By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Steve Fairchild knows what he hopes to see from UVa’s running game Saturday afternoon against BYU at Scott Stadium.
The Cavaliers’ new offensive coordinator also knows season-openers can be especially unpredictable for college football teams.
“Every first game you’re not sure,” Fairchild said after practice on a rainy Wednesday morning. “Obviously, BYU’s a very good defense. It’ll be a good barometer to see where we’re at. We’re going to run the football here, but you never know quite where you’re at until you play that first game.”
Of the 120 teams that competed in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision last season, the Cougars ranked second in rushing defense, allowing an average of 86.9 yards per game on the ground.
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, ranked 96th in rushing offense (128.5 yards per game), a contributing factor in their 4-8 record. So when Fairchild joined head coach Mike London’s staff in January, it was no surprise that he made building a strong running game a priority.
In three seasons under Lazor’s direction, the Wahoos ranked 77th, 52nd and, finally, 96th in the rushing offense. Not coincidentally, perhaps, the only time the `Hoos finished above .500 during that span was in 2011, when they were at least an average running team.
On the eve of training camp early this month, Fairchild told reporters the Cavaliers needed “to develop some toughness in our run game.”
“He wants us to dish out the punishment,” tailback Kevin Parks said.
Running the football effectively, Fairchild said, requires “a physical attitude as much as anything. And it’s not just up front. It’s with backs finishing the way they go in, accelerating into contact and receivers blocking and so forth.
“Eleven guys contribute to the run game. We’ve got to be a physical run team. It rears its head in every game. There’s some point in time where you have to make a yard or you’ve got to bang out a first down, and there’s just more of an attitude about it than anything else, and we’ve got to get that attitude.”
That was a point of emphasis in spring practice, too, and the Cavaliers made some strides. In the spring game, however, UVa’s tailbacks averaged only about 2.5 yards per carry at Scott Stadium on an afternoon when the offensive linemen, especially the No. 1 group, also struggled in pass protection.
“As a line, we didn’t really play together, and the energy really wasn’t there,” center Ross Burbank recalled this week.
Fairchild has been offensive coordinator at four colleges, including Colorado State and New Mexico, and with the NFL’s St. Louis Rams and Buffalo Bills. Over his long coaching career, he’s seen how difficult things become for offenses that can’t move the ball on the ground.
“It’s night and day,” said Fairchild, who also coaches Virginia’s quarterbacks. “If you can’t run, you always are going to struggle. If you can get some run game going, then it sets up the whole offense.”
Much has changed in the UVa football program since last season, especially on the offensive side. Wide receivers coach Marques Hagans was a graduate assistant at Virginia last year. Associate head coach for offense Tom O’Brien, who also works with the tight ends, was head man at NC State. Running backs coach Larry Lewis was an assistant at Nevada. Only offensive line coach Scott Wachenheim was a full-time member of London’s staff.
With new coaches come new ideas and new philosophies. There’s been more contact in practice under the new staff and, on both sides of the ball, a greater emphasis on toughness, according to players.
“I feel like our mindset this year is totally different from last year,” Parks said. “We want to be physical. We want to wear teams down, so hopefully those things are going to work this season.”
Parks, a redshirt junior, has started only two games as a Cavalier, but he enters the season with 1,443 career yards rushing. He’s listed No. 1 at tailback on the depth chart released Monday.
“The kid’s amazing,” Parks said.
Mizzell, a graduate of Bayside High in Virginia Beach, picked up the nickname Smoke as a boy because of the difficulty defenders had in getting their hands on him, and it stuck.
“The running back portion we feel very good about,” Fairchild said. “All three guys had good camps and appear to be healthy going into the first game. We’re excited to see what they can do.”
Parks said: “You got Khalek, he can make you miss, and then you got Smoke who can make you miss and run right past you too. We all have different skill sets. It brings a lot to the table and more talent to the team, and that’s what we need.”
London agreed. He said Monday that “the key is to try to get your talented players as many touches as possible, and that’s a talented group of three running backs. And so we’ll do some things to make sure that everybody gets the kind of touches that they need to help us be successful.”
Demetrious Nicholson, a three-year starter at cornerback, faces Virginia’s offense in practice almost every day.
“It’s definitely a better running game this year than last year, as I see it,” said Nicholson, who like Mizzell starred at Bayside High.
“There’s been more explosive plays … Kevin Parks got a lot better. He got stronger this year. We have Taquan Mizzell, Khalek Shepherd. We got guys that can get to the second level and make people miss.”
More uncertainty surrounds the offensive line. Left tackle Morgan Moses, left guard Luke Bowanko and right guard Conner Davis are returning starters, but each played a different position in 2012. Moses was at right tackle, Bowanko at center and Davis at left guard. Rounding out the starting line are Burbank and right tackle Jay Whitmire, both redshirt sophomores.
Still, London said,”I feel pretty good about the first five,” and so does Parks.
“I feel like it’s just a different sense to those guys this year,” Parks said. “They want it more. I feel like it’s going to be a great one for these boys this season.”
The Cavaliers, however, lack experience and depth up front. The second-team offensive line includes two true freshmen and two redshirt freshmen.
UVa is more seasoned at wide receiver, where the options include senior Tim Smith and juniors Darius Jennings, Dominique Terrell and E.J. Scott. Fairchild wants to get the ball to his wideouts and to tight ends such as Jake McGee. That will be much easier for sophomore quarterback David Watford to do if the running game is churning out yards.
“We want to be balanced,” Parks said.
For that to happen, he knows, the `Hoos need to establish the run, which means the linemen must consistently open holes. “I believe that’s the biggest factor for us going into the season on offense,” Parks said, “our offensive line and how they play.”
As for his role in the offense, Parks said, “I’m not putting pressure on myself, because I know what I can do, what I’m capable of, but I feel like I have to make no mistakes. There’s no room for error. With this schedule we have, the teams we are playing, there’s no room for error.”