By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The University of Virginia football team that opens the season Sept. 5 against UCLA figures to look significantly different than the one that took the field Saturday evening at Scott Stadium for the Orange-Blue spring game.
On the other sideline, four regulars sat out the spring game: defensive end Mike Moore, defensive tackles David Dean and Donte Wilkins, and middle linebacker Micah Kiser, as well as safety Wilfred Wahee.
“They’re missing a lot of bodies, guys that are going to be starters, guys that are going to play a lot of snaps even if they aren’t starters,” offensive lineman Ross Burbank said of the defense.
And so it would be dangerous to try to draw too many conclusions from the Orange-Blue scrimmage. The offense had nearly a full complement of quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends and wide receivers, and its highlights included a 12-yard touchdown pass from Greyson Lambert to wideout T.J. Thorpe, a 27-yard TD pass from Matt Johns to tight end Brendan Marshall, a 47-yard gain by Thorpe on a jet sweep, and a 40-yard run by tailback Taquan Mizzell.
Still, those yards came against a defense that, even at full strength, would have been a work in progress this spring. Coordinator Jon Tenuta lost five starters from his 2014 defense: end Eli Harold, linebackers Henry Coley, Daquan Romero and Max Valles, and safety Anthony Harris.
For a team that finished 5-7, Harold, Coley and Valles accounted for 24 of the Cavaliers’ 34 sacks last season. Harris was second on the team in tackles, and Romero was third.
His goal this spring, Tenuta said Saturday, was to come up with a viable three-deep at each position, “so you know what you have to work with this summer going into UCLA.” Moreover, he wanted to see which “younger guys could come to the forefront through the practices.”
Those young players include linebacker C.J. Stalker, a freshman who enrolled at UVa in January, tackle Andrew Brown, a rising sophomore who was hindered by injuries last season, and ends Darrious Carter, Cory Jones and Chris Peace, freshmen who redshirted in 2014.
“All of them fundamentally have gotten better,” Tenuta said.
To come close to duplicating its production from 2014, the defense will need contributions from older players who have little to no starting experience. This group includes ends Kwontie Moore and Trent Corney, linebackers Kiser, Zach Bradshaw and Mark Hall, cornerback Divante Walker and safety Kelvin Rainey.
Hall and Corney starred in one of the Orange-Blue game’s most memorable plays Saturday. On a run by Mizzell, cornerback Tim Harris forced a fumble that Hall recovered. Hall ran 35 yards down the right sideline and then, as Johns closed in for the tackle, lateraled the ball to his left, where Corney was running in full stride.
Corney, a rising senior who’s probably the team’s best all-around athlete, sprinted 35 yards to the end zone for the touchdown.
“It was just instinct,” Hall, who’ll be a redshirt junior in the fall, said with a smile. “I was running the ball, saw Matt Johns was coming, and saw Trent, one of the fastest guys on the team. So I was like, `I’ve got faith in him to catch the ball.’ ”
Among the players Tenuta praised for their progress this spring were Kwontie Moore, Corney, Brown and Rainey.
“Trent Corney, the light’s gone on for him,” Tenuta said. “He struggled a little bit, but he finally understands the concepts, and now he can use his athleticism and do the things he needs to do to be productive. That’s a big plus for us.”
Brown, who enrolled at UVa in January 2014 as one of the nation’s most heralded recruits, has slimmed down since his first year. He’s now listed at 6-4, 290 pounds.
“Obviously he changed his body,” Tenuta said. “He’s working on his fundamentals. The guy has tremendous ability, but he’s got to stay consistent, his effort and how to play blocks and so on. But he has definitely grown tremendously since when he came in a year ago January.”
A rising senior, Rainey came out of the spring as one of the Cavaliers’ starting safeties, along with Quin Blanding, a freshman All-American in 2014.
Rainey isn’t perfect, Tenuta said, but he “showed that he wants to play and made a lot of plays for us. So that for me is a big stride for him.”
Of the defensive players who were available all spring, the most experienced were Blanding and cornerbacks Demetrious Nicholson and Maurice Canady. Nicholson, however, missed the final seven games of the 2013 season and played in only one game last year because of a toe injury, so he’s still trying to master the nuances of Tenuta’s defense.
Blanding intercepted a pass Saturday and led the defense with nine tackles. With so many veterans from 2014 gone, Blanding’s role has changed this year, and it’s “a learning process for him,” head coach Mike London said.
“Anthony Harris is no longer next to him, so he’s got to get everybody lined up. That’s been a challenge for him to be the guy. He’s embraced it. He’s got a ways to go, but he’s not shy of contact. He’ll mix it up, and I think he’s going to be a special player.”
Like Blanding, Brown came to UVa as a high school All-American. But Brown missed most of spring practice and training camp and then the early part of last season with injuries. He ended up playing in only six games as a true freshman and had little impact, finishing the season with four tackles.
“It was kind of frustrating,” Brown said, “but you know, that’s when you’ve just got to keep fighting.”
He was credited with six tackles in the spring game Saturday, including 3.5 for loss.
“Very encouraging,” Brown said of his performance. “My confidence level is where it needs to be.”
London said: “Andrew’s done a really good job of trying to catch up for what he lacked last year. What a lineman needs most of [all] are reps, and having a healthy spring, allowing him to have all those reps, his learning curve’s starting to catch up with his ability. I saw him rush the passer a couple times and push the pocket, and those are the things that he can do to help us win. We’re excited about where he’ll continue to grow and develop, because those big guys up front are hard to come by, especially when they play hard like he does.”
TIGHT RACE: As expected, Lambert and Johns split most of the snaps Saturday. Neither was as sharp as he would have liked.
Lambert completed 6 of 14 passes for 79 yards and one touchdown, with one interception. His numbers would have looked much better had wideout Keeon Johnson not dropped a well-thrown deep ball from Lambert in the second half.
Johns, who wasn’t picked off Saturday, completed 11 of 23 attempts for 66 yards. Like Lambert, Johns will be a redshirt junior in the fall.
The coaching staff will evaluate the spring game “and all the practices and the seven-on-sevens and the one-on-ones and all those things to come up with where we are [at quarterback] coming out of spring practice,” London said.
Lambert, who missed three games with a sprained ankle last season, started the other nine and finished the year 154-for-261 passing, for 1,632 yards and 10 TDs. He threw 11 interceptions.
Johns threw passes in nine games last season. For the year, he completed 89 of 162 attempts for 1,109 yards and eight TDs, with five interceptions.
Asked about the offense’s performance Saturday, Lambert said, “We did some good things and we did some bad things. We’ve got a lot to correct this offseason before we get started in camp.”
More important than the Orange-Blue game, Johns said, is what the offense “got out of the entire spring, and I think it’s been a very productive spring, and we’ve got to carry that into the summer.”
Marshall, who made one appearance at quarterback as a redshirt freshman last year, was buried on the depth chart at that position. And so he moved this spring to tight end, where there are opportunities for immediate playing time.
The only other tight ends on the spring roster are rising senior Rob Burns and Evan Butts, a freshman who redshirted last year. UVa’s tight ends coach is Larry Lewis, who worked with the running backs in 2013 and ’14.
A graduate of Good Counsel High in Olney, Md., the 6-5, 245-pound Marshall outleaped linebacker Malcolm Cook in the front of the end zone Saturday to come down with a 27-yard touchdown reception.
“We have a lot of plays that involve the tight end, but it’s on us to get open,” Marshall said. “Obviously they dropped the coverage a little bit, and Matt saw me and made a good pass.”
Not surprisingly, the biggest challenge for Marshall at his new position has been blocking. Asked how that’s going for him, Marshall smiled.
“Learning,” he said. “Learning right now. I feel like I’ve progressed a lot, but Coach Lewis is still teaching me. It’s a whole new deal.”
INSTANT IMPACT: T.J. Thorpe, who caught the winning touchdown pass in North Carolina’s win over UVa at Scott Stadium last year, looked comfortable in his new uniform Saturday.
Thorpe, who transferred to Virginia in January and will compete as a graduate student this fall, ran for 47 yards on the second play of the Orange-Blue game. Two plays later, he gained 21 yards on a pass from Lambert, and the 6-0, 210-pound Thorpe ended the drive with another reception, this one a 12-yard TD pass from Lambert.
“He’s a dynamic player,” London said. “We want to try to get him the ball.”
Thorpe, who also will return punts, said the Orange-Blue game capped a productive spring for him.
“I finally had my family come for the first time to Charlottesville, and being dressed out for the first time in my jersey, and being on the field again, I just wanted to let it soak in and enjoy it,” he said. “It’s my last spring and my last season, so I want to make the best of it.
“This offense has been easy to pick up, and they put me in a lot of different positions, whether it’s slot, out wide, doing the sweeps that I did today. A lot of positions to make plays, and that’s all I ever wanted, the opportunity to be able to showcase my abilities.”