By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As the second week of training camp begins, the UVa football team has excellent depth at several positions, most notably tailback, where Kevin Parks, Khalek Shepherd and Taquan Mizzell head the list of returning players.
“You got three pretty good backs right there. You got two seniors with Kevin and Khalek, and you add Smoke to that list,” running backs coach Larry Lewis said Friday, referring to Mizzell, a sophomore, by his nickname.
Parks made the All-ACC second team last season, when he became the first Cavalier since Alvin Pearman in 2004 to rush for more than 1,000 yards.
It may be challenging at times for Lewis to find playing time for all of his tailbacks, but he said that’s “a good problem to have. And the good thing about it is, I think we can save their legs and not really wear one guy out, so we can make it through a season and keep all of them healthy. But there’s a role that they all can play, and they can all help us win. And as a staff offensively we’re going to be creative on how we use them and to get them on the field, because they all can make plays for us.”
Parks is the team’s most powerful runner. “He’s going to grind it out on you,” Lewis said. “That’s how he gained 1,000 yards. They weren’t all pretty yards, and they weren’t all breakaway. Whereas you look at Smoke and Khalek, they’ve got the ability to really in space make you miss.
“You take a look at those guys, they’re great space guys. They still have the strength to power through you, but I think they have the ability to take it the distance.”
Another option is Daniel Hamm, who has four years of eligibility remaining despite having played in two games as a true freshman last season. Hamm, who received a hardship waiver for the injury he suffered last fall, rushed for 136 yards and two touchdowns against VMI.
“So here’s a kid that has a 100-yard game under his belt,” Lewis said. “He’s got game experience, and redshirted. I think that’s the best of all worlds right there.”
The Wahoos held their first scrimmage of training camp Saturday night at Scott Stadium, and Hamm had a long TD run and a TD reception. Lewis also coordinates UVa’s special teams, and Hamm is an option in the return game, too.
“Just watching him do some things here in the last couple days,” Lewis said Friday, “here’s a young man that’s athletic, he’s physical, [and the coaches will try to find] ways to get him on the field and get him some experience as we go.”
OPTIONS ABOUND: Among the wide receivers who could play prominent roles for Virginia this season are seniors Darius Jennings and Miles Gooch, junior Canaan Severin, sophomores Keeon Johnson and Kyle Dockins, redshirt freshman Andre Levrone and true freshmen Doni Dowling and Jamil Kamara.
Each distinguished himself during the first week of training camp.
The wideouts have “been the biggest surprise, I think, this spring and going into fall camp and so far with the first five days,” offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild said Friday. “That’s probably where we are most improved, that area, as you look at last year.
“You always want a dominant go-to No. 1 guy, but I like the competition. I like the numbers we have. We’ve got depth, and any time you have that type of competition and depth, then they’re working harder at practice, because there’s only so many reps.”
Fairchild said he expects Dowling and Kamara to play this fall.
LEARNING CURVE: In his second season as UVa’s defensive coordinator, Jon Tenuta expects his unit to be improved, and not only because most of his 2013 starters are back this year.
His veterans, Tenuta said Friday, have a much better grasp of his system than they did last season.
“Once you understand the concepts, it’s pretty easy,” he said. “You’ve got to crawl before you walk and walk before you run.”
“These younger guys, they were feeling their way through. So now that they got a year underneath them, our guys, the guys that come out there and practice every day, they know exactly what we want.”
ON A ROLL: Heading into his fifth season as UVa’s head coach, Mike London has a record of 18-31, and this is clearly a pivotal year for him. Yet the Cavaliers continue to pile up commitments from coveted prospects in the Class of 2015.
London said Friday that he’s “100-percent committed to these players, to this university, to the success of this football program. And it’s meaningful when players can then see that type of commitment and then in turn reciprocate that type of effort and commitment.
“This is a great university, with great academic opportunities …. I’m in it for the players. I’m in it for the players’ development. My personal goals are to make sure that they become educated men, because one day they’ll be husbands, fathers, employees, employers, much longer than they’ll be a football player. And if I can do my job in that part, and win games, I feel more secure in aligning my priorities and what I just told you that I think is important. If those things can happen, I’m satisfied with what I’ve done. And I’ll continue to keep trying to make sure these young men understand that there’s a bigger picture that’s out there than just the three letters N-F-L.”
MAN IN THE MIDDLE: In 2013, Jackson Matteo came out of spring practice as the No. 1 center, but he wasn’t able to keep the job in training camp last summer.
A year later, Matteo is again competing for a starting position. He spent the latter part of last week working with the first team but knows a lot can happen between now and the Aug. 30 opener against UCLA.
“It feels good, but that doesn’t mean anything, you know?” Matteo, a redshirt sophomore, said after practice Friday night. “I think Cody Wallace and Eric Tetlow and a couple other guys, they can snap the ball pretty well, so I’m in no way, shape or form the starting center right now.”
The 6-5 Matteo, a graduate of Broad Run High in Northern Virginia, came to UVa as a recruited walk-on in 2012, but he’s now on scholarship. At about 305 pounds, he’s also bigger than he was last year.
“I tried to get my numbers up in the weight room, but I really tried to focus on gaining some weight,” Matteo said. “It definitely helps at center, because when you’re 290, you’re getting tossed around a little bit.”
SECOND TIME AROUND: The 2013 season was the first as UVa coordinators for Fairchild, Tenuta and Lewis.
“There is a learning curve as you step into a situation,” Lewis said Friday. “It takes some time. It really does. I know as an offensive staff, we feel a lot more comfortable because we do know the kids, and they know us. They know what’s expected of them, we know what we can expect out of them.
“And I think that’s the same way with me in special teams. I walked into a situation of trying to really get to know the abilities of all these kids, and now a year later I know what certain kids can do, what they can’t do, what positions I can put them in. It really helps. It really does. And I think it helps the kids to kind of know us a little bit, too, and our personalities.
“I think that in itself has helped us, both on the offense and special teams, really take a step forward, farther than we were at this point last year. No doubt.”
“It doesn’t matter how good a coaching staff you have, if you work together for a year, it’s going to be better,” he said. “Just the interaction between our offensive staff and our staff in general is obviously a year better.
“We know our players better, and you can say what you want, but when you get hired on and you only have 15 practices in spring and then show up in August and try to mold something, you don’t know them as well as you do [when] you’ve gone through a season, as we have.”
Dockins, for example, “wasn’t even in our thoughts last year,” Fairchild said. “[Now] he’s in our thoughts and we know who he is, and he’s playing in the slot rather than outside … That’s what a season can do for you.”
FAMILY AFFAIR: Three of London’s graduate assistants are former UVa players: Sean Cascarano, Jacob Hodges and Clint Sintim. The fourth is the oldest of Tenuta’s three sons, Zach.
Zach Tenuta, who played football at Marshall and Akron, also was a standout lacrosse player in high school.
Jon Tenuta was asked Friday about coaching with his son.
“It’s pretty cool,” the elder Tenuta said. “He was with me up until he went to college. I only got to see him play one time in college, because he played football. He played the same time I was coaching. It’s pretty cool to have him around, and obviously I enjoy being around all my kids.
“He knows me probably better than anybody [at UVa] outside [assistant coach Mike] Archer, so no matter what I say, he kind of looks at me and [says], `Whatever.’ ”
WAITING GAME: Senior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson, who started the first 30 games of his UVa career, is still recovering from a May operation on his left toe.
Nicholson, who originally injured the toe in Virginia’s fifth game last season, does a little more in practice each day but has yet to be cleared for full participation.
“I think about the progress I’ve made, but it’s also killing me not to be out there and be able to fully go with the team during practice,” Nicholson said Friday. “It’s hard.”
He’s tried to use his time off the field wisely, by watching film and studying Tenuta’s system.
“But also at the same time I have to get out there and work my technique and get back on the physical aspect of it as well,” Nicholson said. “I definitely feel like I’ll be a better corner mentally and physically, because I know I’m experienced and I’ve been here before, but I’ve got to get out there and start doing it again.”