By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — True freshmen bidding to play this season for UVa’s football team include quarterback David Watford, wide receivers Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell, offensive linemen Kelby Johnson and Jay Whitmire, tailback Clifton Richardson, linebacker Daquan Romero, cornerbacks Demetrious Nicholson and Brandon Phelps, and safety Anthony Harris.
Those are not the only newcomers who have impressed the Cavaliers’ coaching staff during training camp. Which true freshmen will play this fall has yet to be determined, but defensive line coach Jeff Hanson likes what he’s seen from Thompson Brown, one of the less heralded recruits in the class.
Brown is a 6-4, 230-pound defensive end from St. Christopher’s in Richmond, an academically elite school not known for turning out major-college football players.
“I tell you what, Thompson Brown is really, really quick, and he’s got good speed,” Hanson said after a recent practice. “He’s sudden, and that’s what we’re looking for in that spot. I think he’s got a chance to be a heck of a pass-rusher. The biggest thing is, we need to put a little bit more weight on him so he can take the pounding. But we’ll see what happens. If he can figure it out and figure out techniques and figure out how to get in the mix, he may play. We’ll see.”
Brown, who wears jersey No. 91, knows he needs to add weight. He’s dropped a few pounds since arriving at UVa this summer.
Of the college game, he said, “Guys are bigger, but I was expecting to get maybe tossed around a little bit more. I feel like they’re not overwhelming me. The game is faster, but it’s not at a pace that’s too fast. I actually kind of enjoy it more than high school. It’s quicker and more fun, I think.”
Virginia’s other defensive ends include senior Cam Johnson, juniors Billy Schautz and Ausar Walcott, sophomores Jake Snyder and Brent Urban, and Brown’s classmates Vincent Croce, Marco Jones, Diamonte Bailey and Rob Burns.
Johnson, an all-ACC candidate, is the team’s best pass-rusher, and he’s having a sensational training camp.
“He’s a man on fire, a man on a mission,” said Mike London, UVa’s second-year coach.
The starter at the other end may well be Snyder. In the 3-4 scheme employed by London’s predecessor, Al Groh, Johnson was an outside linebacker. Snyder was an end, but it wasn’t a perfect fit.
To thrive in the 3-4, Snyder said this month, he probably would have needed to carry about 290 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame, and “that’s not happening. I’m at 270 now, and that’s pretty good. If I got to 275, I’d feel comfortable than I could still play, but I’m very comfortable at 270. But even if I was 275 as a 3-4 end, I’d be undersized.”
The 6-4, 240-pound Walcott, who began his college career at safety, started at outside linebacker for the Cavaliers last season. At end, he’s expected to supply much-needed pass-rushing ability to a defense that recorded only 19 sacks in 2010.
Since his return from a suspension that caused him to miss spring practice, “Ausar’s been great,” Hanson said. “I feel really good about Ausar right now, and he’s done everything we’ve asked him to do and more. He’s been terrific.”
LEARNING CURVE: As a redshirt sophomore last year, Steve Greer started only one game. Yet he still finished second on the team in tackles, with 59.
In the battle for the starting job at middle linebacker, Greer has pulled away from Henry Coley this month. London was asked Friday if Coley, a 6-2, 235-pound redshirt freshman from Virginia Bech, might also work at outside linebacker this season.
In UVa’s defense, like many others, the middle linebacker is known as the Mike, the strong-side linebacker as the Sam, the weak-side linebacker as the Will.
London said he would prefer that Coley “not have to worry about the Sam or Will linebacker position, but really get good at playing the Mike … I know this is his second year, but I’d rather he really learn behind Steve, because Steve does an excellent job of [getting the defense aligned correctly], and then providing Steve a break here and there, battling him also for that position. But also for Henry to contribute in four phases of the special teams.”
It’s not unusual, London said, for a player to come to college, redshirt his first year and then “play a little bit on special teams. And then after you play a little bit, then you have a chance to [be a starter] and be there for a couple years. Henry’s moving in that direction.”
NEW ROLE: Jennings, The Baltimore Sun’s offensive player of the year in 2010, played quarterback as a senior at the Gilman School in Baltimore.
“It is different,” Jennings said of playing wideout. “Actually I played receiver growing up in rec [ball], but then I played quarterback basically all throughout high school. So being a quarterback and being able to see the field and read [the various coverages], that kind of helps me out at receiver. But it is definitely an adjustment. Also, I don’t have the ball in my hands every play.”
As a quarterback, Jennings was known more for his rushing than his passing. He left Gilman as the school’s all-time leading rusher, with 4,338 career yards.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: Seven ACC teams intercepted more passes than UVa (11) last year. Nine ACC teams had more sacks than the Cavaliers (19).
Defensive coordinator Jim Reid noted last week that “coverage comes into play when you talk about sacks … I think if we can get tighter coverage, more consistent coverage, then our sack total will go up.
“It all ties in together: sacks, interceptions. That’s a unit type of goal, and you can’t have one without the other. You can’t have interceptions without pass rush, and you can’t have sacks without good coverage.”
Much will depend on how healthy the defense stays, Reid said, but “I will tell you this: I do believe that we’re better in both areas.”
DOUBLE DUTY: That offensive tackle Landon Bradley will be physically unable to play this season is a distinct possibility. With Bradley out, redshirt sophomore Luke Bowanko has been starting at right guard and Morgan Moses at right tackle.
As a true freshman last year, Moses started six games at right tackle, but he also played some guard. His experience at guard helps him at tackle, he said.
“Because when I line up at tackle, I already know what’s going through the guard’s mind, and he won’t have to make the call,” Moses said. “I already know what he’s going to say. So definitely it has made me a better football player, playing two positions.”
Bradley suffered serious leg and hand injuries in 2010, and they limited him to six appearances. He started five games at left tackle and one at right tackle.
SLEIGHT OF HAND: In 2010, the Wahoos didn’t hesitate to run trick plays on special teams, and they worked more often than not. The highlights were two touchdowns on fake field goals and a fake punt that produced another TD.
“Each week you try to find something about the other team’s special teams that maybe you can take advantage of,” UVa special-teams coordinator Anthony Poindexter said. “Last year we were just fortunate that we could. I don’t really want to be known as the trickster, but last year it kind of helped us get some points. You’d like to be able to play sound and get it done the conventional way. But if they give it to you, you’ve got to try to take advantage of it.”
Fans love trick plays. So do his players, Poindexter said.
“In the meetings, that’s the first thing they ask: ‘What’s the fake for the week?’ ” Poindexter said. “And then you just try to make it fun for them. Special teams are fun, and what the kids gotta understand is, it’s one-third of the game. It’s just like offense and defense. It just doesn’t get a lot of times the hype or the attention that the offense and defense get, but you really can affect the game from the special-teams side of the ball.”