Gameday Baby! Football season is finally here. The Hoos take on the Richmond Spiders in the season opener for both teams. The Hoos are coming off a great season, finishing the regular season 8-4 before falling to SEC powerhouse Auburn in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.
Richmond, on the other hand, is coming off a very disappointing season. After winning their first 3 games, including an upset over Duke in Durham, the Spiders lost their remaining 8 games, finishing 3-8 on the season.
These season opening games are never easy to preview. For one thing, there is no game film on either team. New players are stepping into new roles. In this case it is even worse, as Richmond has a new coaching staff. That new staff is led by head coach Danny Rocco, who is Michael Rocco's uncle. Even more frustrating is that Richmond is an FCS team, meaning they get far less media coverage than FBS teams. It is very difficult to find information on the Spiders football team this season.
One thing that helps is that Richmond returns 13 starters from last year's team. That helps me, as a writer. It doesn't necessarily help a team that finished 3-8. Without a doubt, there is talent on the Spider's roster. Is it enough to give the Hoos a game?
Virginia on Offense
The Hoos offense is loaded this year. With talent and depth at all the skill positions, and 3 returning starters on the OL, there is a lot of reason for optimism heading into this season. Against Richmond, expect to see the Hoos try some things out, kicking the tires on variation formations, sets and players.
Despite hiring a new head coach, Richmond's defensive scheme shouldn't change much. Defensive coordinator Bob Trott has been at Richmond for 3 years, so the players know his system. That system is a hybrid 4-3/4-2-5 defense with a "Bandit" LB/S who essentially roams around the defense depending on the situation. This season, that player is Aaron Roane, a sophomore who started 9 games last year and played well for a freshman. Roane will likely spend a lot of time keying on Perry Jones and the rest of the Virginia RBs. That will even be true on passing downs, when Roane will be in coverage on Jones. This is a matchup we can exploit, as Jones is too good for Roane to cover one-on-one.
The Spider's DL is led by preseason All-CAA nominee DT Kerry Wynn. Wynn, a 6'5" 260 pound junior, uses excellent quickness to get into the backfield. Wynn led the team a year ago with 4 sacks and 7 TFLs. Look for Wynn to try to get on the outside shoulder of our OGs, keeping C Luke Bowanko away from him. Wynn may be able to beat our inexperienced OGs with his quickness, something we will have to be wary of.
Next to Wynn is NT Evan Kelly. Kelly is a sophomore who started 4 games a year ago. He's bigger than Wynn, weighing in at over 280 pounds, but isn't near the athlete his linemate is. Kelly is mostly a run stopper, and will try to use his bulk to shut down interior runs. If our Guards are able to handle Kelly, that will free up Bowanko to help on Wynn.
While Wynn is clearly the top player on the DL, the DE combo is also very strong. Both are juniors, although B.J. Scott is far more experienced. At 6'4" 260 pounds, Scott will actually line up all over the line, depending on the situation and the matchups. Scott finished with 51 tackles and 5.5 TFLs last year. His opposite is Jacob Pierce, who is similar in size to Scott, but not as good. Pierce finished with just 17 tackles and 1.5 TFL, despite starting 9 games. Scott is the player to watch here, especially as he moves around on the line. I don't think Morgan Moses or Oday Aboushi will be particularly troubled by him, but they may see help from a RB or TE from time to time anyway.
The star of the two Richmond LBs is senior Darius McMillan, last year's leading tackler with 133 stops. At 6'0" and about 210, McMillan is a little bit undersized for a LB, but he is fast and plays bigger than he looks. He's best when coming up in run support, and isn't a great cover guy. McMillan doesn't make a lot of plays behind the line of scrimmage, but he also doesn't miss many tackles.
Next to McMillan is sophomore Eric Wright. Wright is a little bigger and stronger than McMillan, but not as quick. He is similar in that he is also best when flowing downhill towards the ballcarrier. Wright played in 9 games last year and had 27 tackles. Wright's size advantage makes him better at shedding blocks and making plays in traffic, but both LBs are better at using their quickness to beat their man to the hole. Neither LB is much of a pass rush threat, with McMillan being marginally better at that than Wright.
As I mentioned already, Roane is a hybrid LB/S guy, basically, he is an OLB with good cover skills. Roane is actually listed on the roster as a DB, so that tells you a bit about his game.
The rest of the secondary is led by the safeties. Senior team captain Cooper Taylor and sophomore Reggie Barnette. At 6'5" 230, Taylor is the beast of the group. He is the player on Richmond most likely to end up playing on Sundays. Despite his size, he runs well, and he can hit. Barnette started just 3 games last year, but finished with 47 tackles and an Int. Barnette has the potential to be very good at Safety.
The CBs are not as impressive. Senior Darryl Hamilton is just 5'9" and 180 pounds, while junior Wayne Pettus is just 5'8" and 175 pounds. Both are solid cover guys, who tend to be in the right place at the right time. Neither are shut-down CBs, and Richmond is likely to stay in a zone for much of the game, to avoid giving up big plays in the passing game. Hamilton is the younger brother of former Virginia CB Marcus Hamilton.
While Richmond has some players on Defense, they simply do not have the talent to shut down our offense. The only thing that will stop the Virginia offense is itself. If we turn the ball over, commit penalties, drop passes, and make other mistakes, the Richmond defense is capable of capitalizing. But if we play well, we should easily put up 5 or 6 TDs.
Virginia on Defense
While Richmond's defense was relatively easy to profile because the system hasn't changed much, the offense is another story. New head coach Danny Rocco brings in his own system, and has pretty much revamped the Richmond offense. With no game tape to view, and precious little information available about Rocco's time at Liberty, a lot of what follows will be guesswork.
We do know that Rocco's offense at Liberty was a version of the spread offense. The offense begins with a mobile QB in shotgun, there was some read option there and a lot of quick passes designed to get the ball out of the QBs hands quickly. Runs were basically of the draw variety, along with those read-options.
The problem with basing our defense off this type of information is that the personnel at Richmond is vastly different from the personnel at Liberty. Starting QB John Laub is not nearly as mobile as Liberty QB Mike Brown was. That said, Laub is still a threat on the ground, especially with the read option. He isn't likely to break a 50 yard run, but he can certainly make some plays with his feet. That mobility is the main reason why Laub beat out Virginia transfer Michael Struass for the starting QB job. We may still see Strauss in this game, as the battle between the two QBs was very tight in training camp.
Laub actually started 3 games in 2010, due to an injury to former Richmond QB Aaron Corp. In those 3 games, Laub completed less than 50% of his passes, threw 7 INTs versus just 2 TDs and rushed for 57 yards on 26 carries. On the bright side, Richmond did win 2 of the 3 games. Clearly Laub is a better QB now than he was 2 years ago, and that experience should suit him well moving forward.
The best player on Richmond's offense is FB Kendall Gaskins. Gaskins has received a lot of preseason hype as an All American candidate. He rushed for 650 yards and 10 TDs last year. A 6'1" 240 pound bruiser, Gaskins isn't a typical FB. We will likely see him lined up as the sole RB with Laub. He is much more likely to rush up the middle than to take a carry outside. That said, he is capable of getting to the edge, and our small DBs will have trouble bringing him down.
The other RB we'll see if Jovan Smith. Smith is much more of a TB than Gaskins, and has a lot more quickness. Smith missed all of last season with an injury, but rushed for 266 yards on 58 carries in 2010 (nearly 4.6 yards per carry). Smith is a good change-of-pace back, as he is much smaller and quicker than Gaskins. They make a good rushing combo. We will also see true freshman Jacobi Green, a player the Spiders are very high on. Green is a track star who rushed for over 15 yards per carry in his senior year of high school.
If you are surprised to find out that the star of Richmond's offense is a FB, then you'll be even more amazed that the second best player is the TE. Kevin Finney is a senior who has started for the past 2 seasons. Finney had 31 catches for 348 yards and 2 TDs last year. Like Gaskins, he isn't a big play guy, but he is a very good possession receiver.
The other targets Laub will be throwing to are also pretty solid. Junior Ben Edwards and sophomore Stephen Barnette combined for 76 catches and 949 yards, along with 11 TDs. Of course, they had Tre Gray (95 rec, 1187 yds) taking a lot of the oppositions' attention from them. Now that Gray is gone, Edwards and Barnette need to step up. At 6'4" and 180 pounds, Barnette is a big target who can go up and get a jump ball. Not a great matchup for our small DBs. Edwards, at 5'11" and 195, is shorter but is a big play guy because of his speed and ability to break tackles. Our DBs are going to have their hands full. The other WR to look out for is true freshman Reggie Diggs. Diggs is another bigger WR, and the Richmond coaching staff thinks he could do big things.
The group up front that will be blocking for all the guys I've mentioned is largely an inexperienced bunch. The exception is RG Mark Speir, a junior who has 19 starts already in his career. Starting along with Speir are 3 sophomores and a freshman. LT Jacob Ruby started every game for Richmond as a freshman last year, and is a pre-season All-CAA candidate. The center is Austin Gund, who was a starter as a freshman last year before injury kept him out of the final half of the season. RT Nick Ritcher is getting his first extended playing time on the field, after seeing limited action a season ago. The freshman is Sedale Young, a 325 pound behemoth of a LG who won the starting spot with a dominant spring.
The OL is a big group, averaging 6'5" and 300 pounds. How the group will be deployed is hard to say. Will they be spread out along the line, as is often the case in a spread system? I don't know, but it isn't the most mobile group of OLs. A more traditional deployment would take away some of the read-option's effectiveness.
I expect to see the read option used liberally. Gaskins will be a part of it, especially on short yardage plays, but Smith is a bigger weapon because of his ability to create a big play on the edge. Our DEs are going to be careful about edge contain. I also expect Richmond to use their bigger WRs against our smaller DBs. If they can get solo coverage for Barnette, they'll look to get him the ball quickly. Back shoulder throws could be particularly effective. Richmond doesn't want Laub (or Strauss) sitting in the pocket waiting for our DLs to get a shot at them, they will try to get rid of the ball quickly, and let their skill position guys make plays.
I've tried to be as fair as I could be to Richmond. I've highlighted their strengths more than their weaknesses. The truth is that this is not a good football team. Sure, they have some talent, but a large percentage of this team is the same as last year's 3-8 team. Other than Gaskins, Pettus and Wynn, there isn't a single guy on the Spiders who would see time for this year's Hoos.
I simply can't see us struggling with this team. If we wanted to, we could simply run the ball down their throats for 60 minutes, but I think the coaching staff is going to want to try some things out, get some of the younger guys involved early. The defense might be relatively bland, which makes sense against a read-option, short passing team. Blitzing a lot is just going make Laub's reads easier. Richmond's offense isn't a big play group, so keeping everything in front of us and making tackles is going to make it very tough for Richmond to score points.
I expect our offense to pretty much do whatever it pleases, and the defense will be in bend-but-don't-break mode. We'll score a lot, but give up a bit.
Prediction: Hoos 55, Spiders 17