Spring Game: Cavs are Pass Happy

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Wali Lundy carried the flag but saw little action after turning his ankle early on.

With a thin roster depleted by injuries, the Virginia football team did not conduct a full spring game Saturday. Instead, the offense ran a series of possessions starting from the opponent’s 49-yard line. In 11 drives, the offense scored four touchdowns, two field goals, had one pass intercepted, punted three times and turned the ball over on downs once.

The aerial attack was on display as the Cavaliers passed 48 times and ran the ball just 20 times. This was partially dictated by personnel, with only two scholarship tailbacks healthy, but players said it was an emphasis that could last into the fall. With one tight end sidelined (Tom Santi ) and another limited (Jonathan Stupar ), the Cavs consistently ran three- and four-receiver sets.

“We definitely weren’t in our traditional 21, 22 and 12 personnel,” sophomore quarterback Kevin McCabe said. “We did more vertical stuff and more four-wides. It was nice to stretch the defense out, and we have the personnel to do it. … Last year, we weren’t too conservative but we were a little too dink-dank. We were just kind of dinking the ball all over the place and not working the ball to the receivers.”

Knowledge of this perhaps allowed the defense to focus more on the passing game, as the quarterbacks were sacked eight times. Still, they combined to hit 25 of 39 passes for 286 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Theirrien Davis led all receivers with four catches for 66 yards and a touchdown. Emmanuel Byers also grabbed four balls for 49 yards, Ron Morton had three catches for 36 yards, Deyon Williams two catches for 37 yards and Fontel Mines two receptions for 18 yards and a touchdown. (Note: All stats are unofficial. UVa did not compile or distribute official stats.)

There was no holding Chris Long , who had 3.5 sacks.

“The receivers and the quarterbacks all showed nicely today,” coach Al Groh said. “We got the ball up the field well, especially against some tight coverage. The quarterbacks put it in good spots and the receivers stepped up and made plays. If you’re going to be a receiver, you’re not going to be open all the time. You have to be able to go and catch the ball in tight quarters and in tight circumstances. We had pretty tight coverage on some plays, so that ought to be a confidence builder for both the throwers and catchers.”

Not one pass was a clear drop and receivers hung onto several balls after big hits, including Morton, who sustained a huge blow from safety Nate Lyles on a 19-throw from senior quarterback Marques Hagans.

Still, the biggest story of the day was the play of sophomore defensive end Chris Long , who was absolutely dominant on the defensive line. Long and Jon Copper combined for a sack of Hagans on the scrimmage’s first play, but Long’s playmaking ability on the final series is what was most memorable. Playing right end, Long had his way with tackle Zak Stair , beating him around the corner to get a clear path to McCabe. Long went for the strip, missed, and McCabe was able to elude him.

“I’m going to think about that one for a long time,” Long said. “I was going for the ball, and Kevin’s my friend – that’s all I’m going to say. That’s going to bother me.”

Long got his revenge on the next play, as he used a swim move to get by Stair and sack McCabe. He finished with a team-high 5.5 tackles and 3.5 sacks for the day as well as two quarterback hurries. Consistently in the backfield, Long also showcased his relentless motor and closing speed when chasing down quarterback Christian Olsen from behind. Long is now at 272 pounds, nearly 20 pounds more than his playing weight after he had mono in the fall.

Chris Long and Allen Billyk were all over the field,” McCabe said. “They’re pretty hard to block. You drop back and think you’re all based up in protection and you see 91 right in your face. He’s an animal. I think his father’s a half-decent football player too.”

Cedric Peerman had a good day running and receiving.

Another impressive performer was freshman tailback Cedric Peerman , who finished with seven carries for 37 yards and four catches for 42 yards. Peerman scored twice, including the most exciting touchdown of the day on a 28-yard screen pass from McCabe. Peerman caught the ball on the right side and linebacker Devonta Brown took an angle to make an open-field tackle. Peerman added an extra gear to fly by him and race down the sideline to paydirt.

Receiving is “something I’m starting to get used to,” he said. “I really like running routes out of the backfield and getting one-on-one with the linebackers. [This spring] was a great opportunity and I wish [Michael Johnson] could have been there, but I took advantage of a situation.”

It was the first time Virginia fans had seen Peerman in action and the crowd of 6,421 was the largest he says he’s ever played in front of. He received more carries because Wali Lundy was sidelined during the second series. Lundy (3 carries, 17 yards; 1 rec., 8 yards) twisted his ankle a little bit when Long threw him for a 2-yard loss. Lundy received attention on the sideline but said he was fine after the game and could have returned.

Notes

  • Hagans led the Cavaliers to touchdowns on both drives that he played. He finished 6 of 11 for 80 yards and one touchdown, a four-yard slant thrown up high to junior receiver Fontel Mines . Hagans said he expected to be limited but was unsure going in how much time he would be playing.
  • McCabe was the second quarterback out and went 7 of 12 for 94 yards and a touchdown, tough he was sacked four times. He also produced the best throw of the day on the offense’s final possession, lofting a ball just over the outstretched hands of Clint Sintim and hitting Emmanuel Byars in stride on a seam for an 18-yard gain.
  • Olsen was 7 of 10 for 83 yards and a touchdown, though he was sacked three times and fumbled as well. Freshmen Scott Deke was 4 of 6 for 29 yards, though a beautiful 38-yard pass was called back for holding. On the play, Deke’s first, he got Williams on single coverage with Tony Franklin down the left sideline and threw the ball up. Williams sidestepped Franklin and made a diving grab.
  • Another young guy making waves was outside linebacker Clint Sintim , who played with the first-team defense and recorded two sacks. He was excited about his role as a pass-rusher and forced a number of plays across the field.

    “A lot of times, I’m just going,” he said of his role. “I guess they want me back there and I’m trying to do my best with speed and power. One time, the call was for the other guy to rush, but, for some reason, I wasn’t hearing it right so I went. Luckily, I made the play in the backfield.”

    His counterpart, Jermaine Dias , had four tackles, tying him with safety Jamaal Jackson for second-highest total.

  • The lone turnover came when a throw by Deke found junior cornerback Tony Franklin’s hands. A scrambling Olsen also fumbled the ball on a fourth-and-10 play after getting hit by Marvin Richardson . It was never apparent who recovered the fumble because it was short of the first-down marker anyway.
  • Senior right tackle Brad Butler and freshman inside linebacker Jon Copper won the Rock Weir awards as the most improved players during spring practice. Copper, playing with the first team since Ahmad Brooks , Kai Parham and Bryan White were all sidelined, recorded 2.5 tackles, including half a sack.

    “It’s a very significant thing … if your best players are among your most improved players,” Groh said. “We just pick one [on each side of the ball] but we discuss a lot of them in our staff meeting and as many veteran guys were talked about as young guys. For example, [D’Brickashaw] Ferguson had a terrific spring. He can do things now that he wasn’t able to do before. The same thing with Brad. … Three of the most improved players on the team were Butler, Ferguson and Lundy, and they’re three of the best players on the team. … Jon Copper just showed a tremendous worker’s mentality and determination right from the start.”

  • Hagans, Lundy, Franklin and Brennan Schmidt were named team captains.
  • Sophomore Chris Gould punted three times, all on shortened fields. His first two kicks, from the 44 and the 36, sailed into the end zone. His third kick from the 46 was fair-caught by Byers at the 12.
  • With Connor Hughes sidelined, three kickers shared the duties. Kurt Smith made his only PAT, Noah Greenbaum made both PATs he attempted and also hit a 19-yard field goal. Walk-on Stephen Eaton missed an extra point but made a 27-yard field goal.
  • Three walk-ons also saw some time at the end of practice. Tailback Brian Lescanec carried five times for 24 yards, former soccer goalie Ryan Best ran twice for 11 yards and sophomore Josh Zidenberg caught three balls out of the backfield for 21 yards.
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