By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At certain positions, he’s running perilously low on scholarship players. But Mike London committed weeks ago to dividing his roster for an actual spring game, and UVa’s second-year football coach isn’t going back on his word.
Fans at Scott Stadium on Saturday afternoon will see an Orange-Blue scrimmage instead of a series of situational drills, the format favored in recent years. On one side, the Orange team will include the first-team defense. On the other, the Blue Team will include most of the first-team offense.
Virginia’s four quarterbacks — Michael Rocco, Ross Metheny, Michael Strauss and David Watford — will be in red jerseys. They’ll work with both teams. So will other Cavaliers who play positions at which UVa has little depth this spring.
The Wahoos won’t have a full complement of defensive backs until the incoming recruits arrive this summer. Nowhere, though, is London’s team thinner this spring than at wide receiver.
Four wideouts — Kris Burd, Tim Smith, Matt Snyder and Bobby Smith — are recovering from injuries and won’t play Saturday. In their absence, UVa’s top three receivers are Ray Keys, E.J. Scott and Miles Gooch, only one of whom (Keys) has played in a college game.
“You look around numbers-wise, and having a spring game was kind of a touch-and-go situation,” London said. “Our wide-receiver situation is such that you could come out and play wide receiver right now.”
The coaching staff wants to see how each quarterback fares behind the No. 1 offensive line and the No. 2 offensive line.
“There’s different challenges on both sides of that,” London said. “So we’d like to put them in the same kind of situations and see how they can react and see if they can move the team or how they can handle success or adversity. You try to make the laboratory the same for all of them. And when we’re done with the game, which is a big part of the evaluation, we still have one week left of practice, where we start putting in more situations and start doing things to get ready for teams we play next year.”
Of the four QBs, only Rocco and Metheny have taken snaps in a college game. They’ll be sophomores in the fall. Strauss will be a redshirt freshman. Watford is a freshman who enrolled at UVa in January.
The Cavaliers’ 15th and final practice of the spring will be April 9. The coaches won’t necessarily name a starting quarterback coming out of spring ball, but they want to settle on the top two at that position.
“It’s up to the players,” London said. “They all know that every throw, every decision, everything they say, everybody audible that’s not heard, everything is being evaluated on all of them. So the 15 practice opportunities that they are afforded, we’re going to use that and evaluate each one of them, and then hopefully come up with a pecking order that says, ‘Listen, this is the way we’re going to start. You have a summer to improve, and if you’ve improved and separated yourself from the others, then you’ll earn a spot. If not, somebody will be breathing down your neck.’ “
The Orange-Blue game will be video streamed on ESPN3. The men’s lacrosse game that precedes the football scrimmage will be shown on ESPNU.
At noon, sixth-ranked UVa hosts 10th-ranked Maryland in an ACC lacrosse game at Scott Stadium. When the lacrosse ends, the football team will take the field for warm-ups.
London said he understands the significance for UVa lacrosse of the Maryland game. Likewise, London said, lacrosse coach Dom Starsia “appreciates what [the spring game] means to the football program, to the athletic department as a whole.”
Both Virginia teams are “excited about just getting out there and having a chance for fans and people to come and enjoy the full day,” London said.
The football scrimmage will include some “kicking elements,” London said, and players will tackle ballcarriers to the ground for the first time this spring.
“We’ll try to do it like a regular game,” said London, though he’ll instruct officials to blow “a quick whistle, because I want to make sure we come out of here in pretty good shape [physically].”
The ‘Hoos practiced in Hampton on March 19 and in Alexandria on March 26. Both events were open to the public, but the spring game will draw many more fans. London is eager to see how his players perform in that atmosphere.
“I put stock in the day-in, day-out preparation that the guys have been doing since we’ve been: lifting, the daily practices, what they’re doing on the field, assignments and alignments and all those things,” London said. “But this gives them an opportunity to play at a different venue, play in as close to game-like situations as possible, when people are looking, when there’s noise, when there’s distractions. They have to perform.
“You get kind of a clue, particularly with some of these young guys, about where they are, what they can handle.”
The spring football game is free for fans. Tickets to the lacrosse game are $7 for adults and $5 for youth, seniors and UVa faculty and staff. Seating is general admission.