By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Landon Bradley, Kris Burd, Matt Conrath, Jared Detrick, Terence Fells-Danzer, Jared Green, Chris Hinkebein, Nick Jenkins, Dom Joseph, Raymond Keys, Anthony Mihota, Max Milien, Chase Minnifield, Corey Mosley, Zane Parr, Matt Snyder, Aaron Taliaferro.
Those 17 scholarship players are all fourth-year academically at UVa, but each has a season of football eligibility left.
It’s unlikely that all will return next season. Mike London, whose first season as UVa’s head coach ended last weekend, is assembling a large and well-regarded recruiting class for 2011.
To make room for those newcomers, some veterans probably will not be invited back for their fifth years.
At his end-of-season press conference Wednesday, London told reporters at John Paul Jones Arena that he will meet with each of the would-be fifth-year seniors in January to discuss their futures.
“Right now the focus is to make sure that everyone takes care of their academic obligations,” London said, “and then I get a chance to see how the semester went as far as the GPA and if there are any academic issues.”
Some difficult decisions await him, London acknowledged.
“It’s always like that,” he said, “particularly when you’re coming in and you’re trying to establish the systems and then [find] the players that fit the systems that you want to play. The difficult thing about that is, I’ve sat in a lot of those living rooms with those young men that I’ll have to make tough decisions about.
“But it’s all about trying to build the program and trying to get the players that can be acclimated to the system that you want to use.”
London noted that a “fifth year is not always guaranteed” to a player.
“You just try to fit your team, your needs, how recruiting is going,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that go into the mix about that.”
Of UVa’s players this season, nearly 70 have eligibility remaining.
VETERAN CREW: Virginia finished 4-8 after losing to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg last weekend. Nine players who started at least six games apiece on offense for UVa have eligibility left: Bradley, Mihota, Morgan Moses, Oday Aboushi and Austin Pasztor on the line, Milien at fullback, Perry Jones at tailback, Colter Phillips at tight end and Kris Burd at wide receiver.
On defense, 11 players who started at least six games each this year could return: ends Parr and Cam Johnson, tackles Jenkins and Conrath, linebackers Ausar Walcott, LaRoy Reynolds and Taliaferro, cornerbacks Devin Wallace and Chase Minnifield, and safeties Corey Mosley and Rodney McLeod. Moreover, linebacker Steve Greer started all 12 games for the Wahoos in 2009.
Virginia hired London last December to replace Al Groh. Most of the Cavaliers’ assistants were new this year, as were the offensive and defensive schemes London’s coaching staff installed. Those won’t be the case in 2011, and London expects his team to benefit from the continuity.
“I think the consistency in the coaching staff, in what they say, what they tell the players, what the players hear, I think that’s always important,” London said.
Combine the coaching staff’s continuity with so many returning starters “and the influx of, hopefully, some young new talent,” London said, and that will provide “an opportunity for improvement and for better play.”
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: This marks the fourth time in five seasons that the ‘Hoos failed to qualify for a bowl. Not only does that limit the program’s national exposure, it means players don’t benefit from the practices that precede a bowl game.
“It’s a whole ‘nother spring practice where you have a chance to develop, and that’s the goal,” London said.
The extra practices are particularly beneficial to young players, who get practice reps that can make it easier for a team to get back to a bowl the next year.
“And that’s what we aspire to do, to be,” London said, “a team that’s playing in postseason, to allow you to continue to get your guys more experienced and get them ready, fundamentally, technically.
“That’s big. It’s huge. And as we move forward here, hopefully we’re in a position to be like that for a long time.”
WIDE OPEN: Late in the season, true freshman Michael Rocco was the first quarterback off the bench for UVa. With Marc Verica out of eligibility, Virginia will have a new starter at that position in 2011, but the job won’t be handed to Rocco.
Other candidates figure to include Ross Metheny, a redshirt freshman who threw a touchdown pass in the finale against Virginia Tech, as well as Michael Strauss and Miles Gooch, freshmen who redshirted this season.
“That’s going to be an open position where the best player is going to play,” London said.
SELF-EVALUATION: London, who had two stints as a UVa assistant, was asked how he rated his performance in his first season as the Cavaliers’ head man.
“Anything that can be measured can be improved,” he said. “I’m responsible for offense, defense and special teams. I’m responsible for the team and how they perform in the classroom and off the field. And so I would say, even for myself, I’m a work in progress at making sure the things that occurred this year, they get better next year.”
London said he wants to see the Cavaliers distinguish themselves in the classroom and continue the progress they showed on offense and special teams. The defense, he knows, must improve, too.
Off the field, London said, he will work to “get out and embrace our fan base, our football alumni, continue to carry the message of President Sullivan. I’ll continue to do those, and I’ll get better at doing all those things.
“In any profession, any person always has an opportunity to improve, and that’s what I’m looking to do as we start the second season now. The second season started soon after the [Virginia Tech] game was over … I’m looking to improve in all areas as we go into the second season.”
STAYING PUT? Redshirt freshman Jeremiah Mathis, who moved from defensive end to tight end in early October after tight end Joe Torchia suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, is likely to remain on offense, London said.
“He’s a very talented guy,” London said of the 6-3, 255-pound DeMatha High graduate.
Mathis finished the season with 3 catches for 11 yards and 1 TD. He’s a versatile athlete who could play tight end, H-back or fullback next season.
After Torchia got hurt, Virginia’s top two tight ends were Phillips and Paul Freedman, who will be juniors in 2011. The coaching staff is also high on freshmen Zach Swanson and Jake McGee, both of whom redshirted this season.
“They’re going to be all-star tight ends in this league before it’s over with,” London said. “Tough, 6-6, aggressive, with the type of mentality that you want tight ends to have.”
Perhaps the greatest tight end in UVa history was Heath Miller, whose teammates and coaches called him “Big Money.” Miller now starts for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
As for Mathis, London said with a smile, “I think he wants to be ‘Little Money.’ We got ‘Big Money,’ Heath Miller, but [Mathis] doesn’t mind being small change.”
CAUSE FOR HOPE: There’s reason to believe Virginia will called for fewer penalties as London’s tenure progresses. His teams at the University of Richmond, where he was head coach in 2008 and ’09, were among the least-penalized in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision.
Of the 118 teams in the FCS, the Spiders had the 20th-fewest penalty yards per game (41.9) in 2008. UR won the national title that season.
In 2009, when the Spiders went 11-2, they averaged 39.2 penalty yards per game. Only five teams averaged fewer.
London’s first season at UVa, by contrast, went poorly on that front. Of the 120 teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, only three have averaged more penalty yards per game than the Cavaliers (73.3).