Tag Archives: Virginia Cavaliers

2014 – The Second Year for Mike London

It will be a happy day for Virginia football fans when the talk of the program is focused on games and players rather than the job performance of the head coach. Today is not that happy day.
 
Mike London was hired in 2010 to take over a program that was weary from the leadership of the know-it-all curmudgeon Al Groh. When Mike London was announced as the new head coach at UVa, I was as pleased as any Virginia fan. My brother-in-law (a fellow UVa die-hard) and I went to a “meet the staff” event where Coach London and his new staff mingled with UVa fans and donors. Mike London was impressive. His message was a breath of fresh air.  He said that Virginia football was going to win with kids who went to class, who showed class, and who graduated with their degrees.  He spoke of his background in law enforcement before he began his coaching career. It was obvious that he would connect with kids, their families, and high school coaches who for years had written off Virginia football. While Mike London was hired in 2010, it is my position that 2014 is only his second year with the tools he needs to win and in reality the second year of the Mike London era.
 
When we “met the staff” in 2010 I was enthralled, swept up by the overwhelming sense of optimism. I intentionally ignored the sneaking feeling that something was askew. Virginia football fans always feel like something is askew even in the best of times, so it was easy to suppress this feeling. I was delighted to see three former UVa greats, Anthony Poindexter, Shawn Moore, and Ron Mattes on the Virginia staff. These guys knew how to win at Virginia. I was pleased to see a mix of respected coaching veterans in Jim Reid, Jeff Hanson, and Mike Faragalli mixed in with coaching newcomers Bill Lazor and Vincent Brown.  Chip West and his legendary recruiting acumen was an added bonus to the staff. What I was choosing to ignore was an anxious concern that none of these coaches had a track record of winning D-1/FBS football games. I saw lots of FCS experience and 1-AA success, but no one had delivered sustained success in a major FBS conference. I chose to bury that concern with optimism and alcohol and I headed to the bar for another drink.
 
It might have been buried, but my concern was neither dead nor unfounded. After posting our second 4-8 record in three seasons, Virginia overhauled its coaching staff, firing coaches Reid, Hanson, Moore, and Faragalli. Bill Lazor left the program to return to the NFL. In their places, Virginia hired Tom O’Brien, Jon Tenuta, Mike Archer, Steve Fairchild. All of these coaches have significant D-1/FBS experience. They have won at national D-1 programs. They have a track record of success over time in the ACC or equivalent conferences. 2014 is the second year that Mike London has the tools he needs to win which is why this is the second year of his tenure. The first year of his new tenure was a disaster as we installed new systems on both offense and defense, shook off a ridiculous and ineffective quarterback rotation, and players figured out the nuances and expectations of 4 new coaches.
 
While the new coaches are a needed infusion of experience and know-how, there are lingering questions. Can the contrasting styles of Mike London (a players coach and inspirational leader who connects with the players) and Tom O’Brien (a stern disciplinarian and Naval Academy graduate who served 9 years in the marine corps and has won consistently everywhere he has coached) mesh to deliver a winning system and more importantly a winning culture? Can Mike London compliment his innate art of leadership with the science of winning football games? Most importantly, can we leverage the wealth of coaching experience currently in the program into a winning record in its second year? That’s all the time we have. We squandered the good will and optimism of Mike London’s first three years with a staff that was learning on the job. As a result, have one season to show that this is the staff that can bring winning back to Charlottesville.
 
There is no doubt that Mike London was a big part of the hiring process of his initial staff and owns the ultimate responsibility for its composition. However, as is always the case with Virginia football, something is always a little different. Meddling and heavy-handed Associate AD Jon Oliver is never far from the decisions surrounding the Virginia football program. How influential was he in the hiring of the first staff? We don’t know, but there is no doubt his fingerprints were on the hiring of the initial staff as they were on the hiring of Mike London. The unfortunate reality for Virginia football fans is that we have exactly one more year to find out if this new, highly qualified staff can win, or we get to start the coaching conversations all over again and the happy day when we move beyond talking about coaching staffs to talking about winning football games will be forestalled, once again.

UVA: Recruiting Wins Cause for Optimism?

coach london 2
Mike London needs to convert recruiting wins into actual wins in 2014.

For modern-day Virginia football fans, the George Welsh-era casts a light of hopeful illumination over a program that last year endured its worst-season since 1982.  Lauded as one of the greatest turnaround artists in college football history, Welsh took the University of Virginia (and the Naval Academy before that) to heights not scaled since his retirement in 2000.  His UVA record of 134-86-3 included 14 consecutive years with at least seven wins and proved conclusively that UVA could win despite its reputation for academic rigor. If it was done once it can be done again, Virginia fans insist. They are still waiting.
Welsh’s successors have proved unable to maintain the momentum he established and UVA since then could be characterized as a program in a steadily decaying orbit. Following Welsh’s (some say forced) retirement UVA turned to Al Groh and under his direction the program had several memorable years. Fans had hope. The 2002 team won 9 games. The 2004 squad started 5-0 and reached #6 in the national polls. The 2007 team won 9 games, with an NCAA record five of those wins coming by two points or less.
Groh was winning at an acceptable rate but cracks began to appear in the program.  While UVA had seemingly settled into a “seven wins and a bowl game” mindset, rival Virginia Tech was coming on fast.  UVA fans vociferously objected when Virginia Tech joined the ACC in 2004, sensing that ACC affiliation was all that stood between Virginia Tech and state football supremacy. They were right. Virginia has not beaten Tech since.  Tech’s on-field success and ACC status made the school dominant in recruiting in-state talent.  Virginia produces football talent at a level just below powerhouse states Texas, Florida, and California and keeping that talent at home is a priority for the state’s Division 1 coaches. Groh wasn’t doing that.  There were reports that Groh had strained relations with coaches at some of the state’s top high school programs, especially those in the talent-rich Tidewater area.  Eventually, Groh’s inability to recruit in-state talent, his surliness with fans and the media, his record against Tech, his willingness to burn red-shirts to no real advantage, and UVA fans’ abandonment of the program cost Groh his job. He was let go at the end of the 2009 season.
The Cavaliers turned then to Mike London, a former Groh assistant and a coach who had guided the Richmond Spiders to the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) National Championship in 2008.  UVA fans hoping for a big name to make a recruiting splash perceived this as a questionable hire. UVA, however, was sensitive to criticism it received for having to buy out the remainder of Groh’s contract during a time of dwindling state financial support and resultant budgetary cuts.  With already good in-state recruiting ties, London was, financially at least, a lower risk.
Like Groh before him, London delivered a season early on that gave UVA fans reason for optimism.  His 2011 team won 8 games before getting steamrolled by Auburn in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.   Virginia stumbled in 2012, losing 8 of its last 10 to finish 4-8. Fan nervousness was offset partially by the fact that London appeared to be a players’ coach and was once again bringing top-level in-state and national talent to Charlottesville.  UVA fans logically believed that London’s recruiting wins were a precursor to gridiron success.  The one-sided nature of the Virginia Tech rivalry remained an issue, however. The 17-14 loss in 2012 was as close as UVA had gotten since a loss by the same score in 2008.
Last year, the program crashed. Hard. A season that began with a somewhat surprising and frankly miraculous win over BYU was followed the next week by a 59-10 home loss to #2 Oregon that gave UVA fans a very clear picture of where the program stood in its quest for national relevance.  After cruising past an overmatched VMI team that UVA had no business playing, nine consecutive opponents bested Virginia and exposed all of the team’s flaws.  The losing streak was attributed to new offensive and defensive schemes, new coordinators, a largely untested QB, a shaky offensive line, bad game management, and lack of upper class depth.  A program that had struggled for a decade to stay afloat lost all buoyancy, posting an oh’fer in the ACC and dropping to the bottom quartile of many national statistical rankings.
All struggling programs sell optimism when wins are scarce and UVA is doing some hard selling this year. Despite its 2-10 record UVA had a very good recruiting year, garnering commitments from twin Tidewater 5-stars DL Andrew Brown and S Quin Blanding and several other highly-touted in-state and national recruits.  With Brown, Blanding and last year’s 5-star addition, RB Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell, in uniform this year, UVA likely will have more talent than at any time since the Welsh era.   Last year’s very young team is a year older and returns 9 starters on a defense led by senior All-American safety Anthony Harris.  Highly recruited Greyson Lambert has supplanted the popular-but-ineffective David Watford at QB. Lambert will have the luxury of handing off to Mizzell and Kevin Parks, the ACC’s only returning 1000-yard rusher. The transfer of senior TE Jake McGee to Florida no doubt hurts the passing game but sophomore Keeon Johnson flashed big play potential last year and Lambert will have ample receiving talent at his disposal.
This team certainly does not lack for talent and London’s recruiting ability has gained him another year to try to turn this program around.  Virginia was one of only 8 teams to sign more than one 5-star recruit last year and the only one with a losing record. With more game experience this team should show better execution on both sides of the ball.  There is no guarantee that this additional depth and experience will show up in the win column because every one of UVA’s 2014 FBS opponents was bowl eligible last year.
Most pundits predict that UVA will need to gain bowl eligibility this year for London to keep his job. London has proven his prowess as a recruiter but ultimately recruiting wins are not as important as actual wins. It is time to turn this impressive collection of individual talent into a winning team. If UVA flounders around at the bottom of the Coastal Division again no number of recruiting wins will save his job.

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.