Let's get one thing straight. This is not going to be an easy year for coach Mike London and the Virginia Cavaliers. A tough non-conference schedule that includes early tests against BYU and the 3rd-ranked Oregon Ducks almost guarantees that the season gets off to a bumpy start. With a first-time starting quarterback in David Watford leading the offense, there will almost certainly be growing pains. Virginia very well could be fighting to stay out of the basement of the ACC Coastal Division at the year's end.
And yet, there is still a glimmer of hope. A relatively young Cavaliers team offers an abundance of untapped talent that could potentially break out in the 2013 season. Electric players like WR Darius Jennings and freshman RB Smoke Mizzell could add some juice to the offense if they can produce big numbers. Cornerback Maurice Canady is another player that could provide a spark to the team on the defensive side of the ball. However, one player in particular has stood out all spring and summer and could really emerge as a top playmaker for a team that desperately needs a boost.
Sophomore defensive end Eli Harold came to Virginia as a highly-touted prospect out of high school. An ESPNU Top 150 recruit, the 6'4'' Harold was the latest product of the football hotbed that is the 757 area of Virginia that has produced a number of standout Hoos, both past and present. While Harold played in all 12 games last season, his numbers weren't anything to write home about. A modest 36 tackles and just 2 sacks left many UVA fans wanting more from the talented Harold. And now, there is reason to believe that Harold could be a key to a formidable pass rush this season.
First and foremost, Harold has worked to become a more physical presence on the field. Coming out of high school as a lanky lineman, Harold has bulked up significantly to around 240 pounds. The added muscle will certainly help him in the trenches against the finest tackles the ACC has to offer. Combining Harold's naturally-gifted speed with a dose of power could be a lethal combination for the sophomore.
Additionally, a change in coaching might serve Harold very well. Out goes former D-coordinator Jim Reid and in comes Jon Tenuta to helm the defense. Harold has been outspoken as a huge proponent of Tenuta's unpredictable blitzing scheme. More pass rushers on a single play leaves Harold one-on-one with opposing offensive linemen, a matchup that UVA is more than okay with. Coupled with senior Brent Urban on the inside, Harold and the Virginia pass rush could be the key to the team's success this season.
Analysts familiar with the UVA often cite the cornerbacks as the strength of the defense and perhaps the team. Juniors Demetrious Nicholson and DreQuan Hoskey and sophomore Maurice Canady are expected to lock down opposing receivers any given Saturday. This leaves a quarterback with smaller windows to throw to, and indeciveness in the pocket only builds. This leaves more time for young guns like Harold to chip away and pile up sacks, pressures, and tackles for losses. Harold's lightning speed on the edge comes into play when chasing down the likes of a Tajh Boyd from Clemson or Marcus Mariota from Oregon, two talented opposing QBs on the Hoos' schedule. It is not unthinkable for a guy like Harold to rack up double digit sacks this season.
The individual efforts of Virginia's stars could very well determine whether this team has a fate similar to last season or returns to the form of the 2011 team that clinched its only bowl berth under Mike London. Eli Harold is the one name that may not be familiar to those outside of Charlottesville, but could very well be a force to be reckoned with throughout the season. By adding much-needed weight during the offseason and switching to a new defensive scheme under defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, Harold could be primed for a huge season for the Hoos, the kind of breakout year and game-changing impact that fans have hoped for.
What other players on the UVA roster lurk as possible breakout candidates? Don't hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments below.