Mike London and the Hoos start spring practice this week.
The Virginia football team is getting an early start – really early start – on practice in Mike London’s second spring at UVa. The Cavaliers begin their spring work with a pair of 6 a.m. sessions on Wednesday and Friday; both practices are open to the public.
London said that other schools like Northwestern use morning practices, while defensive coordinator Jim Reid mentioned that he sometimes used the early time slots at Richmond. The motivation behind the move, currently a trial period during the spring but a possibility for any practice sessions moving forward, is to give players and the program more flexibility with the academics part of the equation.
“Basically, it’s a matter of getting the players up early and getting them in and getting them acclimated to what’s going on and having an early practice, which leads right into their ability to go to class. Then you can bring them back in the afternoon to watch film,” London said. “It’s designed so that come 10, 11, 12 o’clock at night, if I knew I had practice and had to get up at 5 o’clock the next morning, then I’d make sure I got the proper rest and what I needed to get done. For us, sometimes class selection and classes that are available during the course of the year when we’d meet at 2:15 and go out to practice at 2:30, sometimes guys would miss parts of the meeting and come to practice late or have to leave practice. This way when you go early enough then you have everybody there, there’s no issues with class. … You can operate with everyone in attendance so you’re not being redundant and repeating yourself with eight, nine, 10 guys that because of class conflicts had to be filled in on how practice is going to go.”
In addition to this week’s morning practices, the Hoos also have five other open practices. The dates for those sessions are March 19 (Saturday at Darling Stadium in Hampton), March 26 (Saturday at Episcopal High School in Alexandria), April 2 (Spring Game at Scott Stadium), April 8 (Friday) and April 9 (Saturday). London said the April 2 date will feature a real game between Orange and Blue teams; the Spring Game will follow the men’s lacrosse contest with Maryland, which is set for noon at Scott Stadium that day.
Of course, the spring is about much more than the Spring Game. The coaches are focused on improving the team and individuals in the offseason. The practices allow the coaches to do that while further implementing the system brought to the table in their first season on the job last year.
“We’ll actually play a Spring Game this time, divide the team up and have a Spring Game,” London said. “[I’m] leaving the latter practices particularly for Coach Reid and Coach Lazor to get the type of work that they think they need more of. I put the practice schedule together for the first 11 leading up to the Spring Game for things I want to see – the fundamental periods, the inside run, the one-on-ones, the half-line blitz, third down, and all of that. … I’ll leave the last couple of practices to the coordinators and what they’d like to get done. That final Friday and Saturday are our high school coaches’ clinic. We’re trying to do a lot of things, get the team better, find out who our playmakers are, get our program out to the different areas, and also bring the high school coaches up here to make ourselves accessible and available to them. We’re trying to tackle a lot of things, but the main thing with spring practice is to get better and I think we’ll do that.”
Ross Metheny and three others are battling for the top QB spot.
One of the main storylines this spring, not surprisingly, will follow the quarterbacks. Marc Verica , last season’s starter, has used his eligibility so the Cavaliers are starting the search for a new leader under center. Coach London said there is no depth chart at the position right now and even if there was, it would be listed as “or” among four candidates. Ross Metheny , Michael Rocco, Michael Strauss , and David Watford are all in the mix at quarterback.
“The quarterback situation, if it was listed, it would say so and so or so and so or so and so or. There’s no one that’s anointed or appointed the quarterback,” London said. ” All of the guys that are here … will compete for the quarterback position.”
Metheny and Rocco each saw some game action last season behind Verica. Metheny, a redshirt sophomore, took snaps in five games and completed 13 of 17 passes with 3 touchdowns and 1 interception. He threw for 171 yards. Rocco took the field in six games and completed 13 of 25 passes with 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. Strauss enrolled in the spring of 2010 before redshirting last season as a freshman, while Watford enrolled this January. London said that Rocco edged out Strauss as a freshman thanks to a little better learning curve from high school to college, but that the competition as a whole is wide open.
The challenge, according to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, is to divvy out game-like repetitions in limited practice time, making the individual drill sessions even more important for the QBs this time around.
“As best as I can tell, you couldn’t have a better group of four guys. I think in my career I’ve been very, very fortunate with the kind of people I’ve had to coach at this position. I think it goes without saying when you look at the history of football at all levels, it’s critical that you have the right kind of guy. I think we have four great guys, four hard workers, guys that have been hungry all offseason to learn, to get in and to study on their own, and do the things that a real quarterback needs to do truthfully to be successful. Those are the kind of guys we have,” Lazor said. “It will be a great challenge for me and the coaches dividing up the reps. There just aren’t enough reps for three quarterbacks, let alone four. So we’ll have some things we do drill wise and every throw will count. We’ll make sure we’re charting drills and one-on-ones and every single drill they do because we’re going to have to make decisions as quickly as we can. That doesn’t mean it won’t change over time, that’s one of those deals where we reserve the right to change our minds only if they prove on the field that’s it’s worthy to reopen it.”
Miles Gooch has moved to receiver this spring.
One player not involved in the quarterback race this spring is redshirt freshman Miles Gooch . The 6’3″, 215-pounder from Georgia has moved to receiver. Gooch will have an opportunity to make an impact at the position in the coming weeks of spring practice with Dontrelle Inman ‘s eligibility completed and Kris Burd and Tim Smith on the mend. Burd is not participating in spring practice, while Smith will be limited as he continues his way back from fall surgery. That leaves Matt Snyder as the top returning option at wideout; he had 30 receptions for 393 yards in 2010.
Lazor, who said receivers should see a “land of opportunity” this spring, said that Gooch is a still-developing athlete with a ton of ability and he predicts Gooch will make an impact somewhere on the team.
“Here’s a guy that has good size, who is athletic, and who has some confidence in his own abilities. The way he put it was ‘I can stand here and watch guys do some things, I’m not getting a lot of reps at quarterback right now, and I think to myself I can do some of those things as good as those guys.’ Here’s a guy who really was hungry to play and as we went forward through the offseason and through weightlifting, he just saw himself and was able to compare himself [to other receivers or on special teams] and he has an opportunity,” Lazor said. “I couldn’t tell you where Miles Gooch will end up. When he’s done with his college career and you’re all writing stories about what a great career he had, it could be back at quarterback or it could be at some other skill position. He’s really a talented guy. … He’s really a great young man and I’m excited to see what he can do and what he can be. I think he’s going to be a success, [but] I don’t know where.”
Outside of Gooch, London said, no one else is making a dramatic position shift this spring. The linebackers, however, are taking on new roles within the corps at that position.
Junior LaRoy Reynolds, last season’s starter on the strong side at outside linebacker, is making the move to the weak side. January enrollee Daquan Romero is opening up behind Reynolds at the WILL spot. Aaron Taliaferro , who played both inside and outside linebacker last season, is lined up on the strong side. Junior Tucker Windle is expected to be in competition with Taliaferro in the SAM role. Steve Greer is manning the middle as the projected starter. Redshirt freshman Henry Coley is getting a shot behind Greer at the MIKE spot.
“We want to create competition basically,” London said. “We’ll see how far along Daquan can pick up the system and then by the end of spring practice make sure the best three linebackers are on the field, whoever the three may be.”
Reid said the move with Reynolds makes sense due to his past experience at safety and on special teams.
“If you take a good hard look at it, he’s about 220 pounds, he can run, he’s tough, a very physical guy, and he was a safety,” Reid said. “He’s used to being out in space is what I’m trying to say.”
- On the injury front, Landon Bradley (various), Kris Burd (foot surgery “similar to the type Tim Smith is recuperating from,” London said), and Hunter Steward (shoulder) will not participate in spring practice. Smith will be out there and doing some things, but will not participate fully. Cam Johnson (shoulder) will not be in contact drills, but he will take part in some individual drills. London said offensive lineman Aaron Van Kuiken ‘s “football playing days are either limited or over at this time” due to a wrist injury; London said they would keep him with the program in some capacity, though.
- In other personnel news, offensive guard Billy Cuffee and defensive tackle Buddy Ruff are back with the team this spring after missing time due to academics. Both players are paying their own way this semester and not receiving scholarship aid, according to London. Ruff is 6’4″ and 310 pounds out of Norview High in Norfolk, while Cuffee is 6’5″ and 320 pounds out of Deep Creek in Chesapeake.
- Offensive lineman Morgan Moses has recovered from mono and should be back at full strength in a week or half to two weeks.
- Three players remain suspended this spring. Center Mike Price, linebacker Ausar Walcott , and Devin Wallace are not participating after being arrested in Harrisonburg in January on misdemeanor charges of assault and battery by mob and one felony charge of burglary-entering a dwelling with the intent to commit an assault. London said that a combination of the courts’ decision and his own decision will determine if and when the players are allowed to return: “There’s a combination of a lot of things, the courts, the school, and my rules and regulations that I have for the team. Until further notice, the only thing they’re obligated to is their academic obligations and expectations. Until everything has gone through the proper channels legally, through the school, and when I sit down to talk to them face to face once again after all of these other actions have been taken, then we’ll decide whether they’re going to play here or somewhere else.”
- Redshirt freshman Matt Fortin is a good option at long snapper for the spread punt formation according to London, but his 5’11”, 190-pound size will lead the team in another direction for the short snaps on field goals and PATs. Several players, including center Anthony Mihota , guard/center Cody Wallace , and receiver Eric Thornton are getting looks in that role.
- The buzz meter is running high on redshirt tailback Kevin Parks . London and Lazor are both excited to see what he can do in the running back mix. Lazor recalled one big run during a bye week freshmen scrimmage that remains burned in his memory, a carry that Reid said was 72 yards.
- With the departure of Keith Payne , senior Max Milien may get some work running back in addition to fullback this spring.
- The team is helping with a food drive this weekend at the Hampton practice. Read more here.