Defense Highlights Spring Game

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Marc Verica piloted the first-team offense Saturday.

From the perspective of a Virginia fan, the best part of the Spring Game is that there’s always a positive way to look at the outcome. Such was the case on Saturday at Scott Stadium, as the first-team offense was bottled up by the first-team defense for much of the controlled scrimmage segment of the Spring Football Festival. The orange team, consisting of the first-team defense and reserve offense, blew out the blue team, consisting of the first-team offense and second-team defense by a score of 30-3.

In the controlled scrimmage, Virginia coach Mike London spotted the ball 97, 70, 50, and 30 yards from the end zone, and the Hoos ran 15-play segments beginning with that spot. In the fifth segment, the ball was placed at the 12-yard line, and each offense was given four plays to score. Finally, each side participated in a beat-the-clock scenario, driving from its own 40-yard line with 55 seconds on the clock.

The lone field goal from the first-team offense came on a drive from midfield, as QB Marc Verica orchestrated a 43-yard drive leading to a 24-yard field goal by Chris Hinkebein . When asked if the first-team defense’s upper hand was due to a strong defense or a struggling offense, London said, “probably a little bit of both.”

“We’ve been going against each other in practice, and there’s been times where the offense has moved the ball on the defense, ones versus ones,” London said. “Today, the defense I thought did a great job putting pressure on Marc [Verica], causing some turnovers, some sacks.”

“To this point with where we are now, I’m very pleased about the defense. I think we’ve got a chance to be pretty decent on defense,” he said. “We’ve got some guys that can rush the passer. You’ve got to be fearless to play the corner position, and I think between Ras-I [Dowling], Chase Minnifield , Mike Parker, Devin Wallace , they don’t mind being out there on an island sometimes. If you can get a four-man rush and play with a four-deep, sometimes three-deep secondary with a down safety like Rodney McLeod , you have a chance.”

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the first-team offense’s performance was two interceptions from Verica, whose good moments have been marred by turnovers throughout his career. The first pick came off a tip by defensive end Jeremiah Mathis at the line of scrimmage, and the ball landed in the arms of fellow DE Cam Johnson, who broke two tackles before reaching the end zone.

It appeared that London blew the play dead after Johnson had gained roughly 20 yards on the return, but six points flashed on the scoreboard, and the score stood – even though there was no attempted extra point.

Cam Johnson snagged an interception and returned it for a score.

“It just laid in the air, and I caught it,” Johnson said, “and I just started taking it to the crib.”

The other turnover came on an overthrown pass by Verica deep in his own territory, which was intercepted by McLeod at midfield. The senior completed 8 of 23 passes for 83 yards to go along with the two interceptions and one “sack,” meaning he was tagged by a defensive player and the referees blew the play dead.

“The offense is such that, when you throw, you throw to spots. It’s timing routes, which goes back to the precision of the routes from the wide receiver,” London said. “That’s just something again that we’ve just got to keep harping on, keep emphasizing, the different routes. And then, you do that versus the different coverages, whether it’s man or zone. … I think Marc will get better. Ross Metheny and Michael Strauss had their opportunities today and there are four others coming in so it will be interesting to see how all this shakes out.”

“I haven’t thrown any interceptions this spring at all,” Verica said. “I’ve thrown none in team periods. It just happens that today I threw two. But that’s all right. We’ve really done a great job this spring. Although it wasn’t that great today, I’m not worried about it. We’ve really had a great spring this year.”

The second-team offense, quarterbacked by Metheny and Strauss, had brighter moments against the second-team defense. The longest completion of the day came from Metheny in the final two-minute drill segment, and was the biggest of the day for either offense. On 4th & 7 from the offense’s own 43 yard-line, Metheny delivered a 20-yard ball to wide receiver Ray Keys on the right sideline. Keys planted with his right foot, made a cut inside to elude cornerback Mike Parker, and beat everyone else 34 yards to the end zone for the last play of the day.

The previous play, Metheny had thrown a deep ball to Keys crossing over the middle, but the ball had gone right through his hands. Metheny went right back to the junior wide receiver – who does not have a reception in his college career – and Keys delivered.

“I think you have to do that, because it’s so easy when you miss a pass to not go back to that guy, and you don’t build any confidence in the way he’s playing,” London said. “If you can just go back to him with another short throw, a high-percentage throw, he catches it, then he’s got his mojo back, or whatever it may be.”

“I was glad that I had the faith in my quarterback to come right back to me again,” Keys said. “You’ve just really got to be able to hold yourself together and be composed, and I guess that’s just the essence of the game, being able to come back on the next play.”

Ras-I Dowling, shown breaking up this long pass to Tim Smith , helped the defense have a strong day.

That was the second of two touchdown drives for Metheny, who also led a 55-yard drive capped off with a 6-yard TD run by running back Keith Payne . Michael Strauss also threw a touchdown pass, connecting with tight end Kyle McCartin over the middle for a 25-yard score. For the afternoon, Metheny completed 6 of 10 passes for 140 yards, Strauss 3 of 4 for 39 yards.

However, the orange team offense certainly had its struggles. Both Metheny and Strauss were sacked twice, and the reserve offense drew the most flags of any unit. On one Metheny-led drive, there was just one play in the first four snaps, as the offense was charged with a hold, an illegal motion, and an illegal substitution, while the defense also added an offside penalty. In addition, both quarterbacks had issued with the play clock; during Strauss’ touchdown drive, the offense was flagged for a delay of game.

“The younger quarterbacks, on two occasions, let the 40-second clock go out – the moment was just too big for them,” London said. “Big stadium, people yelling, a lot of things going on, and they’re worried about getting plays from the sideline, and not looking at what’s going on as far as the time is concerned.”

In the running game, Payne and Perry Jones had efficient outings; Jones netted 24 yards on four carries, Payne 29 yards on six carries. First-team tailback Torrey Mack couldn’t get anything going, as he did not cross the line of scrimmage on six carries. Perhaps the most promising play from the backfield came from fullback Terence Fells-Danzer , who caught a screen pass on 3rd-and-19, turned upfield, and motored for 26 yards to pick up the first down.

London continues to laud the versatility of his backs. When asked whether he was confident that he could win with his running backs, London said, “without a doubt.”

“You can see the different kind of backs that we have,” London said. “Keith Payne , big back, downhill. Torrey Mack can catch, has probably got some of the best hands coming out of the backfield. Perry Jones , kind of a scatter bug type of guy. So, I like what I see there.”

Hampering the running game for much of the scrimmage was a lack of holes created by the offensive line, particularly for Mack going against the first-team defense. Though the O-Line clearly has work to do, London again suggested that part of that had to do with the defense being in a more advanced stage.

“Those guys that they’re blocking against are pretty good,” London said. “We need to come off the ball, drive, knock people back – I know we can do that. We also just need to develop a toughness and an attitude about doing that. That had been developing towards the latter couple practices here, and today, I just think defensively the guys rose to the occasion, and just kind of put it to them there a little bit.”

London was most disappointed by the kicking game, both in the controlled scrimmage and in the scripted special teams segment. Kickers Robert Randolph, Chris Hinkebein , and Drew Jarrett combined to convert on 2 of 6 field goal attempts during the scrimmage, including a Randolph miss from 29 yards and a blocked field goal by Ras-I Dowling on a 23-yard try from Hinkebein. The kickers also missed several chip shots during the special teams session, which also included one dropped snap with Jimmy Howell holding.

“If it’s not the kicker, then the mechanics of the snapper putting the ball where it needs to be, or the holder placing the ball down so the kicker can make his kick,” London said. “I’ve got to go back and look at that and make sure we get that squared away, and see what element broke down.”

To be sure, the Cavaliers have a long way to go in order to be a competitive team in 2010. London recognized that fact; however, with one practice to go in the spring season, he indicated that the product on the field Saturday was much improved from the start of spring ball March 15.

“We made such an improvement from where we were from the first practice to this practice,” London said. “At the beginning of this process, we had to kind of start from scratch.”

Notes

  • Although London said that wide receiver Javaris Brown would be out for the duration of spring practice due to a violation of team rules in a teleconference Tuesday, both Brown and defensive end Tory Allen -Ford dressed and participated in drills on Saturday, though they did not participate in the special teams or scrimmage sessions. (See the quote from London below.)
  • Wide receiver Bobby Smith had shown bright moments in spring practice, and showed a few more on Saturday. Smith caught a 20-yard ball from Metheny to pick up a first down on third-and-long. On the same drive, Smith caught a swing pass and stiff-armed his defender to the ground as he picked up eight yards.
  • Quintin Hunter , now playing wide receiver after initially trying out at quarterback, made two positive plays. He first drew a pass interference on a deep pass from Metheny, with LoVante Battle in coverage. On the same drive, Hunter hauled in a 27-yard completion on the sideline, which set up Payne’s touchdown run.
  • Tim Smith had two receptions for 15 yards and Kris Burd had three catches for 30 yards, joining Bobby Smith as the only Cavaliers with multiple catches. Verica looked deep to the speedy Tim Smith twice, but failed to connect on either occasion.
  • Two of the five sacks in the scrimmage came from defensive tackle Justin Renfrow . The others came from Bill Schautz , Mathis, and Zane Parr .
  • Defensive back Corey Lillard led the team in tackles (6), followed by defensive end Will Hill (4), outside linebacker Jared Detrick (4), and middle linebacker Connor McCartin (4).
  • Spring game attendees included former Cavaliers Darryl Blackstock, Chris Long , Clint Sintim , Brad Butler, Pete Allen, Jameel Sewell , Vic Hall, Aaron Clark , Nate Collins , Will Barker , and many others. Blackstock, Long, Sintim, Butler, and Allen participated in a question-and-answer session with the crowd hosted by Voice of the Cavaliers Dave Koehn.
  • There were a number of Virginia football prospects and signees in attendance, including incoming freshman offensive lineman Morgan Moses.
  • Perhaps the most surprising face in the crowd was that of North Carolina basketball player Ed Davis .
  • London said that more than 240 people put themselves on the bone marrow registry for the “Get in the Game. Save A Life” program, a bone marrow drive hosted by the Cavalier football team on Thursday.

Worth Quoting

“Javaris [Brown] and Tory [Allen-Ford] had not been with the team because of a violation of my team rules. Recently, I was satisfied that some of the issues that they were dealing with had been remedied, so I allowed them to dress out today to go through some individual [drills]. Of course, they’re not ready to go in the game, but they will participate in the last practice, so [wide receivers coach Shawn Moore] will get a chance to assess Javaris as he stacks up against the rest of the receivers, and the same thing with [defensive line coach Jeff Hanson] to assess Tory Allen -Ford, his abilities. Hopefully, it’s a lesson learned from these guys that you do the right thing. They’re back on the team. We’ll keep going from there.” – Mike London on Javaris Brown and Tory Allen -Ford rejoining the team.

“Now the guys are going to start getting towards the latter part of their exams, where they have papers, and labs, and research projects to do, and what this will do, it will allow them to spend more time on that. I got here, there were several of the guys who were in need of academic boosting, and we are trying to implement a plan here. At the end of this semester, I want to look at and make sure that those guys that might have been on warning, that we’ve eliminated 2/3 of that list. And so I’ve put a lot of effort in to making sure that these guys understand that getting an education, particularly from Virginia, is very, very important. It’s important from the head coach; I go out, and I check classes. Because if I’m not doing it, and I’m talking about going to class being important, then we’re sending the wrong message. I’m anxiously awaiting the results of the end of this semester, but I think the list of names that were on that list when I first got here, I’m very anxious to see that 2/3 of those guys will be off that list, because of the attention paid to doing what they need to do in the classroom. And so, by finishing early, they’ll have more time to finish their obligations.” – Mike London on the significance of finishing the spring season early.

“This game is so psychological. If you’re doing poorly, and the other guy across from you is doing well, then you’re always thinking, ‘I’ve got to get myself out of this rut.’ So sometimes, defensively, you blitz a guy again – he might have gotten a penalty for hitting the quarterback late, but sometimes you blitz him again, because you just have the confidence in them that you’re going to do the right thing. And when you do that, and the players see you doing that, then it starts to spread around the team. We always talk about, get on to the next play, because you can’t do anything about the play that just happened.” – London elaborating on throwing back to Ray Keys after he had just dropped a pass.

“He [Morgan Moses] blocks out the sun when he walks outside and everything. Cody Wallace is another one – they look good. That’s what we need. We need to recruit players like that, that caliber. We had a good group of prospects out today. It’s one of those things that, winning breeds success, and we have to taste some winning around here, we have to get back to doing that. And you do that by getting good players. So, it’s an ongoing process to recruit good players, develop the players that you have, and just stick with the plan, so that’s what we’ll do.” – London on the imposing figure of 2010 signee Morgan Moses, and on the importance of recruiting in general.

“Sometimes, I just stood in the back just to hear some of the comments, and just to hear what’s going on. You try to dictate who’s some of the leaders there. Defensively, with Nick Jenkins , and Ras-I Dowling, they were having fun out there.” – London on standing in the field of play during the controlled scrimmage.

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