By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — UVa football coach Mike London appeared to be in midseason form as he roamed the practice fields Wednesday, exhorting his players.
“Keep the tempo going!” London yelled at one point. “Keep the tempo going!”
At 7 a.m., that’s sometimes easier said than done with college students who would rather be sleeping. But London’s players, who between drills saw the sun rise Wednesday, survived UVa’s first practice of the spring. Afterward they were able to smile about the pre-dawn start.
“It was a different experience,” all-ACC cornerback Chase Minnifield said. “Kind of chilly the whole morning. But it’s a good experience. I thought it would affect you fatigue-wise, but it’s not that bad. It just gets you going.”
Many of the players were on the field before 6 a.m. for a practice that officially began around 6:15.
“It started out, at 5-something, kind of slow,” London said, “but these guys kind of picked it up here as we went on.”
London expected no less from his team, which will practice at the same time Friday. His players, after all, had been through 6 a.m. weightlifting sessions with strength-and-conditioning coach Evan Marcus over the winter.
“Coach Marcus has them in there, and he’s got them going,” London said. “So I wasn’t surprised that there was no lack of energy out there. These guys have been up early in the morning before and had to perform.”
London was hired at UVa in December 2009, and his players spent much of spring practice last year learning new schemes and adjusting to a new coaching staff.
A year later, the Wahoos are much further along. Coming off a 4-8 season, they need to be.
“This practice right here was probably like the eighth or 10th practice last year,” Minnifield said. “So it’s definitely a lot of improvement and a lot of progress, but we should be, because we got a lot of players that played last year coming back. It’s what you expect out of people that have played before.”
London said: “First practice [in 2010], the ball was on the ground, like, 19 times. There were interceptions and miscommunication on a lot of things. The thing about going into the second year is the familiarity with the offense and the elimination of a lot of those things. So the potential to keep learning and getting better and moving forward was key here this morning. I wanted to see that, and I saw that.”
That comfort level was apparent on both sides of the ball. A year ago, UVa’s defense, which had played the 3-4 for the previous nine seasons, was trying to learn the 4-3. Breakdowns were common in spring practice.
Linebackers such as LaRoy Reynolds, Henry Coley and Steve Greer showed a better grasp of the system Wednesday.
“Now they understand the steps and the angles and things like that,” London said. “And I think we’ll be much better at that, just like I thought offensively guys were getting lined up and not putting the ball on the ground.”
Offensive tackle Oday Aboushi said: “It’s definitely a faster pace [than a year ago]. A lot of the basics are already installed. It’s just tweaking it here and there. We installed a lot more plays on Day 1 than we did last year on Day 1.”
The defense was in white and the offense in blue Wednesday, except for quarterbacks Michael Rocco, Ross Metheny, Michael Strauss and David Watford, who wore red jerseys.
On offense, the most pressing question is this: Who will replace Marc Verica as the starting quarterback? Rocco and Metheny were Verica’s backups last season, and Strauss redshirted. Watford is a true freshman who enrolled at Virginia in January.
As he had Monday during his press conference at John Paul Jones Arena, London said Wednesday that the coaching staff plans to settle on the top two quarterbacks by the end of spring drills, as well as a No. 3.
And if one quarterback can pull away from the others this spring?
That would be fine with the coaches, “because then the [other] players know who the signal-caller is, the leader, the guy, and I think that’s important,” London said. “It’s going to be up to those four guys to separate themselves to say, ‘I am the one, or we are the ones that are going to be involved.’
“Going into Year 2, I think that’s important for us, as far as an identity of a football team. All of them are working at it, and we’ll see what happens as pads get on and a live rush is coming at you and in scrimmage situations and all those things.”
Max Milien, who started seven games at fullback last season, worked some at tailback, too, on Wednesday. Miles Gooch, who came to UVa as a quarterback last season, practiced for the first time at wide receiver, and LoVanté Battle, a reserve outside linebacker in 2010, worked at safety.
That was Battle’s position as a true freshman in 2009.
“He came in,” London told reporters, “and he said, ‘Coach, I’m about 196 pounds and can’t seem to put on weight,’ so we talked about some things. I said, ‘Listen, I’ll give you a shot at safety.’
“He played there before, so we wanted to see what he could do and see what his recall would be, and it looked like it was pretty good out there. So we’ll keep him there for a while and then make a decision as we start moving forward.”
The practice was open to public. The fans who showed up, maybe two dozen in all, needed no introduction to London’s new graduate assistant. Marques Hagans, UVa’s starting quarterback in 2004 and ’05, will work with the team’s tight ends and wide receivers.
A season ago, Scott Wachenheim was Virginia’s tight ends coach. With the departure of Ron Mattes, Wachenheim has added another title: offensive line coach. Hagans and another former UVa player-turned-GA, Gordie Sammis, will help Wachenheim with the tight ends.
Sammis, a former offensive lineman, will work with them in the running game; Hagans, in the passing game. Hagans also played wideout at Virginia and in the NFL.
“We’re going to try on trying to expand his role, but make sure that our tight ends get coached and taught well,” London said.
For medical reasons, linemen Landon Bradley and Morgan Moses and wide receivers Kris Burd and Tim Smith have not been cleared for full participation this spring, so offensive coordinator Bill Lazor does not have his projected starting lineup. He expects his offense to make significant progress anyway.
“It’ll be a much different spring for us offensively …. because most of the guys who are here have a background and understand the language,” Lazor said Monday at JPJ. “Last year when we got started, there were so many things that we had to do. One of the things we had to do was teach them a whole new language, a whole new way of doing things. We had to really teach the quarterbacks how to take a snap from under center.
“Not that we won’t coach those fundamentals, but some of it has been coached, and like I said, we’ve really got smart guys, so we can keep moving forward. We’ll install it and teach everything, but I expect we can do it at a faster rate. I think that they have a baseline understanding of what our expectation level is as far as standards, and what we need now is for the players to go to the next level, where they are holding each other accountable to a standard of performance.
“What is it supposed to look like? How are we supposed to run off the ball? How are we supposed to stay low and be physical? We’ll go to the next level when the players already know that and can hold each other accountable to it.”