As the Virginia Cavaliers move on from their win over Richmond last Saturday and prepare to play against the Illinois Fighting Illini this coming Saturday, Head Coach Tony Elliott addressed the media yesterday and spoke on
Offensive line solid in first test
Perhaps the most important group to evaluate after week one, the offensive line managed to be essentially fine on Saturday. Elliott echoed those sentiments as he saw both encouraging play and room for improvement:
“Overall with the offensive line, I thought they protected really well for the most part. We did get Brennan [Armstrong] hit a couple times, gave up one sack, but the times that we got him hit, it was more missed assignments on the back end, running back being too fast, things of that nature.”
“I think it took them a little while to kind of get settled in in the run game, but once they had some success, they were able to establish the run game. Still got a lot of work to do. You think about it, [Derek] Devine, first start, I think [Logan] Taylor’s first start, [Ty] Furnish’s first start, so there was a bunch of first-time starts. I was hoping to get some young guys in there. But overall pleased with their effort. I think the guys up front tried hard. Technically we’ve got some things to improve, but it was good for them to get that work together, have some success, but also see tons of opportunity to improve.”
A number of guys returning from injury
Speaking of the offensive line, Elliott noted that left tackle Jonathan Leech could be set to return against Illinois to provide additional experience and stability to the line:
“[Jonathan] Leech was available last week from an emergency standpoint because he had gotten the stitches out of his hand. He could play with a cast. This week he’s back in practice, so I’m excited to finish up here and then go back and watch practice and see how he did. But talking to him coming off the field, he said he felt good. He said the cast that he was in made his hand still very functional for him. We anticipate that he’ll be ready to be in the rotation and see where his conditioning is by the end of the week to determine the breakdown.”
He also mentioned running backs Ronnie Walker and Cody Brown with Brown all set to go while Walker is still dealing with some pain:
“So [Ronnie Walker is] cleared for contact. He’s ready to go. Still wouldn’t say he’s 100 percent, but he’s at a point now where structurally he’s good to go. Now it’s just a matter of pushing through just the discomfort of the remaining healing that has to take place. So we’ll see how he does the rest of the week, but we do get Cody Brown back.
“If [Walker’s] fully ready to go, then we’ll turn him loose and try to get him some action, but if I see any kind of hesitation, especially at that position, if you’re not ready to go, you can get yourself hurt as a running back, especially as much contact as you’re involved in. We’ll play it — it’s a game-time decision on him to see if he’s ready.”
Linebacker Josh Ahern proving to be a difference maker for the UVA defense
On the defensive side of the ball, Elliott and staff were particularly impressed with Josh Ahern’s performance on Saturday after not being able to play the first half. Although UVA didn’t release a depth chart this week since Illinois aren’t, I’d expect Ahern to get the starting nod at the WILL linebacker spot.
“What I’m hoping is that [Ahern’s] able to bring that physicality that we need, and when their OL [offensive line] gets to the second level that he’s able to not let them create more space, that he’s able to meet them quicker to the line of scrimmage, and I think when you watch the game, Nick Jackson is going to find the football. James [Jackson] was close, but he was trying to figure it out, where I think Ahern is going to be a guy that’s not going to have to figure it out. He’s going to be able to get in his gap, stay in his gap and also restrict his gap and trust that his pursuit and his teammates are going to come make the tackle. I think just from an experience standpoint, he’s going to give confidence to those guys up front to do their job because they know that he’s going to fill his gap.”
Fentrell Cypress II the defensive player of the game for UVA
Another defensive standout, junior corner Fentrell Cypress II was the team’s defensive player of the week as he had three pass breakups and showed real development since last season. If Cypress can continue to play with confidence, according to Elliott, he’s got tons of potential.
“The thing with Fentrell is just confidence. He’s a lot more confident. He’s getting opportunity. I made it known that I believe he can be a really good player, to him, so I think he feels that there’s trust from the coaches that he can do what we need him to do and do it at a high level. He was the player of the game for us from the coaching staff, so we voted him the player of the game. Obviously Nick Jackson is going to get a lot of recognition for his tackles, but we felt like overall Fentrell played the best game of the guys on defense.”
“But Fentrell is, it’s just confidence and experience and understanding and relationship with new coaching staff and understanding, too, that he’s got to go, that we’re pushing him, like now you’ve got to go and you need to step into your role as a starter and play with that confidence. It was good to see him have those pass breakups because a lot of it is, too, with both Des and Rud, you’re still evaluating, and you don’t know until you get to a game. Now to see him be able to go up and play some balls in the air down the field, now gives you a little more confidence as a play caller to be able to put yourself in a situation where you can be a little bit more aggressive and take some chances or some calculated chances.”
A new challenge arrives as the ‘Hoos hit the road to play Illinois
And, of course, this week marks UVA’s first road test of the Elliott era. To prepare, the team has been forced to listen to the Illinois fight song on repeat during practice this week as Elliott and his staff are focused on limiting outside distractions and getting their guys to focus on the task at hand.
“But the biggest thing is today we prepare for crowd noise. Illinois’s fight song was playing, so the guys by the time they go to sleep tonight that’s all they’re going to hear, just so they’re prepared. You want to try and minimize as many distractions as possible, but in order to be a good team you’ve got to go win on the road. And the same formula, and it really shouldn’t matter where you play, to be honest with you, whether you’re playing in Scott Stadium, whether you’re playing in Champaign or playing in the parking lot, it doesn’t matter, it takes what it takes, but you do have some added distractions because now you’re worrying about families traveling and they want tickets and all those things. We try to get all that stuff out of the way early in the week and then really challenge them to simplify their lives so they can be prepared to be focused on Saturday.”