July 24, 2012

• ACC Preseason Poll

GREENSBORO, N.C. — On a day that shook the world of college athletics, reporters at the ACC Football Kickoff were eager, for obvious reasons, to ask Miami’s Al Golden and Boston College’s Frank Spaziani about the NCAA’s sanctions against Penn State. Golden and Spaziani played for and later coached under Joe Paterno at Penn State.

The ACC’s other head coaches, including UVa’s Mike London, also fielded questions about the Penn State situation Monday.

From a football perspective, London said, the unprecedented penalties could ultimately hurt the Nittany Lions more than the NCAA’s so-called death penalty might have.

“It’s shocking,” London said at the Grandover Resort, site of the ACC’s annual media day for football.

“That’s a tough blow … But again, the main focus [should be] on the victims there.”

Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant under Paterno at Penn State, was found guilty last months of sexually abusing 10 boys over a span of 15 years, sometimes on campus. What happened at Penn State, London said, is “a wakeup call for everybody in college athletics and college sports, not just football, about creating the culture of accountability and responsibility, that if you see something that’s wrong, you stand up for someone that can’t stand up for themselves … It [is a reminder] that you have to continue to educate people and make sure they’re aware of the responsibility of what appropriate conduct is, how you handle yourself in social situations, just all those things … It brings to the forefront that things like this have to be avoided and you’ve got to exhaust all measures to make sure it doesn’t [happen again].”

Penn State, coincidentally, visits Scott Stadium on Sept. 8 for a non-conference game against UVa. The Nittany Lions are heading into their first season under new coach Bill O’Brien.

This will be the Cavaliers’ third season under London, who guided them to the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and an 8-5 record, in 2011. During a question-and-answer session that lasted more than 75 minutes Monday, London covered a variety of topics. Among them:

* Quarterbacks — Michael Rocco, a junior from Lynchburg, started every game at quarterback for the Wahoos last season, and he’s No. 1 on the depth chart heading into training camp, London said.

It’s not a foregone conclusion, though, that Rocco will remain the starter. Also competing for the job will be sophomore David Watford, his backup last season, and redshirt sophomore Phillip Sims, who is eligible immediately after transferring from Alabama to UVa recently.

“As you remember, when we first got here, we had a quarterback, Marc Verica, who was a fifth-year senior, and no other quarterback on the roster had gone in the game [as a collegian],” London said. “And now we get to this point. Now it’s like, ‘You got too many quarterbacks; you got too many good quarterbacks.’

“I’d rather have this to deal with. It’s a good problem to have. Michael has been very mature about it … He opened his arms, he embraced it. Phillip’s part of the team, and let the competition begin. When you’re coming along as a young quarterback, you’re thinking about [yourself]. Michael’s to the point of his career, I think, in his development, that he’s not just thinking about [himself], he’s thinking about the team, and understands that competition — whether it’s quarterback, left tackle, right end, corner — is going to make the team better.”

Virginia’s coaches have yet to work with Sims, who was the Crimson Tide’s No. 2 quarterback in 2011. Once training camp begins Aug. 6, London said, the coaching staff will have a better idea what Sims will be able to contribute this fall.

A redshirt year for Watford is a possibility, London said. The Cavaliers’ other quarterbacks are true freshmen Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns, each of whom stands 6-5. Lambert enrolled at UVa in Janury.

* Luke Bowanko — UVa’s starting right offensive guard in 2011, Bowanko had two operations — one on each shoulder — after the season and missed spring practice. Healthy again, the junior from Northern Virginia may slide inside to center this fall, London said Monday.

Virginia’s starting center in 2010 and ’11, Anthony Mihota, was a senior last season.

Senior Oday Aboushi and junior Morgan Moses return at left tackle and right tackle, respectively. Junior Sean Cascarano is the projected starter at left guard. If Bowanko starts at center, fifth-year senior Matt Mihalik, who split time at center with redshirt freshman Ross Burbank during spring practice, may take over at right guard, London said.

The coaching staff does not want “to put too much on Burbank’s plate” so early in his college career, London said.

Bowanko, who has proven he can play with pain, “adds another level of toughness that you want your guys up front to have,” London said. “He’s a gifted player in his own right, and we’re glad to have him.”

* Expectations –– In a poll of media members at the ACC Football Kickoff, Virginia was picked to finish fourth in the Coastal Division. The ‘Hoos are trying to advance to bowls in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2004 and ’05.

London said he has emphasized to his team the importance of “being relevant again in college football.” His veterans, he said, “understand that there is a process to becoming really good, and there’s no overnight thing that you can do. It’s a process of building a program, of building ideas, of expectations, of responsibility, of accountability. There’s a process of that, and sometimes you want the quick answer. That’s not going to happen.”

* Secondary — Gone are Chase Minnifield, Dom Joseph, Rodney McLeod and Corey Mosley. If the season began today, UVa would probably start two sophomores (Demetrious Nicholson, plus Brandon Phelps or Drequan Hoskey) at cornerback. The probable starters at safety are sophomore Anthony Harris and junior Rijo Walker.

The Cavaliers’ other defensive backs include sophomores Brendan Morgan, Pablo Alvarez and redshirt freshmen Mason Thomas and Kyrrel Latimer. UVa may have the least-experienced secondary in major-college football.

“I don’t know how many guys are shaving back there,” London said, smiling. “I doubt many of them are.”

That said, London added, “There’s a confidence level that we have about them. Because of their athletic skills, they can do some things that perhaps we might have not been able to do before.”

* Newcomers — Twelve true freshmen played for UVa in 2011. The total may well be smaller this fall, but several members of Virginia’s first-year class are virtual locks to play, including defensive end Eli Harold.

Harold, who’s listed at 6-4, 230 pounds, starred for Ocean Lakes High in Virginia Beach, and many recruiting analysts ranked him No. 1 in the state’s Class of 2012.

UVa’s inexperienced secondary would benefit from a strong pass rush, London noted, and that’s an area where Harold might be able to contribute immediately.

“A guy like Eli, we’re not going to ask him to play a seven-technique or a six-technique and stop the run,” London said, referring to roles in which Harold would have to take on larger offensive tackles and tight ends. “We’re going to try and utilize his abilities.”

The coaching staff hopes to “use that kind of speed and athleticism coming off the edge,” London said. “Whenever guys up front are battling each other, it’s a game of push and pull, it’s a game of strength, and that’s where your strength coach, having a [player] for a while, helps him. You try to put the brakes on an incoming defensive lineman, particularly one that plays inside, but you may be able to get away with it with a guy on the outside. You move him outside and just use his athleticism and [ask him to] run up the field and make things happen. [Harold] kind of falls into that category.”

As for Harold’s classmates, the “biggest thing you don’t want to do is take a bunch of stuff and put it on their plate, hoping they can handle the academic expectations as well as being a freshman playing in college,” London said.

“We want to evaluate them early [in training camp] to see what they can do, what they’re capable of, and if they can help us. We’re not at the point now where we can say we have the luxury of redshirting [every recruit]. We’re going to need help from some of these incoming freshmen, and then hopefully as we move on down the road here, we can start being able to redshirt guys like we’d like to.”