Opponent Preview – Virginia Cavaliers

Preseason All-ACC Safety Anthony Harris helps lead the Virginia defense.

Virginia Cavaliers
2013 Record: 2-10 (0-8 ACC)


Scheme: Virginia’s offense is a pro-style system that closely resembles a West Coast offense in that it is often passes to set up the run, but mostly dinks and dunks down the field. Coordinator Steve Fairchild has a great resume: OC at Colorado State during Sonny Lubick’s heyday, OC in the NFL for the Buffalo Bills and St. Louis Rams, and four years as the head coach at Colorado State. FSU fans may remember that Lubick cut his teeth as a defensive coach at UM back in the late 1980s and his CSU teams played the same offensive style that the Hurricanes played back then: one back, three WRs. Fairchild uses a similar system, almost always utilizing a one-back formation.

Despite Fairchild’s stellar CV, the Cavs were pretty abysmal on offense last year, averaging just 368 yards and 19.8 points per game. Fairchild has the pedigree, but the Cavs need much better QB play to make his offense hum.

Quarterbacks: It is true for most (if not all) teams at all levels of football that solid QB play is needed to win. That is even truer for an offense that stresses efficient passing to set up running, but UVA quarterbacks were anything but efficient last year, completing just 55% of their passes and tossing 17 interceptions against just 9 touchdowns. Can this unit improve?

Hope rests firmly on the shoulders of sophomore Greyson Lambert, who appeared in 7 games last year and won the job in spring. Lambert (340 yards, 44%, 1 TD, 2 ints) was actually the most impressive QB on the roster in the spring of 2013, but the coaching staff became enamored with now-senior David Watford’s experience (he played a lot as a freshman and did pretty well) and athleticism. However, Watford (2202 yds, 57%, 8 TDs, 15 ints, 373 yds rushing [sacks removed], 3 TDs) was inconsistent and made too many mistakes. As the season wore on, Lambert was replacing Watford more and more frequently. This year, the job is Lambert’s and Watford provides experience off the bench. The good news for Wahoo fans is Lambert has a big arm, has shown accuracy in practice, and has good athleticism. Basically, he appears to be an upgrade in every way and even though he’ll make mistakes, his 7 games of action last year should have helped get him acclimated to college football.

Running Backs: Lambert won’t have to do things all by himself because the Cavaliers quietly have one of the better corps of runners in the conference. Senior Kevin “K.P.” Parks returns after gaining over 1,000 yards last year, which is pretty impressive considering there was basically no threat of a passing game. Parks (1,031 yds, 4.5 average, 11 TDs, 38 receptions, 329 yds, TD) has good speed but isn’t a home run threat. However, he moves the pile and has great hands. Classmate Khalek Shepherd (304 yds, 6.0 avg, TD, 23 recs, 125 yds) is perhaps a bit shiftier than Parks and provides a nice option off the bench. The coaches are trying to figure out how best to utilize sophomore Taquan Mizzell, a former five-star recruit with tons of talent. Mizzell (184 yds, 4.1 avg, TD, 29 recs, 164 yds, TD) is still learning the nuances of the position and will likely be used as a change of pace back, slot receiver, and in specific packages. He’s raw, but too talented to keep off the field.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: This unit was not particularly explosive last year and losing tight end Jake McGee and WR Tim Smith will not help. There are a few veterans returning here, but, much like at QB, hope really rests on the shoulders of some young guys to translate their athleticism into big plays.

Seniors Darius Jennings (38 recs, 340 yds, 3 TDs) and Dominique Terrell (14 recs, 107 yds) are the most experienced pass catchers on the roster, but don’t be surprised if they are pushed down the depth chart by youngsters. In fact, coming out of spring ball, Keeon Johnson and Kyle Dockins were listed as starters at wideout. Johnson (20 recs, 282 yds, TD) is a big sophomore that oozes potential and could be a star down the road. Dockins (8 recs) got his feet wet last year and provides another big, athletic option. Junior Canaan Severin, redshirt freshman Andre Levrone, and four-star true frosh Jamil Kamara will get long looks as well. At this moment, I’d guess you’d see the younger guys at the outside spots and the seniors in the slot.

The Cavaliers have continually put tight ends into the NFL, but the early defection of Jake McGee (he went to UF on the grad student rule so FSU fans will still face him) really hurt this unit. The Cavs now only have three scholarship TEs on the roster. Senior Zachary Swanson and junior Rob Burns are expected to get the majority of the reps. Swanson (19 recs, 174 yds) is a former fullback who provides nice athleticism at the spot. He actually started 9 games last year. Burns, a converted defensive end, was learning on the job last year and is primarily a blocker. Expect Evan Butts, a true freshman from Pennsylvania, to get reps here as well. An excellent athlete, Butts is only 225 pounds right now so he is mainly a receiving threat at this point.

Offensive Line: The offensive line was not particularly good last season. They weren’t terrible by any means, though. After all, UVa averaged 157 yards rushing per game with basically no passing attack and Cavalier QBs were sacked 24 times, a fairly low number. However, considering Virginia had two guys who would become NFL Draft picks (Morgan Moses and Luke Bowanko), this unit could’ve been better. Losing those two guys will hurt and this unit, much like the rest of the offense, is depending on underclassmen to step up.

The good news is that six guys who have started a game return, but that is about it for good news. Junior LT Jay Whitmire is probably the closest to a sure thing, but he missed some time in spring with injuries and needs to be 100% healthy. Senior LG Conner Davis has 20 career starts and is the most experienced of the bunch but has had injury issues throughout his career. Sophomore RT Eric Smith has a lot of potential, but is still pretty raw. He started 8 times last year and the coaches have high hopes. Junior RG Ross Burbank has 4 career starts, but he quickly fell out of favor last year so you have to wonder if he can hold down a job this season. Sophomore center Eric Tetlow is tasked with replacing Bowanko and will face a stiff battle from classmate Jackson Matteo. Senior LG Cody Wallace provides some experience off the bench, but the rest of the depth chart is littered with sophomores and freshmen who have received little, if any, playing time.


Scheme: Head coach Mike London was a defensive guy so it is no surprise that the Cavaliers have usually had solid defenses under London. Last year’s unit was not bad when you consider how terrible the Cavs were on offense. The stats for points per game or yards per game won’t wow you, but the Wahoos held opponents to just a 32% conversion rate on third down, made 28 sacks, and forced 21 turnovers. Again, not earth-shattering by any means, but not terrible for a 2 win team. Basically, the defense was not the problem and they won’t be again this year. DC Jon Tenuta’s system is aggressive by nature and it could become even more so with 9 starters back and one of the better secondary’s you’ve never heard of. Tenuta runs a 4-3 that attacks and attacks and attacks. It is very similar to the style that Michigan State utilizes.

Defensive Line: The two missing starters are here, but Virginia returns great depth and talent here. In fact, I’d argue this is the best defensive line in the ACC beside Clemson and FSU.

The depth is at defensive tackle, where the Wahoos can trot out at least six guys that can provide solid snaps. Junior David Dean (49 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 4 sacks) is the best of the bunch—quick, disruptive, and strong. He’s an all-star candidate. Sophomore Donte Wilkins (12 tackles, 2 for loss) started 4 games last year and provides girth. He might be a placeholder as a starter, though, until five-star true freshman Andrew Brown takes over. Brown enrolled early and wowed the coaches. He appears likely to live up to his billing. Further depth is provided by senior Chris Brathwaite, classmate Greg Gallop, and sophomore Andre Miles-Redmond. Brathwaite was a key contributor in 2012 but missed last year due to academics and could provide a big boost.

Defensive end has less depth, but star power in junior Eli Harold, one of the best ends in the ACC. Harold (51 tackles, 15 for loss, 8.5 sacks) is quick off the line and should be a terror. Juniors Mike Moore (16 tackles, 1.5 for loss) and Kwontie Moore will likely split time opposite Harold and provide nice size. Both are career backups, but both are also former four-star recruits whom the coaches’ think can take on the bigger role and excel. Junior Trent Corney (12 tackles, 4 for loss, 2 sacks) and redshirt frosh Jack English will help out here as well.

Linebackers: On paper, this is the weakest unit of the defense, which is saying a lot considering all three starters and five backups who logged some playing time return. This unit is not weak per se, but has less overall talent than other spots, especially in terms of backups.

The starting trio should be fine. Sophomore SLB Max Valles (23 tackles, 5.5 for loss, 4 sacks) only started four times last year, but he clearly has the most potential of the starters. Blessed with size (6’5, 240) and quickness, Valles has serious playmaking potential. Senior WLB Daquan Romero (89 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks, 4 pass breakups) is speedy and pretty good in pass coverage. Senior MLB Henry Coley (91 tackles, 10 for loss, 1 sack) has 21 career starts and is heady and reliable. Romero and Coley are steady and won’t make many mistakes, but aren’t necessarily difference-makers either.

Depth is lacking, not in term of numbers, but talent. Senior D.J. Hill and juniors Darius Lee and Demetre Brim are upperclassmen, but have been mainly special team contributors. The coaches are surely hoping that sophomores Zach Bradshaw and Mark Hall and redshirt frosh Micah Kiser can provide some quality snaps.

Secondary: Much like the defensive line, this is one of the best units in the ACC. Depth is much better at CB than safety, but regardless, UVa returns players who have combined for 112 career starts. This unit has a lot of talent.

Injuries struck at CB last year, but that should be helpful this year as the Cavs have a quartet of players who could be starters. Senior Demetrius Nicholson (20 tackles, 4 pass breakups, 1 int) was limited to 5 games last year due to injury. He has good size, experience, and quickness. Classmate DreQuan Hoskey (43 tackles, 3 for loss, 6 pass breakups, 1 int) is a big corner who makes plays. Junior Maurice Canaday (44 tackles, 2 for loss, 2 sacks, 8 pass breakups) is the biggest of the group at 6’2 and is active in run support and as a blitzer. Sophomore Tim Harris (26 tackles, 2 pass breakups) was thrown into the fray as a true freshman and held up pretty well. He has safety size at 6’2, 200 but the quickness and hips to play corner. Sophomores Divante Walker and C.J. Moore might have a hard time seeing the field beyond special teams, but they have talent. So too does redshirt frosh Kirk Garner, a four-star recruit. Long story short, the Cavs have plenty of options here.

Depth is not as good at safety, but UVa returns one of the nation’s best playmakers in senior SS Anthony Harris, a Jim Thorpe candidate. Harris (80 tackles, 3.5 for loss, 6 pass breakups, 8 ints) is the rare strong safety that is equally adept against the run or pass. Interceptions do not always mean a player is great against the pass, but Harris is a solid player regardless of stats. Senior FS Brandon Phelps (44 tackles, 3 pass breakups) is more solid than anything else and won’t make many mistakes, but won’t wow you either. True freshman Quin Blanding, a five-star recruit, will be given every chance to steal Phelps’ job. At 6’4, 210, Blanding has college-ready size and if he can learn the nuances of the defense, he could end up starting. At minimum, he’ll be the first guy off the bench. Further depth is questionable, although the coaching staff likes sophomore Wilfried Wahee, who missed last year due to a knee injury. Wahee won an award in the spring for his weight room work and will likely be the top guy behind Harris.

Special Teams: Senior Alec Vozenilek and junior Ian Frye shared the kicking duties last year, but Frye is set to go solo this season, with Vozenilek focusing strictly on punting. Frye hit on 3 of 4 FGs and all 10 PATs last year while Vozenilek averaged 41.2 yards per punt. They should be fine. The return units, though, need to spring into life after averaging just 7.1 yards per punt return and 18.6 yards per kick return. Guys like Mizzell are too talented to do so poorly. The kick coverage unit was decent, but the punt coverage unit allowed 10.1 yards per return and one touchdown and needs to tighten up.

Schedule: Many people are probably surprised Mike London is making it to a fifth year in Charlottesville and the schedule does him no favors to make it a sixth. The nonconference schedule (UCLA, Richmond, at BYU, Kent State) will probably be 2-2 at best. The ACC slate is also difficult, with road contests at Duke, GA Tech, FSU, and VA Tech. The Cavs get Louisville, Pitt, UNC, and UM at home. The trouble is really how the games are grouped. The first four: UCLA, Richmond, Louisville, at BYU. The final six: at Duke, UNC, at GA Tech, at FSU, UM, at VA Tech. Those are tough stretches.

Overall: UVa really reminds me a lot of Wake Forest, but with better overall talent. A pretty good defense squandered by a pretty terrible offense. That being said, I think the Cavs have better potential on offense, but a big question might be will Mike London and his staff still be around to reap the rewards of their surprisingly good recruiting?

The good news: Virginia has a pretty solid defense, barring injuries. They are deep at DT and CB and should have just enough depth everywhere else on defense to survive. The offense has some nice, young talent at WR and has a nice blend of experience and youth at RB. Lambert is an upgrade at QB.

The bad news: The Cavs are young across the board on offense. The offensive line is worrisome. The talent at LB is just okay. Really, though, it is the schedule. According to the Football Outsiders website, every team on UVa’s schedule except Richmond and Kent State are expected to be ranked in the top 56. For comparison, UVa is expected to finish in the 70s or 80s and USA Today has them ranked 95th. Vis a Vis, every team on the schedule but two is expected to be better than Virginia. Ouch.

Back to our original question: can London win enough games to coach the four and five-star sophomores and freshmen on this roster when they are upperclassmen? If he needs to attain bowl eligibility, I’d say no. If the administrators are willing to give him one more year if the Cavaliers win 4 or 5 games, then I’d say yes. The Cavs are salty enough on defense to probably steal a game or two at home they shouldn’t and could even knock off BYU, Duke, GA Tech, or VA Tech on the road. Still, looking at the schedule, I just don’t see more than 4 or 5 wins total. I’d almost be inclined to say give London and this staff (and he’s got a lot of coaching vets here) one more year to develop those young guys but it might be hard for the folks in Charlottesville to do that.

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