Press Conference Notes 2010: USC

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Cam Johnson and the Hoos face a tough USC team this week.

When Virginia travels west to take on USC this week, it will mark the first time the football team has ever played a game in California. UVa coach Mike London wants to make sure the Cavaliers are prepared beyond the X’s and O’s for the coast-to-coast trip. The players have received tip sheets about things that can help with cross-country air travel and London has taken steps to learn about the potential issues.

“I talked to different people that had opportunities to travel from the East Coast to West Coast, particularly when you’re flying, about the issues of hydration, that being important; that when you get there, trying to acclimate yourself to the time zone by – we’ll probably stay up a little later than normal, and then let them sleep a little bit. And then going Thursday helps and then being there Friday, another full day will help. And then playing in the evening on Saturday will help also,” London said. “You just have to get used to it. And we’ve talked to different people about nutrition. About sleep. About what you can do and how you can minimize the effects of traveling like that. But we’ll see. We’ll try everything we can to make sure that the guys have the best opportunity to perform.”

Beyond the travel tests, the Hoos can expect a hefty challenge on the football field too. After all, USC has been one of the nation’s premier teams in recent seasons and the program is currently ranked No. 14 in The Associated Press polls. Talent spans the roster and athleticism is rampant. The words fast and physical came up numerous times during Tuesday’s press luncheon at the John Paul Jones Arena and those adjectives certainly apply to the playmakers.

In the season opener against Hawaii, quarterback Matt Barkley and receiver Ronald Johnson tied single-game school records for touchdown passes (5) and touchdown catches (3). For good measure, Johnson also darted 89 yards to score on a punt return. Running back Marc Tyler added 154 yards rushing too. All in all, the Trojans piled up 524 yards of offense. On the flipside, the defense gave up 588 total yards, but those issues seem related to new schemes and inexperience more so than athletic ability.

“Well, obviously they have great, great skilled players. You look at a program that has star quality players. I mean, high school All-Americans, first, second, third-team. … When you look at the game, you see athleticism – from everybody. Even the water boy is athletic and fast,” London joked. “So that will be the challenge. There are a lot of things going on we cannot get caught up in – playing in the Coliseum and what’s going on in the news right now, all those other things, it’s a football game that has to be played between the lines there. So that’s the focus for this week’s preparation and that’s the focus we have going into the game.”

Defensive lineman Matt Conrath made his first career start against USC when the two teams met in 2008 at Scott Stadium and he remembers just how fast everything was at first. He knows the Hoos have a tough test waiting out west.

“It kind of felt like I was stuck in mud and everyone else was just moving by,” Conrath said. “I haven’t watched a ton of film on them, but [Monday] I got to watch a game or two of theirs and they’re very physical and fast. We’re going to have to play a good game against them.”

Trey Womack performed well enough in the spring to earn a roster spot.

Womack Makes It Back

Fifth-year senior Trey Womack made the first start of his career Saturday against Richmond when he lined up at safety alongside Corey Mosley . With Rodney McLeod out with an injury, it wasn’t just a cameo appearance either. Womack logged significant snaps and finished with 3 tackles and 1 pass break-up.

While those numbers aren’t mind-boggling alone, they are solid in the context of his career. Womack made just 4 tackles all of last season and he has only 23 for his career. The pass break-up was his first as a Cavalier. In 2009, he played on 14 defensive plays. That’s it. Womack spent most of his time as a special teams regular and was selected by the coaches as the special teams player of the game after blocking a punt at Miami last season that led to a touchdown.

London said Womack was in danger of not being invited back for his final season of eligibility, but earned his way on the roster by proving he deserved a spot on the team athletically and academically.

“Trey, he’s another fifth-year guy that, when I first came in, I had a conversation with him and said, ‘Listen, with the new staff and what I’m thinking about doing is perhaps not bringing you back. But I’m going to allow you to go through spring practice and see how you do. There are some classroom things and leadership things that I’m looking to see if you’re worth bringing back, that you can add to our team.’ And Trey did an outstanding job of being reliable, being dependable during spring practice, playing fast,” London said. “So he made a believer out of me. And I told him, ‘Listen, you were just a decision away from me not asking you back, but you made me eat my words, because you did all the things and some in order to put yourself into position to be where you are right now.’ And I appreciate him and told him I loved him because that kind of resolve is not going to take him far just in the football world but life after football.”

UVa starting quarterback Marc Verica , a fellow fifth-year senior, said he is excited for his teammate.

“When he was asked back, he’s done everything that’s been asked of him and more. He’s exceeded everybody’s expectations. He’s done a great job with adapting to the new defense and playing safety, getting involved in the community, doing well in class, and just doing all the things,” Verica said. “He’s really actually been the model guy, a model teammate and player that Coach wants us to have on his new team. I couldn’t be happier for Trey.”

UVa’s Robert Randolph missed a 50-yard field goal Saturday.

Evaluating Special Teams

While Virginia’s offense found a rhythm and the defense stuffed Richmond’s running game as part of a solid performance, the Cavaliers’ special teams did not have a good outing Saturday. The Hoos missed two field goals, struggled on returns, and missed some plays in coverage. In the end, the Spiders averaged 26.2 yards per kick return and ripped off a 39-yard punt return as well. (JHoo covered some of the coverage issues in his regular article – check it out.)

“I just thought that we could have done a better job. We were always a block away from getting the right guy or making the block that we needed. So we’ve got to do a better job of that, allowing [Chase] Minnifield to catch a punt by having the guys run down unattended on him. We’ve gotta make decisions on when to catch the ball,” London said. “The part about the field position is critical, for that game. It’s going to be critical for this game. So we’ve got to do a better job there.”

In the kicking game, Virginia missed both of its field goal attempts and botched an extra point try thanks to a low snap. Chris Hinkebein misfired on a 51-yard field goal attempt, while Robert Randolph came up short on a 50-yard kick.

“I think 50-55 yards in practice – both Hinkebein and Randolph have made it. … So we got one guy that kicked it long enough to the left, not accurate. The other guy was dead on but it was short. So we’ve got to get a little closer in order for these guys to have an opportunity,” London said. “But both of them had kicked at least 50-yarders in practice.”

The Running Game

The special teams’ miscues meant little in the end thanks in large part to the offense. The Cavaliers posted 488 yards of total offense with career-highs popping up everywhere. A lot of the success came courtesy of the running game where UVa lost just 12 yards all night and rolled up 205 total rushing yards. Keith Payne (114) and Perry Jones (74) did most of the damage behind an offensive line that became increasingly physical as the game progressed.

London liked what he saw in the running game, but knows it must get better as the weeks pass.

“I would say that we’re satisfied but there’s always room for improvement. We wanted to make a statement in terms of the running game opportunities with the two styles of running backs that we have with Perry Jones and with Keith Payne . We have to be able to run the ball, as I said before, in order to set up the play actions that come off of that,” London said. “It was good to see that there were opportunities to make holes and for the backs to get through the holes. So the running game has got to be important. It’s an important aspect of our offense because it sets up so many other things.”

Worth Quoting

“One time we did, very, very briefly. Patch Duda, the walk-on and special teams ace who was here last year, he’s one of my best friends and he was always kind of my jam guy. He played guitar and I play the guitar so we would always get together all the time, almost every night, and play guitar together. We would often go and play with Crutcher [Reiss] because Crutcher played the drums and he had a set at his house. At the time, I think Keith lived with Crutcher so one night we went over to play with Crutcher and we were playing and a lot of my teammates were in the room just kind of rocking out with us. And then Keith comes in and just starts throwing in and just starts rapping over the stuff we’re doing and throwing this R&B kind of vibe to what we’re doing. It actually was really good. It was like a nice sound. That’s kind of the extent of what we’ve done musically together, but he’s a very talented guy.” – quarterback Marc Verica on whether he had ever collaborated musically with Keith Payne , who was featured in the summer television series working on music.

Mr. Carter

Linebacker Darnell Carter had 4 tackles against Richmond.

In a game full of positive storylines, linebacker Darnell Carter is one player that made an impact. He posted 4 tackles on the night, including 2 tackles for loss and a quarterback sack. For someone who only had 1 career tackle previously, that’s a very good night.

Like Womack, Carter had to earn his way on to the field with a new coaching staff in town. Previously, Carter had logged a total of 67 plays in his career and he missed the 2008 season while not enrolled at UVa thanks to some academic issues.

“Darnell is another guy of a number of guys that embraced the change with a new lease on life – what he did in the classroom, what he did in the community, and what he does on the football field,” London said. “In embracing that change, he changed his body. He got in great shape. Academically, he’s done the things we’ve asked him to do because we’re requiring him to do that. And he loves playing the game. And it’s something that goes back again to if you’re motivated and passionate about doing something, then it can change your performance. I think Darnell is one of those guys that really looks good playing and he’s definitely in the strong mix of the rotation of the linebackers.”

Worth Noting

  • Defensive backs Rodney McLeod and Ras-I Dowling are still nursing injuries, but they will make the trip to USC. Dowling (hamstring) is more likely to play than McLeod (knee) at this point in the week, but both will be monitored throughout the week and on game day.
  • Richmond’s Kendall Gaskins scored on a 70-yard touchdown run Saturday, but the Spiders only had 74 more rushing yards on 29 other carries. A flag was thrown for offsides on the play. “I think it was more of an assumption on everybody’s part that the play was either going to be blown dead or the guy was up for so long and so many bodies around him that maybe someone stopped and we shouldn’t have. We need to keep playing until the whistle blows,” London said.
  • Matt Conrath had offseason surgery in March to remove an extra bone from his foot, which was not “uncommon” doctors told him. “I had a high ankle sprain and through that they found out that I had an extra bone in my ankle and I had to get that taken out. … I’ve had it my whole life, it was just from that trauma or whatever that caused it to be inflamed and stuff,” Conrath said.
  • This is only the 15th game Virginia has ever played west of the Mississippi in school history. UVa is 4-10 in the previous outings.
  • UVa has scheduled a future home-and-home series with UCLA. The Bruins are set for the trip east in 2014 while the Cavaliers travel west to the Rose Bowl in 2015.

Coach Mike London believes emotion is important in football.

Worth Quoting Too

“All of us are a sum total of our life experiences and sometimes you can tap into or draw into situations that these young men have gone through. Just the other day you had another player, Chris Broadnax, [who] lost his uncle Sunday night driving home from his business in Richmond. That’s real and those are raw emotions, raw feelings. And you think about who you play for. You think about why you do things.

“Everyone knows my story about my daughter. And you just – you have to find something that is compelling to you as to why you do things. And if you can address that with players and they understand that whether it’s for mom, dad, uncle, whatever the reasons may be, that that’s part of an emotion, part of a feeling, part of a passion that you can tap into that’s going to help them. It’s going to help them play better and help them deal with whatever they’re dealing with.

“So that’s important to me. Sometimes you have the best players that are athletic that they don’t play their best game. You take a player that plays with passion and energy and does it all the time, then he has a chance, and I’ll take players over that a lot of times.” – Mike London on emotion in football.

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