'Hoos Taking Steps to Build Toughness
Aug 22, 2013
Near the right sideline, cornerback Tim Harris corralled Mizzell and wrestled him to the turf in the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility. So ended one of the plays in the UVa football team’s fourth and final scrimmage of the summer.
A year ago, the Cavaliers didn’t hold their first intrasquad scrimmage until the 11th practice of training camp.
The live tackling started earlier at Virginia this summer. The team’s seventh practice, at historic Lambeth Field, was a full-contact scrimmage in which ball-carriers were tackled to the ground.
“It was definitely a grind, but we needed it,” said Morgan Moses, one of the Cavaliers’ starting offensive tackles.
Mike London, whose fourth season as UVa’s head coach begins Aug. 31 against BYU at Scott Stadium, has said repeatedly that he expects his team to be smart, tough and aggressive. One of the ways to instill the latter two qualities, London noted recently, is to increase the physical nature of practices.
“We started with a mindset of changing the culture and the way you play,” said London, who has made many changes since the Wahoos finished 4-8 last season.
Four assistant coaches from the 2012 team, including defensive coordinator Jim Reid, are no longer at UVa, and practices this spring and summer have included more contact than in recent years.
The `Hoos don’t tackle to the ground at every practice — no college team does — but they have scrimmaged regularly since training camp opened Aug. 5. New defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s philosophy is straightforward.
“We’re going to tackle,” Tenuta said Wednesday morning. “You gotta work on tackling every day.”
His charges approve.
“You always want that as a defensive player so you can practice your tackling,” senior end Jake Snyder said. “You’re playing against your team, you don’t want to get anybody hurt, but at the same time you gotta get ready for that first game.”
Like many college teams, UVa has “thud periods” at practice in which defenders wrap up ball-carriers momentarily. “Then you’re letting him go on, and he gets to practice finishing the run,” Snyder said. “The tacklers get to practice getting in position to finish tackles.”
Before joining London’s staff this year, Tom O’Brien spent 16 years as a head coach — 10 at Boston College and then six at NC State — and his teams generally scrimmaged four times during each training camp.
“You have to tackle,” said O’Brien, UVa’s associate head coach for offense, “because you have to do it [in games] and you have to learn how to do it and you have to do it the right way, and it’s like anything else: If you don’t practice it, you’re not going to be any good at it, or you’re going to put yourself in position to hurt yourself.”
Snyder said: “We’re out here practicing it every day, getting in a position to make tackles, and then when we actually do have to get in that live scrimmage situation we’re able to do that.
“We saw some missed tackles early on. We’re definitely getting better at it each time we get out there and practice a live situation. So the goal is to have no missed tackles when we get to a game situation.”
There’s also been an emphasis this summer on 11-on-11 work in practice.
“It’s a lot more team-oriented, so we’re together as a group a lot more,” said Luke Bowanko, a starting offensive guard.
Moses said: “It’s definitely more team-oriented. I think the coaching staff wants us to play against each other more, so we can get a handle on the speed of the game, instead of just doing individuals all day.”
Tenuta said he believes “the situational part is the key to the game. Your kids have to understand situations, whether it’s the four-minute [drill], it’s the two-minute [drill], it’s third down-and-27, it’s third down-and-3. They have to understand the menu, and then you have to go from there.”
To avoid injuries, Tenuta said, cut blocks aren’t allowed at practice, and that can affect defensive players in early-season games as they try to position themselves to make tackles.
“It’s hard to simulate cut blocks and things like that [in training camp],” Tenuta said.
Tackling is one of many skills a good defender must master. “You gotta meet and defeat blocks,” Tenuta said. “You gotta replace on crack blocks. You gotta play kick-out blocks.”
Tenuta has seen steady progress from his players, not only in tackling, since the start of spring practice. Virginia’s defensive starters include only two seniors: Snyder and tackle Brent Urban.
“I just think our players are developing their skill sets,” Tenuta said, “and I think we’ve gotten better at all aspects.”
A new rule in college football will result in penalties — and, in some cases, ejections — for initiating contact with the crown of the helmet. That’s another reason London has had his team scrimmage regularly.
“We’ve been using those as teaching moments,” he said. “Sometimes the only way you [can learn what is allowed] is by having a live situation.”
In an early scrimmage at Lambeth Field, an official penalized a UVa defender for leading with the crown of his helmet. London sent videotape of the play to the head of ACC officials.
“He looked at it and said, `No, I don’t think that was a penalty. Nor was it as ejection call,’ ” London said. “So those type of things you can use as teaching moments, particularly when you have guys going at it and trying to simulate a game.”