass from Metheny.
“I’m glad that I was able to gain their trust back by making that last catch,” said Keys, a junior from Franklin County High who played on special teams last year.
Metheny, who’s from Stephens City, redshirted after enrolling at UVa last year. So did Bobby Smith, a 6-5, 205-pound wideout from the Richmond area.
The classmates teamed up on consecutive plays Saturday, Smith gaining 20 yards on the first pass from Metheny and 7 on the second.
“I had fun today, and that was the big thing,” Metheny said. “That’s what the coaches were emphasizing in the meeting rooms before we came out here. Just have fun, cut it loose and play football. I was able to do that and make a couple plays, but there’s always room for improvement.”
Division I teams are allowed 15 spring practices. Saturday’s session was No. 14 for the Wahoos. Two of the practices were devoted to special teams. The final practice will be early Tuesday morning.
“I think collectively as a team we’ve made leaps and bounds from Day 1 to Day 14 here,” Metheny said. “Obviously there’s been a big learning curve with the new offense and just getting comfortable with that. But it’s one of those things where once you finally get comfortable with it, you can just play football and cut it loose.”
Tim Smith said: “It’s coming together slowly but surely.”
London agreed. His team is still “trying to find [its identity] and working out some of the kinks,” he said, “but I think we’ll be OK.”
OFF THE MARK: It was not a day UVa’s kickers will remember fondly. Drew Jarrett was 0 for 2 on field goals, missing from 40 and 43 yards.
Chris Hinkebein connected from 24 yards but had a 23-yard attempt blocked. Robert Randolph was 1 for 2, converting a 43-yarder but missing a 29-yard attempt.
“I was disappointed,” London said. “I’ve got to go back and look at that and make sure we get that squared away and see what element broke down, because you need field goals and you need extra points.”
HIGH FIVE: UVa will have five team captains this season: Verica, tight end Joe Torchia, cornerback Ras-I Dowling and defensive tackles Nick Jenkins and John-Kevin Dolce. They were selected in voting among the players.
“It’s a tremendous honor that my teammates and the staff think of me that highly,” Verica said. “I embrace my role as a leader, as the quarterback of this team. I’m going to do everything in my power to uphold my part of that and to work as hard as I can to make sure that we win.”
Verica, Torchia, Dowling and Dolce will be seniors this season. Jenkins has two seasons of eligibility left.
PUMPING IRON: Several awards were handed out Saturday afternoon. The 6-3, 280-pound Jenkins received the Iron Cavalier Award for his work in the weight room.
“I was just doing what the coaches told me to do,” Jenkins said with a shrug. “Now the younger guys are out there, and I figure that I gotta do what I gotta do and have everybody follow.”
Jenkins was UVa’s starting nose tackle in the 3-4. His responsibilities as a 4-3 tackle are much different, he said, and much more fun.
The same is true for the “whole D-line, the whole defense pretty much,” Jenkins said. “It’s a lot more up the field, get on your horses and go. That sure is different than two-gapping.”
ON THE RISE: The Rock Weir Awards, given annually to the most improved players in spring practice, went to Fells-Danzer on offense and Aaron Taliaferro on defense. Both will be redshirt juniors in the fall.
Fells-Danzer moved from linebacker to fullback after London was hired. Taliaferro hasn’t changed positions, but he’s emerged as a candidate for playing time at middle linebacker. With projected starter Steve Greer out with an ankle injury, Taliaferro has been running with the first team in spring drills.
The Rock Weir Award, Fells-Danzer said, confirmed to him that “it’s never too late to change. Just by working, putting your nose to the grindstone, you can have everything in order and you get the job done.”
The 6-1 Fells-Danzer weighed about 250 pounds when he was at linebacker. He’s down to about 235.
Taliaferro, who stands 6-2, weighs 225 pounds. At that size, he’s better-suited for the 4-3 than for the 3-4.
“With the 4-3 what I’ve noticed is, you just run, and you got a couple gaps to fill,” Taliaferro said. “To me it’s just an easy, simple defense.”
Winning the Rock Weir Award “means a lot to me,” Taliaferro said. “This is my third year here, going on my fourth, and I really haven’t done much for the team, and now I feel like I’m stepping up and doing my part to make this program better.”
WORK IN PROGRESS: The offensive line includes two new starters: center Anthony Mihota and right tackle Oday Aboushi. The slippery Jones ran well behind the first-team line, but overall it struggled.
That was partly, London said, because “those guys they’re blocking against are pretty good. But we need to come off the ball, drive and knock people back, and I know we can do that. We also need to make sure to develop a toughness and an attitude about doing that. That had been developing toward the latter couple of practices. Today, I just think [the defense] rose to the occasion and kind of put to them a little bit.
“We’ll have to address that, but these guys want to play hard, they want to win, they give good effort. I continue to look for the positives and understand we still have a long way to go. We’re by no means a complete project.”
REINSTATED: For the first time this spring, wideout Javaris Brown and defensive end Tory Allen-Ford were in uniform. They wereheld out of the first 13 practices for violating undisclosed team rules.
“Recently I was satisfied that some of the issues they were dealing with had been remedied,” London said. “So I allowed them to dress out today, go through some individual [drills]. Of course they weren’t ready to go in the game, but they will participate in the last practice.
“Hopefully it’s a lesson learned for these guys, that you do the right thing. They’re back on the team, and we’ll keep going from there.”
Allen-Ford may struggle to crack the three-deep at defensive end, but Brown figures to be in the Cavaliers’ rotation at receiver. He caught 7 passes for 136 yards and 1 TD as a redshirt freshman last year.
ON THE MEND: Among those who sat out the spring game for medical reasons were Greer (ankle), defensive tackle Matt Conrath (foot), defensive end Brent Urban (knee), safety Corey Mosley (shoulder), tight end Joe Torchia (shoulder) and tailback Dominique Wallace (foot).
All are expected to be available by the start of training camp in August, except perhaps Urban.