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1. Luck cuts both ways
In 2011, Mike London's second season in charge at Virginia, his Cavaliers seemingly broke through after three consecutive losing seasons. The Hoos went 8-5, won at Florida State, and nearly won their division. Combined with quality recruiting, the future looked pretty bright.
In 2012, Virginia fell apart, dropped back to 4-8, lost by 36 to Georgia Tech and by 24 to North Carolina. Any positive momentum was gone, and London finished the season on at least a little bit of a hot seat.
That's the narrative, and it's a pretty easy one. Virginia was improving, and then it wasn't. But luck played a role in both seasons. In 2011, UVa went 5-1 in one-possession games; that's an unsustainably high win percentage. In 2012, the Cavaliers went 2-4 in such games, wrecked by some of the nation's worst turnovers luck. Virginia recovered just 12 of 30 fumbles for the season and turned only four of 55 passes defensed into interceptions. They should have had a turnover margin around minus-3. Instead, it was minus-14. That cost them nearly five points per game in a season that, again, saw them lose four games by a touchdown or less.
Mind you, Virginia did still regress last year. An average offense in 2011 (64th in Off. F/+) was pretty awful in 2012 (88th). A defense that was turning a corner in 2011 (43rd in Def. F/+) took a small step backwards (53rd). And for the second year in a row, the Cavaliers had one of the worst special teams units in the country. This team wasn't destined to be that good. But it probably wasn't as bad as you think in 2012, just as it wasn't as good as you think in 2011.
Of course, that didn't prevent some rather significant changes to the staff. Five coaches were sent packing, and London brought in a rather incredible amount of experience. Former Colorado State head coach and NFL offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild was brought in to run the offense. Former Georgia Tech and Notre Dame defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta was brought in to run the defense. Larry Lewis, a former special teams coordinator at Washington State, Colorado State, and Nevada, now holds the same title in Charlottesville. And Tom O'Brien, former head coach at N.C. State and Boston College, was brought on as Associate Head Coach and tight ends coach.
London came to Charlottesville with quite the pedigree. He was a longtime Virginia assistant during some of Al Groh's best years (the Cavs went 25-14 from 2002-04, when he was defensive line coach, then surged to 9-4 in 2007 with him as defensive coordinator), and in two years as Richmond head coach, he went 24-5 and won an FCS national title. He seemed to possess a rare combination of local ties, recruiting prowess, and tactical quality. (Plus, he had the cool "He was also a cop" back story, which just adds bonus points.)
But even if last season was rather unlucky, UVa still hasn't improved much under his watch. If quality recruiting begins to pay off (it takes a little while sometimes), and if the coaching changes work out, then there could still be a golden age in the works. But these things better take effect pretty quickly.
2. How long does it take?
Can major change in the coaching staff take effect immediately? And how long does it take for quality recruiting -- Virginia ranks 24th in two-year recruiting -- to have an effect on the two-deep?
In theory, the former could have an immediate effect. The play-calling will undergo a drastic change on both sides of the ball. Maybe it doesn't work perfectly, but this was a major blood transfusion. But the effect of the latter is not quite clear because a lot of the big-time recruits are still quite young.
Virginia will likely be starting either a sophomore or redshirt freshman at quarterback. A five-star freshman could see quite a bit of the load at running back. And for better or worse, there will be quite a few sophomores and juniors seeing increased playing time in the defensive front seven. The bar is pretty low, especially on offense, but youth is not always quickly successful.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 4-8 | Adj. Record: 4-8 | Final F/+ Rk: 83|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|1-Sep||Richmond||43-19||W||27.4 - 32.8||L|
|8-Sep||Penn State||17-16||W||27.7 - 16.2||W|
|15-Sep||at Georgia Tech||20-56||L||21.1 - 48.4||L|
|22-Sep||at TCU||7-27||L||23.5 - 33.5||L|
|29-Sep||Louisiana Tech||38-44||L||30.6 - 17.7||W|
|6-Oct||at Duke||17-42||L||22.5 - 27.3||L|
|13-Oct||Maryland||20-27||L||25.2 - 23.3||W|
|20-Oct||Wake Forest||10-16||L||15.1 - 20.0||L|
|3-Nov||at N.C. State||33-6||W||34.0 - 13.8||W|
|10-Nov||Miami||41-40||W||29.1 - 37.5||L|
|15-Nov||North Carolina||13-37||L||23.5 - 28.3||L|
|24-Nov||at Virginia Tech||14-17||L||16.6 - 19.2||L|
|Points Per Game||22.8||95||28.9||70|
|Adj. Points Per Game||24.7||96||26.5||50|
3. Bad, then unlucky
When Penn State missed approximately 26 field goals in a one-point Virginia win, it looked as if the Cavs' luck may not have changed from 2011. Combined with a solid performance against Richmond -- when looking at Adj. Scores, keep in mind that it has a bit of a blind spot when it comes to FCS opponents; you pretty much have to win by 50 to end up with a good Adj. Score -- it also looked like UVa could maintain gains in the "general quality" department. But then the defense got destroyed by Georgia Tech. And the offense only once played at an above-average level over a six-game period. And though the defense rallied, it wasn't enough to overcome both the Virginia offense and a wealth of bad bounces.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 4 games): Opponent 32.7, Virginia 24.9 (minus-7.8)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 8 games): Virginia 24.6, Opponent 23.4 (plus-1.2)
Virginia went 2-2 while playing at a below-average level, then went 2-6 while playing about average. It was a weird year, basically.
|Q1 Rk||57||1st Down Rk||110|
|Q2 Rk||113||2nd Down Rk||71|
|Q3 Rk||92||3rd Down Rk||63|
4. Pro-style, whatever that means now
With Steve Fairchild running the offense, we've seen the word "pro-style" tossed around quite a bit. We'll probably need to come up with a new phrase now, what with pistol formations and zone reads beginning to finally proliferate among pro teams, but presumably what we can expect from UVa, for the most part, is "traditional" formations (medium-sized line splits, tight ends lined up on the line, etc.), relatively normal run-pass splits -- about 60% run on standard downs, 67% pass on passing downs -- et cetera. It has long been considered a recruiting draw to basically tell prospects you run what they do in the pros, and it will be interesting to see how that changes as what the pros do also changes.
Regardless, that's Fairchild's background, more or less.
And if O'Brien has any effect on the philosophy, then expect plenty of checkdowns to running backs. But that might not be a bad thing, because there's talent in the backfield. In terms of highlight yardage, anything at about 5.0 per opportunity or higher is pretty good, and Kevin Parks (5.0) meets that baseline. He also meets the baseline for catching passes -- a 75 percent catch rate and 7.9 yards per catch are neither great nor terrible. And between redshirt freshman Kye Morgan and blue-chip freshman Taquan Mizzell, there are options beyond Parks.
Of course, the running backs will still need help from the line. Virginia was awful at opening up holes on running downs and creating opportunities of any kind, and it was only decent at keeping defenders out of the backfield. Three-year starting guard, and two-time all-conference selection, Oday Aboushi is gone, but the fact that six other players return with starting experience (81 career starts) could be a sign that, at the very least, regression is unlikely. But improvement? Hard to guarantee it.
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|David Watford||6'2, 200||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Greyson Lambert||6'5, 220||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Matt Johns||6'5, 205||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
5. "I like their want-to."
With Michael Rocco's graduation and Phillip Sims' transfer, Virginia will have no choice but to go with a new guy at quarterback. With Matt Johns coming off of a nice case of spring mono, it appears the job will go to either sophomore David Watford or redshirt freshman Grayson Lambert. Youth at QB is not typically a winning arrangement, but hey, they have good want-to. So there's that. And there's also a pretty good set of skill position players around them.
|Kevin Parks||RB||5'8, 205||Jr.||*** (5.7)||160||734||4.6||5.0||5||-3.4|
|Khalek Shepherd||RB||5'8, 185||Jr.||*** (5.5)||19||122||6.4||3.5||1||+1.3|
|Kye Morgan||RB||5'11, 175||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Taquan Mizzell||RB||5'10, 183||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
|Darius Jennings||WR||5'11, 175||Jr.||**** (5.8)||92||48||568||52.2%||6.2||20.5%||58.7%||6.1||64.2|
|Dominique Terrell||WR||5'11, 170||Jr.||**** (5.8)||57||37||467||64.9%||8.2||12.7%||36.8%||9.4||52.7|
|E.J. Scott||WR||5'11, 185||Jr.||*** (5.5)||45||29||390||64.4%||8.7||10.0%||62.2%||8.6||44.1|
|Jake McGee||TE||6'6, 250||Jr.||** (5.2)||42||28||374||66.7%||8.9||9.4%||35.7%||8.7||42.2|
|Tim Smith||WR||6'0, 195||Sr.||**** (5.8)||39||20||405||51.3%||10.4||8.7%||61.5%||10.3||45.7|
|Kevin Parks||RB||5'8, 205||Jr.||*** (5.7)||32||24||189||75.0%||5.9||7.1%||56.3%||5.9||21.3|
|Khalek Shepherd||RB||5'8, 185||Jr.||*** (5.5)||11||6||129||54.5%||11.7||2.4%||54.5%||12.3||14.6|
|Adrian Gamble||WR||6'1, 180||So.||*** (5.5)||11||3||35||27.3%||3.2||2.4%||54.5%||3.4||4.0|
|Zachary Swanson||TE||6'6, 255||Jr.||*** (5.5)||9||8||88||88.9%||9.8||2.0%||77.8%||14.6||9.9|
|Canaan Severin||WR||6'2, 225||So.||**** (5.8)||3||1||3||33.3%||1.0||0.7%||100.0%||0.6||0.3|
|Jamall Brown||WR||6'0, 200||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
|Kyle Dockins||WR||6'3, 205||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
|Andre Levrone||WR||6'2, 197||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
6. An underrated receiving corps?
Generally speaking, Virginia's passing game pretty much stunk last year. Michael Rocco threw too many interceptions, and Phillip Sims, an Alabama transfer, took too many sacks and didn't go anywhere with his passes. Virginia was mediocre in terms of pass efficiency (66th in Passing Success Rate+) and poor in terms of explosiveness (84th in Passing PPP+).
So if you want to doubt Virginia's receiving corps, have at it. You've got some evidence to support that. But the top two receivers (not including RB-WR hybrid-ish player Perry Jones) were four-star sophomores last year. Darius Jennings was the go-to guy, and Dominique Terrell was a semi-effective bailout options on passing downs. Jennings wasn't ready to be a No. 1, but the next four returnees on the list -- Terrell, E.J. Scott, tight end Jake McGee, and Tim Smith -- all averaged at least 8.2 yards per target.
Scott and McGee were also sophomores, and Smith was the No. 3 receiver in 2011 and has shown some big-play potential. This was a young, unprepared receiving corps last year, but damned if I'm not finding some things to like here … well, as long as there is a quarterback who can get these guys the ball.
|Oday Aboushi||LT||37 career starts; 2012 1st All-ACC|
|Morgan Moses||LT||6'6, 335||Sr.||**** (6.0)||31 career starts|
|Luke Bowanko||LG||6'6, 300||Sr.||*** (5.6)||25 career starts|
|Sean Cascarano||RG||6'6, 270||Sr.||*** (5.7)||12 career starts|
|Conner Davis||RG||6'5, 300||Jr.||*** (5.5)||11 career starts|
|Cody Wallace||RT||6'4, 295||Jr.||*** (5.5)||1 career start|
|Jay Whitmire||RT||6'6, 300||So.||*** (5.7)||1 career start|
|Ross Burbank||C||6'4, 290||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Sean Karl||RG||6'6, 300||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Michael Mooney||LT||6'6, 285||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Ryan Doull||LG||6'5, 300||RSFr.||** (5.3)|
|Jackson Matteo||C||6'5, 290||RSFr.||** (5.3)|
|Sadiq Olanrewaju||OL||6'6, 280||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Q1 Rk||70||1st Down Rk||58|
|Q2 Rk||29||2nd Down Rk||74|
|Q3 Rk||44||3rd Down Rk||13|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jake Snyder||DE||6'4, 270||Sr.||*** (5.7)||12||31.0||4.9%||5.5||2.5||0||4||1||1|
|Eli Harold||DE||6'4, 230||So.||**** (6.0)||12||24.0||3.8%||7||2||1||0||1||0|
|Brent Urban||DT||6'7, 295||Sr.||** (5.4)||12||13.5||2.1%||2.5||2||0||2||1||1|
|Mike Moore||DE||6'4, 275||So.||**** (5.8)||12||9.5||1.5%||2||1||0||0||0||0|
|David Dean||DT||6'1, 290||So.||*** (5.7)||11||2.5||0.4%||1||1||0||0||0||0|
|Trent Corney||DE||6'3, 250||So.||NR|
|Andre Miles-Redmond||DT||6'4, 260||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
7. Nobody get hurt
Rarely do you see a bigger split than this: Virginia ranked a rock-solid 20th in Adj. Line Yards last year … and ranked a wretched 103rd in Adj. Sack Rate. The front four was quite stout and aggressive against the run, making all sorts of stops in the backfield (seven linemen and four linebackers had at least two tackles for loss) and performing at an incredibly high level in short-yardage situations. But it appeared that if the defense wasn't making a big play, it was pretty consistently allowing six-yard gains. And because of a terrible lack of pressure in passing situations, a good secondary was put under too much pressure.
In 2013, Jon Tenuta takes over, and while he has plenty of success on his long résumé, it will be interesting to see what he does with a unit that still has some play-makers -- ends Jake Snyder and blue-chip sophomore Eli Harold, for instance -- but has been thinned out dramatically. Three of last year's top four tackles are gone, as are the two linebackers (Steve Greer and LaRoy Reynolds) who made 64 percent of the team's linebacker tackles. There are relatively highly touted youngsters scattered throughout the front seven, but quite a few of them will have to succeed to both match last year's run success and fix the pass rush issues. And if there are a few injuries, yikes.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Daquan Romero||WLB||6'1, 235||Jr.||*** (5.6)||12||29.5||4.7%||3.5||0||0||0||1||1|
|Henry Coley||MLB||6'2, 240||Jr.||*** (5.5)||8||28.5||4.5%||4.5||0||0||1||0||0|
|D.J. Hill||WLB||6'0, 220||Jr.||*** (5.6)||11||10.0||1.6%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Demeitre Brim||SLB||6'3, 225||So.||*** (5.7)||11||7.0||1.1%||0.5||0.5||0||0||2||0|
|Kwontie Moore||MLB||6'2, 250||So.||**** (5.9)||12||3.0||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Darius Lee||WLB||6'1, 215||So.||** (5.4)||8||3.0||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Mark Hall||SLB||6'2, 250||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|LaChaston Smith||WLB||6'0, 215||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Micah Kiser||LB||6'1, 215||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Anthony Harris||SS||6'1, 190||Jr.||*** (5.7)||12||67.5||10.6%||0.5||0||1||3||1||0|
|Demetrious Nicholson||CB||5'11, 185||Jr.||**** (5.8)||12||43.0||6.8%||1.5||0||0||15||0||0|
|Brandon Phelps||FS||6'0, 185||Jr.||**** (5.8)||12||34.5||5.4%||0.5||0||0||3||0||0|
|Drequan Hoskey||CB||6'0, 180||Jr.||** (5.4)||12||33.0||5.2%||0||0||0||5||1||0|
|Maurice Canady||CB||6'2, 185||So.||*** (5.5)||11||25.0||3.9%||0||0||2||3||1||1|
|Rijo Walker||FS||5'10, 190||Sr.||*** (5.5)||12||14.5||2.3%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Anthony Cooper||FS||6'0, 190||So.||*** (5.7)||12||6.5||1.0%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|C.J. Moore||CB||5'10, 160||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Kelvin Rainey||SS||6'1, 190||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Wilfred Wahee||CB||5'11, 190||RSFr.||** (5.3)|
|Divante Walker||CB||5'11, 170||RSFr.||** (5.3)|
|Kirk Garner||DB||5'11, 180||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Tim Harris||DB||6'2, 190||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
8. The secondary should be awesome
Virginia's top three cornerbacks combined to defense 25 passes, a lovely total considering they combined for about 101.0 tackles (which is not too many, and not too few, for a set of corners). You want that PDs-to-tackle ratio pretty high because it hints at quality on-ball defending (or awful tackling ... but probably the former). Virginia corners had ball skills.
They just didn't have holding onto the ball skills. On average, 25 defensed passes should result in five to six interceptions; UVa CBs had two. Demetrious Nicholson somehow managed to break up 15 of them without holding onto a single one. Sure, catching is a skill, but that's damn unlucky. Nicholson turned two of 10 defensed passes into picks in 2011, so clearly he can hold onto the ball occasionally. But don't be surprised if he suddenly picks off four or five passes this year. He might be due.
Meanwhile, the simple fact that UVa had a top-50 pass defense (according to Passing S&P+) despite a non-existent pass rush is an exciting endorsement of a secondary that not only returns everybody from last season but adds a load of redshirt freshmen and a pair of four-star true freshmen to the mix. This could be an outstanding unit. Now it's just up to the retooled front seven to make sure it has a chance to thrive.
|Alec Vozenilek||5'10, 190||Jr.||66||40.6||4||16||22||57.6%|
|Ian Frye||6'6, 195||So.||48||62.0||22||45.8%|
|Ian Frye||6'6, 195||So.||5-5||3-4||75.0%||0-1||0.0%|
|Khalek Shephard||KR||5'8, 185||Jr.||42||22.1||0|
|Dominique Terrell||KR||5'11, 170||Jr.||2||20.0||0|
|Khalek Shephard||PR||5'8, 185||Jr.||23||3.9||0|
|Special Teams F/+||123|
|Field Goal Pct||86|
|Kick Returns Avg||74|
|Punt Returns Avg||115|
9. Tackle somebody
Among other things, I've learned that you can begin to glean some information about a team's athletic depth by how well it covers kickoffs and punts. It's the roughest of rough conclusions, of course, but more often than not, your second-string defensive skill position players and defensive backs are the ones pursuing return men.
Virginia ranked 28th in Touchback Percentage on kickoffs.
Virginia ranked 68th in net kickoffs.
That's a bad sign.
Of course, the unit as a whole was pretty awful whether we're talking about coverage, kicking, or returns. If a kickoff didn't result in a touchback, chances are nothing good was happening on special teams for the Hoos. Hence the addition of Larry Lewis. Work your magic, Coach. If you have the horses, anyway.
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|9-Nov||at North Carolina||29|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||73|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||24|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-14 / -3.1|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||14 (7, 7)|
10. Fire up the luck machine
To an extent, I can talk myself into this UVa team, at least to some degree. I think the receivers will mature into their roles a bit (and I think a new QB tossing them the ball might not be a bad thing, even if Rocco and Sims weren't awful). I think Kevin Parks is a steady running back, and it will be fun seeing what Taquan Mizzell might be capable of. I like the defensive ends, and I love the secondary. There are still holes, obviously -- linebacker, defensive tackle, offensive guard, quarterback -- but I could see the Cavaliers at least returning to a top-60 level in 2013.
But here's the problem: Virginia plays eight projected top-35 teams this year. Sure, five of the eight come to Charlottesville, but to reach bowl eligibility, the Hoos will need to best the four lower-ranked teams on the schedule (including Ball State and Maryland teams that could be quite a bit better than their projected rankings, plus a Duke team that has won four of five versus UVa) and pull not one, but two upsets. That's probably going to require some 2011-level good luck.
It's conceivable that strong recruiting and some pretty impressive staff changes could buy Mike London some time even if he doesn't thrive in 2013. But one has to figure his seat will be awfully hot heading into 2014 if he can't figure out how to pull some upsets in the coming months.