Virginia Spring Game 2013: What to Watch For

Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

It's time for the annual Orange and Blue Spring Football Scrimmage. The Hoos are coming off a 4-8 season, but they return a large part of that team. There were, however, big-time changes to the coaching staff, and some key losses. We answer a couple of questions. What should fans who either attend the game or tune in on ESPN3 look for? What positions are the key factors for the 2013 season?

How do the Quarterbacks look?

As we discussed in our spring preview, the #1 question on the minds of Virginia fans is at QB. We will almost definitely see action from all 4 QBs (Greyson Lambert, Matt Johns, Phillip Sims, David Watford...and that is in alphabetical order). Johns missed some of camp with mono, and isn't realistically in the running to start this fall, so he may not see much time. Sims, Watford and Lambert figure to get a majority of the snaps. They will probably all get time with both teams.

Obviously, it is difficult to gain much knowledge from a scrimmage. The QBs can't be hit, so there is little fear of standing in the pocket. The defensive schemes will probably be vanilla, so their reads will be simple. Still, there are judgments to be made.

How do they control the huddle? In 2011, David Watford saw time in the spring game as a true freshman and looked uncomfortable in the huddle. If memory serves, he was called for 2 delay of game penalties. It was clear that he was not ready to be a #1 QB.

How well do they work with the WR? Some routes are easier throws than others. A stop route is a simple throw to a spot. However, a go route requires timing between the WR and QB. Can the QBs hit these routes? Can they hit a WR in stride on a deep cross or a post. If the WRs are having to change stride to make a grab, the QBs are off on their timing (or the WR is off, but right now we're discussing the QBs). This is an important piece of information. Seeing which QBs are most comfortable with the top WRs will be a big part of who wins the job.

Finally, the format of this game could be a glimpse into the minds of the offensive coaching staff. One of the big weapons in David Watford's arsenal is his speed and running ability. If the coaches let him run a little bit, that would be a sign that they are serious in letting him lead this team. If he is forced into a game plan more suited for a pure drop-back passer, that may be a sign that his chances are not serious.

How well does the OL work together?

One of the biggest problems last year was the play of the OL. While much of this was physical, with guys just getting beat, there were a lot of mental problems and miscommunications. Untouched defenders are almost due to a missed assignment. Hopefully, the addition of Coach Tom O'Brien will solve some of these problems.

Other than replacing LT Oday Aboushi, the linemen are all back from last year. This is a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because they have had a year of playing time together and an offseason of watching film together. A curse, because they are the same guys who struggled last year.

Seeing how Morgan Moses, Sean Cascarano, Cody Wallace, Luke Bowanko and Ross Burbank all work together is an important look into the success of our offense this coming season. The second team will be equally important, because they will be called upon to step up in case of injury or if the first unit struggles again.

How will the DL rotations work out?

Of course, you can't judge the OL without taking into account their opposition. While new Defensive Coordinator Jon Tenuda is known as a zone-blitz aficionado, the game plan for Saturday figures to be pretty basic. While we may see some weak side blitzes, we aren't likely to see anything crazy out of the defense.

Because this is an intrasquad scrimmage, we may not see a true rotation, because the 1st team DL and 2nd team DL will be on different teams. That is disappointing because determining who the 3rd DT and DE are will be important.

The starters are pretty well set. At DE, we'll be starting Eli Harold and Jake Snyder. At DT, we'll be starting Brent Urban and David Dean. Right now, the 3rd DT is probably Justin Renfrow, a 5th year senior. The thing is, in 4 years, he hasn't played much. So does Andre Miles-Redmond step up and take his place. Will Renfrow even be back in the fall? The 3rd DE is almost definitely Mike Moore, but Moore may end up moving inside at times. In that case, freak athlete Trent Corney is the likely 3rd DE. Corney could play some OLB though. Stephen Lawe is also a DE, but he hasn't seen the field at all yet.

While we may not get a real view of the depth chart on the DL, we can still see how these guys play. Corney is a tremendous athlete. Can he put that together on the field and become a difference maker? Is Renfrow ready to step on the field and become a real part of the defense? Is Diamonte Bailey ready to make an impact at DE?

Do we have a blocking TE?

The starting TE is Jake McGee. That much we know. While McGee is a tremendous receiving threat at the position, he is still a work in progress as a blocker. The other 3 scholarship TEs on the roster are Zachary Swanson, Rob Burns and Mario Nixon. Swanson played as an H-back last year and isn't any better a blocker than McGee. Burns and Nixon have yet to see the field (actually Burns has seen the field, but not as a TE). If we're going to be successful running the ball, we need somebody to be able to hold the edge. If one of these candidates can't do it, perhaps a guy like Sean Karl moves from OT to TE?

Watch how the TEs block against our OLBs and see if they can hold their own. If they can, that will really help our running game. If they can't, all the talent we have a RB could go to waste.

How is Vincent Croce utilized?

Last year, the Hoos didn't really have much at FB. Zach Swanson moved there, but he played mostly as an H-back, and had just 8 catches. Vincent Croce has moved to FB (and Swanson back to TE) and he could be a real weapon there. He is 6'4" and something like 250 pounds. That's big. He's also a tremendous athlete, having played MLB and TE in high school.

He could be a little bit of a ‘Refrigerator' Perry-type as a short yardage back. He could also be a weapon in the passing game. However, he has to show a feel for the position. It isn't just short yardage carries and the occasional flair route. He also needs to be a lead blocker on the run, and a pass blocker. This last role is the most important part. He needs to be able to read blitzes, pick up the LB, and make the block. This isn't easy and it is something experienced players struggle with. Seeing how quickly Croce picks this stuff up will be an insight into how much playing time he will get.

Of course, we are once again hampered by the format of this contest. Croce may not see too many blitzes, and almost definitely nothing extravagant. So, for the time being, we may be stuck just seeing a 260 pound guy run over the DL on a short yardage carry.

How will the new coaching staff work together?

It may be difficult, in this format, to get an idea of who is doing what among the coaches. They will all be on the field, and probably all running around working with various different players. Still, we should get an idea of who is calling plays (likely Fairchild, but there may be input from Associate Head Coach for Offense Tom O'Brien.)

How much will Mike London be involved with the defense? Is this Jon Tenuda's unit to run, or is London going to leave the offense to O'Brien and work more hands-on with the defense?

Scott Wachenheim is still the OL coach, but Tom O'Brien has a lot of experience working with OLs. And, considering the OL struggles from last year, O'Briends experience may come in handy. So watch to see who the first guy out there to greet the OL is.

Will our Specials Teams be any better?

Last year, our special teams were simply atrocious. Anthony Poindexter was removed as special teams coordinator and we hired somebody with actual special teams experience in Larry Lewis. Lewis has been coaching special teams for 30 years, so he certainly knows what he's doing.

Again, due to the format, we may not see much out of the special teams. And even if we do, it'll be our special teams going up against...our special teams. So maybe there aren't any judgments to be made. But, I'll still be watching closely to see if our gunners stay in their lanes, if our returners can get a couple of blocks and if our kickers can kick the ball straight.

Who wins?

Last year, the Orange team included the first team offense and second team defense. And they came out on top. That led fans and the media to assume our offense would be strong this past year. We now know that this was not the case, as the offense struggled all year. The defense, however, came into its own as the season progressed and finished the season ranked 28th in the country.

So, what will we see this year? We know that we have more talent at the skill positions than we've had in years. We still have question marks on the OL though. And the defense lost its top two tacklers (LaRoy Reynolds and Steve Greer), and top sack/TFL guy (Chris Brathwaite). The defense also forced just 12 TOs all year, and just 4 INTs. We need improvements from the secondary, and especially the safeties. We need to see how the new LBs work out and we need to see if the revamped DL can generate any pressure in the offensive backfield.

Without knowing the rosters, it is difficult to make a prediction. Still, I expect the offense to be ahead of the defense, so I think the first team offense will come out on top again. As we learned last year, we shouldn't read too much into it, whatever the result may be.

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