By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — If you’re hoping to find UVa football coach Mike London on Friday afternoon, look for him in Atlanta, site of the 59th annual ACC men’s basketball tournament. He’ll be at Philips Arena cheering on Tony Bennett and the Cavaliers, who are seeded No. 4 in the 12-team tourney.
“I think Tony’s done a phenomenal job,” said London, the reigning ACC coach of the year in his sport. “It’s been really neat to see.”
Before heading south to watch hoops, London sat down in his McCue Center office this week and talked football with VirginiaSports.com. Spring practice begins March 19 for the Wahoos, who are coming off an 8-5 season that ended with a loss to Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
UVa’s spring game is set for April 14 at Scott Stadium.
London’s players are on spring break, but they spent the previous six weeks training with Evan Marcus, the team’s director of strength and conditioning.
“You have experiences like those we just experienced in [Atlanta] because of the work that was put in over the winter and during the summer,” London said, “so it’s not like, ‘OK, let’s go back to a bowl.’ It’s gotta be uncomfortable. You have to work harder. We have to be more demanding in a lot of things that we do in order to experience something like that again.”
London touched on many topics in the interview. The highlights follow.
ROAD TRIPS: In 2010, UVa held one of its spring practices in Norfolk. In the spring of 2011, the ‘Hoos practiced outside of Charlottesville twice — at Hampton High School and Episcopal High School in Alexandria.
This spring, the Cavaliers will hold three practices off Grounds, all free and open to the public. The team will practice at Fairfax High School on Saturday, March 24 (1 to 3 p.m.), at Christopher Newport University in Newport News on Friday, March 30 (7 to 9 p.m.), and at Sports Backers Stadium in Richmond on Saturday, April 7 (1 to 3 p.m.).
In addition, several practices at UVa will be open to the public.
The practices around the state provide “kind of a unique perspective” for prospects and fans, London said.
“I know players come to the games and they see the coaches coach, but they see it from a distance, up in the stands,” he said. “At these practices, a player has an opportunity to see, when you break it up, what kind of drills you do, how you communicate with the players, how you coach ’em, how you teach ’em. There’s an insight that a young man, a potential recruit, or high school coach or parents, can see when they come to these. They see the way we practice. They see the techniques and the drills that we use. The player has a chance to understand what type of temperament the coach has. There’s a lot of things they look at, and they can do a scouting report on us, as far as a program, when it comes to coaches.
“For us, it’s easy travel. We’re centrally located. We want to continue to try to increase our fan base and the excitement and the enthusiasm [that comes from] being able to go practices, get autographs, put a face with a name. Some guys are going home [for these practices]. A lot of players from the state of Virginia are on our team now, and a lot of them will be well-represented in all these different places that we’re going.”
STAFF CHANGES: Shawn Moore, who coached the Cavaliers’ wide receivers in 2010 and ’11, is likely to work with the tight ends this year.
“I think the tight end position is something that we want to put more of a focus on,” London said.
Graduate assistant Gordie Sammis oversaw the tight ends last season, with help from offensive line coach Scott Wachenheim. After the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Sammis left UVa, his alma mater, to become a full-time assistant coach at Columbia University.
Sammis’ departure created an opportunity for London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor to tweak the staff assignments on that side of the ball.
Graduate assistant Marques Hagans is expected to work with the wideouts this year, with help from Lazor, who will continue coaching the quarterbacks and overseeing the offense.
Mike Faragalli will continue as running backs coach and Wachenheim as offensive line coach. The Cavaliers’ new graduate assistant, Mike Saint German, will help Wachenheim with the line. Saint German, a former offensive lineman at Lafayette, came to UVa from Franklin & Marshall, where he coached the defensive line.
The tight ends will benefit from Moore’s knowledge of the passing game, London said, and Wachenheim and Saint German will help Moore, a former UVa quarterback, with the finer points of the running game.
Hagans, who played wideout and quarterback at UVa, assisted Moore with the receivers last season.
“He did a really nice job,” London said of Hagans, “and he’s going to be a good coach. Plus, he played the position in the NFL.”
ON THE MOVE: More than a half-dozen players will be working at new positions this spring. Among those who changed spots: LoVanté Battle, from safety to fullback; Sean Cascarano, from offensive tackle to offensive guard; Cody Wallace, from center to offensive guard; Jay Whitmire, from offensive guard to offensive tackle; Matt Mihalik, from offensive guard to center; Marco Jones, from defensive end to defensive tackle; Darius Lee, from safety to outside linebacker; and Ausar Walcott, from outside linebacker to defensive end.
Walcott started seven games at linebacker last season, but defensive end Thompson Brown’s decision to give up football made bolstering the pass rush a priority for the coaching staff.
Early last season, Walcott practiced at end, so he has some familiarity with that position. He began his college career as a safety in Al Groh’s 3-4 defense, but “Ausar’s done a nice job in the weight room, getting himself bigger,” London said.
“We tried to address the pass-rushing issue with talented recruits coming in, but you already have guys that are here that might as well start getting opportunities to rush [in spring practice].”
Of the Cavaliers’ three scholarship fullbacks last season, two (Max Milien and Terence Fells-Danzer) were seniors. Battle was buried on the depth chart at safety, and during practices leading up to the Chick-fil-A Bowl, he impressed the coaching staff with his work as a scout-team running back.
Battle, a graduate of Phoebus High School, “really looked athletic,” London said. “There’s an air of confidence about him, after having been here as a college football player for a while. And with us losing two, Fells-Danzer and Max Milien, there’s an opportunity to evaluate him at a position that’s important for us.
“He can catch the ball, he’s very physical, and here’s a young man that just wants a chance to play and get on the field somewhere and help us.”
Battle was listed at 5-10, 200 pounds last season, but he’s heavier (and stronger) now, London said. Atop the depth chart at fullback heading into spring practice is 6-6, 235-pound sophomore Zach Swanson.
ON THE MEND: Several players will miss spring drills while recovering from operations they had during or after the 2011 season. This group includes Marco Jones, defensive end Billy Schautz, middle linebacker Steve Greer, offensive linemen Oday Aboushi, Sean Cascarano and Luke Bowanko, quarterback Kyle McCartin and wideout Bobby Smith.
“I think it speaks a little bit to the toughness and the resiliency of the team,” London said, “in that guys played that season, as successful as it was, through injuries, through pain, through all kinds of things.”
Bowanko, for example, has had an operation on each shoulder this offseason. In all, three of the projected starters on the pre-spring depth chart — Aboushi, Cascarano and Bowanko — are recovering from injuries. That will mean extensive work for, among others, sophomore Kelby Johnson at left tackle, sophomore Cody Wallace at left guard and redshirt freshman Tim Cwalina at right guard.
“If you took before-and-after pictures of those guys, after what Evan has done with them in the weight room, they’re bigger, they’re faster, they’re more explosive, and they’re ready to play,” London said.
BACK IN THE FOLD: Drew Jarrett has rejoined the team after taking the 2011 season off. Jarrett, a kicker from Virginia Beach, was 17 for 17 on extra points as a true freshman in 2009, then redshirted in 2010.
The kicking duties were split among three players last season. Jimmy Howell punted, Robert Randolph kicked extra points and field goals, and Chris Hinkebein kicked off. All are out of eligibility.
“Obviously [Jarrett] saw, like everyone saw, that we had three senior kickers in various capacities leaving, and an opportunity to come back and compete for one of those positions,” London said. “He’s been out working out with the team, lifting, running, all those things.”
BIG OPPORTUNITY: Daquan “Da-Da” Romero, who appeared in 10 games and made 13 tackles as a true freshman last season, heads into the spring as the first-team strong-side linebacker. Romero enrolled at UVa in January 2011 after graduating early from Phoebus High School.
“He’s made tremendous gains and strides in his lifting, in his work ethic, in school,” London said. “Here’s a guy coming out of high school that doesn’t quite know what’s going on. Then he gets help, people point him in the right direction, he starts to figure it out, and now he’s looking like he’s ready to contribute in a big way.”
BEHIND CENTER: Since the end of the regular season, two quarterbacks have left the program. Michael Strauss transferred to the University of Richmond — UVa’s first opponent this fall — and Ross Metheny is headed to South Alabama.
That means Lazor will have three quarterbacks with whom to work this spring: returning starter Michael Rocco, backup David Watford and true freshman Greyson Lambert, who enrolled at UVa in January. Another scholarship quarterback, incoming freshman Matt Johns, will join the team this summer.
Rocco, who started all 13 games last season, improved dramatically late in the season, and London expects more growth from the rising junior.
“He’s seen a bunch of coverages and rushes and blitzes and things like that,” London said. “Michael has been through a lot of games and a lot of battles. He’s made winning touchdown drives, he’s made great throws, he’s made some mistakes, but he’s been in those games and those situations that you can learn from. I think all those things, having been through it before, are going to help him even more now. He’s doing all the right things, along with David, to be competitive and to push each other.”
ROLE MODELS: Billy Schautz, whose 2011 season ended Nov. 29 with a gruesome injury in Virginia’s win at Florida State, is ahead of schedule in his recovery and should be able to participate fully in the summer strength-and-conditioning program.
London marvels at how Schautz has matured over the past two years.
“He’s become a great teammate, student of the game, a leader, all those things,” London said. “That’s what happens. If you hang in there sometimes with guys and give them a chance to get better, it’s amazing. He’s one of those guys that has bought into it.”
Schautz will be one of the Cavaliers’ leaders this season, along with such seniors as Perry Jones, Colter Phillips and Aboushi. It’s critical, London believes, for a team to have a strong veteran presence.
When a team expects “young guys to be the leaders, they’re not ready for that,” London said. “But if you hang onto those [veterans], they become kind of the culture and then they can help lead the young guys. And that’s what you need. You need older guys to help. Now, there’s about 50 players that we’ve signed the last two years, so we’ve got young guys. But the good thing is, the other guys have been in the program now for two years, going on the third year, and they get it, and they’ve bought into it.”
Many of the players who were on the roster when London took over in December 2009 are “no longer here,” he said, “because they didn’t get it, they didn’t buy into it. At first the coaches were the model for what the standard of behavior was. Hopefully now we’re getting to the point where the players that have been through the program are the standard and can govern themselves.”