Jan. 21, 2013

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Friday afternoon found Mike London’s four new assistant coaches seated around tables at at the Courtside Club in John Paul Jones Arena, answering questions from reporters.

Tom O’Brien and Jon Tenuta were at NC State in 2012, and Larry Lewis was at Nevada. Marques Hagans, of course, is new in title only. In 2011 and ’12, he was a graduate assistant on London’s staff at UVa.

Hagans, who starred for London’s predecessor, Al Groh, as a wideout, quarterback and punt-returner, was named the Cavaliers’ wide receivers coach early this month. He said his experience as a GA convinced him that coaching was the right profession for him.

“The interaction with the players you get, that’s priceless,” said Hagans, a 2005 graduate of UVa, “and just watching players mature, grow and develop, and [having] that interaction with them every single day. I truly love that, just being able to be a part of that whole process. That’s my passion.”

Hagans worked extensively with the Wahoos’ receivers in 2012, and he now oversees one of the team’s most intriguing groups. Every wideout who caught a pass for the `Hoos last season is back this year, seven receivers in all: rising senior Tim Smith, rising juniors Darius Jennings, Dominique Terrell, E.J. Scott and Miles Gooch, and rising sophomores Adrian Gamble and Canaan Severin.

There are also the two freshman receivers who redshirted in the fall — Jamall Brown and Kyle Dockins — plus rising junior James Valeiras, a walk-on who has impressed in practice.

“We have a good nucleus of experience,” Hagans said Friday. “But like I keep telling the guys, experience is only good for so much. We have to produce. If we can produce and make plays, it will help the offense out tremendously. But not just make plays; make plays consistently. There’s a big difference. We can’t be sporadic making plays.”

Among them, Hagans’ charges caught 140 passes for 1,883 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2012 and helped the Cavaliers finish the season ranked 37th nationally in passing offense. But the group was far from perfect, as anyone who watched UVa play knows.

“You definitely know that there were a lot of plays that we left out on the field,” said Hagans, who was an NFL receiver for four seasons.

“There are some that just stick right out at you. But when you play football, mistakes are going to happen. Nobody goes into the game saying, `I want to drop a pass or not convert a third down.’ The thing is, you have to learn from those things. We didn’t graduate any seniors, which is always a plus. So now, with that nucleus of guys, there’s experience, but now it’s time to progress. We have to get better and take the next step to help this football team win more games. I’m excited about the opportunity. I have a good group of hard-working kids, and I know we’re going to be a lot better this year.

“The main thing is we gotta catch the ball better. We’ll work at that. They’ve already started that, since the season has ended. Catching is something you have to do over and over. It has to become to the point where it gets boring to you. So we’ll continue to work on that, and we’ll continue to work on footwork, route-running.”

Jennings led the Cavaliers in receptions (48), receiving yards (568) and touchdown passes (five) in 2012 and he’s likely to be an All-ACC candidate come fall. In addition to big plays, however, missed opportunities marked his 2012 season.

Against North Carolina on Nov. 15, Jennings caught a 9-yard touchdown pass from Phillip Sims in the second quarter. Then, in the fourth quarter, with UVa trailing 27-13 in a nationally televised game, Jennings ran a deep route and found himself uncovered behind the UNC secondary. But he dropped a well-thrown pass from Sims, and what would have been an 81-yard touchdown pass became an incompletion. The `Hoos went on to lose 37-13.

“The thing about Darius is, he’s a great playmaker,” Hagans said. “Nobody goes into the game saying, `I’m going to drop passes.’ If he could get it back, I know he would. I took him out [of the game briefly], but not because I wanted to fuss at him. As much as I wanted him to make that catch and was disappointed that he didn’t, I had to let him know that it was done. The next play is on, and we gotta move on. We’re going to need you again. So a lot of maturity has come from last year. Even though we had a lot of mistakes, it develops character, maturity.”

Drops have not been a big problem for Smith, but he has struggled to stay healthy during his college career. In 2012, he led UVa’s wideouts in yards per catch (20.2) and had 20 receptions for 405 yards and four TDs. But nagging injuries limited Smith to nine games.

“Some of it is just bad luck,” said Hagans, who remains hopeful that Smith will finally break out this fall.

“Tim’s a very hard worker, one of the hardest workers on the team,” Hagans said. “The thing I need more out of Tim this year is leadership. He’s the oldest, so he has to be the leader for the group.”

Terrell, one of the most heralded members of the recruiting class that entered UVa in 2011, did not play receiver in high school, and his adjustment to a new position hasn’t been seamless. But his productivity soared late last season — Terrell caught 16 catches for 233 yards in Virginia’s final three games — and he has as much playmaking potential as any receiver on the roster.

The 5-11, 170-pound Terrell finished the season with 38 receptions for 475 yards.

“I think the thing with Dominique is, his whole game is based upon confidence,” Hagans said. “I try to stress to him is he’s a lot better than he gives himself credit for. He’s always down on himself.”

Terrell has to consistently show “the ability to have confidence in his hands, his ability to use his release moves, and then his ability to run routes and get open,” Hagans said.

“The more he saw himself having success last season, I think that gave him the confidence he needed to finish out on a strong note. So hopefully where he ended last season, he’ll start from that point and continue to grow. Because it’ll be a great opportunity for him.”

If there was a revelation among UVa’s wideouts last season, it was Scott. Illness had limited him to two games in 2011. As a redshirt sophomore, though, he caught 29 passes for 390 pounds and three TDs, and his hands were as sure as any in the receiving corps.

Like Terrell, Jennings and Smith, the 5-11 Scott is not a big target. But size is an asset that Gooch (6-3, 220 pounds), Severin (6-2, 210) and Dockins (6-3, 200) possess.

Gooch, a converted quarterback, has caught only one pass in college, but it went for a 7-yard touchdown last season in UVa’s win over Miami at Scott Stadium.

“Everybody has to have a role within our group, from offense to special teams included,” Hagans said. “Miles Gooch offers a dynamic of being a dominant blocker in the run game and being a big target in the passing game as well. I’ve made a lot of plays in my life, but I’ve never been as happy for a player as I was when Miles Gooch scored against Miami. Never.

“The thing about Gooch is, he comes to work every day, he’s continuously gotten better, and he’s a total team player. You’ve seen him: He’s probably one of the strongest people on the team. Everyone can have a role and help us win football games.”

Severin, one of nine true freshmen to play for the Cavaliers in 2012, caught only one pass, for 3 yards, but he’s an intriguing prospect.

“The thing with Canaan is, there’s a lot of potential, but his potential only lasts for so long,” Hagans said. “It’s like sand in your hand. At some point it’s going to run out. Now it’s time to produce, so he has to come into this year looking to get better than he was last year and really produce. And I think if he can do those things, he will be a great asset to our offense and provide a different aspect that we haven’t had in a while — a big size receiver — and give us an opportunity to do some different things offensively. But his potential year is over.”

Gamble, at 6-1, 180, probably represents the best blend of size and speed among Virginia’s receivers. As a true freshman last season, he had three receptions for 35 yards and one touchdown.

“He’s got some speed,” Hagans said. “Now Adrian has to focus on making sure he’s secure in the playbook. He has to know where to line up, what to do, and then he has to know how to do it.”

Spring practice begins March 18 for the Cavaliers, who are coming off a 4-8 season. Hagans will have multiple options at wideout, “and there’s only one football,” he said with a smile.

“So hopefully that heightens the level of competition, it heightens the level of urgency, and guys go out every single day knowing that they aren’t comfortable. That’s my whole goal: to make sure the group is never comfortable. And if we can do that every single day, compete against each other with everything we have, encourage each other at the same time, I think we’ll have a good group. We’ll come together as a family, and then we’ll be able to produce and add something to this offense that we kind of were missing last year.”

EXTRA POINT: London said Friday that Vincent Croce, a reserve defensive tackle as a redshirt freshman in 2012, has requested a move to fullback and will practice there this spring.

The 6-4 Croce played defensive end, defensive tackle, linebacker and tight end at Good Counsel High in Olney, Md. Good Counsel has the D.C. area’s premier high school program, and Croce was named The Washington Post’s defensive player of the year in 2010.

Croce, whose weight at UVa has ranged from 250 pounds to about 280, appeared in four games last season. Virginia’s primary fullback in 2012 was Zachary Swanson, a rising junior who stands 6-6 and is a converted tight end.

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