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Aug 30, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — A team with a new offensive coordinator, new defensive coordinator, new special teams coordinator, new associate head coach and new starting quarterback, among other changes from last season, makes a new start Saturday.

At 3:30 p.m., UVa kicks off its 124th football season in front of what’s expected to be a near-capacity crowd at 61,500-seat Scott Stadium. Virginia’s opponent is BYU, the first of many challenges for a team that finished 4-8 in 2012.

Virginia head coach Mike London sees the game as an opportunity for his team “to show how much we’ve improved. I guess you could say we can make a statement in terms of how much progress has been made.”

The Cavaliers’ veterans have been preparing for this game for more than nine months, through strength coach Evan Marcus’ offseason conditioning programs, spring practice and training camp, which opened Aug. 5 and ended last weekend.

“I think guys are feeling fresh and ready to hit somebody other than [their teammates],” offensive guard Luke Bowanko told reporters Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. “I know there’s a lot of excitement in the locker room, a lot of buzz. That’s the great thing about college football: That first game comes around, and the whole nation kind of gets a good vibe going.”

Bowanko is one of only eight healthy seniors on Virginia’s roster, a group that includes reserve kicker R.C. Willenbrock, a transfer from Dartmouth. Juniors have been cast in prominent roles on this team, but the depth chart UVa released Monday also includes seven true freshmen: offensive tackles Sadiq Olanrewaju and Eric Smith, fullback Connor Wingo-Reeves, tailback Taquan Mizzell, defensive tackle Donte Wilkins, linebacker Zach Bradshaw and cornerback Tim Harris. Another newcomer who may play this season is cornerback Kirk Garner.

Players who had eligibility remaining at the end of last season but, for various reasons, are no longer in the Virginia program include quarterbacks Phillip Sims and Michael Rocco, offensive tackle Kelby Johnson, tailback Clifton Richardson, tight end Jeremiah Mathis, defensive end Courtnye Wynn and defensive tackles Chris Brathwaite (who’s expected to return in 2014) and Justin Renfrow.

The attrition hasn’t dimmed the enthusiasm inside the locker room, said defensive end Jake Snyder, a fifth-year senior.

“There’s a good vibe,” Snyder said. “For better or for worse, we’ve had to let some guys go in this offseason, and if you ask around, I think it’s really benefited us. We’ve really got a narrow focus. There’s no superstars on this team, just a lot of guys that want to win, and we know what it takes to win. We’ve been there before and we’re going to do anything to get back to it.”

In 2011, their second season under London, the Wahoos won eight games and played in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta. Then came a season in which Virginia, hurt by its inability to force turnovers and its propensity for giving the ball away, lost eight of its final 10 games.

Changes followed. London dismissed four assistant coaches in December, including defensive coordinator Jim Reid, and then offensive coordinator Bill Lazor left for an NFL job in January.

Joining London’s staff were Tom O’Brien (associate head coach for offense/tight ends coach), Jon Tenuta (defensive coordinator), Steve Fairchild (offensive coordinator) and Larry Lewis (special teams coordinator/running backs coach), and Marques Hagans was promoted from graduate assistant to wide receivers coach.

Couple that with the fact that Virginia’s starting quarterback, David Watford, was a backup in 2011 and redshirted last season, and it’s easy to understand why the Cougars aren’t sure what to expect in their first visit to Charlottesville since 2000.

“I really haven’t studied much Virginia film, because there isn’t any,” BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall told reporters Monday in Provo, Utah.

“We could watch film from last year, but it’s a different system. I’m always hesitant to do that. So I’ll watch a series or two just to get a quick idea of what a player might look like, but I’ve been focusing more on us. In an opening game, I think that’s more important.”

Stout defense has been a trademark of Mendenhall’s teams at BYU. In 2012, operating out of a 3-4 scheme, the Cougars ranked second nationally in rushing defense, third in total defense and third in scoring defense.

“Here at BYU the defense is held to a high standard,” said linebacker Kyle Van Noy, an All-America candidate. “We know that going into every season.”

Virginia’s base defense is a 4-3. Facing the 3-4 “is a challenge,” London said, “and we have to find ways to make sure we move the ball.”

Against a Football Championship Subdivision opponent, Watford would have a greater margin for error in his first college start. But UVa’s coaches are confident the 6-2, 200-pound sophomore from Hampton will “know when to pull the ball and run [and] when to slide shuffle to avoid a sack,” London said.

“We’re not going to ask him to do more than what he’s capable of doing. Obviously he’s a gifted and talented young man, but if he does what’s being asked of him to do in distributing the ball and using his legs and his arm and his brain, then I think that’s going to be critical to our success. Everyone is excited to see how David is going to play because it will be very important, and particularly [against] this experienced defense.”

Like London, Mendenhall shook up his staff after last season, too, though to a lesser degree. After two years at Arizona, Robert Anae is back at BYU as offensive coordinator, and he has installed a no-huddle spread offense.

Virginia’s scout-team offense has done its best to prepare Tenuta’s defense for what’s coming Saturday. Still, London said, “there will be some things that [the Cougars will] do that we’ve never seen. Hopefully there will be some things that we do that they’ve never seen. So it’s about the adjustment and how we can proceed from there.”

Tenuta, a college coach for more than three decades, has spent untold hours devising strategies to slow fast-paced offenses. He knows this:

“They get rolling and they get you on your heels, you’re in for a long afternoon,” Tenuta said. “You just have to pick and choose based on down and distance, where the ball is and formations, how you’re going to attack it, because you just don’t want to just sit back and let them attack you.”

Conventional wisdom holds that it’s difficult to pressure quarterbacks in spread offenses, because they get rid of the football so quickly.

“I don’t think that’s the way Coach Tenuta sees it,” Snyder said, smiling. “He’s a coach that likes to bring pressure, and he’s going to do that. There definitely is a limit to it with an offense like that, when they’re going so fast-paced, and they’re making sure you’re on your responsibilities. And that’s the biggest part of it for the defense: You have to make sure every single person has their assignment taken care of every play, or else they’re going to hit you for a big play.

“It does limit the chances we have to put pressure on them, but if we’re taking care of our assignments and getting them into second- and third-and-long situations, we’re able to bring pressure then. That’s our goal.”

BYU is the first of several marquee opponents Virginia will meet this season. Another, No. 3 Oregon, visits Scott Stadium next week for a game that also will be nationally televised.

“It’s always fun when you’re playing teams like that, because much more people will be watching, a broader audience,” Bowanko said. “They’ll be watching to see what BYU’s going to do, and hopefully by the end of the game they’ll be like, `Wow, those kids from Virginia can play ball.’ It’s great having the spotlight on you.”

London said: “Having two great teams coming in to Charlottesville, Scott Stadium, is a challenge, but I think it’s a challenge the players have embraced and are looking forward to meeting.”

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