By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When the first-team offense takes the field Saturday afternoon at Scott Stadium, Marc Verica will be behind center.
Of course, he’s the most experienced quarterback in the program — the only experienced quarterback, to be more precise — so Verica might well be working with the first team even if Al Groh were still UVa’s football coach, if only by default.
“It’s hard for me to say,” Verica said Friday afternoon. “I don’t know what the plans would have been had we retained the old staff. But what I do know is I’ve been given a fresh start and a new opportunity, and not just myself, but a lot of guys, and it’s definitely noticeable.
“There’s a noticeable difference and change in a lot of guys’ attitudes and playing style through this transition.”
Mike London replaced Groh as head coach after the 2009 season. London had two stints as a UVa assistant under Groh before leaving to become head staff at the University of Richmond, and some fans feared London’s hire would mean more of the same in a program that declined dramatically in Groh’s final years.
His ties to Groh aside, London runs his program much differently, as fans who attended Virginia’s open practices this spring noted.
“For anyone who’s had a chance to be on the practice field out there,” Verica said, “they can just kind of sense the more upbeat, more relaxed kind of environment. Everything’s still fast-paced and with a high degree of intensity, but I think guys are a little more loose, and that allows them to play more confidently and better.”
The Wahoos are coming off a 3-9 season in which few players distinguished themselves. Verica was not among them. As a redshirt sophomore in 2008, he’d started nine games and passed for 2,037 yards. He wasn’t perfect — Verica threw twice as many interceptions as touchdown passes in ’08 — but he completed 63.8 percent of his attempts, more than respectable for a quarterback who had entered the season with no college experience.
In 2009, however, Verica looked like a different player. He began the year as the Cavaliers’ No. 3 quarterback, behind Vic Hall and Jameel Sewell. Hall eventually moved to wide receiver, but the coaching staff preferred Sewell to Verica, whose opportunities were few.
When Verica did get on the field, he wasn’t nearly as accurate as in 2008, and poor decisions continued to be a problem for him. For the season, he appeared in six games, with one start, and completed only 28 of 63 passes for 156 yards. He threw no touchdown passes and 1 interception.
“It was a combination of a number of things,” Verica said. “I wasn’t as confident because I knew that I didn’t really truly have the support of the staff, so it was kind of more playing not to make a mistake, rather than just going out there and trying to play. It was just the constant focus on the negative in my mind and trying to avoid that. Playing tight like that and playing not to make a mistake, you’re already beat from the start.”
The Wahoos’ disastrous flirtation with the spread offense didn’t help. After the 2008 season, Groh hired Gregg Brandon as offensive coordinator, and Brandon installed the spread with which he’d put up big numbers at Bowling Green.
The ‘Hoos spent all spring and summer learning the spread, only to have Groh scrap it after his team started the season with losses to William and Mary and TCU. UVa went back to a version of its previous offense, but moving the ball and remained a struggle.
Of the 120 teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivisioin, UVa ranked 118th in total offense and 105th in scoring offense last season.
“The thing is, you really can’t just flip a switch and change schemes in one week overnight and expect it to click,” Verica said. “There’s a lot of things and a lot of factors that go into an offense’s success, and to prepare a whole offseason with X strategy and then immediately transition into Y and to expect immediate results, that’s a difficult thing to ask.
“Schematically we were doing some different things. We weren’t producing. But that’s in the past now. Coach Lazor’s done a tremendous job of making clear what’s expected of us and this offense. I’m excited to see what we can do this year, because I think it’s been going pretty well.”
Bill Lazor is the third offensive coordinator Verica has had at UVa. The Cavaliers are now in a pro-style offense that looks more like what they ran during the George Welsh area than Brandon’s spread.
Gone are the four-receiver sets, and fullback and tight end are integral parts of Lazor’s offense. Verica is usually under center, not in the shotgun, when he takes the snap.
Lazor is “a tremendous teacher,” said Verica, an economics major who’s on track to graduate next month. “There’s no doubt about that. I could sense that with my first meeting with him. He’s very attentive and observant and demanding. He’s very meticulous. It’s the little details that end up making the difference a lot of times.”
Virginia opens the season Sept. 5 against Richmond at Scott Stadium. That’s nearly five months away, and Lazor’s offense remains a work in progress. But UVa’s Spring Football Festival will give fans a glimpse of how Lazor wants to operate this fall.
The ‘Hoos will take the field at 12:30 p.m. Their intrasquad scrimmage will start at 2 p.m.
“The spring game, it serves a couple different functions,” Verica said. “It’s good to reach out to the fan base and the local community and get them out there and interacting with us and watching us. But it’s also a great measuring tool for the progress that we’ve made this spring, to see how far we’ve come, what are the things we need to work on, what are our strengths, who are the playmakers, who are the leaders.
“Guys definitely will be excited and amped-up to play, because at the end of the day, everybody here, we’ll all competitors. We want to compete against each other and compete against other teams, so any time you have that opportunity, you’re definitely excited about it.”