By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When Steve Fairchild took over as the University of Virginia football team’s offensive coordinator in January 2013, he inherited a unit that had struggled for years.
The numbers were sobering. In the previous seven seasons, the Cavaliers had never ranked better than 75th nationally in scoring offense, and they were 110th in 2006 and 114th in 2008.
The desired turnaround eluded the offense in its first two seasons under Fairchild’s direction. In 2013, when the Wahoos finished 2-10, they ranked 109th nationally in scoring offense. In 2014, when the ‘Hoos posted a 5-7 record, they improved to 85th in scoring offense (25.8).
Fairchild is optimistic about his third season at UVa.
“I think we’re more experienced [on offense] than we’ve been the previous two years,” he said, “and probably have a little more depth than we’ve had in the previous two years.”
Training camp at UVa is under way, and the team’s first practice is Friday at 7 p.m. It’s open to the public, as are the Saturday and Sunday practices, each starting at 3 p.m.
A former Colorado State head coach, Fairchild also has been offensive coordinator for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and St. Louis Rams, as well as several college teams. On Thursday, during an interview in his McCue Center office, Fairchild touched on multiple topics.
Virginia has 10 offensive linemen who have played in college games. How much of a difference should that experience make?
“That’s where we’ve been very thin in the past,” Fairchild said. “In situations like spring ball and training camp, where you’re not just playing with one group, sometimes we would get into that second- and third-tier guy and just have a hard time functioning. So what we did in spring ball was, we developed a second line with some further depth in that, so that’s been a real positive.
“That’s probably the foundation of why we feel better about [the offense’s potential].”
Since the end of last season, the offensive staff has added two new coaches: Chris Beatty, who coaches the running backs, and Dave Borbely, who works with the line. Moreover, four transfers have joined the offense: wide receiver T.J. Thorpe (North Carolina), tailback Albert Reid (Maryland), tight end Charlie Hopkins (Stanford) and quarterback Connor Brewer (Arizona). How has the newcomers’ transition gone?
“It’s been great,” Fairchild said. “We’ve had a lot of positive things go on in the offseason, with the addition of those coaches, and we’ve had some players transfer in. That helps too.
“We saw T.J. in the spring. The other three have yet to be on the field with us, but we know a little about these guys, and their record speaks for itself. They played at some good places and played well. So there’s been a lot of good things going on.”
Matt Johns, who started three games as a redshirt sophomore last season, came out of spring ball as the No. 1 quarterback, and his primary competition for the starting job, Greyson Lambert, transferred to Georgia this summer. What’s the key for Johns this season?
“He just needs to be more consistent,” Fairchild said, “and I think as he plays more, that’s going to happen for him. I think the real plus is he’s going into his fourth year, and he’s played some, and experience at that position is invaluable.”
Coming off a season in which UVa ranked 97th nationally in rushing offense, the coaching staff went into spring ball looking to establish a power running game. What made that a priority?
“We really got away from that last year,” Fairchild said. “I think we kind of sold ourselves short a little bit and probably used too much finesse in the running game. With Dave [Borbely] coming in, and getting back to some two-back stuff on first and second down, I think that’s been real good for us.”
With UVa’s top two rushers from 2014 gone Ã¢â‚¬” Kevin Parks and Khalek Shepherd Ã¢â‚¬” its options at tailback this season include juniors Taquan Mizzell and Albert Reid, who’s a transfer from Maryland, and redshirt sophomore Daniel Hamm. What do you like about this group?
“We’ve got some depth there,” Fairchild said. “Daniel played well in the spring, and [Mizzell] really came on in the spring. He really made some large strides, and then his ability [as a receiver] out of the backfield is very special.
“Albert’s got that running back build you’re looking for. He’s a thick-bodied guy in there. It’s been good.”
Mizzell was second on the team in catches last season, with 39, but averaged only 6.9 yards per reception. Do you expect him to be more of a big-play threat in the passing game this season?
“Everything we did last year was based on trying to get the ball out and help the offensive line,” Fairchild said. “Our ability to get the ball down the field was compromised at times because we were always kind of thinking pass protection first, and that sort of thing. As we develop a better run game, we’ll develop better play-action opportunities, which stretch the field better for you.
“Getting back to Smoke: I think we’ll be able to get him down the field a little bit better than we did. But he’s a very talented kid. He’s got good ball skills. He’s got good quickness and change of direction, he’s got a good feel for running routes. We tried to use him as a true freshman, but it was new to him, and then last year he kind of figured out what it was. Now he’s going into his third year, he understands what we’re trying to do.”
Virginia’s top four tight ends Ã¢â‚¬” fifth-year seniors Charlie Hopkins and Rob Burns, redshirt sophomore Brendan Marshall and redshirt freshman Evan Butts Ã¢â‚¬” have five career receptions among them. What are your expectations for this group?
“The deal at tight end is, it’s very rare to find a guy that can block a defensive end and then turn around and separate from a defensive back,” Fairchild said. “So certain guys are going to do certain things better, and it’s up to us to put them in spots where they can succeed. Some of the guys are going to be a little more physical, and when they are used in the pass game, they’re going to have to catch contested balls in tight quarters. Other guys are going to have a little more shake and bake, but they’re going to be more of a cut-off blocker on the back side. That’s just what we have there. We have a nice mix of talent, and we’ve just got to figure out how we’re going to use it.”
Marshall, who’s listed at 6-5, 230 pounds, was moved from quarterback to tight end after last season. What’s his upside at this new position?
“I think he’s got a chance,” Fairchild said. “Obviously it’s new to him, and he’s far from being a complete tight end, but I think he’s got some tools to work with.”
Five wideouts who played extensively for Virginia last season are back: senior Canaan Severin, who caught 42 passes for 578 yards and five TDs; juniors Kyle Dockins and Keeon Johnson; and sophomores Andre Levrone and Doni Dowling, who’s recovering from knee surgery. To that group, the Cavaliers added T.J. Thorpe, who caught 42 passes during his UNC career. Your thoughts on the receiving corps?
“Andre’s gotta prove he can stay healthy,” Fairchild said. “Doni’s still gotta come back. So we’re not quite up and running there with as much depth as we need. I think we potentially have some weapons there, but we need some guys to come on now a little bit. We’ll see. I’m going to have my eye on that in the first part of two-a-days.”
In 2014, Severin established him as a “go-to guy,” Fairchild said, “and T.J. proved in the spring he’s a go-to guy, so we feel like we’ve got two that you want to throw the football to.”
Johnson “had a nice freshman year, then was up and down a little bit last year,” Fairchild said. “Keeon’s a very hard-working young man and really a good kid, and I’d be surprised if he didn’t come on and help us.”
Overall, Fairchild said, “I think there’s more [big-play] capability, and if we’re successful running the football, then that opens that up as well.”