By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For most of UVa’s football recruits for 2011, college life officially begins this week.
Quarterback David Watford and linebacker Daquan Romero enrolled at the University in January, and two other recruits started summer-school classes last month. The rest are enrolled in the third session of summer school, which starts Monday.
The newcomers, including recruited walk-ons, were due on Grounds this morning. Most will be living away from home for the first time, and Virginia coach Mike London, a father of seven, knows this is an emotional time for families. But his message to parents is straightforward.
“Let ’em go,” London said Tuesday. “Part of this transition is that he’s going to make decisions. You want to be there for his accomplishments. We all do. But you know what? He’s going to experience disappointment, and he’s going to experience failure, and that’s part of life. And know you’re handing the baton over. And so I take the baton, or the other people that touch him [at the University] take the baton, and now it’s our turn.”
The first-year players won’t have much down time before the weekend. At the McCue Center, they were to hear today from such speakers as athletics director Craig Littlepage, strength-and-conditioning coach Evan Marcus, athletic trainer Kelli Pugh, academic affairs coordinator Adrien Harraway, sports psychologist Jim Bauman, anthropology professor Rachel Most, dean for all student-athletes in UVa’s College of Arts and Sciences, and, of course, from their new head coach.
London said he planned to talk about “the transition from high school to college, and the expectations, and how everything you do now reflects being a Virginia Cavalier. Not only your family, but it reflects on the program. It’s natural to be homesick, but you’ve entered a new stage of life. So embrace the challenge and look forward to future success.”
The third session of summer school ends Aug. 3. The Wahoos’ training camp — their second under London — begins two days later. UVa opens the season Sept. 3 against William and Mary at Scott Stadium, and several members of this highly regarded recruiting class are likely to make their college debuts that day.
“I’ve told all [the veterans], ‘These guys that are coming in, I didn’t bring these guys in to sit on the bench and redshirt,’ ” London said. “There’s a lot of guys that want to get on the field. So training camp is going to be important for everyone this year.”
A team that competes in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision may have no more than 85 players on scholarship. That won’t be an issue for the ‘Hoos this season.
Since the end of last season, several players with eligibility remaining have, for various reasons, left the program, including defensive end Zane Parr, wide receiver Jared Green, linebacker Jared Detrick and tailback Torrey Mack. London said Tuesday that cornerback Devin Wallace and center Mike Price are “exploring other options” and are not expected back. Defensive tackle Hunter Steward is leaving, too.
“There’s certain expectations I have of players in the classroom, in the community and on the field,” London said, “and [Steward] did not live up to it. We wish him the best, and we’re trying to help him move on.”
Of the players who signed letters of intent with UVa in February, at least one, Adrian Gamble, will spend the coming academic year at Fork Union Military Academy, London said.
The status of another 2011 recruit, Kevin Green, has yet to be resolved, and the same is true for defensive back Javanti Sparrow, who played as a true freshman in 2009 but was suspended academically from UVa for 2010-11. Sparrow has been taking summer-school classes at Virginia, London said, but has “not been medically cleared” yet to participate in football.
The Cavaliers will have about a dozen fifth-year seniors this season, some of whom would not have been invited back had attrition not opened spots on the roster.
Such turnover is not necessarily ideal, but London believes his returning players now fully grasp his expectations for them in the classroom and in the community. “If you can’t do that,” he said, “then you’re not going to be here.”
The mantra remains the same: Go to class and show class, London said. “Those are the team rules. If you don’t want any issues, then do those things. And I think in the second year, with basically the same schemes and system, with basically the same coaching staff, with guys getting bigger, faster, stronger with Evan Marcus, we’re looking for improvement to reflect all those things being the same and getting better.”
Virginia finished 4-8 in 2010, its fourth losing season in five years. The rebuilding of a program takes time, London said, but “I think that things are moving in the right direction, and the guys that we have here, they’re really hungry. They’re hungry to do something with this season and change the fortunes of their own college playing experience.”
In an interview with VirginiaSports.com, London discussed a variety of topics in his McCue Center office Tuesday. The highlights follow.
JW: You lost [offensive line coach] Ron Mattes, but otherwise your staff returns intact from 2010. How important is stability in that area?
London: “It’s very important, because it’s the same person using the same words and the same language and having the same expectations and being able to paint the same picture that the player can see. I think that’s critical, and you get better at it because of the familiarity you’ve had with the coach that was teaching it and the concepts that you’ve learned. It starts to click. ”
JW: UVa athletics had a remarkable spring, with the success of teams such as men’s lacrosse and baseball and men’s tennis and Robby Andrews’ NCAA title in the 800 meters. Will you mention that to your players?
London: “Without a doubt. There’s a great mindset in men’s and women’s sports here, great coaches and athletes that have accomplished amazing feats. And so when you look at the example [in the deciding game of the NCAA baseball super regional] of two outs, no one on base, and then they come back and win the game, it’s unbelievable. The young man in track, he’s 20 meters behind, and there’s something in him that says, ‘I can do this,’ and he kicks in. The lacrosse team, everybody had them down and out, because they’re missing their arguably two, three best players. But they showed the next-man-up mentality that people are always talking about. You look at it and you’re like, ‘If you believe in what you’re being taught and you believe in who you are, then the sky’s the limit.’ You never say never.”
JW: You came out of spring practice without naming a starting quarterback. How long will the competition at that position continue during training camp?
London: “At least up until after the first or before the second scrimmage. Then you want to get that guy taking all the snaps with the [first team]. Then you want to start training the second guy with the second group. When the scrimmage situations occur, the coaches are off the field. During practice, you have 9-on-7, you have 7-on-7, you have individual drills, and coaches are out there coaching. But then you start getting those group and team situations where coaches are off the field, and it’s like, ‘OK, we’re going to signal in the plays, and let’s see how you handle the situations.’ Then it goes back to all that film study in the summer, and [how much progress they’ve made since] spring practice. Those guys that are ready, they move forward and move up.
“Quarterback is one of the positions that when they step out on the field [on the first day of training camp], you should see the most improvement. Evan has had them, and they’re organizing 7-on-7 [drills] and they’re studying on their own, so the improvement from a physical standpoint and a mental standpoint should be in leaps and bounds.
“When you leave spring practice, you have an evaluation of how you did and what you need to work on. We can’t coach them any more [until training camp starts], but we can tell them, ‘This is what you need to work on. This is what you need to do.’ And so you’ll see coming into camp those that took that to heart and actually worked on those things. Competition should be at a feverish pace. We’re talking about playing time. We’re talking about being the face of the program.”
JW: You reinstated Ausar Walcott to the program in April and moved him from outside linebacker to defensive end. It’s no secret that he has two strikes on him. How is he doing?
London: “He knows that all eyes are on him. What he says, what he does, how he acts, how he reacts. He came back and got his hair cut, and he came back and said, ‘I have a new lease on life, and I want my college experience to be a positive one.’ So he’s done everything so far that we’ve asked him to do, but he’s going to have to continue to keep proving himself, because he put himself in that situation. But with him we’re talking about what can be, how he can finish, instead of what happened. He’s learned from that, and I think he’s even in the position to tell other guys, ‘You know what? You don’t know how good you have it. Don’t get to a point where you almost have it taken away.’ Some guys have had it taken away, and they’re no longer with us, but he’s an example of, ‘Listen, I can turn this around.’ So I’m cheering for him, hoping for him, because he can be a good player. He can help us win.”
JW: Evan Marcus was the strength coach here during part of your tenure as a UVa assistant. What has his return meant for the program?
London: “It’s a physical game, and it’s a game that requires you to move quickly and with power and with skill. And so his experience — leaving and going on to the NFL and coming back — and the knowledge that he’s brought back with him, I know for a fact that it’s transformed what the guys are doing now.
“Every player I’ve talked to said it’s hard, but they love it. I look at them now, and we’re a much bigger team in terms of guys [recording] personal bests in the power clean and bench press. It’s unbelievable. And he’s had them in the boxing room working on their hand-eye coordination and their footwork. All these things translate on the field into being agile and being mobile and being quick and being sudden. Even the pro guys [who have been training at UVa this summer], guys like Chris Long and Tom Santi, say they’re some of the best workouts they’ve ever had.
“The good thing about Evan, after having known him for so long, is the accountability and responsibility thing. He talks it all the time. There were some guys that were one minute late [for a workout], and he threw them out of the weight room for a week. And when you have a guy like that that’s talking about doing things the right way, being a team leader, being out front, he’s like an MVP right now. Evan’s an extension of a culture that we’re trying to set.”
JW: Miles Gooch moved from quarterback to wide receiver after last season. He’s obviously one of the team’s most athletic players. How is he doing?
London: “Doing fantastic. He’s picked it up. I’m so proud of him academically. He was struggling first semester, but he turned it around. It was one of the things where he finally got it and [began managing his time better]. And once he started doing that, the grades started going up, and you see the confidence started going up a little bit. You look at him athletically, and you’re [impressed].”