By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The depth chart released this week shows, among other things, that UVa’s football team ended spring practice with many unanswered questions.
On the offensive side, for example, the first-team slots have yet to be filled at left tackle (Oday Aboushi or Landon Bradley), right tackle (Morgan Moses or Bradley), right guard (Luke Bowanko or Moses), tight end (Colter Phillips, Paul Freedman or Jeremiah Mathis), quarterback (Ross Metheny or Michael Rocco) and fullback (Max Milien or Ryan Cobb).
Much work remains, then, for Bill Lazor and Virginia’s other offensive assistants. But the Cavaliers’ second-year offensive coordinator was happy with the progress he saw during spring ball.
“I’m much more settled than last year at this time,” Lazor said. “The main thing is, I have a much better feeling for what our players can do. At this time last year, even after going through 15 practices, so much of that time was spent with them learning what to do that it was sometimes hard to get a true evaluation. After being with most of these guys for a year, I feel much better about what they can do and what kind of positions we can put them in next year.”
In Lazor’s first season, Virginia’s offense showed dramatic improvement.
In 2009, Al Groh’s final year as head coach, UVa ranked 118th out of 120 teams nationally in total offense and 105th in scoring offense. Groh’s successor, Mike London, hired Lazor to oversee the offense. In 2010, the Wahoos ranked 37th in total offense and 75th in scoring offense.
UVa lost some significant pieces from its 2010 offense, and Lazor must replace quarterback Marc Verica, tailback Keith Payne and wide receiver Dontrelle Inman, among others. But veterans abound at most positions, and the ‘Hoos believe they can take another step forward offensively this season.
Before leaving town for a recruiting trip, Lazor sat down in his McCue Center office Tuesday afternoon to talk with VirginiaSports.com. The highlights follow.
JW: What do you like about this group?
Lazor: “I feel a lot better about the leadership of our offense. Last year we had a returning quarterback who was voted a captain” — Verica — “and certainly that helped us going forward. This year it’s a little different in that I think we have leadership more abundantly at all the different positions.
“We return three different tight ends who’ve played, and all three of them have scored touchdowns. So when you talk to them, their confidence level about where they should be as a group, as well as where each of them individually sees himself, is much higher than last year.
“At the offensive line we return a lot of guys who’ve played a lot of football. So I just get the sense from them that they’re prepared to take some of the leadership on their shoulders, and that as a line they want to be a big part of why we’re going to have success.
“At the receiver corps, we have a guy who’s been elected captain,” — Matt Snyder — “and another guy who was our team co-MVP [in 2010]” — Kris Burd. “So you’re talking about two guys who mean a lot to the program, and though Kris isn’t a captain, he also has great respect from his teammates.
“At the tailback spot, [returning starter] Perry Jones is a guy who’s also a captain. So we don’t have the fifth-year senior captain returning at quarterback, but we have a lot of different people offensively who’ve played football, who have confidence, who are prepared to take some leadership role. And so I think as an offense I feel better today about where our leadership will come from as a group, and that makes me more confident that we’ll be able to handle some of the ups and downs. And when we hit those tough spots, we’ll have more guys who are ready to pull their teammates out of those tough spots and get things righted when the ship isn’t going the right way.”
JW: The depth chart lists two quarterbacks on the first line (sophomores Metheny and Rocco) and two on the second (redshirt freshman Michael Strauss and true freshman David Watford). Your thoughts on that situation?
Lazor: “All of them are quality guys, great attitude guys, great effort guys, do-the-right-thing kind of guys who are really learning quickly as they go. So it’s just a matter of who performs the best, the fastest.”
JW: Are any of the position battles on offense likely to be decided before training camp?
Lazor: “It’s hard to imagine that they can be, realistically. Sometimes coaches will revisit our spring evaluations. Mainly it’s because if we think that it’s better to stack [the depth chart] in a certain order before you start the first practice, more than it is that anything has changed.But usually if it started as an ‘or,’ it means it’s still pretty close and pretty open.”
JW: Phillips, Freedman and Mathis all played last season. Does it matter much who starts at that position?
Lazor: “I expect all three of those tight ends to play a lot. In my mind, all three of them could be a starter, and there could be situations when more than one starts in a particular game. I think we did that a couple times last year. But I think they’ve all proven that they can perform at an ACC level. Now the challenge for them is: How high can they take it? As a group, can they become the best tight end corps in the ACC? That’s not a prediction on my part. That’s a challenge to them more than anything.
“The hardest thing with the tight end is simply that he’s asked to do so many different things. And it’s hard as a player to do so many different things, all well. That’s the challenge for these guys. They know it. They all understand it. They’re all smart guys. They understand the things they need to do well, and I’m confident they’ll work at it.
“To me, the positive is that we’ve got a group of them. I’m sure each guy, though they’re all great team players, at some point also wants to know how much he’ll have a chance [to play] personally, and the competition amongst them hopefully will make all of them better.”
JW: Landon Bradley is a two-year starter at tackle, but he missed spring practice because of injuries. Where he does fit into your plans?
Lazor: “Landon is listed as an ‘or’ [on the depth chart], and really what that means is that we know that Landon has the ability to start and be successful. What people probably don’t know is that he brings some toughness and leadership to the group. The biggest questions are the questions that kept him out of spring practice. He’s had a number of injuries, and when is his body going to be ready to go? But really we have three guys listed as starting tackles. We have three guys that can be starting tackles, which is positive.”
JW: Would you consider moving one of the tackles to guard?
Lazor: “I wouldn’t hesitate to get the best five [linemen] on the field. Sometimes you’ve got to find the best combination, so it’s hard for me today to predict it. I know in the past Oday has played guard, though he was an excellent tackle last year. Last year Morgan played guard, and when he moved to tackle he was also an excellent tackle. So at some point, if all goes well and Landon comes back healthy, we’ll have some decisions to make. But what you have is an excellent group of veteran guys, and I know that they’ll do what’s best for the team in the end, because that’s the kind of group they are.”
JW: You have two walk-ons (John Maghamez and Jon Goss] listed as the backups to Anthony Mihota at center. Do you have other options at that position?
Lazor: “Luke Bowanko took center snaps this spring and certainly could be in the mix as a center, also.”
JW: Ryan Cobb redshirted last season, and he’s not a player with whom most UVa fans are familiar. What does he offer at fullback?
Lazor: “He’s a guy who really had a productive high school career at a great program in New Jersey” — Don Bosco Prep — “and caught a lot of balls. So the first thing that comes to mind is the pass-catching ability that Ryan has out of the backfield. He was kind of all over the place [in high school]: in the slot, at tight end, a little bit out of the backfield. He’s developing physically into a guy that has a chance, we think, to really be a versatile fullback. He’s still learning some of it. I thought it was a good spring for him, but I think he’ll keep getting better and keep going. He brings so many of the intangibles that you like to have in this program. I think people will get to know him, and I think they’ll be excited about the different things he can do.”
JW: Many of your top wide receivers were unavailable for all or part of spring practice because of injuries. How eager are you to work with a full complement of wideouts again?
Lazor: “One of the challenges of the spring was having so many receivers miss practice. Some [of the injuries] we knew beforehand, and some happened during the spring. The positive that came out of it was, I thought we did a good job of developing our backs and tight ends as pass-catchers in the spring, especially that final week after the spring game. So we know a lot more about how those guys can run routes and catch the ball. But it’ll be good for the quarterbacks to have the guys back who’ve played in games and that they can count on.
“The guys who did practice, they came along faster because they got so many reps, so it’s only going to help us in the long run. But it’ll be nice to have the guys that we expect to see out there in the first game practicing on the practice field with us.”
JW: You have four quarterbacks competing for playing time. How will you manage that group when practice begins in August?
Lazor: “The number of repetitions is the key, because now, when you start training camp, you’re in a mode where you’ve really got to work fast to get ready for the opening game. You install and you teach, but that opening game is always overshadowing. That’s the main thing.
“There are only so many practice reps. You’d like as a coach to have everyone get as many reps as possible, but at some point you have to do what’s best for the team, which is to prepare for the first game.”
JW: Do you have a sense that the rest of the team has rallied around one quarterback in particular?
Lazor: “I have at times other places. I haven’t here at this point. I think on different days, [the quarterbacks] really show up and do well. And sometimes they take turns doing that. So here that hasn’t happened. Sometimes maybe in other [meeting] rooms it might, but since I’m coaching the quarterbacks, I’m not in a position always to be alone with a different group of players where maybe you pick up on subtle things they say. But I don’t think that’s happened here yet, either. I think everyone feels a confidence that the whole offense is growing and that we’ve got a lot of players with experience who are ready to really take off here.”
JW: The coaches aren’t permitted to work with the players again until training camp opens. Did you give each quarterback specific things to work on this summer?
Lazor: “They get a good feel for physically what they need to do. I also try to spend very specific time during spring practice where we’ll stop and I’ll say, ‘OK, this is something you really need to do this summer.’ Or we’ll do a particular drill, and I’ll tell one quarterback, ‘Hey, for you now, this is important this summer.’ Especially during that last week or so of spring practice, where the end is imminent, I think you have to use that time to teach them the drills that you want them to do.”