By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At the end of UVa’s 15th and final football practice of the spring, the team’s captains stayed on the field after their teammates headed to the locker room.
For defensive tackles Nick Jenkins and John-Kevin Dolce, cornerback Ras-I Dowling, tight end Joe Torchia and quarterback Marc Verica, Cavaliers coach Mike London had some parting words.
“I think the main gist of it was that this is our team,” Verica said a few minutes later, “and if this team wants to do special things, the leadership within the team — the captains and the older players — really have to take ownership.
“Coach London has done a tremendous job of establishing the kind of culture that he wants here, but I think now it’s time for the leaders of the team to really kind of carry that torch.”
This was not a routine spring for a program that has produced one winning record in the past four seasons. The Wahoos have a new head coach — though London, who had two stints as an assistant under Al Groh, knows his way around the McCue Center — as well as a new offensive coordinator, new defensive coordinator and new special-teams coordinator.
Groh’s signature 3-4 defense is gone, and the spread offense with which the ‘Hoos opened last season is history, too.
“It was different this spring,” Verica said. “It was a new chapter … There’s kind of an optimistic aura surrounding the whole program, and just out on the field you can sense, if you’re here, that it’s a little more relaxed. I think guys are playing more confidently, and they’re playing pretty loose, which is something we may not have had always in the past.”
Spring drills opened March 15. The first seven practices were open to the public, as was No. 14, the Spring Football Festival at Scott Stadium. It wasn’t a true spring game — each series began from a predetermined spot on the field — but the intrasquad scrimmage provided a look at how the Cavaliers were adjusting to their new schemes.
What fans saw didn’t necessarily reassure them that better days are imminent for a program that once ranked among the ACC’s elite.
Against the first-team defense, the No. 1 offense struggled, putting only a field goal on the scoreboard. The second and third offenses fared better against UVa’s defensive reserves, but Verica was intercepted twice and completed only 8 of 23 passes for 83 yards. Moreover, tailback Torrey Mack, running behind the first-team line, rushed six times for minus-6 yards.
In separate interviews this week, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and defensive coordinator Jim Reid made the same point: Don’t read too much into anything that happened last weekend at Scott Stadium, good or bad.
Lazor: “Offensively, we’re on schedule to do just what we want to do and to be just what we want to be. We know how to do it as an offensive staff, we have a plan, and we’re on schedule, so I’m real happy with that.”
Reid: “For a better part of this spring, the offense had moved the ball on the defense. It was just that day, it appeared [the first-team defense dominated]. There were big plays, though, made against us … I thought there were some areas that we have to clean up.”
In most offensive categories, UVa ranked near the bottom nationally in 2006, ’07, ’08 and ’09. Such problems can’t be fixed in 15 practices, especially with players adjusting to a new system.
“From practice 1 to practice 15, we’ve come light years,” Lazor said.
Verica said: “When you turn on the film from the first practice, it’s actually pretty amazing to see how far we’ve come. I mean, the first day, we couldn’t even complete passes on air. We were just trying to throw outs and hitches, and we were missing guys and the balls were flying into the stands and out of bounds and stuff like that and hitting people, hitting fans.”
Verica, who’ll graduate next month with a bachelor’s in economics, is a sharp guy, and he knows his performance at Scott Stadium did little to inspire confidence among fans, particularly given his struggles last season. His body of work in in the new offense was more impressive.
“I thought Marc had a good spring,” Lazor said Tuesday afternoon. “I thought first and foremost, he bought into the system of what we’re trying to do. He showed that he’s physically and mentally capable of running the offense, he showed a good amount of production in practice, and really for the most part steadily gained production as the whole spring went on, including today.
“I thought in our 15th practice he had a really good 7-on-7 [period]. I’m real happy with the progress he’s made and the ability he’s shown to do the things we’re going to ask him to do in the passing game. I thought also that he showed great leadership, and that’s shown by the fact that he was voted a captain by his teammates.”
Of the No. 1 offense’s play in the spring game, Lazor said, “I would have liked to have seen them be more productive, and we had some turnovers. Those are disappointing things. So some guys did real well that day, and some guys didn’t do as well probably as they would have envisioned.
“And the flip side was, it was good to see some of the guys with the 2s make the plays. The reality is, on some of the plays where big production happened, there were mistakes by other guys, but they just didn’t hurt us on that particular play. … And on some of those plays with the 1s, we may have had a great opportunity to make a play, but if there was a breakdown somewhere, you don’t get to see it. That’s the thing that as a coach you have to do a great job keeping perspective on: evaluating each [position] and how well we did on each play. The details are the important part.”
Of the 120 teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, UVa ranked 112th in rushing offense (99.1 yards per game) last season.
Little improvement in that area was apparent from the first-team offense last weekend, but Lazor said, “I have a real good sense from going through 15 practices that we’ll be just fine as a running football team.”
The ‘Hoos weren’t much more proficient passing in 2009; their average of 170.5 yards per game ranked 105th nationally. Lazor is confident UVa will improve in that area, too.
“The vision of offense is that you should be able to run it when you want to run it and throw it when you want to throw it,” he said. “And like I said before, we are right on track for where we want to be.”
Two players who figure to contend for starting jobs on the offense — Torchia and tailback Dominique Wallace — sat out this spring while recovering from offseason operations. Another Cavalier who figures to crack the two-deep, wide receiver Javaris Brown, was held out of the first 13 practices for violating team rules.
Lazor has reviewed video of Wallace and Torchia, and he’s eager to incorporate them into the attack.
“The main thing that I could tell you, just from experience with both of them, is they’ve been really good team guys, really attentive players,” Lazor said. “The best I can tell, without having them out on the field actually practicing, they’ve both really learned as much as an injured guy can learn without actually being out there. They approach the meetings and the practices just the way you’d want a guy to do it.”
As for Brown, the “onus is really on him,” Lazor said. “He did miss quite a bit. Everything’s available for him on paper and on the video for him to find a way to catch up and learn … What I saw on video from last year is a guy who’s talented and made some plays, and hopefully he can get caught up so he can give us a chance to evaluate him. When a guy’s a playmaker, we’ll find a way to get him on the field.”
Reid was short-handed this spring, too. Three players with starting experience — lineman Matt Conrath, linebacker Steve Greer and safety Corey Mosley — missed most or all of the practices with injuries.
Like Wallace and Torchia, Conrath, Greer and Mosley are expected to be ready for training camp in August.
“All three of those guys have really been into it in meetings and all,” Reid said. “I feel good that they’ll come in and give us a significant impact and help us with the depth.”
In the 3-4, Greer was an inside linebacker, and Conrath played end. In the 4-3 scheme that London and Reid installed, Greer is at middle linebacker, and Conrath has moved to tackle. Mosley’s responsibilities haven’t changed as much.
“So it’s just going to be a question, really, of Steven and Matthew picking up the new techniques and the new assignments of a different defense,” Reid said, “and when you sit down and talk to those guys, I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. There’s not always a correlation between academic success and football understanding, but I believe in this instance there is.”
After the final spring practice, Verica was asked about UVa’s defense.
“I think they could be a special unit,” he said. “They’re definitely playing much, much faster. I’m lucky that I won’t have to play against them in the fall.”
Reid’s seasoned eyes see more flaws.
“We’re far, far, far away,” he said. “But it was perhaps the most fun spring football that I could remember in a long, long time, because of, No. 1, the staff. It’s as close-knit a staff as I think I’ve ever been around. And then of course the players and their attitude and their willingness to accept coaching, hard coaching, and just their lively attitude.”
A foundation was laid this spring, Reid believes.
“I thought we sprinted around the football field with a lot of intensity,” he said. “Not always in the right zones, not always in the right gaps, but before you can compete, you’ve got to be able to play fast and play hard and finish, and I think the players attempted to do that.”
Like the offense, the defense started slowly in the spring.
“In the first meeting I said, ‘Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, it will be my fault if you do,’ and I was almost fired after the first practice,” Reid recalled with a laugh. “Because we had thousands of mistakes, but on the thousands of mistakes we were going a hundred miles an hour, and that’s what you have to do, really.”
If the execution has sometimes been less than perfect, the atittude and effort shown by UVa defenders have been consistently good, Reid said. That’s a starting point. But there’s a considerable dropoff from the first team to the second at many spots, and that’s a concern.
“At this level, you should be at least two deep at each position with players you feel can go in and win,” Reid said. “So we are not there yet. That’s why you recruit, and that’s why we’re recruiting very, very hard.”
In Dowling, the ‘Hoos have an All-America candidate. The other returning starters on defense are Greer, Mosley, Jenkins, safety Rodney McLeod and Cameron Johnson, who has moved from outside linebacker to end, and it’s not unrealistic to think that several of them might be all-ACC before their college careers end.
So how good can this defense be?
“That’s hard to say,” Reid said. “What you want to say is, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re going to be just awesome.’ But the truth of it is that we need numbers, and it is a different system.
“I think the best way to answer that is to say we’re working as hard as we can. We will find out not just on the 4th of September” — when UVa opens against Richmond at Scott Stadium — “but we will find out [as the season progresses]. Because when you put in a new system with young players, what you should do, if you can maintain your health, is improve as the year goes on.
“We have progressed. How far we’ve progressed, you don’t know. There’s been significant progress, but in order to win in the ACC, there’s got to be much more significant progress.”
The same is true, of course, throughout the program.
“We’ve definitely come a long way,” Verica said, “but as far as we’ve come and as much progress as we’ve made, we still have that much more to go if we really want to do something this year. This summer’s definitely going to be a tremendous opportunity for everybody take everything they’ve learned this spring and refine it and get better.”