By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For some members of the UVa football team, 5 a.m. wakeup calls are nothing new.
Starting in late January, these players had regular 6 a.m. appointments with strength-and-conditioning coach Evan Marcus, who put them through a grueling offseason program. Their teammates were in groups that trained with Marcus later in the day. Starting this week, though, all the Cavaliers will get in on the pre-dawn fun.
Spring practice begins Wednesday for the Wahoos, who will convene at 6 a.m. on the fields behind University Hall and the McCue Center. That will be the starting time for most of UVa’s 15 practices this spring.
A year ago, spring practices usually began around 2:30 p.m., and some players would arrive late — or have to leave early — because of class conflicts. The early starts will allow players to take classes throughout the day, second-year coach Mike London said Monday, and help keep their minds on football at night.
“It’s designed so that come 10, 11, 12 o’clock at night, if I knew I had practice, had to get up at 5 o’clock the next morning, I’d make sure I got the proper rest,” London told reporters at John Paul Jones Arena.
If he likes what he sees this spring, London said, early-morning practices may follow in the fall.
“If not,” he said, “then we’ll try to find other ways to make sure that everyone gets what they need.”
UVa will hold two out-of-town practices this spring: the first at Darling Stadium in Hampton on Saturday afternoon; the second, at Episcopal High School in Alexandria on March 26. The Cavaliers’ spring game is set for April 2 at Scott Stadium. Also next month, Virginia will host a clinic for high school coaches in Charlottesville.
“We’re trying to do a lot of things: Get the team better, find out who our playmakers are, get our program out to the different areas, and also bring the high school coaches up here and make ourselves accessible and available to them,” London said. “We’re trying to attack a lot of things, but the main purpose of spring practice is to get better, and I think we’ll do that.”
The ‘Hoos, coming off a 4-8 season, will go through spring drills without a full complement of players, as is usually the case.
Recovering from offseason operations are offensive tackle Landon Bradley, wideout Kris Burd, defensive end Cam Johnson and defensive tackle Hunter Steward. All should be ready for training camp in August, along with wideout Tim Smith, who had ankle surgery last season. Smith and Johnson will participate on a limited basis this spring, London said.
Also, offensive lineman Morgan Moses has recovered from mononucleosis, London said, but may not be cleared to practice for another week or two.
Three other players — outside linebacker Ausar Walcott, cornerback Devin Wallace and center Mike Price — remain suspended for conduct detrimental to the team.
London said his biggest concerns this spring are “maybe depth on the offensive line — who’s healthy — and our corner situation, not having a lot of bodies there, also. Those are the main two issues going in as far as depth-wise. We’ve addressed it in recruiting, but you don’t get those freshmen going through spring ball. But we’ll make the best of what we have.”
Virginia’s seniors in 2010 included quarterback Marc Verica, who started every game. Miles Gooch, who came to UVa as a quarterback last year, has moved to wide receiver, which leaves four players battling to replace Verica atop the depth chart: Ross Metheny, Michael Rocco, Michael Strauss and David Watford.
Metheny and Rocco will be sophomores in the fall; Strauss, a redshirt freshman. Watford, who starred for Hampton High last season, enrolled at UVa in January.
If he were to put together a depth chart at quarterback today, London said, it “would say so-and-so or so-and-so or so-and-so. There’s no one that’s anointed or appointed.”
London doesn’t necessarily want to name a starter by the end of the spring. “I think what we’d like to do is find 1 and 2, or 1a and 1b,” he said. “You’d like to [be able to say], ‘OK, those two guys are the guys that gotta get it done.’ And then that third guy, just make sure that he’s always [around], maybe the guy that’s signaling the plays in.
“It’ll be interesting to see, coming out of spring, who’s where. And all those guys know that it’s an open competition.”
Offensive coach Bill Lazor, who took over when London’s question-and-answer sesion ended Monday, made the same point.
“It really is an open situation,” Lazor said. “We have four quarterbacks, and they’re all a little bit different. The thing that’s great about the four of them, as best as I can tell — and I only say that because one of them I don’t know as well as the others — but as best I can tell, you couldn’t have a better group of four guys.
“I think it just goes without saying that when you look at the history of football at all levels, it’s critical that you have the right kind of guy [at quarterback], and I think we have four great guys, four hard workers, guys who’ve been hungry all offseason to learn and to get in and study on their own, and do the things that a real quarterback needs to do, truthfully, to be successful.
“It will be a great challenge for me and the coaches, dividing up the reps. There just aren’t enough reps for three quarterbacks, let alone for four. We’ll have some things that we do drill-wise, and every throw will count. We’ll make sure we’re charting drills and one-on-ones and every single drill they do, because we’re going to have to make decisions as quickly as we can.”
WAIT AND SEE: Asked about the status of the suspended players — Walcott, Wallace and Price — London said they are focused now on “academic obligations and expectations.”
Whether they will play again at UVa will be determined by a combination “of a lot of things: the courts, the school, and then my rules and regulations that I have for the team,” London said.
London said he’s waiting “until they’ve gone through the proper channels legally and through the school, and when I sit down and talk to them face to face, once again, after all these other actions have been taken. Then we’ll decide whether or not they’ll play here or somewhere else.”
SHUFFLING THE DECK: In 2010, Walcott started 11 games at Will (weakside) linebacker, LaRoy Reynolds started 11 games at Sam (strongside) linebacker, and Aaron Taliaferro started six games at Mike (middle) linebacker.
With Walcott out, Reynolds has been moved to Will. Taliaferro is the first-team Sam, and Steve Greer is starting at Mike.
As a redshirt freshman in 2009, Greer started every game at one of the inside-linebacker spots in the 3-4 scheme favored by London’s predecessor, Al Groh.
“So we’ve got some guys now with some experience,” defensive coordinator Jim Reid said Monday. “For the entire linebacker group, what we have to do is become a little bit more consistent. Not in effort, now, and not in energy, but just in performance.”
The second-team linebackers, London said, are Daquan Romero at Will, Tucker Windle at Sam and Henry Coley at Mike. Romero, a former Phoebus High star, enrolled at UVa in January, along with Watford.
“I want to create competition, basically, to see how far along that Daquan can pick up the system,” London said, “and then by the end of spring practice make sure the best three linebackers are on the field, whoever the three may be.”
SHORT-HANDED: The Cavaliers’ starting defensive ends last season were Johnson and Zane Parr. Johnson is recovering from shoulder surgery, and Parr passed up his final season of eligibility to pursue a professional career.
“What it does is,” Reid said, “it opens up an opportunity for” ends such as Billy Schautz, Jake Snyder and Brent Urban to gain experience and to impress the coaching staff this spring.
In the secondary, Wallace’s absence has left Reid with only two scholarship cornerbacks this spring: all-ACC pick Chase Minnifield and Rijo Walker, one of three true freshman to play for the ‘Hoos last season.
“With missing people, it creates opportunities,” Reid said, “and I tell you what, you would like to be Rijo Walker right now. He is just frothing at the bit to show what he can do.”
Another cornerback who’ll get extensive work this spring is walk-on Drequan Hoskey, a freshman who redshirted in the fall.
“I tell you what,” Reid said, “his eyes are about this big right now as he’s walking around. He can hardly wait. There’s some good opportunities for those young guys to make a lot of improvement, and we need to improve at that position. There’s no question.”
Reid said safeties Dom Joseph and Rodney McLeod may cross-train at cornerback this spring. Both began their college careers at that position.
SECOND CHANCES: Because of academic issues, neither offensive lineman Billy Cuffee nor defensive tackle Klinton “Buddy” Ruff was on the team last season. Both have been allowed back this spring, but they’re no longer on scholarship.
London said he “wanted to make sure that there was enough of a commitment from them. Basically what they’re doing is paying for this semester, to make an investment in their future by showing me that ‘I want to come back and play football, I’m serious about my academics, because that’s what got me away from here, and I’m willing to pay my own way to show you.’
“Both of them will be evaluated as spring practice ends, and then we’ll talk more about what they did and what’s going to be available for them.”