By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Before UVa’s final football scrimmage at Scott Stadium last Saturday, Mike London’s players ran out of the tunnel, as they will on game day.
As he sprinted onto the field, true freshman Demetrious Nicholson recalled Thursday, “I tried to open my imagination and just imagine how it’s going to be. But you never know till you get there. I know it’s going to be mind-blowing, and I’m going to be hyped and ready to go.”
London’s second season as the Cavaliers’ head coach is almost here. At 6 p.m. Saturday, Virginia hosts William and Mary at Scott Stadium. When the Wahoos’ defense takes the field, Nicholson will be at one of the cornerback spots. Redshirting held no appeal for him.
“I came here to play,” said Nicholson, the state’s Gatorade player of the year in 2010.
He’s not the only member of the Wahoos’ highly regarded first-year class for whom that could be a rallying cry. Nicholson is expected to be the first UVa true freshman to start an opener since linebacker Ahmad Brooks in 2003. But the former Bayside High star won’t be the only newcomer to play against the Tribe, a power in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision.
London said Monday that he expects to play at least 10 true freshmen. That group includes, in addition to Nicholson, wide receivers Dominique Terrell and Darius Jennings, quarterback David Watford, tailback Clifton Richardson, linebacker Daquan Romero, cornerback Brandon Phelps and safety Anthony Harris.
“I’m comfortable using anybody that can help us win,” London said.
That Nicholson is one of those players become apparent from the first day of training camp. Nicholson had trained diligently throughout July with Virginia’s All-ACC cornerback, fifth-year senior Chase Minnifield, and it showed.
“He’s got the skills that we thought he had in high school,” London said early last month. “Very mature. He came to the transition program here, summer school, and got a 3.5 [GPA]. He’s a smart player. He’ll be a team captain before he leaves here. He’s exactly what we thought he was going to be coming out of Bayside High School.”
Jennings and Terrell were equally heralded coming out of high school, and neither has disappointed since enrolling at Virginia. On the depth chart released Monday, Jennings is listed as one of UVa’s starting kick-returners, and Terrell is the No. 1 punt-returner.
“I know they’re excited about playing,” London said. “We’re excited to play them. Those are guys that I think will be talked about a lot as the season goes on.”
Four times in the past decade, Virginia has played 10 or more true freshmen in a season: in 2002 (14), 2004 (10), 2005 (11) and 2009 (14).
Al Groh was the Cavaliers’ coach in each of those seasons. Groh’s successor, London, played only three true freshmen last season — offensive lineman Morgan Moses, quarterback Michael Rocco and defensive back Rijo Walker — but the ‘Hoos desperately need to upgrade their speed, athleticism and overall talent level, and Nicholson and Co. can help them do so.
Virginia is coming off a 4-8 season and hasn’t advanced to a bowl since 2007.
“I don’t want to put any player out there who’s maybe a one-phase special-teams guy, and that’s all he does, and burn his redshirt year,” London said. “I want to put guys on the field that have a chance to play.”
The newcomers whose college debuts are imminent “wanted to play,” London said. “We assessed them and evaluated whether they had the ability to do so. Now the biggest thing is playing in a college game in front of people yelling and screaming, bright lights, all those things. You never know how they’re going to react to that.”
Defensive tackle Nick Jenkins, a fifth-year senior, expects the true freshmen to have butterflies Saturday. That’s only natural. They were “playing high school ball less than 12 months ago,” Jenkins said, “and now they’re stepping on the college stage.”
That was part of London’s sales pitch to Virginia’s recruiting targets in the Class of 2011. He promised them an opportunity to compete for immediate playing time in Charlottesville, and he’s been true to his word.
“That wasn’t the main reason, but that was one of the reasons why I picked Virginia,” said Jennings, The Baltimore Sun’s offensive player of the year in 2010. “I thought I could come in and contribute early and bring another dimension to the offense that they didn’t have too much last year.”
London said: “I love all my players. There are third-years and fourth-years that have been in the program for a while. It’s no disrespect to them. It’s just the reality of college football, that you’re supposed to play the best players and try to develop those players as you go along.”
Vincent Brown, who coaches the Cavaliers’ linebackers, said the staff is aware of the risks that come with playing true freshmen.
“On the one side you say, ‘Well, this guy hasn’t quite seen all the things that he needs to see to be ready to play,’ ” Brown said.
“But the other side of it is, you’ve got a young guy that has the natural athletic ability to help you win a game, and so sometimes you just have to throw them out there and let ’em learn as they go. You can’t prepare them for everything they’re going to see, in practice, because it’s just not practical. But when you have talented athletes, you put ’em out there, and then hopefully they understand enough that they don’t cause you to lose the game. And I feel good about the young guys that we have, because they do bring a tremendous amount of talent and athleticism to us, and you can always kind of simplify things and be pretty basic to give them a chance to succeed.”
Since arriving at UVa, Nicholson said, he and his classmates have “talked about how many of us are going to be playing, and how much is expected out of us. We want to be that class to help this program turn around, and there’s a lot of first-years that are going to be playing out there on the field on Saturday. We talk about how we’re going to feel on Saturday, and we give each other confidence. We’ve got to go out there and play and just do what’s expected out of us. Because football’s going to be football.”
PAINFUL MEMORY: Virginia’s players and coaches have been reminded countless times this week — all summer, for that matter — that William and Mary came into Scott Stadium in the 2009 season-opener and pulled off a stunning upset.
The Tribe capitalized on seven UVa turnovers and won 26-14.
“You never forget that game,” senior safety Rodney McLeod said, “but it’s a new team, a new coaching staff.”
Teammate Will Hill agreed. “That was then, this is now,” said Hill, a junior defensive tackle who grew up in Williamsburg, not far from W&M.
Jimmye Laycock is in his 32nd season as head coach at William and Mary, where his assistants have included London.
On the Colonial Athletic Association coaches’ teleconference Monday, Laycock said he had not shown his players any videotape of the 2009 game at Scott Stadium, “and I haven’t mentioned it. It seems like a long time ago, and it seems like a different team.”
Of UVa’s current assistants, only Anthony Poindexter was on Groh’s staff in 2009. Wide receivers coach Shawn Moore, a former Virginia quarterback, was working at St. Albans School in Washington, D.C.
His reaction when he heard the score of the UVa-W&M game?
“Shocked. Shocked,” Moore said. “Probably the same way I felt in ’86 when we came in as true freshmen and lost to them.”
Moore said he still hasn’t gotten over Virginia’s 1986 loss to the Tribe.
“Every time they come to town I have a grudge match,” he said. “Mentally it’s a grudge match with those guys. Laycock does an outstanding job. They’re always going to be prepared, and they’re always going to be ready to play. This is probably their Super Bowl. So they’re going to be amped and ready.”