As the ACC‘s spring practices get under way, we’ll be previewing the big storylines for each of the league’s 14 (15, in this case) teams. Check back on weekdays for what to look out for during your school’s spring practices and spring game.
Team: Virginia Cavaliers
Spring Practice Start Date: March 18
Spring Game Date:
Head coach Mike London felt some heat after a disappointing third season, replacing both his offensive and defensive coordinators in the hopes of sparking a new fire with his players. Now, he’ll need to hope that does the trick for a group returning 14 starters from last season; a decent amount of leadership coming back that should at least give the team a leg up compared to last year’s project (especially on defense). Virginia has also elected to schedule pretty aggressively this year (and for the foreseeable future), meaning progress may end up being tougher to spot in clear sight.
With a strong group of receivers returning, along with leading rusher Kevin Parks and most of the offensive line (four of five), you’d think the Hoos’ offense would be largely settled. Unfortunately, though, that’s not the case. Last year’s quarterback platoon of incumbent starter Michael Rocco and Alabama transfer Phillip Sims led to Rocco leaving the program, yet that doesn’t mean Simms automatically has the job. Junior David Watford‘s been around the program longer, though that may not matter in new O-coordinator Steve Fairchild’s system. As a former quarterback himself, Fairchild’s likely to favor the best arm, meaning Simms’s dual-threat capabilities may not be as important. It’s likely the offense sees some additional pro-style influence from former NC State head coach Tom O’Brien, now an offensive assistant with UVa. This spring will be a telling sign toward the direction the squad takes this fall, but at this point, expect anything — Watford or Simms as the starter, or maybe even both. While there are certainly critics of how London ran a two-passer system last year, I’m unsure whether that’ll deter him from doing so again if the two players are in a close competition.
Defensively, the team continues its seemingly annual churn at linebacker, after losing all three of last year’s starters to graduation. The team has plenty of depth at the position, but it also creates some uncertainty around who to plug in at the starting spots. D.J. Hill and Daquan Romero are among the frontrunners for the outside linebacker spots, while Henry Coley should also figure in to the rotation. In the middle, Kwontie Moore has virtually been handed the reins already, mostly because he’s the only true inside linebacker they’ve got at practice. Should he fail to be up to the task in the middle, perhaps one of the numerous OLBs steps up in his place, but right now, this spring will be all about testing him in that central role. Where the Hoos actually bring back a ton of leadership this season though, is in the defensive backfield. Early on last year, the young, inexperienced corners and safeties plugged in were continually abused by opposing defenses, but that changed over time. Three of the team’s final opponents scored less than 20 points, and much of that is attributable to the defensive backs’ maturity over the course of the season. Demetrious Nicholson can certainly head up this part of the field, but it’ll be a group effort, and one they’ve hopefully improved upon after last year’s rough outing.
Ideally, you’d love to bring a veteran group into coaching changes — especially when it’s on both sides of the ball — but perhaps it’s not the worst thing for Virginia this spring. Key position battles at quarterback and linebacker allow new coaches not to play favorites and let things develop gradually. It’s a short run-up to the spring game, too, so players must take advantage of the limited time they’re granted before that point. This spring will tell an awful lot of the type of program UVa will be in 2013, especially since their tough schedule gives them two immediate tests with BYU and Oregon to open this fall.