By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the UVa football team, easing into a new season is not an option this year. Virginia opens Saturday against UCLA, a Pac-12 team that some are touting as a national championship contender.
The Cavaliers host the Bruins, ranked No. 7 in the preseason Associated Press poll, at noon in a game ESPN will televise. Other ACC teams are opening this weekend against less-formidable foes, but Virginia players welcome the challenge facing them Saturday at Scott Stadium.
“We get to see where we’re at, at an earlier stage,” UVa quarterback Greyson Lambert told reporters Monday. “If you open up with a FCS [opponent] or something like that, then you’re getting your feet wet, so to speak. We’re diving in right from the get-go, and that’s what makes this schedule fun.”
For the Wahoos, the coming weeks will bring clashes with such opponents as Lousville, BYU, Florida State, Miami (Fla.) and Virginia Tech. Since the start of summer workouts, however, UVa’s focus has been UCLA, which closed the 2013 season by humbling Virginia Tech 42-12 in the Sun Bowl.
“When you’re in training camp, you’re going against the same guys every single day, day in and day out, so we’re ready for UCLA,” said fifth-year senior Conner Davis, the most experienced member of UVa’s revamped offensive line.
“The whole summer we were thinking about UCLA. That’s what we trained for, and we’re not thinking about anything else right now.”
The Bruins have back eight starters on offense and eight on defense from 2013, among them junior quarterback Brett Hundley, a Heisman Trophy candidate, and sophomore linebacker Myles Jack, who also stood out as a part-time tailback last year.
“He is a guy that really is as good as advertised,” UVa coach Mike London said of Hundley.
Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s charges have studied hours and hours of videotape of UCLA, and they know all too well how explosive Hundley can be as a runner and a passer. Hundley reminds them of another game-breaking quarterback from the Pac-12, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, who torched the Cavaliers last season at Scott Stadium.
“They’re just playmakers, both of them,” Virginia defensive tackle David Dean said, “That’s why they’re up for the Heisman. That’s what they do. That’s who they are. You put the ball in their hands when you want to win the game.”
The Cavaliers returned an experienced defense led by All-America safety Anthony Harris, and they have multiple starters back on offense, too, including tailback Kevin Parks, a second-team All-ACC selection in 2013. Even so, expectations for the `Hoos in their fifth season under London are much lower than those for Jim Mora’s Bruins.
Virginia ended 2013 with a 2-10 record and was picked to finish last in the ACC’s Coastal Division this year.
“UCLA is really respected,” Dean said. “For us, personally, as a team no one expects much out of us.” That doesn’t bother the Cavaliers, said Dean, who promised they will “go out there and give 110 percent and just try our hardest to shock the world.”
Win or lose Saturday, however, the `Hoos will have the rest of their regular-season schedule to play, Dean noted. “It’s only one game,” he said. “Last year, we started off on a high point, and then we had a horrible season.”
The Cavaliers won their opener in 2013, rallying to beat BYU at Scott Stadium, but closed the year with nine consecutive losses.
“We definitely had a letdown season, so this year we’re just going to try to stay as focused as possible and try to bust our tails to really have a great season and stay focused throughout the whole season,” Dean said. “Do it for us, do it for the fans, do it for our coaches.”
Blanding has been a starter since his first practice this month. With the other three, though, the coaches “have to be smart about when we put them in the game and what we’re asking them to do,” London said, “particularly for this game, the first game, and just bring them along.”
But the newcomers are “ready to play,” London said. “They’re competitors, and again we’re glad that we have them on our team, and I know they’re looking forward to their first college football game.”
For Lambert, a 6-5, 235-pound redshirt sophomore, this won’t be his first game at Virginia, but it will be his first college start. In 2013, he backed up David Watford, who’s now listed as a co-No. 2, with Matt Johns, on the Cavaliers’ depth chart.
“He’s come a long way,” senior linebacker Henry Coley said of Lambert, who preceded him in the John Paul Jones Arena media room Monday afternoon.
“You see the type of confidence, swagger he was sitting up here with, answering the questions,” Coley said. “He’s come a long way, and I’m confident in him, and the whole entire team and the coaching staff is confident in him, and we just want to see how he’s going to perform over the course of a season.”
In the spring, Lambert was named one of the Cavaliers’ captains, along with Coley, Harris and Parks, who are all seniors. A fifth player, senior punter Alec Vozenilek, will serve as special teams captain this season, London announced this week.
Vozenilek punted 85 times last season, tying the school’s single-season record. He’s hoping to spend more time on the sideline this season. Whether that happens may depend largely on the effectiveness of an offensive line that lost Morgan Moses and Luke Bowanko to the NFL and has two potential starters sidelined with injuries: Sadiq Olanrewaju and Jay Whitmire.
Overall, the Cavaliers came through training camp in good health, but the offensive line took several significant blows.
“Injuries are a part of football,” London said.
Against UCLA, UVa is expected to start sophomore Michael Mooney at left tackle, sophomore Ryan Doull at left guard, junior Ross Burbank at center, Davis at right guard, and sophomore Eric Smith at right tackle.
“We feel confident about whom we have,” London said, “and that is the main point right now. They all know what they’re doing. They understand the concepts and the plays, and we have to perform on the field.”
Virginia’s players expect to perform better in all phases this season than they did in 2013, and not only because of their increased familiarity with coordinators Steve Fairchild (offense), Larry Lewis (special teams) and Tenuta.
Asked how this UVa team differs from the 2013 edition, Dean said, “I think the most important thing is leadership, and that’s what we’ve worked on from the start, from the end of last season: leadership, and staying together as a team. Every game there’s going to be some point in time where things are going to go bad, but the biggest thing is just staying together and keep pushing forward and trying to make the best of what we have.”
Harris said: “Despite what our record showed last year and our performance last year, I believe we have some great players, not only on defense but on offense. And this is a new season, and this is a new opportunity for us to go out there and show just how good we could be this year and kind of put last year in the past.”