By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In 2009, his final season as UVa’s football coach, Al Groh used 14 true freshmen. Only three were on the field for more than 100 plays — Tim Smith (318), Perry Jones (205) and Tucker Windle (159).
Connor McCartin’s season consisted of 69 plays. LoVanté Battle was in for 44 plays. Paul Freedman traded a year of eligibility for 24 plays, Javanti Sparrow for 23 and Corey Lillard for 10. (Sparrow and Lillard are no longer at UVa.)
In 2002, his second season at UVa, Groh had also played 14 true freshmen. But most of them played significant roles on a team that finished 9-5 that season, including Darryl Blackstock, Willie Davis, Wali Lundy, Jason Snelling, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Kwakou Robinson, Tom Hagan and Michael Johnson.
“That group of freshmen [was] a talented group of guys, and they played,” Mike London noted Sunday night.
London, an assistant on Groh’s 2002 team, is one game into his second season as the Cavaliers’ head coach. In 2010, London played only three true freshmen — Michael Rocco, Morgan Moses and Rijo Walker.
In this year’s opener, a 40-3 rout of William and Mary, he played a dozen. He did not, London said Sunday night, do so recklessly.
“My commitment to the guys that played is to play them [this season],” London told reporters.
Demetrious Nicholson, a cornerback from Virginia Beach’s Bayside High, started against the Tribe and intercepted a pass. His classmates who played Saturday night at Scott Stadium were Thompson Brown, Anthony Harris, D.J. Hill, Darius Jennings, Kelby Johnson, Kameron Mack, Brandon Phelps, Daquan Romero, Clifton Richardson, Dominique Terrell and David Watford.
Of those 11, six were in Virginia’s two-deep for the W&M game: Johnson at left offensive tackle, Watford at quarterback, Jennings and Terrell at wide receiver, Romero at weakside linebacker and Harris at strong safety. Terrell was the Cavaliers’ No. 1 punt-returner and Jennings one of the starting kickoff returners.
Only two schools in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision are believed to have played more true freshmen than Virginia so far: Texas (18 against Rice) and Auburn (13 against Utah State). Tennessee, Clemson and Ohio State have used 12 true freshmen apiece, too.
Also Saturday night, 10 redshirt freshmen made their college debuts for the Wahoos, including tailback Kevin Parks, who rushed for three touchdowns.
“Now we just gotta continue to develop these guys as we go along,” London said.
Some of the true freshmen, including Hill, a 6-0, 210-pound linebacker, figure to be used primarily on special teams this season. Hill is likely to fill a role similar to the one Walker played last season.
“Rijo started out with a couple special-teams units,” London said, “and then by midseason, to the latter part of the season, he was a full-phase special-teams guy and had a significant amount of reps, when you think about all the opportunities on kickoffs, punt returns, punts and kickoff returns … I think that’s why Rijo’s a better player today.”
Walker was in for 204 plays last season: 175 on special teams and 29 at cornerback. He’s now UVa’s No. 2 free safety, behind senior Corey Mosley. Rocco started at quarterback against William and Mary, and Moses started at right offensive tackle.
London said he has no plans to use any of the true freshmen who didn’t play against William and Mary. He entered the opener knowing that at least “eight or nine” true freshmen would play, London said, and opportunities arose for other members of the first-year class as the game unfolded.
Austin Pasztor, a senior who starts at left offensive guard, has been battling a hamstring injury. Once UVa built a commanding lead in the second half, offensive line coach Scott Wachenheim rested Pasztor and shifted other players on the line.
That “necessitated Kelby’s entrance into the game,” London said. “The reality of it is, up front, on both sides of the ball, to go through a season with just five, six players is very, very rare. Kelby has a talent. Now that he’s played, we’re committed to playing him and getting him in the game and continuing to develop him like these other freshmen that played.”