2013 Virginia Football Previews: The Offense

USA TODAY Sports

The Hoos completely revamped the offensive coaching staff. Gone are Bill Lazor (OC/QB) and Shawn Moore (WR), and in their place are Steve Fairchild (OC/QB), Larry Lewis (RB) and Tom O'Brien (TE). Marques Hagans has also taken over as WR coach. The QB is also new, as last year's QBs both transferred. The rest of the personnel is largely the same from last year. But is that a good thing?

Last year, the Hoos started the opener with experience all over the offense. Seven of the 11 starters had started at least once in 2011, and only LG Cody Wallace hadn't seen extensive action before 2012. QB Michael Rocco was coming off a record setting sophomore season. And Bill Lazor was in his 3rd season as the Hoos offensive coordinator.

It certainly seemed like all the pieces were there for a big year from the offense. But alas, it wasn't to be so. The Offensive Line couldn't get its act together. Rocco struggled and was replaced by Phillip Sims who also struggled. Dropped passes, penalties, injuries and an overall lack of production led to the 62nd ranked offense in the nation. Largely the same personnel had finished 46th in the nation in 2011. The 2012 team was 96th in the nation in rushing, after being 52nd a year before. The team was 37th in passing, but 82nd in passing efficiency.

Coach Lazor left to take an NFL job. QB Michael Rocco transferred to Richmond. QB Phillip Sims transferred to Winston-Salem State. RB Perry Jones graduated and is coaching for Albermarle HS. TEs Colter Phillips and Paul Freedman graduated as well. Finally, LT Oday Aboushi is now on the Jets. Yes, the Hoos lost a lot from last year's team. But considering their performance, that may not be such a bad thing.

Replacing coach Lazor is new OC Steve Fairchild. Fairchild has been an offensive coordinator before, at many different levels, from Junior College all the way to the NFL. He's also been a head coach at his alma mater, Colorado State. Fairchild is well regarded in coaching circles, and his experience shows that. I am unable to find detailed NCAA stats going back to when he was OC at Colorado State (97-00) or New Mexico (87-89), but the first chart below shows how his NFL teams performed in terms of yards. The second chart shows how the NCAA offenses he ran performed, points-wise.

Year

Team

Rush Yards (rank)

Pass Yards (rank)

Total Yards (rank)

2007

Buffalo Bills

112 (15)

164 (30)

277 (30)

2006

Buffalo Bills

97 (27)

170 (28)

267 (30)

2005

St Louis Rams

96 (22)

252 (4)

348 (9)

2004

St Louis Rams

101 (25)

266 (5)

367 (6)

2003

St Louis Rams

94 (30)

247 (3)

341 (9)

(stats courtesy espn.com)

Those Rams teams were under head coach Mike Martz, the inventor of the so-called "Greatest Show on Turf". Martz is a proponent of a pass-based offense, and they had Marc Bulger and Kurt Warner at QB. Of course, they also had Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson at RB, so maybe such a pass-heavy offense wasn't the best plan. Those teams won 12, 8 and 6 games in those 3 years. The Bills teams were QB'd by Trent Edwards and J.P. Losman, but had Willis McGahee and Marshawn Lynch at RB. Both of those teams won 7 games, which isn't bad by Buffalo Bills standards.

Year

Team

Points Per Game

National Rank

2000

Colorado State

30.2

35

1999

Colorado State

28.8

35

1998

Colorado State

28.8

38

1997

Colorado State

36.7

7

1989

New Mexico

25

47

1988

New Mexico

14

102

1987

New Mexico

19

79

(stats courtesy sports-reference.com)

To put those numbers into some context, those New Mexico teams were among the worst in the nation (winning 4 games over the 3 seasons he was there). The only player on any of those offenses who you'd possible recognize is Terrance Mathis, who played 12 years in the NFL. His CSU teams were much better, and had a handful of NFL players, including RB Cecil Sapp and QB Moses Moreno.

FWIW, when Fairchild was the head coach of CSU, his teams weren't very good, winning 7, 3, 3, and 3 games during his 4 years. Also, as a senior at CSU, in 1980, Fairchild threw for nearly 2600 yards and 15 TDs. He also threw 17 INTs.

There is a wild card here. Virginia also brought in former NCSU and BC head coach Tom O'Brien. O'Brien was Virginia's OC from 1991-1996. He was on George Welsh's coaching staff from 1982-1996. Here's a chart showing his OC career. O'Brien's teams were 195-115 and won 8 bowl games during his 16 seasons as head coach.

Year

Team

Points per game

National Rank

1991

Virginia

27.2

30

1992

Virginia

31

12

1993

Virginia

26.4

38

1994

Virginia

30.8

19

1995

Virginia

29.1

30

1996

Virginia

28.4

40

So, Fairchild has coordinated some good offenses with strong talent, and some bad offenses with no talent. He's had some run-heavy offenses and some pass-heavy offenses. It seems like the most telling thing about these numbers is that Fairchild is adaptable to the talent he has to work with. So, let's take a look at that talent, and make some educated guesses about how he'll use it.

Quarterbacks

Fall training camp began with 2 QBs fighting for the starting job. Those two are redshirt sophomore David Watford and redshirt freshman Greyson Lambert. Coach London assured fans that a starter would be named early in camp, and that the Hoos would begin the season with one QB at the helm. The rotating QB experiment is over. Hopefully. On Monday, London came through, anointing Watford as the starter. This came as no surprise to fans, because observers have pointed to Watford as the better performer through the first week of camp.

By now, most fans know the story of the two QBs. Watford played as a true freshman, but was pretty much terrible. He completed just over 40% of his passes and threw 3 TDs versus 4 INTs. He's a mobile guy, one of the fastest runners on the team, but rushed for just 42 yards on 21 attempts. Even more than the numbers show, Watford simply looked uncomfortable and unready. His decision making was poor, his reads were poor and his throws were often poor.

That, however, is what led to his mid-career redshirt. Hopefully, his time on the field will be a great help as he already has seen the speed of the college game. He spent the redshirt year working on his mechanics as well as on his reads and his game management. All accounts say that he is a different QB now. He's also shown himself to be a team leader, an important part of being a QB, especially in college.

Watford's biggest assets are his mobility and his arm strength. He's very fast, and he's a fluid runner. He also has a huge arm. He can still lack touch at times, but he can throw the ball a long ways and he can throw the deep out with no problem. Lambert, on the hand, is a pure pocket passer. While Lambert is no slouch as an athlete, he isn't going to make plays with his feet. He has a good arm, but his strengths are his accuracy and his football IQ.

With Watford as the starter, the staff will design an offense around his singular set of skills. This, of course, would not be an offense suited to Lambert's skills. That means that if Watford were forced out of the game, or if he struggled enough to warrant benching, the offense would have to be retooled for Lambert. That would make the job of Coach Fairchild and Coach O'Brien even tougher than it already is.

The David Watford offense is going to involve a heavy dose of read-option. Fairchild has spoken about using the Pistol formation, which has the QB lining up a few yards behind the line of scrimmage. The RB then lines up a few yards behind the QB. With a mobile QB, this gives Watford the ability to take a play to either direction. A read option, or a more traditional option play, could go to either side without anybody needing an extra step. The Pistol also gives Watford a better view of the defense than a shotgun formation would.

While Fairchild wants to be able to run the ball, that doesn't mean Watford won't be asked to throw. He's got such a strong arm, that the team will look to use play action to get receivers open deep. Watford can also use his legs to buy time in the backfield before making a play with his arm. Fans should expect to see play action used extensively, at least assuming the ground game is clicking. If the team can run the ball, whether via the read-option or a more traditional ground attack, it could open things up for downfield passing.

The success of the Hoos offense (and likely their season) is going to hinge on the development of David Watford. If he can turn his legs and his arm into a decent offense, the Hoos have a pretty good chance of being successful.

Running Backs

While the QB position was uncertain entering training camp, that was most decidedly not the case at RB. At least, not at the top of the depth chart. Junior Kevin Parks enters camp as the undisputed top RB option. In 2 seasons splitting time with Perry Jones (and some others), Parks has rushed for almost 1500 yards and 9 TDs. He's also averaged 4.6 yards per carry over the two years.

Parks is a smaller guy, but he's built like a horse. He's good running between the tackles, but also has the speed to outrun defenders. He also has enough moves to make people miss in the open field. Parks figures to get a majority of the carries, at least on the first 2 downs, and has a good shot to reach 1000 yards rushing. Parks is also a decent receiver out of the backfield, but on this team isn't likely to get many chances there. See the next paragraph to find out why not.

Behind Parks are two similar RBs. The first is Khalek Shepherd. Shepherd's dad was an NFL WR for a long time, and Khalek has picked up some of his dad's receiving skills. Shepherd is also a good open field runner, and broke the school record for return yards last year.

The second option is freshman Taquan ‘Smoke' Mizzell. Mizzell is the smallest of the 3 RBs, but he's also the most dynamic by a wide magin. Mizzell has impressed in training camp with his ability to make people miss and to create big plays. He simply has something that the other guys don't have. He's so good the Hoos are going to have to find ways for him to get the ball. With Parks getting most of the backfield touches, Mizzell will see some time in the slot, and will also be used as a 3rd down back and in other situations. He'll also return punts, another place he could be successful.

Freshman LaChaston Smith is also working at RB. He could potentially see action as a goalline/short yardage back. But he will most likely redshirt. He's a bigger guy than any of the other RBs, but I can't see him being more effective on short yardage than Parks.

Another factor in Parks favor is that he's worked with Watford in live action before. While the majority of the decision making for the read-option is on the QB, the RB must also be able to read the play. He also must do this while also knowing what to do when and if he gets the ball. Oftentimes, the RB gets the ball running parallel to the line, as if on a sweep. He must be able to cut quickly and get downfield. This takes some practice.

The Hoos are good and deep at the RB position. The 3 guys there have complementary skills. Parks is, far and away, the best between the tackles runner of the 3. Smoke is, by far, the most dynamic of the 3. And Shepherd has a little bit of both worlds.

Wide Receivers

If RB isn't the deepest unit on this team, then WR is. The Hoos are almost embarrassingly deep at WR. The post-spring depth chart lists 10 players at WR. All but one of those players could see time this year. The Hoos also have 2 incoming freshmen WRs who have impressed.

Like the RB position, there was really no question as to the starters. Despite the competition, two players have proven that they deserve to start. Those two are senior Tim Smith and junior Darius Jennings. Smith has proven over 4 years already that he's capable of being a #1 WR, when healthy. Health, unfortunately, has been a problem for Smith. He has already racked up 71 catches for 1202 yards and 9 TDs in his career. He's also averaged almost 17 yards per reception in his career. Smith is a true deep threat and could be poised for a big year. Assuming he can stay healthy.

Jennings, by comparison, has 68 catches for 806 yards. Notice the large disparity in yards despite similar catch numbers. Jennings has averaged just under 12 yards per reception. Some of that is due to the QB problems we've had, but some of it is due to Jennings' struggles. He's had trouble hauling in some deep balls that could've been big plays, twice last year dropping bombs that would've gone for sure TDs. Jennings is dynamic, as he showed returning kicks as a true freshman. He developed as a receiver last year, leading the receivers with 48 receptions for 568 yards and 5 TDs. But if he's going to become a real weapon at WR, he's gonna need to pick up that ypc average.

The first real competition among the WRs is for the third receiver, often used in the slot position. Last year, the position was held most often by junior Dominique Terrell. Terrell totaled 38 receptions for 475 yards (12.5 ypc). Terrell, like Jennings, is a dynamic runner with the ball in his hands, but his ypc average is alarmingly low for a guy with his speed and quickness. Terrell really showed signs of breaking out late in the season. In the final 3 games of the season, Terrell had 16 receptions for 233 yards for almost 15 ypc. He was the team's leading receiver in both the UNC and Miami games.

The other main option the Hoos have in the slot is junior E.J. Scott. Scott had 29 receptions for 390 yards and 3 TDs last year, 13.4 ypc average. That average is much better, and comes in limited action because Terrell was the primary slot option. Scott seemed to struggle more than anybody else with the QB rotation. He was much more effective with Sims at QB. More than likely, that is due to spending more time in practice with Sims, who entered the season as the #2 QB.

Behind Scott are a plethora of talented WRs. Junior Miles Gooch, sophomores Canaan Severin and Adrian Gamble, redshirt freshmen Kyle Dockins and Jamall Brown and true freshmen Andre Levrone and Keeon Johnson. Senior Pablo Alvarez is also on the depth chart at WR, having moved from S. But he's had health problems throughout his career, and that doesn't look to be changing any time soon, so he's not really in the picture. Gamble, in particular has impressed people and looks like a guy who is can be big, physical presence that the other guys aren't capable of.

Watford's strength is downfield passing. He's still not a great touch passer. He may struggle with a quick slant, but he can throw a 50 yard bomb. Jennings showed a propensity for getting open on those downfield routes, but couldn't haul them in. That must change. Smith, on the other hand, has shown that he can get downfield and make the grab. Many of the other receivers, including Terrell and Scott aren't really downfield threats. They are going to catch quick passes and try to make something after the catch. Gamble is another guy who could be a downfield threat.

Tight Ends

This is yet another position where the Hoos are deep, and yet there was no real question about the depth chart. Junior Jake McGee had a big year last year, breaking out with 28 receptions for 374 yards and 5 TDs. Among those 28 catches were a number of one-handed grabs and other highlight reel plays. He's proven to be a big target who can go up and get a ball, or fight off a DB for a jump ball. He's been named a pre-season Mackey Award nominee. McGee has also worked hard to put on muscle in order to be more useful in the running game as well as in pass blocking.

Behind McGee are Zach Swanson and coverted DE Rob Burns. Swanson moves back to TE after spending last year at FB. Swanson is a better blocker than McGee, and at 6'6" 255 is a big target. He's not nearly the receiver that McGee is, he just doesn't have the speed or the hands. But he's an adept blocker and can be dangerous as a possession guy, or an underneath option. Burns moved over to TE during the spring, and impressed there. He caught a TD in the spring game, and has looked dangerous during fall camp. He's 6'7", so he's even bigger than his position-mates. But he's still raw. Burns figures to see the field, because the Hoos would like to use 2 tight end sets with some regularity. But he may not get many catches because of the talent in front of him.

If the OL struggles to block, the TEs could be forced into a role of extra blockers, which would be a shame since none of them are great blockers. Against certain defensive alignments, a guy like McGee could be split out wide to provide a mismatch against a smaller DB. McGee is also a mismatch against most LBs because of his speed and route running ability. Fairchild would be wise to use the TEs to his advantage.

Offensive Line
We've covered all the skill position players, which leaves us with the OL. As you've no doubt noticed, almost all of the skill position guys were around last year. And yet last year's offense struggled to produce points consistently. The main culprit last year was the OL. Part of why Coach O'Brien was brought in was to help alleviate that problem. O'Brien has a lot of experience as an OL coach, and while he's officially the TE coach, he'll be involved with the OL coaching as well.

The unit lost just one player from last year's starting 5. That, of course, was Oday Aboushi who is now with the New York Jets. Aboushi was the best performer on the line last year, so he's a big loss. It looks like projected RG Sean Cascarano is also gone, having suffered a hip injury that may ultimately end his career.

So that means 3 returning starters, right? Uh, no, not really. Not one of last year's starters will be returning to the same position. Last year's starting RT, Morgan Moses moves over to LT, replacing Aboushi. Moses has all the talent in the world and is capable of being a dominant LT. But he has to keep his weight in check and work on shutting down quicker DEs. Moses is so big that he can completely engulf a DE in the ground game, but he sometimes struggles to get back when pass blocking, and sometimes overcompensates, letting people get underneath him. If Moses is able to handle the LT position without much (or any) helps, it will really help the others. Next to Moses, at LG, will be Luke Bowanko. Bowanko was the starting C last year, and wasn't great. It wasn't really his natural position. He was able to handle the line calls and the snaps, but he had problems doing both of those while still being a good run blocker. As a result, the Hoos OL was susceptible right in the center. The quickest way to blow up an offensive play is pressure up the middle. Bowanko's move to LG will benefit him and, hopefully, the OL as a whole.

Replacing Bowanko at C is redshirt freshman walk-on Jackson Matteo. (Yeah, you read that right.) Matteo had scholarship offers, and had actually verballed to Temple. But he decided to walk-on at Virginia, and that decision has paid dividends already, for both player and team. Matteo will most likely earn a scholarship by the time the season begins (if he hasn't already...it hasn't been announced yet.) Matteo probably hasn't nailed down the starting job yet, sophomore Ross Burbank is still fighting, but the smart money is on Matteo. Regardless of who wins the starting job, the line calls are still going to be made by Bowanko. This is a job that is usually handled by the center, but Bowanko has the experience and the younger guys can focus on blocking their men and snapping the ball. Hopefully the combination of moving Bowanko over and getting a true center in there will improve the team at 2 positions. Burbank saw time at both C and RG last year. Another option at OC is true freshman Eric Tetlow. It seems like both Matteo and Burbank would have to struggle in order for Tetlow to see the field, but it isn't outside the realm of possibilities.

The right side of the line isn't near as experienced as the left side, especially with the loss of Cascarano. The leading candidate at RG right now is junior Conner Davis. Davis took over the starting LG position after the first game last year and held the job for the rest of the season. He was unsteady for much of the season, in part due to some injuries he dealt with. He's healthy this year and looks to be playing well in camp. And at LT is sophomore Jay Whitmire. Whitmire certainly looks the part, at 6'6" and 295 pounds. He won a spring competition for the RT job over Cascarano, but that was more about getting the best 5 OLs on the field than it was about Whitmire beating out Cascarano. Regardless, with Cascarano out, Whitmire is the unquestioned RT. He's certainly capable of handling the position, but he'll most likely need help against the better DEs on the schedule.

The second unit OL is made up almost entirely of underclassmen. From left to right, the backups are redshirt freshman Michael Mooney, RSFr Ryan Doull, Burbank, RSFr Sean Karl, and Cody Wallace. Wallace has fallen out of favor somewhat and is in danger of being passed on the depth chart. If Whitmire struggles or is forced to miss time, we could see true freshman Eric Smith before Wallace. George Adeosunn could find himself on the depth chart at OG before the season is out.

The most important factor on the OL this year is Bowanko's move to the left side. The combination of Bowanko and Moses on the left side could be devastating. In short yardage situations, look for the Hoos to look that direction most often. We may even see an unbalanced line, with Whitmire moving to Moses's outside shoulder to help sure up that side even more. That would be a very strong formation.

Beyond those two, the OL is a lot of question marks. If they can't perform better than last year's unit, the OL isn't likely to be any better. Fairchild's pro-style offense is going to rely a lot on the OLs winning individual battles. There isn't anything crazy going on with line splits (and the Hoos tried a few years back on the tail end of the Al Groh years). There will certainly be double-teams, depending on the matchups. But a lot of the time, the linemen are going to be asked to simply find their man, and push him back. Linemen generally like that type of offense.

Conclusion

As a quick recap, last year's offense was bad. Mostly because the OL couldn't block and the QBs couldn't throw. We have a new QB, a new Offensive Coordinator, a new OL guru, and a few new linemen. Does that all add up to an improved offense? Nobody really knows.

Watford certainly has the physical ability to handle the job. As NFL teams have learned, the read-option can be a very powerful weapon when run correctly. And the Hoos have a lot of talent at the skill positions. If the OL can handle its duties, and Watford is comfortable with the offense, they could be pretty good. However, if the OL continues to struggle, and the read-option becomes our only weapon, the offense could be pretty bad.

Like the defense, almost this entire unit returns next year. Only Morgan Moses, Luke Bowanko and Tim Smith are seniors. Another year of experience for guys like Watford, Jennings and Parks could mean that next year is a big year for the Virginia offense.

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