Nov. 25, 2010

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — As the final game of his first season as UVa’s football coach approaches, Mike London knows that the battle for the Commonwealth Cup isn’t the only thing on his players’ minds.

Today is Thanksgiving, and many of the Cavaliers will be able to spend time with their families. After the team practices in the morning, the players will disperse. Those who live an easy drive from Charlottesville will be permitted to head home. Others will stay in town and celebrate Thanksgiving together.

“It’s tricky a little bit, but I want to try to make it work so these guys can enjoy the holiday, even though it’s midweek before a game,” London said Wednesday morning on a teleconference with reporters.

Virginia (1-6, 4-7) meets ACC rival Virginia Tech (7-0, 9-2) at noon Saturday at Lane Stadium.

Only those players who will make the trip to Blacksburg practiced Thursday. The others were released after practice Wednesday afternoon, giving them an opportunity to get home early for Thanksgiving.

“You try to make it as easy as you can for everyone,” London said, “but understand that the priority is to get the practice in and to have a meaningful practice on Thanksgiving Day, then also allow some of those guys that are close by to go home.”

Senior quarterback Marc Verica is from the Philadelphia area, so heading home wasn’t an option for him. He’s planning to spend Thursday afternoon and evening with teammates.

“There’s some guys who are similar to my situation that are going to be sticking around in Charlottesville, and we decided to just all get together,” Verica said. “We’re going to chip in together and get some food and hang around each other and watch some football.”

So who’s responsible for preparing the meal?

“I think it’s going to be a combination of us with our culinary skills and probably a parent helping us out,” Verica said. “From what I’ve been told, I think [sophomore linebacker] Tucker Windle’s dad will be our head chef.”

Verica won’t be a spectactor in the kitchen.

“You’d be surprised, my culinary skills are probably better than what you would expect,” he said. “I enjoy cooking. I’m no Gordon Ramsay, but I can hold my own.”

Verica, as has been well-chronicled, is also an accomplished musician.

“I’m a Renaissance man,” he said with a laugh. “I do it all. Cook, clean, play music, play football.”

WELCOME BACK: Senior tailback Keith Payne is expected to play against the 13th-ranked Hokies, who will represent the Coastal Division in the ACC championship game.

Payne has been slowed by a leg injury for several weeks and missed Virginia’s game at Boston College last Saturday.

“I think it looks good for Keith this week,” running backs coach Mike Faragalli said Wednesday afternoon. “He’s practicing, and he’s doing better and better every day that goes by.”

The 6-3, 255-pound Payne has teamed with 5-8, 185-pound sophomore Perry Jones to give UVa one of the ACC’s better tailback tandems.

Jones has carried 126 times for 635 yards and 1 touchdown this season, and he also has 28 receptions for 208 yards and another score.

Payne leads the ACC with 15 touchdowns — all but one on the ground — and has rushed 153 times for 741 yards. He’s also caught 9 passes for 83 yards.

What makes Payne special, Faragalli said, is “the tenacity, the way that he loves to play, the physicality that he brings with the ball in his hand. He’s a hard guy to bring down for anybody. And it’s hard for one guy to get him, and sometimes it’s two or three, and he gets those pads down, and it’s impossible.

“It’s a great changeup, so to speak, between him and Perry. He’s going to bring a lot of emotion, a lot of passion, to our sideline and to our offense. I’m looking forward to it … I think you’d have to shoot him to keep him out of this one. I think he’s going to play no matter what and give it every ounce that he’s got, one last go-round here as a Cavalier.”

Payne needs 4 yards rushing to reach 1,000 for his career.

When Payne learned he was closing in on that mark, London joked Wednesday, “all of the sudden he perked up and danced around like a little Shetland pony. I think he’s excited about the opportunity. I think he’s feeling better. It’s his last game, an opportunity to do something going out and hopefully a chance to help us compete and win on the field.”

LOOKING AHEAD: Two of UVa’s top three tailbacks — Payne and Raynard Horne — are about to exhaust their college eligibility. Among those who will compete for their vacated spots in 2011 is Kevin Parks, who’s redshirting this season.

Parks, a 5-8, 195-pound freshman, was a Parade All-American as a senior at West Rowan High in Salisbury, N.C., last year. For his high school career, Parks rushed for 10,895 yards, a record in North Carolina.

“He’s going to be something special before it’s all over,” Faragalli said. “He’s a little bit like Perry in that he’s short, but he’s very stocky, very low to the ground, has a ton of talent, and I think he is going to have a great career here at some point in time. I’m just excited to see him get out there and compete.”

HEAVY HEART: Junior safety Corey Mosley, who has started eight games this season, returned to practice this week and is expected to play against Virginia Tech.

Mosley missed UVa’s 17-13 loss at BC. He was home with his family in the Richmond area mourning the death of his uncle James Patrick Mosley, who was shot and killed Nov. 12 in Chesterfield County.

Entering the season, the projected starters in Virginia’s secondary were cornerbacks Ras-I Dowling and Chase Minnifield and safeties Mosley and Rodney McLeod. For various reasons, that group started together only twice — Oct. 9 against Georgia Tech and Nov. 13 against Maryland.

Of those four defensive backs, only Minnifield has started every game. Dowling is out with a season-ending ankle injury.

Anthony Poindexter, a former All-America safety at UVa, now coaches that position for London. The Cavaliers’ play at safety has been mediocre, and that’s partly because, Poindexter said, Dom Joseph and Trey Womack had seen little action in the secondary before this season.

“Any time you’re playing safety, the more times you can look at it and be in the game, the more comfortable you get,” Poindexter said Tuesday. “But with the whole secondary, there was hardly any week when we lined up with the same four starting, so it’s hard to get cohesive when you do that.”

DYNAMIC DUO: Between them, UVa wideouts Kris Burd and Dontrelle Inman have caught 103 passes for 1,502 yards and 8 touchdowns this season.

Burd, a junior, has 752 yards receiving, and Inman, a senior, has 750. This marks the first time in school history that the Cavaliers have had two wideouts with at least 700 apiece.

GOOD NEWS/BAD NEWS: In its loss at Boston College, UVa amassed 421 yards against one of the ACC’s top defenses. But the Cavaliers scored only 13 points.

“That’s definitely a pretty frustrating day,” Verica said. “We were moving the ball. I thought we were playing physical at the line of scrimmage. We were running the ball well, we were completing a lot of passes, and for the most part we were protecting pretty well. So to be able to move up and down the field like we were, and then just not see the production as far as points, I think that tells the story of the game. In a lot of those drives we hurt ourselves with self-inflicted things, whether it was penalties or a turnover or stuff like that, that killed the momentum.

“This is our final shot this week, and hopefully we can continue to move the ball like we have, but we need to eliminate those things.”

HIGH PRAISE: Poindexter grew up in the Lynchburg area, played at UVa and now coaches at his alma mater. So he’s familiar with many of the quarterbacks who have come through this state. Poindexter believes Hokies senior Tyrod Taylor might be as good as any of them.

“This guy has made so many plays for Virginia Tech over the years,” Poindexter said. “He’s had a storied career there. You’d be hard-pressed so say he might not be the best quarterback that’s been there. I know obviously Michael Vick played there, but you think about what this kid means to that team and how much he does for the team, it’s unbelievable.

“He’s a great player. He’s a great kid, too. He’s a very upstanding young man.”

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