By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At the end of practice Saturday in the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility, UVa football coach Mike London gathered his team around him. He asked the Cavaliers’ fifth-year seniors to raise their hands.
“This is the final training camp for you,” London told them, “and for some of the fourth-years, too.”
For three weeks, the players had spent their days on the practice field and in the McCue Center, their nights at the Cavalier Inn hotel. Now, London said, it was time for them to apply the lessons they learned.
Game week has arrived. At noon Saturday, in the season-opener for both teams, UVa hosts UCLA at Scott Stadium.
Virginia finished 2-10 in 2013. UCLA, which routed Virginia Tech 42-12 in the Sun Bowl on New Year’s Eve, is ranked No. 7 in the preseason Associated Press poll. The Bruins have a Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Brett Hundley.
“You have an opportunity to play one of the best teams in the country,” London said after practice Saturday. “They’re coming here, at your venue, with your fans, with your student body. So it’s exciting for the players. They put a lot of hard work into this. We believe we’re ready for the challenge, and we’ll see this Saturday.”
Offensive linemen Jay Whitmire and Sadiq Olanrewaju, each a potential starter, are among the Cavaliers who will miss the opener because of injuries. Overall, though, the Wahoos came out of training camp in good health and in good spirits.
“For the most part we saw a lot of guys performing and executing what we’re asking them to do,” said London, who’s in his fifth year as Virginia’s head coach. “And it’s been very positive. The attitude, the atmosphere, the leadership, everything has been focused and been positive.”
The Cavaliers are heading into their second season under each of their coordinators — Jon Tenuta on defense, Steve Fairchild on offense, and Larry Lewis on special teams — and the players’ familiarity with the systems is much greater than it was last summer.
“Without a doubt,” London said. “The learning curve was so much better. The recall was so much better.”
Moreover, London said, the addition of defensive assistants “Mike Archer and Jappy Oliver, two experienced coaches, makes us better, and the fact that we have 22-plus [seniors] will make us a better football team as well.
“It’s been important that the leadership stand out, and they have stood out coming out of spring practice, during the course of the summer, and into fall.”
STEPPING UP: On the offensive line, multiple players have been tried at two, and sometimes three, positions this month. Early in camp, however, Michael Mooney moved into a starting role at left tackle, and he hasn’t relinquished the job.
Mooney, a 6-6, 295-pound redshirt sophomore, is a graduate of Malvern Prep, near Philadelphia.
“He’s having a great camp and should have a good season this year,” offensive line coach Scott Wachenheim said after a recent practice.
Mooney played in all 12 games last season, mostly on special teams.
“But he really played well [at tackle] against Miami when he was in there late in the game, against the first team,” Wachenheim said. “They had their first-teamers in. I think he gained some confidence from that.”
Mooney said his appearances at tackle last season were “definitely beneficial, just to see the game speed, even though I wasn’t in a ton of reps and a ton of plays.”
With Olanrewaju and Whitmire injured, Mooney was probably the Cavaliers’ most impressive tackle during spring practice, Wachenheim said, and he’s made more strides this summer.
“It’s been a grind, but we’re all getting better,” Mooney said after a recent practice. “I’ve had the chance to go against [defensive end] Eli Harold. It’s awesome going against a player like him. Obviously he’s one of the best players in the league, so it gets you better.”
Mooney said he’s not surprised to be starting.
“I thought it was a realistic goal,” he said. “I was always optimistic. I want to be the best and want to get on the field. I came into camp with high expectations. But I’m not anywhere yet. I still need to keep working. I still got a long way to go.”
At Malvern Prep, Mooney played basketball as a freshman and sophomore. He played lacrosse until his senior year.
“He’s got great feet,” Wachenheim said. “Unbelievable, quick feet. On his high school tape at Malvern Prep, he was an unbelievable finisher of blocks. He hasn’t quite done that yet at UVa, because when you really are confident and know what you do, that’s when the finishing comes.”
Many offensive linemen weigh 300 pounds or more, but “I’m going to stay at 295, a healthy 295,” Mooney said. “I want to be able to move around and have good footwork and all that. I try to jump rope as much as I can.”
SIGN OF THE TIMES: When UVa lines up in a conventional 4-3 defense, the first-team ends are Harold and Mike Moore, the tackles are David Dean and Donte Wilkins, and Max Valles is an outside linebacker.
“But we’re not playing 4-3,” Tenuta said on a teleconference last week. “The game’s changed. This isn’t 1958, when Archer played.”
In today’s game, offenses often have three or four wide receivers on the field.
“That’s what college football has become,” said Archer, who coaches the safeties and is one of Tenuta’s closest friends. “It’s fast-break basketball on a field. You’ve got to match up speed with speed, and you’ve got to be able to play in space.”
Tenuta said: “So if you don’t play with five DBs or six DBs, I don’t know what you’re doing. You can’t line up a linebacker on a wide receiver and expect him to re-route him or cover him.”
Virginia’s base defense during training camp was usually the nickel. That lineup consists of five defensive backs, Daquan Romero and Henry Coley at linebacker, Valles and Harold at end, and Moore and Dean at tackle.
“Pittsburgh will be one of the few teams, along with Georgia Tech, and maybe a little bit of [Florida State], that’s going to line up with more than one back in the backfield,” Archer said. “Everybody else we play against is going to be in spread, they’re going to be in multiple wide-receiver seats. Therefore you’re going to be in nickel or sometimes six-defensive back defenses.”
HIGH PRAISE: From 2007 through 2012, Archer was defensive coordinator at NC State, where his best players included cornerback David Amerson. In 2011, Amerson led the nation with 13 interceptions.
The national leader in interceptions last year was Virginia safety Anthony Harris, who’s back for his senior season. Archer, a former Pittsburgh Steelers assistant coach, could not be more impressed with Harris.
“I’ll say the same thing to you guys that I said to all the pro scouts that have been through here in training camp,” Archer said on a teleconference last week. “Having coached in that league for seven years, Anthony likes football. Anthony likes to practice football. He likes to prepare, he likes to watch film.
“There’s a lot of guys in the NFL [for whom] it’s a job. I don’t think that some guys really enjoyed playing, but they did it for a paycheck. He’s not one of those people.
“He loves coming to practice. He loves to watch film. That to me is important. He’s very coachable. When you tell him something, he relates to it, he goes out and he tries to improve on it.
“When we sat down at the end of spring, I told him, these are your pluses, these are your minuses, and this is what you have to work on to get better, and I think that he has.”
Virginia’s starters on defense include true freshman safety Quin Blanding, and that puts “a lot of pressure on Anthony,” Archer said, “because he’s having to make a lot of calls, not only for himself in the secondary, but he’s trying to help Quin. He’s had a double-edged sword right there, and he’s handled it very well.
“Now, will he go out and have eight interceptions this year? Probably not.”
But that’s OK, said Archer, who recalled talking to Amerson before the 2012 season.
“I remember telling him, `You’re not going to get 13 [again],’ ” Archer said. “But unfortunately David tried many, many times to get interceptions at the expense of our defense, and he gambled. He free-lanced.
“I don’t think Anthony Harris will do that. I think Anthony is focused on this team and making this team better. If he gets eight, great. If he doesn’t, the most important thing is he plays well and we win.”
AHEAD OF THE GAME: Blanding, who stands 6-4 and weighs 210 pounds, has been part of the first-team defense at UVa since the first practice this month. That doesn’t surprise senior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson, who preceded Blanding at Bayside High in Virginia Beach.
“I knew him as we were growing up,” Nicholson said. “You knew he was going to be good. He was always the biggest at his games, and he was always the best. You knew he was going to be something.
“His freshman year in high school, when I was a senior, I was telling my coach, `He can play. I know this kid. He’s not afraid. He’s big. He can play.’ He ended up starting that year.”
Blanding and tackle Andrew Brown are the only true freshmen likely to play on defense for the Cavaliers this fall. Their classmates include ends Jordan Jackson (6-4, 215) and Darrious Carter (6-5, 225), neither of whom yet has the bulk needed to compete at this level.
“Just a little undersized,” said Jappy Oliver, who coaches the defensive line. “I think they need to get in the weight room, start eating, and just get a little bigger and a little stronger.”
Mizzell, the most heralded recruit in the class that enrolled at UVa last summer, played as a true freshman, but an ankle injury limited his effectiveness. Healthy again, Mizzell is likely to be used in a myriad of ways this fall, not only on offense but on kickoff and punt returns.
“You look at the guys that can change a game in one play, and obviously he’s that type of guy. He’s got that type of speed and athleticism,” London said.
The coaches will find “ways to get him the ball, whether it’s in the slot and you’re motioning him at tailback or put him out against linebackers and make them cover him in the open field,” London said. “Those are the type of things that offensively we have to do to utilize his skill set.”