All posts by David Rayner

UVa: Winning on Paper vs. Turf

Despite subpar results on the field the last two years, Virginia football continues to win the paper wars by getting the signatures of talented high school players on grant-in-aid forms. Many players are drawn to UVa for its blend of BCS athletics and top tier academics. Others are drawn to coach Mike London. A true “player’s coach” it is clear that Mike London connects well with kids and their families, selling football, academics, and character development as the pillars of his program. There have been many deficiencies in the on-field performance of the Virginia program under Mike London, however recruiting has been consistently strong. Now, the challenge and the sole determinant of whether Mike London continues in his role leading the Virginia program, is can he translate talent into wins in 2014?
 
A common refrain from fans and analysts alike is that Virginia has enough talent to win. Mike London has had 4 full recruiting years to get the players he wants on the roster. There are several Virginia players who had offers from “big time” programs. Eli Harold, Mike Moore, Taquan Mizzell, Greyson Lambert, Daquan Romero, Darius Jennings, Tre Nicholson, Tim Harris, Jay Whitmore, Stephen Moss, Andrew Brown, Quinn Blanding, and Jamil Kamara among others could have signed with any number of big time programs across the nation. So, is the talent really there to win in the ACC?
 
If we want to set a bar for comparison, the 1995 team that beat #2 ranked Florida State as well as Clemson on the road for the first time in program history is a good measuring stick. How does the talent on the 2014 Cavaliers compare to the 1995 team? Let’s take a look: The gut response, given recent recruiting success is that the 2014 roster stacks up reasonably well against the 1995 squad. I think that conclusion might be getting a little ahead of ourselves. The 1995 team was very good. Two last second losses on the road at Michigan and Texas (how’s that for an out-of-conference schedule?) turned what could have been an historic season into a very good season. The 1995 team boasted 17 players who earned all-ACC post-season honors and 5 players who were recognized at some level as All-Americans. While, the 1995 ‘Hoos were very talented, the 2014 team doesn’t lack for star power. A semi-objective review of the 2014 roster yields 14 potential all-ACC candidates. Based on their performance to date and/or their offer lists coming out of high school, Anthony Harris(DB), Eli Harold(DE), ‘Tre Nicholson(DB), Mike Moore(DE), Henry Coley(LB), Daquan Romero(LB), Maurice Canady(DB), Alec Vozenilek(P), Andrew Brown(DT), and Quinn Blanding(DB) have the ability to deliver all-ACC results on defense. On offense Kevin Parks(RB), Taquan Mizzell(RB), Keeon Johnson(WR), and Jamil Kamara(WR) have tremendous ability and all-ACC potential.
 
On the surface, this is not a bad comparison. A 17 vs. 14 differential suggests that the 2014 Virginia talent is not that far off from one the best teams in UVa history. A little deeper analysis shows a few cracks in the foundation of that conclusion. First, of the 2014 players who have all-ACC potential, Brown, Blanding, & Kamara are true freshmen. While I would not be surprised to see any of those names on post season all-ACC lists, it is not a realistic expectation, so 14 candidates is in reality closer to 11. The second glaring difference between the 2014 and 1995 teams is on the offensive line. In 1995 Virginia had 4 all-ACC offensive linemen (1st team Jason Augustino, 2nd team Chris Harrison, & honorable mentions John Slocum & Jeremy Raley). While this year’s offensive line has potential to be a solid unit, they are bit young, they will need to mature quickly, and an honest assessment suggests there isn’t a player who jumps off the page as a likely all-ACC performer, much less four.
 
What conclusions should we draw? The 2014 team is not lacking for talent though it may not have the star-power of some of the great UVa teams of the past. Also, it is clear that Virginia will get a chance to prove or disprove the adage that “defense wins championships” as much of our potential all-ACC talent is skewed towards defense.  Is the talent there to go bowling in 2014? I think it is and Mike London needs to turn his paper wins into turf wins if he is to return in 2015.
 
One other conclusion we can draw from comparing the rosters of the 2014 and 1995 Cavaliers…George Welsh won more than his share of recruiting battles too.

Average Gets it Done for UVa Football

No matter what kind of day you have had or what kind of week it has been, when you get home your dog is always happy to see you. Always. Virginia fans feel the same way about football season. It doesn’t matter that UVa was 2-10 last year or that we were 0-8 in conference play. It doesn’t matter that we had our second consecutive losing season and our 5th losing season out of the past 6. Football season starts August 30th and Virginia fans are optimistic, excited, and ready to go…well, at least 2 of those.
 
I am not “ready to go” but I am excited and optimistic and it’s not because I fell off a ladder (if I had one) and hit my head. It is because despite a lousy, rotten, no-good 2-10 season, Virginia was one position away from having an acceptable rebuilding year in 2013. Unfortunately that position was QB, where Virginia has been lacking during each of those 5 losing seasons. However, last year was unusually painful because we knew our QB was a great kid and vocal leader with a strong arm and good speed. The pain started when Virginia needed a precise completion or a heady scramble to gain a critical first down. When the chips were down in 2013, the Virginia QB was generally holding a pair of two’s and folded…at least 10 out of 12 times. How bad was it? Real bad. The numbers don’t lie and they aren’t pretty. The average starting QB for ACC programs that don’t run the triple option tossed 19 touchdowns against 11 interceptions and threw for 2824 yards. Our QB delivered 8 TD’s, 15 picks, and 2202 yards. Ouch.
 
So why am I both optimistic and excited? Let’s start with the obvious…we have a new starting QB in Greyson Lambert. UVa also returns 9 of 11 defensive starters including All-American safety Anthony Harris who led the nation with 8 interceptions and Eli Harold who has a first step and a motor that rivals former UVa great Chris Slade. If that weren’t enough giddiness on defense, Virginia also added 2 all-world defensive recruits in Andrew Brown and Quinn Blanding. On paper, this defense has the talent to rival some of the great Virginia defenses of the George Welsh era. Additionally, over the course of his career, coordinator John Tenuta’s defenses have shown marked improvement from their first to second seasons as his players learn his system and begin to thrive in his attacking defensive schemes. On offense, Virginia returns Kevin Parks, a hard-nosed between the tackles runner who had an excellent season despite the fact that every opposing coaching staff (as well as every fan on the planet) knew Virginia couldn’t pass the ball and stacked the box with regularity to stuff the run. Kevin Parks gained 1031 yards despite facing 8-9 defenders near the line of scrimmage every time he got the ball. The kid is a gamer, a senior captain, and the kind of student athlete that thrives at UVa.
Lambert
However, it is the quarterback position where I find a genuine albeit surprising source of optimism. While Greyson Lambert was a highly prized recruit from the heart of SEC country standing 6-5 with an arm to make every throw in the playbook, that’s not why I am so hopeful. I am hopeful, because all things held constant at 2013 levels (economics anyone? Let’s assume…) Virginia doesn’t need Greyson Lambert to be All-ACC next year to have a winning season. We just need him to be average, & not double the number of touchdowns he throws with the number of picks. We need him to manage the game, to get the ball to Kevin Parks or to sophomore and former 5-star recruit Taquan Mizzell who is finally healthy and ready to roll. Lambert needs to hit his open receivers in stride more often than he hits open defenders. While Virginia fans would be ecstatic if Grayson Lambert turned into the next Andrew Luck and I would be ecstatic if I won Powerball next week, the reality is, we can turn 2-10 into 7-5 with average quarterback play.
 
Average? Is that what Virginia is for shooting for here? After consecutive seasons of 4-8 and 2-10, yes we are looking for average QB play that gets us to a bowl game, begins to rebuild confidence in the UVa program with both fans and recruits, and gets the fans back in their seats and away from their tailgates. Does average cut the muster over the long term? Nope. Will average QB play suffice this year? You bet it will and everyone including my dog will be happy about it, but he’s happy all the time, so he doesn’t really count.