By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Around 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Mike London called his players together at Scott Stadium and talked about the challenges UVa’s football team would face on the same field a week later, when the occasion would be a game, not an intrasquad scrimmage.
When London finished speaking, his players headed for the buses that would carry them back to the McCue Center.
Dress rehearsal was over.
Game week had arrived.
London’s second season as Virginia’s head coach officially starts next weekend at Scott Stadium. At 6 p.m. Saturday, UVa hosts William and Mary, a team that’s expected to contend for the national title in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision.
A season ago, Virginia opened against another FCS power, Richmond, and romped 34-13. The Cavaliers won only three of their remaining 11 regular-season games, however, and finished ACC play tied for last in the Coastal Division. Penalties plagued UVa, as did defensive breakdowns. Those problems have been addressed repeatedly during training camp, and London sees progress.
“Issues that were glaring now have been minimized,” he said. “So with the week of practice left, as you get into the game preparation, you try to minimize those things to a point where hopefully they don’t become an issue [against W&M].
“If you’re physically beat, that’s one thing, but a mental error or a missed assignment or missed alignment, those type of things, that makes the situation worse. But what I’ve been seeing is, guys have been getting lined up correctly and minimizing those mental errors.”
Numerous regulars from UVa’s 2010 team are back, including offensive linemen Anthony Mihota, Austin Pasztor, Morgan Moses and Oday Aboushi, tight ends Colter Phillips and Paul Freedman, tailback Perry Jones, fullback Max Milien, wide receivers Kris Burd and Matt Snyder, defensive end Cam Johnson, defensive tackles Nick Jenkins and Matt Conrath, linebackers LaRoy Reynolds, Steve Greer and Aaron Taliaferro, cornerback Chase Minnfield, safeties Corey Mosley and Rodney McLeod, punter Jimmy Howell and kickers Robert Randolph and Chris Hinkebein.
“In terms of where we were [at this time last year], where we’ve been, there’s noticeable improvement,” London said Saturday.
“I have a more experienced team. I have a team that understands what we’re trying to do. I have a team that has some veterans. But behind them are incoming guys, and we’re trying to fuse that together and tap into the talent that some of these guys have, to help the entire team win, and that’s been the challenge. But it’s a challenge like that every year. Every year’s a new team.”
London has added a highly regarded first-year class, and UVa fans won’t have to wait until 2012 to see many of its members in action. Among the true freshmen expected to play Saturday night are wideouts Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell, linebacker Daquan “Da-Da” Romero, and cornerbacks Demetrious Nicholson and Brandon Phelps. Other possibilities include safety Anthony Harris, tailback Clifton Richardson, offensive tackle Kelby Johnson and quarterback David Watford.
For the past two weeks, sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco has been taking most of the snaps with the first-team offense, and his replacement usually has been Watford, who enrolled at UVa in January. But London has yet to say publicly if Watford will play this season.
Virginia will release its depth chart for the W&M game on Monday, but London said a decision on Watford may not come until after Tuesday’s practice.
On a teleconference with reporters Thursday, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor fielded several questions about Watford, a Hampton High graduate who’s more of a dual threat than UVa’s other quarterbacks: Rocco, sophomore Ross Metheny and redshirt freshman Michael Strauss.
“There’s no doubt he has skills that can help us,” Lazor said.
Don’t be surprised if Watford plays this fall. Technically he’s a true freshman, but he went through spring practice with the Wahoos.
“There’s no doubt that he’s further along than he would have been if these were his first 23 practices,” Lazor said. “Instead, he got 15 in the spring. He was familiar enough with the offense to be able to study it over the summer. And so that’s boosted him ahead. Those are the things that we’ll weigh as we go forward and decide.”
With every true freshman, Lazor said, the staff asks itself this question: Can he help the team win now? “And it might be being a starter, or it might be being a spot player,” Lazor said. “Here’s a set of skills a guy brings in, and if we can put those to use, and it’s going to add to the value of the team, then we’ve really got to think about it and talk with him about it.”
Rocco played as a true freshman last year, coming off the bench in six games.
“I think at the quarterback position, when you’re asking a guy to do a lot of different things, as we do in our offense, and handle a lot of schemes, it’s helpful for him to be able to redshirt,” Lazor said. “Last year with one of our freshmen we did not do that and didn’t feel like we were in a position to do it. That’s a choice that the head coach, the player and, obviously, the offensive assistant coaches are going to have to make, and we deal with that.
“I do believe personally for the quarterbacks mentally it’s very helpful to redshirt. Usually for the linemen physically it’s very helpful to redshirt. But of course the exceptions to that would be Mike Rocco last year and Morgan Moses last year.”
Lazor runs a pro-style offense for which, he believes, Watford is well-suited.
“I think David has a chance to be an excellent pocket passer. I really do,” Lazor said. “I think his accuracy is good, his arm strength is good. Very live arm. One of the great things about guys who are athletic is that they can play fast in the pocket. They use their athletic ability in the pocket.”
Of the 120 teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision in 2009, UVa ranked 118th in total offense and 105th in scoring offense. In 2010, Lazor’s first season as offensive coordinator, the ‘Hoos ranked 37th in total offense and 75th in scoring offense. He believes they can — and must — do better this season.
“I think in the first year, one of the hardest things is the evaluation of your own players,” Lazor said. “Even though you see them every day in practice, until you get to a game, it’s hard. [This year] I know our players better.
“Of all the guys, the quarterbacks are the ones we know the least, because they’ve played the least, but at the other positions I know them well. So I think we’re able to push some of the other positions harder, faster, because they’ve gone through it and they’ve heard it before. We just have a better idea of what each guy can do well. I’d like to think that we’ve advanced.”
Starting Saturday night, when W&M comes to town, Lazor will find out if he’s correct.
Ultimately, he said, “we gotta find a way to score more points. Everyone talks about how the numbers changed or improved last year, but we gotta find a way to score more points. We gotta score them earlier in the games and especially in the ACC games.
“That’s easy to say, hard to do, but that’s why we’re working our butts off to get it done.”
London wants a powerful running game, and Lazor believes the Cavaliers have the ingredients to produce one. So does running backs coach Mike Faragalli. His charges are working behind a line that should be one of the ACC’s best.
“I love our line. Our line is really good,” Faragalli said. “They’re obviously big and strong, but they’re a little bit nasty, too, which is a running back’s dream. Those guys will hit you and keep hitting you and keep hitting you until they hear the whistle. And they’ll cover downfield. They won’t take anything from anybody. They don’t ever back down. I love the attitude that they play with.”
Faragalli was London’s offensive coordinator at the University of Richmond in 2009. The Spiders won the FCS national title that year. The Cavaliers finished 3-9 after opening with a loss to William and Mary at Scott Stadium.
London is former W&M assistant coach, and he knows well what a formidable program Jimmye Laycock has built in Williamsburg.
“Coach has been consistent,” London said Saturday. “He’s been winning, and he’s got a system that he believes in and the players believe in. I’m sure we’ll see wrinkles here and there [in the opener], but for the most part his players rely on executing their offense, taking what the defense gives them, playing sound, fundamental football.
“His teams have done good things, very good things, so it’s no wonder they have the rankings and preseason accolades and recognition they do. It’s deserved.”