By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
PINEHURST, N.C. — In 2009, Al Groh’s final season as UVa’s football coach, he played 14 true freshmen.
Groh’s successor, Mike London, showed more restraint in 2010, using only three true freshmen: offensive lineman Morgan Moses, quarterback Michael Rocco and cornerback Rijo Walker.
The total is likely to be higher this season, because “there’s an influx of young talent that’s going to have to play,” London said Monday night at ACC Football Kickoff at Pinehurst Resort.
First-year linemen typically need a redshirt year, London said, but players at the skill positions may be ready to contribute immediately. From UVa’s highly regarded freshman class, such players as Anthony Harris, Darius Jennings, Kyrrel Latimer, Demetrious Nicholson, Brandon Phelps and Dominique Terrell could see the field this season.
London said there are “a lot of young men on this team, at the skill positions, that can run, catch and do things with the ball, so we’re looking to see if we can take advantage of that. If they’re ready, then we’re ready.”
Where some of these newcomers, including 6-5, 200-pound Kameron Mack, will be slotted is still to be determined. Mack played safety on defense as a senior at Norcom High in Portsmouth, but he may grow into a linebacker at UVa.
“He’s a beautiful-looking athlete,” London said. “This guy’s long, lean and can run.”
When the 2010 season ended, it was unclear how many fifth-year seniors would be on the roster this fall. Offseason attrition has made it possible for London to invite back virtually everyone in that class.
Before doing so, however, he made sure that the fifth-year seniors “understand that the best players have to play,” London said, “and that because you’re a fifth-year senior doesn’t mean that you’re entitled to be the starter … Whatever role you might have, that you contribute to that role.”
The competition for playing time “should make the fifth-year guys better, should make the younger guys better,” London said. “But we’ve got to find who the best players are and put them in a position and give them a chance to play.”
PRIZE PUPIL: Nicholson, a cornerback from Virginia Beach’s Bayside High, was the state’s Gatorade player of the year in 2010. He hasn’t been at UVa long, but Nicholson already has impressed senior Chase Minnifield, a first-team all-ACC selection at cornerback last year.
“Every weekend he asks me, ‘When are you working out? Where are you working out?’ ” Minnifield told reporters Sunday at ACC Football Kickoff. “I try to break him. He stays standing. He doesn’t complain. He likes to learn. That’s what I really like about him. He’s listening. He understands.
“What I really respect is that he’ll work and wants to learn. Not a lot of people will work out with me. I work out three or four times a day.”
LESSON LEARNED: In 2009, UVa opened the season with a shocking loss to William and Mary at Scott Stadium. Coach Jimmye Laycock’s Tribe capitalized on seven Virginia turnovers and won 26-14.
The rematch is Sept. 3 at Scott Stadium.
“The last time we played William and Mary, we really looked at that game like it was a gimme game, and that’s definitely not going to happen this year,” Minnifield said Sunday. “I respect that team a lot. I respect that coach a lot and the way he prepared for us. He gave us some things that we had never seen … I’m sure he’ll have something up his sleeve for this year’s game.”
W&M is expected to be among the top teams in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision this season.
POINT OF EMPHASIS: In 2010, Virginia was penalized an average of 73.3 yards per game, the most of any ACC team. Nationally, only two teams — Troy (73.6) and Baylor (77.5) — were worse in that category.
“There’s no secret that we were a penalized team,” London said Monday, “and obviously we have to eliminate those aspects that will hurt us.”
Virginia’s new strength-and-conditioning coach for football, Evan Marcus, has addressed the problem. “He ties our workouts in with penalties,” senior wide receiver Kris Burd said Sunday in Pinehurst.
“He says, ‘If you take a shortcut here, it’s going to be like a penalty in a game.’ The mental part of the game is what he’s really been working on, and just building up our mental strength so we won’t get as many penalties and we’ll be more disciplined as a team.”
In London’s two seasons as the University of Richmond’s head coach, his teams were among the least-penalized in the NCAA’s FCS.
GROWING INTO THE JOB: Former UVa quarterback Shawn Moore’s charges performed well in his first season as a college coach. Moore oversees Virginia’s wide receivers, a group that in 2010 included Burd, Dontrelle Inman and Matt Snyder, who combined to catch 139 passes for 2,007 yards and eight touchdowns.
In his second year on London’s staff, Moore is “more comfortable,” Burd said. “You could tell when he first got in, he just didn’t want to make a mistake or seem like he didn’t know what he was talking about. I feel like now, post-spring, he’s definitely more confident. He voices his opinion on the field, on the spot. He doesn’t wait till we get to the film room. He’s not afraid to call you out if you do something wrong, and he’ll praise you if you do something good.”
PROGRESS REPORT: Ausar Walcott, a starting outside linebacker last season, was reinstated to the team in April. He had been suspended in late January, along with teammates Mike Price and Devin Wallace, for what London called “conduct detrimental to the team.”
Now a defensive end, Walcott is “still working his way back into good graces with me,” London said Monday night. Price and Wallace are no longer in the program.
Walcott has standards to meet in the classroom and on the field, London said. “I’ve gotten positive reports about some of the things that he’s doing, but it’s a process for him. He’s got to continue doing the things I expect. So we’ll see. He has an opportunity to be a positive influence on this team.”
TROUBLING TIMES: That Georgia Tech and North Carolina have run afoul of the NCAA does not please John Swofford, the ACC’s commissioner.
“Any time one of our schools has an NCAA problem … I’m disappointed and concerned, because that’s not who we are as a league,” Swofford said Sunday in his state-of-the-conference address at Pinehurst.
Overall, though, Swofford believes the ACC compares favorably to other conferences. Its cornerstones have been — and will continue to be — competitiveness on a national level, strong academics and rule compliance, he said.
“I don’t think there’s any group of schools in the country that better balance those three components of intercollegiate athletics than the schools collectively do in this conference,” Swofford said. “The numbers bear that out, whether you’re going back five years, whether you’re going back 10 years, whether you’re going back 20 years.”
With schools such as Ohio State, Southern California, Oregon and North Carolina making headlines for the wrong reasons, major-college athletics is at a crossroads, Swofford and many others believe.
“Personally, I believe that the path starts with how we define success,” Swofford said. “Is it just winning? Is it generating the most money? Both of those things are obviously important if you’re in intercollegiate athletics. But in college athletics, the definition, I think, has to go way beyond that. It has to be about programs that win, yes, but also programs that play by the rules and graduate their players.
“Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not minimizing winning. I love to win, a lot … But if you have to cheat to win, you haven’t really won at all, have you?”