By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the John Paul Jones Arena dining hall — the same room in which he was introduced as UVa’s football coach on Dec. 7 — Mike London fielded more questions Wednesday afternoon.
Fortunately for London, his first season as the head ‘Hoo is no longer so far away. He’s spent much of the past eight months talking to fans and alumni and students about what he hopes to achieve at UVa, working tirelessly to revive interest in a flagging program, and he’s about talked out.
“And now the football part of it starts,” London said at Virginia’s media day.
His team opens training camp Friday afternoon, and London, who had two stints as a UVa assistant, said he’s thrilled to have “a chance now to actually go out and practice and try to put the plan together.”
In 2008 and ’09, his two seasons as the University of Richmond’s head coach, London went 24-5 and won a national championship. Virginia has had much less to celebrate in recent years. In three of Al Groh’s final four seasons as coach, the Wahoos finished below .500, including a 3-9 mark in 2009.
“To me it’s just a series of improvements as we go along,” London said of his rebuilding project.
He and his assistants have repaired frayed relationships with high school coaches in the state and the D.C. area. UVa’s players have been active in the community, as has the coaching staff. London has tirelessly promoted his program.
“Now the season starts,” he said. “Any part of the season where we’re showing that we’re very competitive, we’re playing with the temperament of the head coach and coordinators, I’ll consider that as a plus.
“At the end of the year, we’ll talk about if we’ve made enough strides or gains to consider the season a plus.”
Defensive coordinator Jim Reid said: “It’s going to be a great adventure. I know what Coach London’s vision is. In every phase of our program he articulates the message, every staff meeting. He expects us to carry that message and to fulfill this vision. And the vision goes beyond football. It goes to academics and social life [and the] community.
“All I know is this: If you get your academics in order, and you feel great about that, and you get a good feeling that you’re involved in the community, and now you train just as hard as you can … and then you’re taught proper technique, you’ve got a chance to be a total and great football player. That’s what the vision is.”
As the ‘Hoos head into training camp, Reid said his “humble feeling, being around these guys in the summer, is that there’s a level of excitement and anticipation here, right now, with all the new and the change with Coach London running the program, that isn’t just for the first day, the first week … There’s just a determination to get this thing changed and turned in a great way.”
In the preseason media poll at the ACC Football Kickoff, Virginia was picked to finish last in the Coastal Division.
HIGH PRAISE: Reid, a former head coach at UMass, Richmond and VMI, spent the 2008 and ’09 seasons as an assistant with the Miami Dolphins.
After London hired him in early January, Reid said, the first UVa player he called was cornerback Ras-I Dowling. The more time he’s spent with the All-America candidate, the more impressed Reid has been.
“This is exactly what I know about him: that as a father, this is who you get down on your knees and pray that your daughter brings home some day,” Reid said. “That is the type of character that he is. You would be so proud to call Ras-I Dowling your son, and I’ve told his family that.”
Dowling, a senior from Chesapeake, will be the face of UVa’s defense this season. And that, Reid said, is fitting.
“He’s an intense competitor,” Reid said. “He shows intensity on the practice field and in the classroom. He is as proud a man as we could ever have. He’s an ambassador in the community.
“This guy has no weakness. And everything we’ve asked him to do, he’s done willingly and in a determined manner. That’s Ras-I Dowling.
“What we’ve asked him to do is take control of this defense, with some other players, and to carry us to where we would like to be. And I’m sure that that will happen.”
Anthony Poindexter, Virginia’s secondary coach in 2009, echoed Reid’s comments.
“We all know Ras-I’s a great player,” said Poindexter, who was an All-America safety at UVa. “Barring anything unfortunate happening to him, he’s going to make a lot of money at the next level. You can see the talent, but you get to know the kid, his personality, how he treats people, how he respects his coaches, and it don’t get much better than that.”
FOR SIMPLICITY’S SAKE: Under London, Poindexter is special-teams coordinator and coaches the safeties.
After being fired as Kansas State’s head coach, Ron Prince returned to UVa as special-teams coordinator in 2009. There was a lot of talk, much of it from Groh, about the “sophisticated schemes” that Prince would install, but overall Virginia’s special-teams units struggled mightily last season.
Poindexter’s approach is different.
“Well, you know I’m not a very sophisticated guy anyway,” he said with a smile Wednesday. “My philosophy is just to get them to play hard, play fast. To me football is a simple game. Run, tackle, catch. On special teams, we return it, block the guy and try to get our guy [into the open field]. If we’re kicking it off, tackle the guy. That’s the bottom line to me.”
During his storied career for Hall of Fame coach George Welsh, Poindexter played on multiple special teams.
“My redshirt freshman year, he put me back there to return kicks one game,” Poindexter recalled. “That was probably the most fear I ever had in a game, because I didn’t want to fumble the kick. Luckily, they didn’t kick it to me.”
Expect to see more than walk-ons and reserves on UVa’s special teams this season.
“I’m going to use the best players. I don’t look at it as a feel-good, that’s-the-way-people-get-on-the-field-to-get-in-the-game [type of thing],” Poindexter said. “You can win and lose games on the special teams, and me and Coach London are on the same page with that. We’ll use whoever we have to use to perform well on the special teams.”
NUMBERS GAME: Fifth-year senior Marc Verica is the only quarterback in the program who has taken a snap in a college game. His backups during spring practice were redshirt freshman Ross Metheny and true freshman Michael Strauss, who entered UVa in January.
Freshmen who have joined the team this summer include three quarterbacks: Miles Gooch, Michael Rocco and Jake McGee. One or more of them could end up at another position, but each will begin practice at quarterback.
“It’s probably for me going to be a very big challenge in training camp, especially early,” new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said Wednesday. “It’s very difficult to get four quarterbacks reps, almost impossible to get five quarterbacks reps, and we have six.”
Lazor said the other offensive assistants will help him evaluate the quarterbacks.
“As a staff, it’s going to be a huge job, because some decisions will have to be made early, because six is too many for everyone to rep every period of practice,” Lazor said. “We’ve talked about it, and we’ll work it out.”
MEDICAL REPORT: London said his team will start camp with a nearly full complement of players. Defensive end Brent Urban is recovering from knee surgery and probably won’t be cleared until September, and offensive guard Aaron Van Kuiken had an operation on his wrist that might sideline him early in the season.
But the other players who missed all or part of spring practice because of injuries, including defensive tackle Matt Conrath, middle linebacker Steve Greer, safety Corey Mosley, tailback Dominique Wallace and tight end Joe Torchia, have been cleared for training camp, London said.
LAGGING BEHIND: In 2009, Gregg Brandon’s first and last season as Groh’s offensive coordinator, UVa ranked 118th nationally (out of 120 teams) in total offense, 112th in rushing offense, 105th in passing offense, and 105th in scoring offense.
The Cavaliers weren’t much more productive in their three seasons under Brandon’s predecessor as coordinator, Mike Groh.
Lazor said Wednesday that when he took the job he “knew what the numbers were offensively … I don’t have them memorized, because it’s not that important. What’s important is what we do every day.
“I know the numbers. They’re in the back of my head somewhere. And I know it’s not going to be easy. I was told that when I came, and I didn’t expect it to be. But it’s never been easy wherever I’ve been.”
BACK TO BASICS: During Welsh’s tenure, UVa regularly produced all-ACC tailbacks, Terry Kirby, Tiki Barber and Thomas Jones among them. Groh had several talented tailbacks, including Wali Lundy and Alvin Pearman, but the Cavaliers’ running game has sputtered in recent years.
Lazor’s pro-style offense emphasizes the ground game, as did Richmond’s during London’s tenure there.
“It’s very important that we be able to run the ball and establish a physical presence out on the field,” London said. “At the end of the game, you’ve got to be able to run the ball, because you want the clock to run.
“If you can run the ball, then you can also set up the play-action passes that come off of those complementary run plays. So it’s going to be important for us to run the ball, push people back, create holes. I think we’ve got good running backs, and I think that if we can just do that and control the line of scrimmage, we’ll be a much better team, because it’ll take pressure off the quarterback.”
As a sophomore last season, wideout Kris Burd led the ‘Hoos in receptions (31) and receiving yards (413). Lazor is the third offensive coordinator for whom the former Matoaca High star has played.
“I really do love this offensive scheme we got going,” Burd said Wednesday. “I feel like Coach Lazor came in and brought a simple but complex scheme at the same time. He really uses the personnel well as far as putting people in the right places to make plays.
“The passing game helps the run game, the run game helps the passing game, and I feel like a good balance is always the best offense, and I feel like the offense we have now gives us the best chance to win football games.”
COME ONE, COME ALL: The Cavaliers’ annual “Meet the Team Day” will be Aug. 15 at Scott Stadium. Gates will open that Sunday at 1:30 p.m., and players will be available for photographs and autographs from 2 to 3:30.
Parking is free for the event in the stadium’s East and West lots.