By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — His football team’s first meeting of the new year is not until Jan. 19, but UVa coach Mike London already knows one message he’ll deliver to his returning players: Don’t get used to having the holidays off.
While dozens of other teams spent December — and, in some cases, early January — preparing for bowl games, the Cavaliers packed up their helmets and pads when the regular season ended and stayed home for the fourth time in five years.
“I’d rather be practicing and playing,” London said.
The Wahoos finished 4-8 in 2010, his first season as their head coach. And so, for what London hopes will be the last time, he was on the outside looking in as ESPN broadcast one bowl after another.
He watched as many postseason games as possible, and he plans to talk to his players about what he learned.
“You get a chance to see different things,” said London, including North Carolina’s shaky clock management late in the Music City Bowl and the penalty assessed to a Kansas State player who saluted the crowd in the Pinstripe Bowl.
“You use those as teaching tools and remind [the players] that these are the things we’ve definitely got to eliminate to make sure we have a chance to put ourselves in the position to play well and win games.”
Virginia must replace Marc Verica, who started every game at quarterback in 2010. But veterans abound on both sides of the ball, as well as at punter (Jimmy Howell) and place-kicker (Robert Randolph).
Nine players who started at least six games each on offense in 2010 have eligibility left: linemen Landon Bradley, Anthony Mihota, Morgan Moses, Oday Aboushi and Austin Pasztor, fullback Max Milien, tailback Perry Jones, tight end Colter Phillips and wideout Kris Burd.
On defense, 10 Cavaliers who started at least six games each in 2010 could return: end Cam Johnson, tackles Nick Jenkins and Matt Conrath, linebackers Ausar Walcott, LaRoy Reynolds and Aaron Taliaferro, cornerbacks Chase Minnifield and Devin Wallace, and safeties Corey Mosley and Rodney McLeod. Moreover, linebacker Steve Greer started 12 games for UVa in 2009.
London has a new director of football training and player development — Evan Marcus, who previously held that position at UVa from 2003 to ’06 — but he’s confident the rest of his staff will return intact in 2010.
All of which means the players will be much more familiar with the coaches, and vice versa, than when the Wahoos headed into spring practice last year. The coaches are better acquainted with each other, too.
“I think the second time through, from the football standpoint, the terminology, coaches’ mentality, players, that’s always easier,” London said. “It’s not trying to re-invent something. People have worked together and kind of understand each other’s issues or whatever and how to remedy those issues, which makes it a whole lot better.”
In an interview in his McCue Center office late last week, London touched on numerous topics. They included:
* Minnifield’s decision to put his NFL dreams on hold.
“I think coming out of the season, what I appreciated about him was, he asked, ‘Coach, do you think I’d be ready for the league?’ ” London said.
The coaching staff encouraged Minnifield to submit his paperwork to the NFL draft advisory board. After receiving information from the board about where he might go in the 2011 draft, Minnifield conferred with his family — his father, Frank, was an outstanding cornerback in the NFL — and decided to complete his college eligibility.
Minnifield made the all-ACC first team in 2010. Had he left early, London said, the Cavaliers’ depth chart at cornerback this spring would have consisted of rising junior “Devin Wallace and who knows who.'”
Others at the position include Rijo Walker, one of three true freshmen to play for UVa in 2010, and freshman Drequan Hoskey, who redshirted. Also, the recruiting class that signs with Virginia next month is expected to include several corners.
* Defensive end Zane Parr’s decision to forgo his final season of college football.
London tried unsuccessfully to persuade Parr, who’s generally considered a marginal NFL prospect, to remain in school. Instead, Parr withdrew from UVa to pursue a professional career.
“It’s unfortunate,” London said. “People get in young men’s ears and give their evaluation that’s not closely related to the situation.”
The leading candidates to replace Parr in the starting lineup are rising sophomore Jake Snyder and rising junior Bill Schautz. Snyder was in for 132 defensive plays in 2010; Schautz, for 56.
Among the freshmen who redshirted in 2010 was defensive tackle Chris Brathwaite. If Brathwaite can work his way into the rotation this year, London said, two other tackles, Conrath and Will Hill, might also be options at end.
“We’re determined to put the 11 best on the field,” London said. “The four best linemen, the three best linebackers, the best corners and the best safeties.”
* The plans for Jeremiah Mathis.
Parr’s departure, though unexpected, isn’t likely to result in Mathis’ moving back to defense. “I don’t envision that,” London said.
Mathis, who was a redshirt freshman in 2010, switched from defensive end to tight end in early October after an injury to tight end Joe Torchia. He finished the season with 3 catches for 11 yards and a touchdown. In coordinator Bill Lazor’s offense, Mathis may also see time at fullback and H-back this year.
* Cam Johnson’s potential.
In Al Groh’s 3-4 defense, Johnson played outside linebacker in 2008 and ’09. As a junior in 2010, he moved to the line in the 4-3 scheme that London installed, and Johnson led the ‘Hoos with 14.5 tackles for loss, including 6.5 sacks.
Johnson has a shoulder injury that might keep him from fully participating in spring practice. But he figures to enter his final college season as an all-ACC candidate and potential NFL draft pick.
He’s put up some impressive statistics, but Johnson “can play better,” London said. “To me, he could be as good as he wants to be, as long as he wants to go every down. That’ll be the key.”
* Increased competition in practice.
Two freshmen from storied programs in the Tidewater area — quarterback David Watford (Hampton High) and outside linebacker DaQuan Romero (Phoebus High) — will start classes at UVa next week. The rest of London’s first full recruiting class won’t arrive until June or July, so the team will look much different in training camp than it does during spring practice.
In 2010, London said, many starters didn’t get pushed hard enough by their backups to have to worry about losing their jobs. That should not be the case this year, he said, “and I’m committed to playing the best players.”
* The battle to replace Verica as the starter.
The Cavaliers could have as many as five scholarship quarterbacks during spring practice — Watford, Michael Rocco, Ross Metheny, Michael Strauss and Miles Gooch — though Gooch might end up at another position.
“We’ll have enough of them,” London said. “Listen, I’m not worried about hurting any feelings or anything like that. Whoever the best performer is, that’s the guy. And it may even go out of the spring, because you only have 15 practices and a certain number of reps. That battle may go right on into the early part of camp, too.”
Rocco played as a true freshman in 2010, completing 13 of 25 passes for 143 yards and 1 TD, with 2 interceptions. Metheny, who’ll be a redshirt sophomore this fall, completed 13 of 17 passes for 171 yards and 3 TDs, with 1 pick. Strauss and Gooch are freshmen who redshirted in 2010.
* The numbers crunch.
A Football Bowl Subdivision team may have no more than 85 players on scholarship each season. With Parr gone, UVa has 16 players who were on scholarship in 2010 and could return as fifth-year seniors: Bradley, Mihota, Minnifield, Burd, Conrath, Jenkins, Milien, Taliaferro, Mosley, Jared Detrick, Terence Fells-Danzer, Jared Green, Chris Hinkebein, Dom Joseph, Raymond Keys and Matt Snyder.
It’s unlikely that all will be part of the team in the fall, but London is in no hurry to make those decisions.
“For some of them, spring practice is going to kind of be the tell-tale as far as whether or not they’ll be invited back,” he said. “I have planned for different scenarios. But last year at this time [safety] Trey Womack was a guy that I wasn’t going to bring back. Went through spring practice, did everything he was supposed to do in the classroom, in the community, made a point of it, made a statement about how he conducted himself. So I brought him back. I think it’s the same scenario for a lot of these guys, too.”
Space is tighter on the roster this year, said London, who acknowledged that he has “tougher decisions to make.”
* Defensive coordinator Jim Reid’s boundless energy on the recruiting trail.
“I was with him the other day, and we went to about nine different schools,” London said, smiling. “It was unbelievable. He was like, ‘We gotta go here. Let’s go.’ Vroom. I’m following behind him. He goes after it hard, man.”
In Reid’s first season as coordinator, UVa ranked 70th nationally in scoring defense and 78th in total defense. That didn’t please anyone associated with the program, least of all Reid, one of London’s coaching mentors.
“He’s very prideful,” London said. “He’s one of the hardest-working guys I’ve ever been around, and what happens on the field means a lot to him.”
Virginia’s starting outside linebackers in 2010, Reynolds and Walcott, played safety in 2009, and neither made a seamless transition to his new position. London expects significant improvement from both this year.
Nobody has to tell this former defensive coordinator what a difference linebackers can make. It didn’t escape London’s notice that Stanford’s linebackers excelled in the Cardinal’s rout of Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
“They got it, and they played the position, and they played well,” London said. “They had a great game plan.”