CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) – Looking around the room, Virginia’s players see signs of greatness everywhere.
A big-armed new quarterback in Greyson Lambert with plenty of skill players to lean on. An aggressive defense more familiar with the system in its second year under defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta.
“We see what the potential is that we have,” tackle David Dean said. “We see the ceiling that we have, and it’s only us that can stop us from reaching that ceiling.”
In many ways for the Cavaliers, it’s like last year’s 2-10 record never happened.
But it did, and coach Mike London — whose fifth year could determine if he gets a sixth at Virginia — is well-aware things need to improve.
Virginia was fifth nationally in time of possession, keeping the ball for better than 33 minutes per game, but 110th in scoring, averaging just 19.6 points. The Cavaliers forced 21 turnovers but turned them into just 13 points and ranked 74th nationally in red-zone efficiency with just 21 touchdowns on 41 attempts.
“It’s great to execute, it’s great to have the ball, but if you don’t produce, if you don’t have points coming out of that, then that’s a statistic that obviously is not in our favor,” London said. “Our focus is on the executing of the offense. … One of the functions of an offense is scoring points.”
The hope is that Lambert, a 6-5 redshirt sophomore who supplanted incumbent David Watford in the spring, will help, as will an emerging group of wide receivers. It may take a few of them to replace receiving leader Jake McGee, a 6-6 tight end who transferred to Florida for his final season.
“They’ve been the biggest surprise I think this spring,” offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild said. “That’s probably where we are most improved.”
Running back also is solid with Kevin Parks providing the power and fellow senior Khalek Shepherd and sophomore Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell both possessing the breakaway speed that can produce big plays.
The defense has two new assistants in defensive line coach Jappy Oliver and safeties coach Mike Archer, both of whom have histories working with Tenuta. The unit will be led by tackle David Dean, middle linebacker Henry Coley and safety Anthony Harris, whose eight interceptions led the nation.
Here are five things to watch for with Virginia this season:
Who’s Blocking?: The loss of left tackle Jay Whitmire to injury has left the Cavaliers scrambling to put together an offensive line, which is critical to everything. A week into camp, offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild said players were still being moved around to find the best combination. With offensive efficiency a focus, opening holes for the tailbacks and keeping Lambert upright will be imperatives.
The Schedule: The Cavaliers open with three straight home games, none of them easy, and a poor start could send the season into a tailspin before October. They open with expected national contender UCLA and then play a very experienced Richmond of the FCS and ACC newcomer Louisville in the first three weeks.
Replacing McGee: Hope always springs eternal before the games actually begin, and the talk of tough competition among the receiving corps needs to translate onto the field. Tight end Jake McGee was the team’s best receiver until he transferred to Florida, and at least one big receiver needs to emerge as a go-to guy. Leading options appear to be wide receivers Kyle Dockins, Keeon Johnson and Miles Gooch and tight end Zach Swanson.
New Coaches: Tenuta’s arrival last season meant that the players and his assistant coaches all had to learn his system, and that won’t be the case this year. Oliver and Archer both have worked with him before, and the players have a year under their belts in the system, which relies on ball disruption, forcing turnovers and sacking the quarterback. More of each of those would be a welcome development.
London Falling?: Virginia has won just six of 24 games the last two seasons, making an 8-5 record and bowl berth three years ago seem like a distant memory. The team worked extensively on chemistry in the offseason, and many players have said the losing has been the fault of the players, not the coach. Whether that accountability helps, and translates into victories, will determine the tone of the season.