Catching Up With Mike London
April 19, 2013
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Spring football practice officially ended last weekend at UVa, but the work continues at the McCue Center. Head coach Mike London and his assistants have been conducting exit interviews with players this week.
“We allow them to say how they thought they did in the spring,” London said Wednesday. “Then the coaches give their feedback about what they thought.”
In 2012, the Cavaliers’ third season under London, the team finished 4-8. This is not the first time his coaching staff has met with players after spring practice ended, but London believes the process will be especially valuable this year.
“I think it’s particularly important for this group of players to let them know where they stand coming out of spring and what they need to do for the summer,” London said. “If a guy’s a first-team guy now, he can’t rest on his laurels. If a guy’s a second-team guy now, he can’t rest on his laurels, because there’s a whole incoming group of players that want to come in and play. Everybody’s got the expectation they’ve got to raise their level another notch.”
London and his assistants won’t be allowed to work on the field with players again until training camp begins in early August. The players’ primary contact on the staff until then will be Evan Marcus, UVa’s strength-and-conditioning coach for football.
“To me, this time we’re getting ready to get into now is always the critical time, because coaches aren’t looking at you,” London said. “You decide whether you’re going to get up and work out or do this or do that, and the biggest gains, most of the time, are made between now and camp.”
After the Wahoos finished below .500 for the second time in three seasons, London remade his staff over the winter. His coordinators are all new this year — Steve Fairchild (offense), UVa alumnus Jon Tenuta (defense) and Larry Lewis (special teams). So is associate head coach Tom O’Brien, though he’s no stranger to the University. O’Brien was an assistant under George Welsh at UVa for 15 years before leaving in December 1996 to become head coach at Boston College.
For four seasons (1997-2001), London was one of O’Brien’s assistants at BC. To be on the practice field again with O’Brien, London said, is “crazy, because the roles are opposite. I was coaching and teaching during my individual period, caught up in my own position [at BC], and he was supervising and watching. And now it’s the opposite. He’s coaching and teaching, and I’m kind of watching the whole, trying to put the whole thing together.”
London has extensive experience as a defensive line coach, at Boston College and UVa and with the NFL’s Houston Texans, and he did more than supervise at times this spring.
Whenever possible, he assisted UVa’s defensive line coach, Vincent Brown, on the field, London said, and also “during film [sessions] prior to practice. In position meetings, I’d have an opportunity to sit and watch film and make commentary on techniques and things like that.”
Graduate assistant Jonathan Lewis helps Brown with the defensive line. Lewis and his wife recently had a baby, however, and while Lewis was out on paternity leave, London was pressed into service.
“While he was gone for that week,” London said, “I had a chance to work specifically with the ends, and just watch the film and make comments about techniques. I think it worked out pretty well.”
He felt the same way about the Cavaliers’ first spring under the revamped coaching staff. Virginia played its Orange-Blue scrimmage April 6 at Scott Stadium, then practiced three more times.
“I think one of the things you’re always concerned about when you change over and have new schemes and systems,” London said. “is starting from square one. What was interesting to see, if you talk to Jon and Steve and Larry, is how well the players picked up the fundamental techniques needed to execute their responsibilities.
“Everything’s different. But I think what we got out of the spring was a foundation, and we began to put in things that we’re going to build upon as we go into summer, August camp and into the season. The reality of it is all three new systems are new, and you build upon what you know. So this team is going to be a work in progress as the season goes on.”
O’Brien, Fairchild and Lewis are former college head coaches. Tenuta, who came to UVa from NC State with O’Brien in January, has been an FBS assistant for more than three decades.
“I think it’s been a seamless transition, because there’s experience there,” London said. “These guys have worked on other staffs, and they know how they fit, they know the dynamics. There’s no pretentiousness. Everyone understands their roles, I think.”
Virginia will have no more than eight seniors on its roster this fall: offensive linemen Morgan Moses, Luke Bowanko and Sean Cascarano, defensive end Jake Snyder, defensive tackles Brent Urban and Justin Renfrow, wide receiver Tim Smith and defensive back Rijo Walker.
“I just came back from CVS,” London said with a smile. “I should have got some Huggies or some pull-ups.”
Had Michael Rocco, Virginia’s starting quarterback for most of last season, not transferred to the University of Richmond, the senior class would be larger. Other would-be seniors, though, were dismissed from the team for poor academic performance or violations of team rules.
“You hope that they do what they’re supposed to,” London said. “If not, as you look at our roster, you see that some guys are at home right now, because they didn’t do what they were supposed to do. I’m not going to allow that to mess with the chemistry of the team or expectations of behavior.”
Several players missed the Orange-Blue scrimmage because of injuries, including Canaan Severin. The 6-2, 210-pound wide receiver was one of nine true freshmen to play for the Cavaliers last season. Eight other wideouts went through spring drills — Smith, redshirt freshmen Kyle Dockins and Jamall Brown, sophomore Adrian Gamble and juniors Dominique Terrell, Darius Jennings, E.J. Scott and Miles Gooch — so the `Hoos are well-stocked at that position.
Redshirting Severin is an option UVa might consider this fall, London said, but there’s no rush to make a decision.
“As far as talent, he is a very talented guy,” London said. “He’s a tall, athletic, go-get-it type of receiver, so we’ll see how he progresses.”
The Cavaliers’ recruiting class for 2013 consists of 22 scholarship players, one of whom, linebacker LaChaston Smith, enrolled at the University in January. Two of the others, Tyrell Chavis and Max Valles, originally signed with UVa in February 2012 but are spending this academic year at Fork Union Military Academy.
Media members who cover UVa football focused this spring on the new members of London’s staff, and understandably so. But London said the contributions of the holdovers from his previous staff — Brown, offensive line coach Scott Wachenheim, cornerbacks coach Chip West and safeties coach Anthony Poindexter — should not be overlooked.
Of the players who committed to UVa before the staff changes, only one ended up signing with another school in February.
“They kept everything together,” London said of Wachenheim, Brown, West and Poindexter. “They were answering tough questions [from current players, committed players and prospects].”
London called Poindexter, who was an All-America safety at UVa, “one of the best guys I’ve ever been around. And he’s one of our best recruiters.”
Poindexter coordinated UVa’s special teams in 2012, and several of those units struggled. London said he marveled at the way Poindexter, in face of intense criticism from fans for his special-teams work, still had “the passion and energy and want-to to serve his alma mater and take a backseat and then help Larry [Lewis] do whatever he needs to do [with the special teams].”
The `Hoos came out of spring practice with several starting jobs still to be filled. Will the first-team center be Bowanko, or wil be it be redshirt freshman Jackson Matteo or sophomore Ross Burbank? That question won’t be answered until training camp.
Of particular interest to UVa fans, of course, is the quarterback competition. The leading candidates are sophomore David Watford, redshirt freshman Greyson Lambert and junior Phillip Sims. None did enough during spring practice to lock down the starting job. That doesn’t worry London.
“We don’t have one at this moment, but we will,” he said.
SERIES FINALE: The third and final episode of the spring edition of “The Building of a Program,” a television show focusing on UVa football, will premier at 4:30 p.m. Friday on Comcast SportsNet.
It will be replayed Saturday on WAHU FOX 27 at 9:30 a.m., on Comcast SportsNet at 10 a.m., on WVAW ABC 16 at 11 a.m. and on WCAV CBS 19 at 11:30 a.m. Comcast SportsNet will air it again Monday at 11 p.m.