Short of a couple of highlight reels, there wasn't much coverage of Virginia's spring practice sessions. This made it difficult to follow, especially since the press conferences didn't really say much either. In past years, there was more coverage from the various UVA-themed news sources, blogs and message boards. This year, simply put, there were better things to focus on. The spring football game wasn't even televised for the first time in several years.
Because of the above, it seemed logical to wait for a post-spring depth chart was released before making any judgments. Well, the depth chart depth chart was released yesterday, and there are certainly some judgments to be made.
Obviously, the first thing that stands out is that Greyson Lambert is the #1 QB. This may come as a surprise to some fans, but the only thing truly surprising is that it was announced this early. Most of us suspected that the coaching staff would wait until August before making that announcement. It was clear during the spring game (at least from the highlights and game reports) that Lambert was the top QB. He took most of the snaps with the first team offense and he put up the best numbers. Of course, that was the case last year as well, and we all know what happened. The David Watford experiment happened. And failed. Miserably. Perhaps as miserably as any QB has failed in the history of football. (Is that harsh? I don't know. Watford was, by some measures, the worst QB in DI last year and this was with a 1000 yard rusher in the backfield, a likely first round draft pick at LT, a TE with NFL-level talent and some very highly touted WRs. I suspect we are going to look back at 2013 in awe at just how bad Watford actually was.)
The single most shocking thing on this depth chart is that Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell are not starters. They are listed as the backups at the ‘W' spot. (While we're on the topic, what the hell is the ‘W' spot? Clearly, this is what most football teams call the ‘Y' or ‘slot' receiver. I've never seen it refered to as ‘W'. But I digress.) We've been told that the offense is likely to show a lot of 3 WR sets, and this seems even more likely with the departure of Jake McGee. So Jennings, Terrell and supposed starter Miles Gooch will likely get plenty of reps, but they still find themselves outside of the starting 11. Probably not how they saw their senior years when they signed the Hoos in 2011.
What does this mean? Does it mean that the coaching staff is finally tiring of Darius Jennings' frustrating inability to catch the ball? Does it mean that Dominique Terrell still hasn't learned how to consistently get open? Maybe, at least a little bit. But what it really means is that the talent level ahead of them has gotten better. And, it means that having a 6'3" 220 pound WR (such as Keeon Johnson) is better than having a 5'11" 175 pound WR (such as Jennings). In this age of football, with big CBs and teams playing using press coverage to disrupt an offense's timing, you need bigger WRs who can get off the line consistently. Jennings and Terrell are much better suited to the slot. It also means that Gooch will likely be back next season, something that seemed a longshot at the end of last season. After all, 5th year WRs with 3 career catches don't always get invited back to a team facing a scholarship crunch. I still think he may not be back.
The OL depth chart is the other surprise. We go into next season with just 2 players returning to their previous spots. And neither of them began last season in those spots. Connor Davis has been in and out of both OG spots over the past 2 years, mostly due to injury. He and Cody Wallace will likely both see time at LG. Eric Smith finished the season as a true freshman starting RT. That experience will likely be a big boost to him this year. It is somewhat disappointing that some of the older players, such as Michael Mooney, Sean Karl and Ryan Doull (all redshirt sophomores) weren't able to hold off the true sophomores at both RT and OC. And it is further disappointing that Ross Burbank couldn't hold on to an OC spot that was seen as his to lose a year ago. There is potential on this OL, but it could be a disaster yet again.
There are really no surprises on the defense. There is a ton of talent there. We all know how aggressive Jon Tenuta is defensively, and there were times last year when he went overboard. Especially when guys like Nicholson and Brent Urban were injured, and there wasn't enough talent to run the schemes he wanted to run. There are times to be aggressive, and there are times to hold the reigns. Tenuta seemed unwilling to change, and it cost him at times.
This year, he shouldn't have that problem. There is talent all over this defense, and enough depth that he shouldn't have to hold back at all. When you see a guy like Chris Brathwaite 4th on the chart at DT, you realize just how deep this defense is. Brathwaite would've been a starter last year had he been eligible. He may not remain 4th in the fall, but he almost definitely won't be starting. Not with Andrew Brown, David Dean and Donte Wilkins ahead of him. With Kwontie Moore's move to DE, there is now a ton of depth there as well. The DL was dominant during the spring game for the second year in a row. They lost a very good DT in Brent Urban, but the rest of that depth chart has gained a year. Add in the return of Brathwaite and the arrival of Brown and this DL could be scary good.
During spring practice, we heard on several occasions how well the underclassmen CBs were playing, and how they may have passed Demetrious Nicholson on the depth chart. But there is ‘Tra', on top of the depth chart. On paper, the Hoos had a very good secondary last year, at least until Nicholson got hurt. But they gave up a lot of passing yards. This secondary could be scary good next year once Brandon Phelps is replaced in the starting lineup by newcomer Quin Blanding. Anthony Harris led the county in interceptions last year, plus the Hoos have an amazing amount of depth at the CB position.
The LBs are going to be the weak link of this defense. And I say that less as a knock on them than as a compliment to the rest of the defense. We've seen what Max Valles can do (4 sacks, 5.5 TFLs in limited action), and we all know how good Daquan Romero and Henry Coley can be. There isn't nearly the depth behind those guys. Also, Valles hasn't yet proved that he can be an every down LB. At this point, he's just a pass rush specialist.
The specialists haven't changed, although we haven't been given a depth chart for return men. It's likely that Jennings and Khalek Shepherd will return to their KR roles and Terrell will be given the first crack at PR. But there will be plenty of guys behind them, including Taquan Mizzell and Jamil Kamara.
All told, it seems to have been a productive spring. We learned a lot about some of the younger players, many of whom are making their first appearances on the 2-deep. Combine that with a lot more seniors than were around last year, and the team has potential. The pressure is on the coaching staff to turn that potential into wins, or at least into improved play. With the number of highly touted players this team is going to have, anything less than a bowl game is going to result in the end of the Mike London era.