By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Media Day schedule for UVa’s football team included 20-minute question-and-answer sessions with each of head coach Mike London’s new coordinators: first Steve Fairchild (offense), then Jon Tenuta (defense) and, finally, Larry Lewis (special teams).
“That’s a tough act to follow,” Lewis, who smiles easily, said after Tenuta left the room.
Tenuta was hired to revamp a defense that struggled to force turnovers and record sacks. Lewis has been charged with changing Virginia’s special teams from a liability to an asset.
A season ago, out of the 120 teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, the Cavaliers ranked 111th in punt returns, 73rd in kickoff returns, 81st in punt-return defense and 119th in kickoff-return defense.
“I expect an immediate impact,” London told reporters Friday when asked about Lewis. “That’s why he’s here.”
Lewis would not be at UVa this summer had one of his protégés, Jeff Banks, stayed in Charlottesville. Banks, who coordinated UTEP’s special teams in 2012, joined Virginia’s staff after the season, only to leave for Texas A&M in January. The Wahoos quickly hired Lewis, 55, who had been special teams coordinator and running backs coach at Nevada in 2012.
“We’ve gone from the pupil to the teacher,” London quipped when Lewis was hired.
About two weeks after Lewis started work at UVa, Fairchild was hired as offensive coordinator. No introductions were necessary when Fairchild joined Lewis at Virginia. They’d worked together at Colorado State from 2008-11, Fairchild as head coach and Lewis as special-teams coordinator.
“I’ve known Larry a long time, even before I hired him at Colorado State, and I’ve been very impressed him every step of the way in his career,” Fairchild said Friday.
“Larry’s a very organized guy, a very good coach. You know, those guys that do special teams are almost like head football coaches, because they coach the whole team.”
Lewis first began coordinating special teams in 1995, at Washington State. He continued to oversee most special-teams units after taking over as head coach at Idaho State in November 1998, a job he held for seven seasons.
In the modern game, Lewis said Friday, virtually all college teams emphasize special teams. That wasn’t the case early in his coaching career, but he soon “realized how important the phase can be,” Lewis said.
“If you could just grab hold of this and really create something special, then … this could be your edge in the game. This could be the one play that will make a difference in a win or a loss, either one. And I want our kids to understand that: It’s a one-play series. We can make a difference in the ball game, and I think as they believe that, they start buying into things a little more.”
Training camp starts Monday for the Wahoos, who are coming off a 4-8 season marked by special-teams breakdowns. Lewis also coaches the team’s running backs, and he takes that assignment seriously. Still, he said, “because I’m coordinating the special teams, that’s gotta be a priority for me. That means if I have to stay later or come earlier [to get everything done], then that’s what has to happen. It is a priority. That’s what I’m here for.”
The `Hoos practiced 15 times in the spring — not enough for Lewis to install all all of his schemes, but enough for the players to get a feel for his coaching style.
“I like him,” junior tight end Jake McGee said Friday. “You need a guy who’ll get into you and show some fire.”
Junior linebacker Daquan Romero said Lewis “likes it done at a fast pace, but you have to be precise. He wants it done exactly how he tells you to do it, because he knows the game.”
The quarterbacks are off-limits, London said, but otherwise Lewis has “carte blanche” in choosing players for special-teams duty.
Lewis said: “I think as the special-teams coordinator, what I have to look at, and what I do look at is, how many plays in the game is this young man playing? If he’s a starting defensive end, he’s not going to be on all four phases, no doubt about that.
“You’re going to get an extra 25 to 30 plays on special teams in a game, so if I’m adding that onto a guy that’s starting full time, that’s not smart on my part. So I might have a starter in one phase but not the next, and have another starter in that next phase.”
Lewis said he looks for “the ability to run fast and move in space. Whether you’re going to make a tackle or you’re going to make a block, there’s certain skills that you have to have. And that ability just to run, come under control and either block or tackle somebody, I think those are the skill sets that I look at first.
“Attitude has got to play an important part in that. Are they willing and will they play hard? Because as you look at special teams, the biggest thing with special teams isn’t really, `Is the guy a starter or not a starter?’ It’s his attitude and his effort towards the special-teams area, and I think that’s a big thing that I evaluate on a daily basis.”
McGee, for example, has the necessary qualities, and then some.
“He loves special teams,” Lewis said. “Can I play him on every one of them? Probably not. Would I like to? Yeah, because he brings that attitude and effort. But those are the kinds of guys that I look for.”
Lewis has reviewed some videotape of UVa’s 2012 special teams, he said, “but I really wanted a clean slate, because I knew a lot of the techniques and philosophies were going to be a little bit different. I want to give kids a chance to participate right now.”
As a redshirt sophomore last season, Khalek Shepherd returned punts and most kickoffs for the Cavaliers. Shepherd, a reserve running back, will be featured again in the return game, Lewis said, and another option might be true freshman Taquan Mizzell.
Junior Alec Vozenilek, UVa’s starting punter last year, came out of the spring this year atop the depth chart, and he’s “way ahead right now,” Lewis said. “Voz has showed me some things that I think I can really count on this year to help our coverage unit.”
A decision on who’ll handle the various kicking duties has not been made. The candidates are sophomore Ian Frye, who was Virginia’s primary kickoff specialist in 2012, redshirt freshman Dylan Sims and graduate student R.C. Willenbrock, a transfer from Dartmouth, where he also played lacrosse.
“It’s going to be a heck of a competition,” Lewis said, “because I’m not settled on any one guy at this point … I think there’s some consistency we need to get from all of those guys.”
A Boise State alumnus, Lewis marveled at how special-teams coaching has evolved during his career. “It has become a big part of the game,” he said.
To stay sharp, Lewis and Banks get together with a group of special-teams coordinators — college and the NFL – every offseason. “It’s probably the very best clinic situation that I’ve ever been in,” Lewis said. “It’s [about] sharing all the information that we have.”
Moreover, he said, “I’m constantly on the phone with special-teams coordinators at other schools throughout the summer … There’s always somebody calling that needs something, or I’m calling somebody else within the group of guys that we know.”
Lewis likes to learn, which is one reason he has enjoyed his time at UVa. The offensive staff includes three former college head coaches: Lewis, Fairchild and Tom O’Brien. The tight ends coach, O’Brien also is associate head coach for offense.
It’s “really cool,” Lewis said, “to sit in that meeting with other guys that have that kind of experience and know that you have a sounding board with whatever comes up. Even in special teams. I’m sitting in there, and I have Coach O’Brien [assisting with] some things, and it’s a sounding board. There’s a guy that has been there, has some experience and can give something back. Whereas if you have a lot of guys that haven’t coached in some of those situations, then you’re the only guy making the decision all the time.
“As long as I’ve coached, I sit in that meeting and I learn things every day.”
COMING ATTRACTIONS: The Cavaliers’ first three practices — Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday — will be open to the public.
Practice is scheduled to start at 3:40 p.m. and last about two hours each day. The `Hoos practice on the fields behind University Hall and the McCue Center. Fans can park in the U-Hall and John Paul Jones Arena lots.
Also, UVa will host Movie Night at Scott Stadium on Saturday night. Starting at 6 o’clock, the family film Madagascar 3 will be shown on the stadium’s Hoo Vision video board.
Finally, the football program’s annual Meet the Team Day will be Sunday, Aug. 18 at JPJ, from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Admission is free to all of these events.