Team: Virginia Cavaliers
2011 W-L: 8-5 (5-3)
Head Coach: Mike London (12-13; third season)
Returning Starters: 12 (7 Offense, 5 Defense)
Mike London’s Virginia team surprised the conference last year, winning eight games on the backs of a veteran defense that ranked in the top five (in the ACC) against both the run and pass. Now, the question begs how they’re going to top that. So far this offseason, it appears they’re well on their way. Landing Alabama QB transfer Phillip Sims was huge, and getting him eligibility for this season was enormous (despite the ensuing/ongoing drama as a result). The biggest coup, however, may be what Mike London’s done in the recruiting game. As of last night, the Hoos are in uncharted waters — pulling down a top-20 class — and continuing to make waves. But will that momentum reflect at all on the field this year? That’s still up for debate.
For all the good will surrounding the program coming off last year’s over-achievement, there are still tons of question marks to be addressed. And of course, they start at quarterback. Last year, starter Michael Rocco was efficient enough, throwing for 2,600 yards and 13 touchdowns. Without Sims, he’s firmly entrenched as a team leader and returning starter. But with him, there’s a lingering doubt that he’ll be able to get things done. If you look at his game-by-game progression from last year, you see a quarterback that grew into his role and delivered consistent — though average — numbers, with upward spikes for a few impressive performances. What’s alarming, though, is his performance against quicker, more blitz-heavy defenses. In those games (I count five), the team went 1-4, with Rocco four TDs to six interceptions. At the collegiate level, Sims may not be a proven commodity, but in high school, the quarterback made a living under pressure and while not a “running QB,” he does know how to move his feet. Sims may not know the offense yet, but once he does, there may be a greater conversation to be had here, all dependent on Rocco’s results.
Elsewhere on offense, Virginia offensive line stands out as a true strength, paving the way for what should be a big year for senior running back Perry Jones, and protege Kevin Parks, too. The Cavaliers had a solid running game last year, averaging a little over 162 yards per game on the ground, but with two experienced runners this year, the bar has been set much higher for them to deliver, especially given the uncertainty at the wideout position. Can junior Tim Smith step up into the role of primary receiver? With just one year of experience under his belt, he’s a “veteran” by definition, but in no way does he have a lock on his role. Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell will also play factors, but again, plenty left for them to prove they’re anything beyond role players that managed to catch a few passes last season. As long as Rocco’s leading the offense, we’ll likely again be looking at a west-coast style offense that plays off of Jones, with the receiving corp spreading the wealth of catches around.
On defense, your role players become a bit less clear-cut, though they draw their strength from the linebacker position overall. Senior MLB Steve Greer heads the unit, and it’s clear that the team will be leaning on his quickness and leadership given the youth surrounding him. Not operating alone, however, fellow linebackers Ausar Walcott and LaRoy Reynolds fill out a group that is bent on terrorizing defenses while making up for the lack of real experience up front or in the secondary. At least on the line, they’ll get some help from defensive end Jake Snyder, who’s looking to see more involvement in the pass rush this year (he had just one sack last season). The secondary remains a series of question marks, however. Cornerback Demetrious Nicholson is a somewhat known commodity, but the hope is the rest of these guys can come together and bond over opportunity and their apparent talent. They’ll need it in a league chock-full of skilled passers and quick, sure-handed receivers.
This squad excelled in close games last year, and given their strength of schedule, it’s assumed they’ll have to do so again this year if they hope to match or exceed the eight-win mark. Four of their first five are serious tests (yes, even Louisiana Tech), and we’ll quickly be able to get a read on just how ready this team is to be a serious contender in the ACC. This feat-to-the-fire approach also puts the microscope on Rocco, too. Simply game-managing won’t necessarily be enough anymore, and he’ll need to show coaches that he has what it takes to lead this team. Despite the sanctions, UVa’s early date with Penn State will be huge, and the trip to Fort Worth to take on TCU will be a harrowing one at best. Both teams employ blitzing defensive schemes, something the quarterback must show progress against in order to stick around. Fair or not, if Sims shows competence, you may see him early. Regardless of who’s under center though, this will be a compelling squad to watch, with fun storylines over the first few months.
Prediction: (8-4) (5-3); Music City Bowl in Nashville