By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For a defense coming off a dominant performance against Pittsburgh, no major personnel changes are planned as UVa prepares to host Ball State in football Saturday afternoon at Scott Stadium.
That’s not the case with the Cavaliers’ offense and, perhaps, special teams. The offensive depth chart released Monday afternoon includes new starters at right guard and right tackle, and the starters at center and wide receiver are still to be determined.
That changes were made is no surprise. Heading into their fifth game, the Wahoos (2-2) rank 112th nationally in total offense (322.3 yards per game) and 100th in scoring offense (20.3 points per game).
Against opponents from the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, UVa is averaging 240 yards and 10.7 points. In a 14-3 loss to Pitt, Virginia managed 199 yards and three points Saturday at Heinz Field.
“It’s disappointing about where we are,” head coach Mike London said Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. “The facts and the statistics don’t lie about that part of it.”
And so the coaching staff reworked the offensive depth chart. Sophomore Jay Whitmire, who started the first four games at right tackle, is now the No. 1 right guard. Junior Cody Wallace, who started the past two games at right guard after a hamstring injury sidelined classmate Conner Davis, is now the second-team left guard. True freshman Eric Smith replaces Whitmire at right tackle, and his backup is another newcomer, Sadiq Olanrewaju.
No decision has been made at center. Sophomore Ross Burbank started Virginia’s first four games, but redshirt freshman Jackson Matteo replaced him in the first half against Pitt and went the rest of the way.
At wideout, the starters have been senior Tim Smith and junior Darius Jennings, but they’ll have to fight to keep their jobs. Other candidates include junior Miles Gooch, sophomores Adrian Gamble and Canaan Severin, redshirt freshman Kyle Dockins and true freshman Keeon Johnson, who has yet to play this season.
“We want to send a message that no one gets comfortable,” London said Sunday night.
“We’ve gotten to the point where we need to get production from that position,” London said. “There are some taller guys that can go up and get the ball. We need some guys that can get that done.”
Virginia also needs receivers with sure hands. Against Pitt, 10 of sophomore quarterback David Watford’s passes were dropped.
“That’s way, way too many,” London said.
The `Hoos entered the season with new coordinators on defense (Jon Tenuta), offense (Steve Fairchild) and special teams (Larry Lewis). The defense struggled Sept. 7 against No. 2 Oregon, but most defenses struggle against the mighty Ducks. Oregon scored 59 points against Tennessee on Sept. 14 and, in its next game, 55 against California.
Otherwise, Tenuta’s group has played well, and so had Virginia’s special teams — until Saturday, when a Terrell blunder on a punt return resulted in a fumble that led to a Pitt touchdown.
The offense, though, has been unable to consistently move the ball against FBS opponents — BYU, Oregon and Pitt — and London’s frustration was apparent Monday.
“We want to see production,” he said. “We want to see improvement because you see it defensively. You see a new [defensive] scheme that’s being played, that’s being executed well right now. So there is a level of disappointment with the new offensive scheme that’s not as productive, is not showing the type of production that it needs to help us.”
After flying back from Pittsburgh, the team arrived at the McCue Center around 7 p.m. Saturday. Later that night, Watford said Monday, he threw passes to Jennings and Terrell on the practice field.
“And then Sunday morning we got all our receivers up and we were out there throwing routes,” Watford said. “Even though it was not full speed, just trying to catch, just throwing and catching, because that’s the most important thing, and that’s really what we need to work on, so that’s something that we look to do.”
Watching videotape Sunday of all the drops from the Pitt game was difficult for the wideouts, Gamble said Monday. “I feel like we just had a bad game, but I feel like we definitely can play better and will play better.”
Watford said he didn’t let the drops bother him during the game.
“After the game, of course it’s frustrating,” he said, “because those are plays I know my guys can make, and they know they can make as well. So it’s frustrating as an offense, because those are potential chances [to] drive the ball down the field and score and start something, and that’s what we were looking to do.
“But I never really got too frustrated with my guys, because I always saw it as, if they’re dropping it, I have to change something up, too. I have to put it in a better place where they can catch it easier. Because some of the drops were hard catches, they were difficult catches for the guys. I have to take more accountability for that, just be more accurate.
“I can’t blame it all on them. It’s my fault as well. That’s why we’re really just looking to work and go out there and get after it every day.”
Watford will remember Virginia’s visit to Heinz Field as “a game that we could have won, should have won, but we just didn’t do enough.” And that, he said, is unacceptable.
“The defense played a great game, but offensively we have to step it up, and we have to get to their level,” Watford said. “We have to be able to execute. We can’t depend on them all the time.
“They say defense wins championships, but offense puts points on the board. So we have to be able to score for us to be able to win games.”
UVa’s final non-conference opponent is anything but a pushover. Ball State, which won nine games last season, is 4-1 this year. Led by senior quarterback Keith Wenning, the Cardinals are averaging 472.4 yards and 40 points per game.
“This is a very important game for us,” Watford said. “We can’t take this team lightly … We have to focus on what we do and correcting the mistakes that we made in the [Pitt] game and just focus on getting our offense to that level where we can execute as well as our defense does. This game is a really important game for us. This could be the turning point in our season.”
WHAT IF? Early in the second quarter Saturday, on second-and-10 from the UVa 9-yard line, Watford scrambled into the open field and, after getting a textbook block from tailback Kevin Parks, sprinted untouched down the right sideline.
Watford could have added a 91-yard touchdown run to his résumé, but he stepped out of bounds during his run and had to settle for a 19-yard gain.
“I was kind of waiting for K.P. to set the block up, and when he cut the guy, I ended up being too wide,” Watford recalled Monday. “I was wider than I actually thought I was.
“It’s just that close. That close. That could have been a spark for that game, but we’re on to the next game, and we’re just ready to work this week.”
ON-THE-JOB TRAINING: Eric Smith, who’s from Decatur, Ga., made his college debut Sept. 21 against VMI. He didn’t play against Pitt, and now he’s preparing to make his first college start.
“Eric is a talented freshman that we think can do some things to help us out there at right tackle,” London said. ” We wanted to shore up the interior part” — by moving the 6-6, 300-pound Whitmire by guard — “to give us more girth, more strength, and allow some protection for David.”
Smith is listed at 6-5, 280.
“From Day One we were able to see he’s a guy with a big upside,” Watford said. “He has great ability, great talent. He’s eager to learn. He’s very athletic. He’s able to move. He has good range. He has quick feet. He’s able to set fast. I have a lot of confidence in him, and I know he’ll be ready.”
BIG TARGET: At 6-3, 200 pounds, with excellent speed, Johnson is as physically impressive as any UVa wideout. He starred at A.L. Brown High in Kannapolis, N.C., totaling 80 catches for 1,330 yards and 14 touchdowns in his final two seasons. (Virginia basketball player Teven Jones also is a former A.L. Brown football standout.)
London hopes Johnson can contribute on offense as another true freshman, outside linebacker Max Valles, has on defense.
“We think Keeon is that type of guy as well,” London said.
“I think Keeon has been one of those guys who you’ve seen make remarkable catches in practice against our defense. So now we’ve just accelerated his timetable, as well.”
Strength coach Evan Marcus has described Johnson as “freakishly strong, gifted and talented,” London said. “What’s happening in the weight room, you can see it happen out on the field as well.”
OPEN COMPETITION: Khalek Shepherd, UVa’s primary punt-returner in 2012, was slowed by an ankle injury Saturday and wasn’t used on special teams. After a game in which Terrell’s decision-making on punt returns hurt the `Hoos, however, Shepherd is an option the coaching staff may consider again.
“It’s a critical moment that happened in the game that led to a score,” London said. “Again, we all have to be accountable for the production we have, or lack thereof. If there are other guys there that can help us in that capacity, we’re going to look at that to do that. That’s what we have to do.”
Terrell has averaged 9.3 yards on his 15 punt returns this season, with a long of 35 (against BYU).
MEDICAL REPORT: Junior tight end Zachary Swanson, who suffered a knee injury against VMI, won’t play Saturday, but “hopefully he’s back sooner than later,” London said.
True freshman Taquan Mizzell, who has missed the past two games with an ankle injury, is listed as the No. 3 tailback on the latest depth chart.
As for Davis, he’s “still trying to get back from a hamstring issue, just still not ready,” London said. “When he’s ready, we’ll give him the opportunities. Right now we got to get ready for Ball State and put the linemen together that we think that can help us.”
Also uncertain is the status of kicker Ian Frye, who is 3 for 4 on field goals this season and has handled most of UVa’s kickoffs. Frye, a sophomore, strained his hip flexor against Pitt, London said, and redshirt freshman Dylan Sims had to kick off after Frye’s 32-yard field goal made it 14-3 late in the third quarter.
“It’s kind of day to day with Ian to see where he’s at,” London said.
Sims will take over as kicker if Frye is not available.