Sabre Roundtable: 2012 And Football's Future
Dec 12, 2012
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Virginia fans make sure to check out more from the roundtable panelists! Andrew Ramspacher's work for The Daily Progress can be found in the Cavalier Insider while Michael Ingalls, Deja Hoo, and Mr. Mahoo post frequently on the Sabre EDGE!
As Virginia student-athletes hit the books for exams, there are no visions of Sugar Bowl fairies or even Music City Bowl dreams dancing in the heads of the football team. No, the Cavaliers missed out on postseason play thanks to a 4-8 campaign that has since seen the dismissal of four assistant coaches and the transfer of quarterback Michael Rocco.
So in the past two years, Mike London's program exceeded expectations with an 8-4 run and Chick-fil-A Bowl appearance in 2011 but followed it up with a disappointing 2012 finish. What does the offseason hold for the Hoos? TheSabre.com put together a roundtable to look at some of 2012's top storylines as well as take a look ahead to the offseason. The Sabre's Michael Ingalls is joined by The Daily Progress' Andrew Ramspacher as well as a pair of EDGE subscribers to discuss UVa football.
Looking back at the 2012 season, what was the most promising area for the future of the Virginia football team? What was the most concerning area for the Virginia football team?
Eli Harold turned some heads late in his freshman season.
Mike: I believe the defense is most promising of the three units moving into the 2013 season, for a number of reasons. Coming into 2012, one of the greatest concerns was how the defense would perform with so many inexperienced players. Virginia used 16 freshmen and sophomores in the two-deep, and five were starters including the entire defensive backfield. Yet the secondary ended up becoming one of the strongest units, helping the Cavaliers finish 4th in the ACC in pass defense. While the defense wasn't strong in the take-away department, there was promise during the latter part of the year with regard to the pass rush. True freshmen Eli Harold showed glimpses of greatness this past season, and he has yet to participate in UVa's offseason and spring training programs. Virginia will need to fill the void at linebacker left by leading tackler Steve Greer (2nd in ACC with 122) and La'Roy Reynolds (6th in ACC with 90), but overall the defense should be solid.
The most concerning area? Well, the easier answer might be to say one of these three: special teams, offensive line, or quarterback. While those areas certainly need to be addressed, I expect the biggest concern is with coaching changes and how it affects the stability of this year's recruiting class. The dismissal of coach Jim Reid in particular has a few recruits reconsidering their commitments to Virginia. If coach Mike London can upgrade the staff significantly, and in a timely manner, I expect most of the class to stay intact. The 2013 recruiting class was shaping up to become another solid class for London and staff, the third year in a row. The first two classes were Top 30 nationally, and the current class is shaping up much the same way. Having three strong recruiting classes back to back is significant when building a program from the ground up. Coach London cannot afford another letdown year due to a gap in recruiting, so what happens with coaching hires will certainly affect recruiting, and that will affect how successful the team will be over the next few years.
Andrew: In a 4-8 season, it's not easy to find giant bright spots. Instead, you had to look for flashes. Taking into account 2012 and then moving the Cavs forward, the most promising unit is the defensive line. This group was dominant during stretches this season (see its play in October and into early November) and then would disappear at times (see the Miami and North Carolina games). But, overall, the future looks solid. Eli Harold, a rising sophomore, is a superstar in the making at defensive end. Chris Brathwaite, a rising junior, is a dark horse All-ACC pick for me next season at defensive tackle.
The most concerning area is the offensive line. Yes, Mike Faragalli was let go as UVa's running backs coach following a season where his group underperformed, but it's tough to perform when there's nowhere to run, isn't it? Virginia, despite having a stable of four seemingly able backs, finished seventh in the ACC in rushing. That was certainly disappointing. A big reason for the low production? An interior push. What happened on what turned out to be the biggest play of the season? Kevin Parks was stuffed on a 4th-and-short by the goal line against North Carolina. That has to improve. The Wahoos may lose only tackle Oday Abouhsi (granted, he's an All-ACC selection) to graduation so the returnees won't have inexperience as an excuse.
Mr. Mahoo: Most promising entering the season ... the offense. The success of the 2011 team created high expectations. We returned a QB who guided us to a bowl, two legit NFL prospects, a trio of quality backs, and some speedy WRs who seemed primed for a breakout year. I figured we were going to pound teams with the run game, yeah, mix in some nasty play action, yeah, take that, play smashmouth, score 40 a game, go to a solid bowl, blow out some lesser team, and ... and ... oh well.
Most concerning entering the season ... the defense. Special teams needed an overhaul, but replacing key losses on the D-line and DBs was, to my view, even more urgent. Ironically, the most concerning area turned out to be a strength and the most promising area was the biggest dud.
Deja Hoo: On defense, you had to be encouraged by the play of the young defensive backs and linemen. Demetrious Nicholson, still just a soph if the "grizzled veteran" of the bunch, continues to develop as a smart, quick (if undersized) corner, while the late emergence of a physical playmaker like Maurice Canady had to bring a smile to your face. While the relatively green safeties did not exactly sparkle as a unit, as they became more seasoned you could see the makings of a much-upgraded secondary, for next year and beyond. On the D-Line, we saw a nice blend of high-energy newcomers (Eli Harold most conspicuously) and tough, smart mid-career guys (Chris Brathwaite, Jake Snyder, Brent Urban, Justin Renfrow, to name a few) that should provide a stiff defensive front with increasing harassment of opposing quarterbacks versus the last few years.
I'd say the single greatest concern was the difficulty in getting the offense humming on all cylinders. It sputtered far too often except for two shining exceptions: our upset of NC State away and our thrilling shootout victory against Miami at home.
It's clear that UVa needs better O-Line play in 2013.
Oday Aboushi earned first-team All-ACC honors from the league's coaches and the media, while Morgan Moses earned honorable mention recognition too. The offensive line still struggled, though. Is "fixing" the offensive line the No. 1 focus of the offense this offseason?
Mike: The offensive line is indeed the biggest key to how the rest of the offense will perform in 2013. I see this unit as the biggest concern overall for the team. Running backs can't hit holes that aren't there, and quarterbacks can't find receivers if they don't have protection. Virginia's offense was limited in the run game this season because the interior line was inexperienced. So, what's in store for 2013 when both tackles might be off to the NFL? Perhaps London needs to consider bringing back someone like Ron Mattes to address these issues. Or maybe there's a better option. Either way, the O-Line needs quality instruction and execution in 2013 or the team won't be much better than it was in 2012.
Andrew: As I mentioned in the previous question, there's no doubt the O-Line has to be fixed. Luke Bowanko will be back at center, Moses could return at right tackle, and Sean Cascarano will be back at right guard. In 2012, UVa rotated Conner Davis and Cody Wallace at the left guard spot. Will they pick a No. 1 guy and just go with it? And who will take Aboushi's spot? The prime candidate appears to be Jay Whitmire, who occasionally filled in for Moses this season. Then again, he'd have to flip to left tackle. These are issues that likely will be addressed and tinkered with in the spring.
Mr. Mahoo: So many problems on offense - close eyes, throw dart - but, yes, fixing the O-Line tops my list. Even above the QB issue. Good offense starts with good trench play. Bad line play? Bad season, Jack. As many fans pointed out, we could have had Manning or Brady behind center and it wouldn't have made much difference. Next year we lose Aboushi, but the interior guys return. Hopefully Morgan Moses returns to. If our O-Line improves, whoever wins the QB spot (please please please have it be 1 QB, not 6) will suddenly look pretty darn good. If our line play doesn't improve, well, being close to the holidays and all, I don't want to think about that.
Deja Hoo: Clearly, this is mission critical. I would annex to that a closely associated objective: maximizing the potential of our running backs. I recall Greg Waters' critique of the Virginia Tech game, citing the running backs for missing too many running lanes or blocking assignments. If the better defenses we face continue to crowd the line of scrimmage and thereby bottle up our running game, it's going to be another long season. This can only be alleviated by all of the components meshing: the OL gelling, the RBs executing, and the passing game exacting a price for moving up the safeties and linebackers and sending them on blitzes. We will have an exceptionally talented crop of tailbacks, wideouts, and tight ends next year, but sharp, disciplined execution will be necessary to profit from them.
Anthony Harris and the secondary gained a lot of experience in 2012.
Linebackers Steve Greer and La'Roy Reynolds picked up some postseason honors too. Is finding out how to reboot the linebacking corps the defense's No. 1 focus for this offseason?
Mike: Aside from finding ways to get more turnovers, the key focus will be on replacing Greer and Reynolds. There will be some growing pains, certainly, but Virginia has very talented, though somewhat inexperienced, players waiting for their opportunity to shine. Henry Coley and Daquan Romero have starting experience and could anchor that unit, while D.J. Hill and Demeitre Brim got experience as well. But all eyes may be on Kwontie Moore, one of the top recruits from the 2011 class. Moore saw most of his action on special teams this season, but is certain to compete for the starting middle linebacker position. How he progresses may be the deciding factor in how good the linebacking corps can be.
Andrew: The secondary returns all five regulars (including nickel back Maurice Canady) and the D-Line only loses Will Hill and Billy Schautz in its deep rotation. Because both of those groups seem set, yes, the linebacker position will have to be deeply addressed. Greer and Reynolds not only brought talent and stability to the heart of this defense, they brought leadership. When two-fifths of your captains are sitting at linebacker, I'm sure Jim Reid rarely had nervous moments thinking about that position.
So what will the 2013 UVa LB corps look like? In the middle, Kwontie Moore, a 6'2", 250-pound rising sophomore, appears to be in the classic MLB mold. It'll be a lot for a young player to handle, but the new defensive coordinator should arrange his system with Moore in mind. He's a big piece - literally and figuratively - to the defense going forward. On the weak-side, I thought D.J. Hill filled in nicely this season when Reynolds was out. He's the early favorite to take that spot. On the strong-side, there, once again, should be a battle between Henry Coley and Daquan Romero. Coley won this competition last summer and then lost his spot to Romero because of suspension late in the season. The loser of this battle could then challenge Hill on the weak-side.
Mr. Mahoo: In terms of position, there's no question linebacker is the focus. While I saw good moments from Daquan Romero, Henry Coley, and Demeitre Brim, I'll be holding my breath to see who steps up. We lose a lot of tackles and leadership in Greer and Reynolds.
In terms of the Number 1 focus for the defense, it's all about the new DC - who is it, what's his style, and how quickly will he gel with his players? It's a huge hire. If London gets it right, it will erase much of the discontent about Reid's departure. If he doesn't, batten down one more hatch.
Deja Hoo: Yes - this will be another nail-biting aspect of the spring and summer camp run-ups to 2013. It will be strange not to see Greer (or his mentor Jon Copper) clogging up the middle and piling up tackles after what seems like a decade of having one or the other. Will Henry Coley come off his suspension and fulfill the potential we've been reading about for three years? Will Daquan Romero fill Reynolds' shoes as a buccaneering type of linebacker? What can the younger but well-regarded prospects accomplish when pressed into regular duty? We did not seem to get a lot of rotation and PT for backups this year, because we were so dependent on Greer's and Reynolds' playmaking. So restocking this position will provide plenty of angst until we find out what we've got there (and maybe thereafter!).
Coach London faces some offseason headaches as he retools his staff.
UVa and Mike London made some coaching changes shortly after the season ended with a 4-8 record. Do you think making some coaching changes was necessary? Did London go too far, not far enough, or get it just right by changing four assistant coaching positions on the staff?
Mike: I think it is too early to say whether these particular coaching changes were necessary. Some suggest the coaching changes had to do with the staff having too little FBS coaching experience. That might be true for Jim Reid (2 years in FBS), Shawn Moore (no FBS experience), and Jeff Hansen (no FBS experience). But Mike Faragalli had eight years FBS experience in addition to professional coaching experience in the CFL. Also factor in that the staff still retains two other coaches with no FBS experience beyond Virginia: Vince Brown and Chip West. Maybe FBS experience had something to do with it, but it wasn't the primary reason for change. Was there pressure from administration to make specific personnel changes to the staff, or even general pressure to upgrade the staff? If so, that's a bit troubling just three years into London's tenure at UVa. A solid upgrade in coaching experience and talent might show this to be a solid move. Perhaps some of these dismissals are in lieu of a realignment of the staff to cover other areas (more on that below).
Andrew: After a second 4-8 season in three years, Mike London had to shake things up. Whether it was because of pressure from those above him or because he saw the need himself, the Cavalier coaching staff couldn't look exactly the same for 2013. With that being said, yes, it was necessary to make changes.
Did he make the right ones? That's an interesting question. The Jim Reid firing has sparked much debate and questioning from players to fans to recruits. The defense, as young as it was, made huge strides from August to November. Hell, it almost beat Virginia Tech by itself. The numbers were good (31st nationally in total defense), but the play-making wasn't always there. A more conservative defensive approach (not highlighted with crazy blitz packages) led to low production in sacks and forced turnovers.
Personally, and I know I'm not alone here, I felt the bigger problems were on the offensive side of the ball. Yes, Faragalli (RBs) and Shawn Moore (TEs) were let go, but I'm not sure that'll spark a huge change on the scoreboard. Next year will be a telling one for Bill Lazor and how he creates an offense around the starting quarterback, likely to be a more seasoned Phillip Sims.
Mr. Mahoo: First, the easy question. Yes, coaching changes were needed. Even my Grandma Mitzi could see that, and she's been dead for thirty years. As for the next question, it's not clear how much of it was London's decision. Putting that aside, he/they went too far (fired the wrong coaches), didn't go far enough (kept the wrong coaches), and by process of elimination, didn't get most of it right. I do give him/them credit for re-assigning Dex. In the right slot, Dex is a major plus. But I don't like the Reid dismissal. We lose a coach who connected with players and recruits and did a solid job. The defense was not the problem this year. Why Reid was let go and who was behind it remains one of the great mysteries. Where's Jimmy Hoffa buried, where did Amelia Earheart go down, and who fired Jim Reid? More than likely, we'll never find out.
Deja Hoo: It is very difficult for me as an outsider to second-guess the coaching changes (not that it prevented an avalanche of zingers from the mob of puzzled Sabre posters). The decision did seem anomalous in the case of Jim Reid, since the defense generally appeared to be pulling its own weight as the season drew towards a close. And then there is the Excedrin headache of coveted Richmond-area recruits already in the fold who are now rethinking their commitments. But that said, everyone would be justly upset if there weren't a shakeup after 2012, and we'll just have to see who the replacements are before assessing the outcome. You have to defer to the guys with heavy accountability: Craig Littlepage, Jon Oliver, and Mike London himself.
If you were the head coach, what would be your top priority for the search for assistant coaches that is under way?
Mike: I believe that London has to bring in coaches with proven FBS experience at a high level, particularly in the Defensive Coordinator position. With the dismissal of coach Shawn Moore, I expect coach Scott Wachenheim to move back to tight ends. That makes room for a new offensive line coach, perhaps the greatest area of concern for Virginia next season. Did I mention Ron Mattes? While not too experienced at the FBS level, Mattes had Virginia's offensive line playing well after just one season coaching them as a graduate assistant. The deterioration of the offensive line isn't just with inexperience. I believe the Cavaliers have really missed Mattes' instruction, particularly with technique. A big time defensive coordinator and a quality instructor at offensive line should be the greatest concerns. And hopefully someone on staff, or a new hire, can manage special teams a lot better. In seasons with little margin for error, special teams can make or break a game or two, as we witnessed in 2012.
Andrew: Starting with the defensive coordinator position, I'd go for somebody with a more aggressive nature. UVa was 10th in the ACC in sacks and last in takeaways in 2012. Jon Tenuta seems to be the name floating around the most concerning the gig. Currently the linebackers coach at NC State, Tenuta was part of a unit that was second in the ACC in sacks and takeaways and this season. The other noticeable piece to Tenuta's resume? He has FBS coaching experience. That's the key to the rest of these hires. London's current staff isn't loaded with previous FBS coaching experience. A change in that could lead to a change in results.
Mr. Mahoo: Experience. We need coaches with bona fide FBS credentials, guys with proven success at respected programs. Particularly for the DC hire. It's not time to save a few bucks to find the diamond-in-the-rough, the eager beaver who wants to step up from a small school. Get out your bill fold, Mr. Littlepage. Find us a stud DC and show the man some serious green! Beyond that, it's important that the new coaches relate great with players, represent the school superbly, and are formidable recruiters. Not just ok. Formidable. Am I asking too much? I don't care. That's what I want. And another thing. Make sure one of them can mow my lawn next summer, too.
Deja Hoo: There is a lot of pressure to get the DC post filled with the right guy. UVa stakeholders are holding their breath for someone with impressive credentials, a motivator-teacher who can get the defenders on the same page and balance aggressiveness with prudence and technique; and someone who can fill the void left by Reid's departure as a respected recruiter. And, I guess we can go ahead and rule out a disciple of the 3-4.
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