The Virginia football team began their spring practice period this morning, coming off a promising season and a Peach Bowl berth. There are, of course, a handful of questions coming into spring practice, including several position battles, some guys at new positions and a couple of new coaching responsibilities.
One thing that is not in question, for the first time in a while, is the Quarterback spot. Last year, we had as many as 4 guys vying for the top spot. Two years ago, it was Marc Verica’s to lose, but he was by no means a shoe-in. In 2009, Verica and Jameel Sewell competed for the top spot. It’s been some time since we had an incumbent QB we were as confident about as we are about Michael Rocco. In fact, it has probably been since the Matt Schaub years.
The rest of the offense is also in good shape. There are a few question marks on the Offensive Line and on the outside, but most of those battles involve multiple strong candidates. They aren’t a big concern. The offense was potent last year, putting up nearly 400 yards of offense per game. With so many of the key contributors to that offense coming back, the focus will be on fine tuning performance and turning those yards into more points.
The defense, on the other hand, lost quite a bit from last year, and the only players available are underclassmen with little or no field experience. These are really the battles that people (and the coaching staff) will be paying attention to.
Last year’s defense was up and down, dominating some teams and giving up lots of points to some other teams. That defense loses as many as 7 starters, so rebuilding the defense will be a big part of this spring.
Let’s take a look at some of the positional battles and key focus areas. Here is the spring depth chart (pdf). Keep in mind that a number of projected starters will be out for the spring, so the players behind them will have opportunities to show their wares.
Although the offense is well positioned to move forward, there are a couple of starting spots up for grabs, as well as some battles for playing time behind the starters. There are also a couple of changes to the offensive coaching staff.
At WR, we lose the 4th all time receiving leading in team history (2nd all-time in catches). That is a big gap to fill. We also lose Matt Snyder, who provided a big target over the middle. The pressure will be on the various candidates to prove their worth over the spring. Junior Tim Smith will start at one WR spot, but the other position is up for grabs. Sophomores Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell are the leaders there, but both come with question marks after up and down freshman seasons. Since all 3 of those guys are on the smaller side, it sure would be nice if a bigger receiver such as Miles Gooch or Bobby Smith could step up and provide some of what Snyder gave. If not, there will be opportunities for some of the incoming class of freshmen to carve out significant playing time at WR. Putting in strong performances will be important for some of the younger guys as the push for playing time in multiple WR formations.
We also lose two starters off last year’s OL. LG Austin Pasztor and C Anthony Mihota are both moving on, so those position is up for grabs. Junior Sean Cascarano is the projected starter at LG, but he will miss the spring with an injury. Considering Cascarano has only played a handful of plays in his career, and very few of them at LG, that position is one to keep an eye on. Matt Mihalik, Cody Wallace and Conner Davis are the main competition at LG. At C, the projected starter is junior Matt Mihalik, but redshirt freshman Ross Burbank will get plenty of opportunities to win the job, as will Wallace. None of these guys have any experience playing the position, so that is another position to keep an eye on.
Of course, having two spots on the OL up for grabs is never a good thing. But, there are many candidates for these positions, each of whom have impressed the coaching staff. So, while there is some reason to concern, there is also reason to believe that we will be fine along our OL.
The only other starter we lose from last season is FB Max Milien. Milien was a big part of our passing game last year, so his loss could be a big one. We have a number of candidates for the position, but none are true FBs. Converted TE Zach Swanson made the move during this past season, and saw some time at FB. An interesting possibility here is converted safety LoVante Battle. Battle saw very little time on the defense, but has played a lot of special teams and has 16 total tackles in 3 years. Battle has good size and very good athleticism for a FB, so if he can make the switch, he could be a weapon there. He will most likely struggle with the pass protection and run blocking duties required at FB.
Amazingly, those are the only positions in question on the offense. Of course, there are some other spots on the 2-deep that players will be battling for. This includes TE, where Jake McGee and Jay Mathis will be battling for playing time. Both players will see the field, so in the grand scheme of the offense, it is a minor concern. Similarly, finding adequate backup OTs is necessary, especially as we may lose both after this coming season. There are candidates at both positions, including Jay Whitmire, Kelby Johnson and Tim Cwalina. These guys will be fighting to be the 3rd tackle on the field, as well as learning the position.
Obviously, a lot of eyes will be on true freshman QB Greyson Lambert, who enrolled in January and will be involved in his first extended team activities. Eyes will also be on our stable of talented RBs, to see how they've improved and how carries are split up between them.
The defense isn’t near as well –positioned as the offense. There are a few spots that are locked down, but as many as 5 positions are completely up for grabs. Let’s look at it, unit by unit.
On the DL, we really only return one starter, junior DE Jake Snyder. However, senior DT Will Hill was a big contributor last year, and is pretty much guaranteed a starting spot. At the other DE, the projected starter is Billy Schautz, who had a strong season last year, before suffering a horrific injury against Florida State. If Schautz is healthy, he’ll start opposite Snyder, but his status is enough of an unknown that Brent Urban, Ausar Walcott, Stephen Lawe and a handful of others will be given long looks during the spring. Regardless of who starts, we’ll likely rotate 4-5 DEs next season, so everybody is going to get a number of reps during the spring practices.
The LB situation has 2 returning starters and a third who saw significant action a year ago. MLB Steve Greer is out for the spring, but the injury doesn’t appear to be serious and he is expected to be 100% in the spring. In his stead, sophomore Henry Coley will see a lot of the snaps, but Coley should see some time on the outside as well, and redshirt freshman Caleb Taylor has a lot of potential at MLB. WLB LaRoy Reynolds is a lock to start, and looks poised to have a big season. He is expected to be a leader of this defense (and team) and will probably see a majority of the first-team snaps. The other LB spot is a little bit less set. Sophomore Daquan Romero saw the field a fair amount in 2011 and finished with 13 tackles including 1 TFL. He is the leader in the pack for the starting SLB, but senior Tucker Windle has more experience there and might be a better option. Also, former SLB Ausar Walcott has been moved to DE for the spring, but don’t be too surprised if he is back in the mix at LB, should Romero falter.
Despite starting 3 seniors, the defensive secondary struggled for much of last year. They gave up far too many big plays, and did not make enough big plays of their own. Gone is All American CB Chase Minnifield as well as 3 year starting safeties Rodney McLeod and Corey Mosley. Returning is CB Demetrious Nicholson. Nicholson looks to expand on a reasonably successful first year, building on the success he has. The staff is confident that Nicholson can be an elite cover man, and the fans should be happy with him holding down the fort at CB for the next 3 years.
Opposite Nicholson is a little bit of a question mark. Drequan Hoskey got the majority of the playing time opposite Nicholson when Minnifield was out with a late season injury, but Brandon Phelps was a much-hyped recruit, brought in specifically to take Minnifield’s spot. Hoskey is the leader going into spring practice, but except Phelps to get every opportunity to win the job.
The safeties are in a similar bind. There are a number of athletes who have been slotted at safety, but haven’t seen the field there as yet. This includes Pablo Alvarez and Kyrrel Latimer. Anthony Harris and Kameron Mack each saw the field briefly last year, and that will give them a bit of a leg up. Rijo Walker has shifted from CB to S and back a couple of times already, and is project as one starting safety. Anthony Harris is projected as the other, but both of those positions are 100% up for grabs to whoever performs the best. There are also a number of incoming freshmen who will look to grab a hold of those positions during fall camp.
Between the losses to graduation, and the losses to injury, spring practice will be largely about developing the younger defensive players. Such stalwarts as LaRoy Reynolds and Will Hill figure to be heavily involved, but a lot of underclassmen are going to see extensive reps, and will need to shine if they expect to see the field in 2012.
Aside from the losses mentioned above, we also lose our punter and our placekicker. Junior Drew Jarrett will compete for both jobs, but is probably in a better position to win the PK job. Alec Vozenilek is the projected punter and Ian Frye is the projected PK. That said, we may go into the season with multiple options at both positions. Furthermore, there are a couple of incoming kickers who could end up winning the job.
Our kick return units were unspectacular last year, ranking 93rd and 57th nationally last year. Both of those units need work. The primary PR last year was WR Dominique Terrell and he was basically a disaster for much of the season. He will obviously get chances during the spring to keep hold of that position, but Nicholson, Jennings and several others will get their shots as well. The KR unit wasn't quite as bad, but still too often failed to make big plays. Jennings, RB Khalek Shepherd and WR E.J. Scott were the primary KRs last year, and look to be the frontrunners this year. They will get pushed by others, including Perry Jones. There are, once again, incoming freshmen who look like they could help in the return game, so nothing is likely to be decided until fall camp.
That pretty much sums up the position battles this spring. Beyond those specific positions, the things to focus on are Michael Rocco’s progress as a QB and the ability of the defense to get consistent pressure on the QB.
There are open practices in Charlottesville on Wednesday, as well as the next three Fridays. This Saturday, the team will be practicing at Fairfax High School. I am hoping to attend at least some of this event. The following Saturday (March 31), the team will be practicing at Christopher Newport University in Newport News. The Saturday following that (April 7), the team will be at Sports Backers Stadium, in Richmond.