By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At the end of last season, there was no reason to believe any of them would figure prominently on UVa’s football team this year.
Tailback Keith Payne wasn’t even on the team. Unhappy with his role in the offense, Payne had quit days before the 2009 opener, though he remained a student at the University.
Safety Trey Womack, linebackers Darnell Carter and Aaron Taliaferro, tailback Raynard Horne and cornerback Mike Parker were on the roster, but none had a major role in then-coach Al Groh’s program.
Look at them now. Payne rushed for 114 yards and 4 touchdowns Saturday night in Mike London’s debut as UVa’s coach, a 34-13 win over Richmond at Scott Stadium.
Womack and Taliaferro made their first career starts against UR. Carter had his first sack. Horne carried 5 times for 19 yards and had an 8-yard reception, and Parker logged significant time in the secondary.
After taking over as UVa’s coach in December, London met with each returning player. For those who, for whatever reason, had struggled under Groh, the message was simple.
“You say, ‘Listen, this is the way it’s going to be, everybody: We’re wiping the slate clean, and whatever you did in the past, that was then, this is now,’ ” London said. “And you give them an opportunity, both in the classroom and on the field.”
Players such as Taliaferro and Carter “have embraced the fact that, whether it’s the schemes that have changed, or whether it’s just a philosophy or whatever it is, they just have a new lease on life and they feel that they have a chance,” London said. “And when guys are feeling good about themselves, they’re going to give you great effort, and I think that’s what happened.”
TOO EARLY TO TELL: Injuries kept UVa’s two top defensive backs — senior cornerback Ras-I Dowling (leg) and junior safety Rodney McLeod (knee) — from playing against UR. That meant more playing time for Devin Wallace and Parker at cornerback and Womack and Dom Joseph at safety, and all acquitted themselves well, London said.
Virginia meets USC (1-0) on Saturday night at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
“I’m probably more optimistic about Ras-I than I am about Rodney right now,” London said Sunday night.
“Even with Ras-I, it might be up to a game-time decision with him. Not so sure about Rodney, but like I said, we’ll see. I know both of them want to play, that’s for sure, particularly in this game that’s coming up. It’s a huge game in terms of the guys traveling to play in a historic place, it’s a great team, a traditional team that’s been a powerhouse, and I know they want to play.”
UPON FURTHER REVIEW: After watching videotape of the UR game, London had a better read on his team’s performance.
“I thought that our guys played hard,” London said. “I thought they played with energy. There were ups and downs, there were little lulls there in the game, but I just thought for the most part, in just hearing from them and other people afterward, it was a game they saw lot of passion and energy going on.
“It started coming out of the tunnel, [continued] during the game, to after the game with the opportunity for our guys to engage the students.
“I always like to have things done and have perfect game plans, but the game of football is not exact, and sometimes things don’t happen the way you plan for them to happen. I was pleased the guys got to feel what it takes to win a game, particularly a home opener, and what it meant to start the season out correct.”
IN TANDEM: After nine seasons in Groh’s trademark 3-4 defense, UVa unveiled its new 4-3 scheme against Richmond. Taliaferro, a redshirt junior, and Steve Greer, a redshirt sophomore, split time at middle linebacker.
Their stats weren’t impressive — Taliaferro was credited with 2 tackles and Greer with 1 stop — but London said he was pleased with their play.
“I thought the two of them combined, being a starting middle linebacker, did a nice job,” London said. “Aaron was in there a lot of our packages where we bring an extra DB in, and Steve is a sideline-to-sideline guy.”
The Spiders converted only 5 of 15 third-down opportunities, and they were 0 for 2 on fourth-down attempts.
“I think they complement each other,” London said of Taliaferro and Greer. “They both have different things they bring to the table. It’s a good thing to have when you have two guys that are in the middle that can provide you some leadership and provide you some playmaking opportunities.”
NOT BUSINESS AS USUAL: On a typical game week, the players have Monday off. This week, however, the team is flying to Los Angeles on Thursday, so there will be no practice that day. Instead, the ‘Hoos met early Monday morning for practice.
The plan, London said, is to follow a typical Tuesday practice schedule on Monday, a typical Wednesday schedule on Tuesday and a typical Thursday schedule on Wednesday.
“Then we’ll be out there on Thursday night, wake up Friday and spend a full day doing some things Friday and try to get a Friday practice that would maybe represent a Thursday’s practice, and then play the game on Saturday night,” London said.
“It does cause for some shifting and for things like that. But I looked at the schedule and talked to other people that have flown out West from the East. You try to take all things into consideration, so we came up with this plan.”
The game is scheduled to start Saturday at 10:30 p.m. ET.
ODD MAN OUT: On a night when junior Kris Burd and senior Dontrelle Inman combined for 210 yards on 14 catches, another wide receiver, Tim Smith, had only 1 reception for 8 yards.
London expects Smith to provide much-needed playmaking ability, but the sophomore from Chesapeake missed about a week of practice with a foot injury late last month, and that slowed his progress.
“I think Tim missing a little time with his ankle and stuff like that, you don’t get a chance to go out there and actually line up where you’re supposed to line up, and run the depth of the route that you’re supposed to, and that does cause a little bit of rustiness,” London said. “But we’re hoping that now that he’s back he can get back into the groove of knowing where to go and what to do, because he definitely can catch and run if he gets it.”
OUT OF CHARACTER: Southern California’s defense was unusually generous Thursday night. The Trojans put up 49 points against Hawaii, but they gave up 36 and also allowed 588 yards Thursday night.
UVa, meanwhile, totaled 488 yards two nights later against Richmond.
“We’ve just got to execute our offense and take a good look at [USC’s defense],” London said. “They’re very talented players, and they got a very good team. It’s one of those things, all of them are high school All-Americans, even the second- and third-team guys. We have to make sure that we do the things necessary to give us a chance to move the ball against a very, very talented team.
“But it’s one of those things that’s part of football. You’re never satisfied. We win a game, but you’re not completely satisfied with what you do and how you did it. You’ve always got to do it better. As they’re looking to improve on whatever they have to improve, we’re doing the same thing.”