By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — All last week, UVa offensive tackles Oday Aboushi and Morgan Moses heard about North Carolina’s Quinton Coples, a 6-6, 290-pound defensive end whom ESPN analyst Mel Kiper projects as one of the top picks in next year’s NFL draft.
Aboushi, who starts on the left side, didn’t back down from the challenge. In fact, he had a few words for Coples before the game at Kenan Stadium.
“I told him I was going to be in his face 60 minutes of the game,” Aboushi recalled Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. “He said, ‘See me out there,’ and I did.”
Coples plays on both sides for the Tar Heels, so both Aboushi and Moses faced him Saturday.
“I just thought they did a fantastic job,” UVa coach Mike London said.
In its 28-17 loss to UNC, Virginia rushed for 170 yards, and sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco threw for a career-high 298. The Heels sacked Rocco only once. Coples finished with three tackles and three quarterback hurries.
“We obviously saw on film they like to rush the passer, but we were totally confident in our offensive line,” said Aboushi, a 6-6, 310-pound junior. “I don’t know if you guys heard the same game I did, but I didn’t hear Coples’ name all day. He was a good player and all, but I think we held our ground.”
London praised his offensive line before the season, calling it one of the ACC’s best. Offensive line coach Scott Wachenheim’s charges did not disappoint Saturday against the Tar Heels’ vaunted defensive line.
“It’s a huge confidence-booster,” Aboush said. “You hear everybody talk about their defensive line and who they’ve got on their defensive line and how talented they are. Coach Wach, going into the game, told us that this game is going to teach you a lot about yourselves and how good you really are.”
The line’s next challenge comes this weekend, against a Southern Mississippi defense that has recorded 28 tackles for loss this season. At 3:30 p.m. Saturday, the Cavaliers (2-1) host the Golden Eagles (2-1) at Scott Stadium.
“Based on the scouting report, they have some speed rushers, guys who like to hit, like to be physical,” Aboushi said. “But they’re not coming into Candyland. We like to hit too, we like to be a physical team, and if they’re going to bring the wood, we’ll bring it too.”
HOME SWEET HOME: The Wahoos, who are coming off back-to-back road games, don’t play away from Scott Stadium again until Oct. 27, when they visit Miami for a Thursday night game on ESPN.
“This is definitely a pivotal time in the season — four straight home games,” senior cornerback Dom Joseph said Monday.
Virginia hosts Southern Miss on Saturday, Idaho on Oct. 1, Georgia Tech on Oct. 15 and N.C. State on Oct. 22. When this homestand ends, the Cavaliers’ record will be anywhere from 6-1 — which would make them bowl-eligible — to 2-5.
“It is one game at a time,” London said, “but by human nature, you look at what’s behind the next one. Truly this is the first opportunity to again be at home, and then knowing that you’ll be here for a while, to really go out and play hard, to give yourself a chance to win some games.”
TALL TALES: Asked about UVa at his weekly press conference about UVa, Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora got a little carried away Monday.
“Their linebackers are 6-foot-4, 6-foot-3,” Fedora told reporters in Hattiesburg, Miss. “Their defensive backs are all over 6-foot.”
A look at the Cavaliers’ depth chart reveals otherwise. At linebacker, UVa’s starters are 6-2 Steve Greer in the middle, 6-2 LaRoy Reynolds on the weakside and 6-2 Aaron Taliaferro or 6-4 Ausar Walcott on the strongside.
Starters in the secondary are 6-0 Chase Minnifield and 5-11 Demetrious Nicholson at cornerback, 5-11 Rodney McLeod at strong safety and 5-10 Corey Mosley or 5-10 Rijo Walker at free safety.
UPPING THE ANTE: In his first season as a starter, Rocco has completed 58 of 94 passes (61.1 percent) for 652 yards and one touchdown, with four interceptions. His completions include a 40-yarder to sophomore wide receiver Tim Smith in the opener against William and Mary and a 32-yarder to Smith at UNC.
Look for offensive coordinator Bill Lazor to highlight the vertical passing game more as the season progresses.
Rocco’s long pass to Smith in Chapel Hill “was right on the money, and we need to do that more often,” London said. “We need to take more shots and stretch the field. I think that because of the protection the offensive line has been giving us, opportunities will open up to do that, and I think [Rocco is] ready for it. His knowledge of the offense has continued to expand and grow, and there is a level of increased confidence that Coach Lazor and the offensive [staff] and the offensive players have for Michael, and for [backup quarterback David Watford], for that matter.”
DISRUPTIVE FORCE: Technically, he’s a reserve, but Will Hill may be Virginia’s top defensive tackle. The 6-4, 280-pound junior from Williamsburg leads the team in tackles for loss, with four, and has also broken up a pass this season.
“He’s got a great, great work ethic and a tremendous motor,” London said.
Hill splits time at tackles with starters Matt Conrath and Nick Jenkins, both of whom are fifth-year seniors.
“I look at it as kind of a three‑way rotation in there as far as starters,” London said. “Will has worked himself into a position where he goes in the game and he goes in the game early, whether he’s on a nickel unit, a pass-rush unit, or whatever it may be. Will has done a great job of just getting himself ready physically and mentally to be an inside tackle for college football, and he’ll continue to. His role will continue to increase, and hopefully his play‑making abilities as the season goes on will increase, as well.”
UNFAMILIAR FEELING: Not long after the game ended Saturday in Chapel Hill, it hit Daquan “Da-Da” Romero. Not since the 2007 season, when Phoebus High fell to Stone Bridge in the state Group AAA, Division 5 semifinals, had he played in a game that his team lost.
“I really didn’t have emotions towards it,” Romero said Monday, “because my mom always told me, ‘You’re not always going to win. There’s going to be a point in time in life where you’re going to be down and you’re going to lose. It’s just how you respond to that.’ Like Coach said, ‘It’s a new week, so focus on a new team.'”
Romero, a true freshman who enrolled at UVa in January, is a 6-1, 230-pound outside linebacker. He played much of the second half Saturday in Reynolds’ place and finished with a career-high five tackles, including one for loss.
At Phoebus, where he played defensive end, Romero had 30 sacks as a junior and 19 as a senior. He nearly sacked Bryn Renner late in the game Saturday, but Walcott got to the UNC quarterback first.
“I was pretty close though,” Romero said with a smile.
STAYING THE COURSE: The addition of Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the ACC won’t significantly affect UVa’s recruiting strategy in football.
“We still have a footprint,” London said, “and our footprint is obviously the in-state area, [where] we’ve made a considerable effort in trying to do well. We also talk about the states that connect the state of Virginia. You’re talking about [North] Carolina, you’re talking about the D.C./Maryland area, and then our secondary areas are those areas that there’s a large influx of student-athletes or even students that go to school here.”
Those states include New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, and the coaching staff may spend more time there, London said.
STRONG START: Redshirt freshman E.J. Scott, who missed much of training camp with an illness, made his college debut Saturday at North Carolina. Late in the third quarter, special-teams coordinator Anthony Poindexter inserted Scott, who promptly returned a kickoff 29 yards.
Scott is a 5-11, 185-pound wideout who, like Jenkins, starred at Good Counsel High School in Maryland.
“He was out for a while, and it took kind of a slow process for him to get back,” London said, “but as you saw on that one return, he got in and did a nice job. And not only that, had he gone the right way on the block, the block that was set up for him, that would have been a longer run. But he’s got speed, he’s elusive, he’s got athleticism.”