2015 CFB Preview – Virginia

    Virginia CavaliersGo to Team Page CavaliersGo to Selection Page           This is Mike London’s last stand. No, seriously. By

    July 1, 2015

    Virginia
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    This is Mike London’s last stand. No, seriously.

    By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello

    Last year’s narrative strongly suggested that Virginia had to bowl to save its coach’s job. The ‘Hoos went 5-7, winning just once after Oct. 4, yet AD Craig Littlepage resisted the temptation to make a change at the top. London is now 23-38 through five seasons, feeding the notion that as a head coach, he makes a very good recruiter. Although the talent level in Charlottesville has steadily risen, the results have not.

    And at some point, UVa will be forced to pull the plug if business as usual continues. The coach and his players will operate under intense pressure and scrutiny this fall, which is no different than the past few seasons.

    London’s top priority—again—will be to light a fire under a weak offense. The fact that the Cavaliers improved a year ago meant little, because the unit still ranked well below the rest of the ACC. And a combination of poor run blocking and too many interceptions were likely the difference between a coveted bowl game and being home in December.

    Virginia needs a quarterback, specifically junior Matt Johns, to step up and seize the position this fall. And it needs the offensive line to first stay healthy and then create more running room for Kevin Parks’ successors. UVa will not reach its goals this season if more support doesn’t come from the offense.

    Unlike in 2014, Virginia might not be able to count on its defense with complete confidence. The unit will be good, especially in the secondary and right up the gut. But it’s also missing many of the key playmakers responsible for last season’s 33 sacks and 29 takeaways. If the Cavaliers are unable to ratchet up the pressure, even talented defensive backs, such as FS Quin Blanding and corners Maurice Canady, Demetrious Nicholson and Tim Harris, are going to buckle. Between now and the opener with UCLA at the Rose Bowl, coordinator Jon Tenuta must find a Cav or two who can flush the pocket.

    London is out of mulligans. In fact, he’s extremely fortunate to still be on the payroll following three losing seasons in a row, each of which ended with a loss to the hated Hokies. But even an ally like Littlepage will eventually lose his patience, particularly at a time when Tony Bennett keeps bringing more national attention to the UVa hoops team.

    If the Cavaliers are unable to navigate a thorny schedule featuring 10 bowl teams from 2014, they’ll be saying goodbye to the popular London in December, and preparing for the beginning of a new era of football in C’ville.

    What you need to know on offense: The Cavaliers produced their highest scoring average in nine years last season, yet no one, especially coordinator Steve Fairchild, is in the mood to celebrate. Offensive execution and potency have been perennial problems that have plagued this program long since before the current staff was hired. Fairchild plans to simplify his attack in 2015, employing a pro-style system that puts more emphasis on a power running game. Success, though, hinges on the health of a banged-up O-line and the emergence of former blue-chip RB Taquan Mizzell. If Mizzell and Daniel Hamm can keep the sticks moving, it’s going to make life much simpler for QB Matt Johns, who enticed chief competitor Greyson Lambert to transfer this past spring. Johns will access a pair of underrated senior receivers, budding Canaan Severin and Carolina transfer T.J. Thorpe. The ‘Hoos have also added Stanford transfer Charlie Hopkins to a tight end unit currently in the market for a front man.

    What you need to know on defense: : Jon Tenuta’s attacking D was the strength of the program in 2014. However, maintaining that trend mandates rebuilding the fringes of the front seven. The Cavaliers were so oppressive last year because they were able to pounce off the edge, but the top three sackers, DE Eli Harold and linebackers Max Valles and Henry Coley, have departed. Virginia needs to fill that void with the likes of ends Mike Moore and Kwontie Moore, and outside linebackers Zach Bradshaw and Mark Hall. Fortunately, the team has no such problems up the middle or in the secondary. Rising MLB Micah Kiser and tackles David Brown, Andrew Brown and Donte Wilkins will stifle opponents running between the tackles. And the Quin Blanding-led defensive backfield is flush in talent. Oft-injured Demetrious Nicholson has finally rejoined Maurice Canady and Tim Harris at cornerback, and the emergence of Kelvin Rainey at strong safety has prevented the staff from having to tinker with the corners. If this team can develop a couple of steady edge rushers, the overall decline from 2014 will be minimal.

    What to look for on offense: Fullback sightings. While coordinator Steve Fairchild hasn’t used a fullback much in recent years, Connor Wingo-Reeves and Vincent Croce could get their uniforms dirty this fall. The Cavaliers want to establish a power running game, with help from the fullbacks and a seasoned line that needs to get everyone healthy. By using the run to set up the pass, Fairchild hopes to take some heat off the skittish quarterbacks, while creating play-action opportunities to locate big-play receivers T.J. Thorpe and Canaan Severin.

    What to look for on defense: Mining for pass rushers. The ‘Hoos had three players, Eli Harold, Henry Coley and Max Valles, get to the quarterback at least seven times in 2014. All three are gone, creating a huge void for coordinator Jon Tenuta. Right now, the ends are journeymen and the outside linebackers lack extensive experience. It’s a good thing that the cornerbacks are first-rate, because it’ll allow Tenuta to blitz liberally without necessarily having to pay the price on the back end of deep balls.

    This team will be much better if… the O-line improves as run blockers. Whoever rises to the top of the depth chart once everyone is healthy must be able to move a pile, creating daylight for Taquan Mizzell and Daniel Hamm. The Cavaliers averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and 138 rushing yards per game, which put undue pressure on the quarterbacks and the defense. And while the quarterbacks are a year older, the D won’t handle long stretches on the field as well as it did in 2014. If UVa wins the line of scrimmage, everyone on the team is going to benefit.

    The Schedule: The Cavaliers aren’t easing into the season, starting out going across the country to face UCLA and following it up against Notre Dame. If that wasn’t enough for September, they close out against Boise State.
    – While it’s not an easy stretch, UVa plays just one road game – at Pitt – over a five game stretch after opening up against UCLA. However …
    – It’s followed up by three road games in four weeks, including make-or-break dates at Miami and Louisville. The other problem? They’re wrapped around a home date against Georgia Tech.
    – Closing out with Duke and Virginia Tech at home should help. The rivalry game with the Hokies won’t be a breeze, but at least it’s in Charlottesville.
    – WATCH OUT FOR … Boise State. The team that won the Fiesta Bowl last season should be even stronger, and even though the Cavs get a tune-up against William & Mary first, it’ll be a fight six days later in the Friday showdown.

    Best Offensive Player: Senior WR Canaan Severin. Severn is one-half of an outside receiving tandem that’s going to be sneaky-good in Charlottesville this fall. He and fellow senior T.J. Thorpe, a North Carolina transfer, possess the size, catch-radius and wheels after the grab to support the quarterback’s development. And the Cav quarterbacks need all the assistance they can get this season. Overlooked in Severin’s scouting report are his work ethic and his hunger to keep improving, which is contagious to his teammates.

    Best Defensive Player: Senior FS Quin Blanding. One year. That’s all it took for Blanding to become the most accomplished Cavalier—on either side of the ball. He is the cover boy of one of the ACC’s best defensive backfields, and now he’s going to be its leader as well. Now that Anthony Harris has graduated, the job of setting the defense from the safety position belongs to Blanding. And despite being in only his second year on campus, he’s up to the challenge being presented by the coaching staff.

    Key player to a successful season: Junior QB Matt Johns. Greyson Lambert was the incumbent when spring began, but Johns, who was far more efficient and accurate with his throws according to the staff, trumped him. And a month later, Lambert announced he was leaving the program. Now, it’s up to Johns to build on his solid offseason. Problems in the passing game have plagued Mike London, who’s used six different starting quarterbacks in five years. In fact, the last Wahoo quarterback to rank in the top half of the ACC in passer rating was Marques Hagans in 2004? This program is hungry for stability behind center, and Johns has an opportunity to be that guy this summer.

    The season will be a success if … the Cavaliers qualify for a bowl game. Any bowl game. Admittedly, it’s kind of a reach for a mediocre ACC team that must travel to UCLA, Miami and Louisville, and host Notre Dame, Boise State, Georgia Tech, Duke and Virginia Tech. But this a program—and a coach—that’s squandered all of its mulligans over the past couple of seasons. One way or another, all of that young talent Mike London has signed recently must pull together and manufacture the six wins needed to get to the postseason.

    Key game: Nov. 28 vs. Virginia Tech. Eleven. Straight. Years. Nothing typifies the futility of the Mike London era more than the inability to defeat the rival Hokies. The Cavaliers came painfully close a year ago, losing 24-20 in a game that determined which commonwealth program would earn a bowl invitation. Tech is far more vulnerable than when this streak began over a decade ago. And it’ll play this year’s meeting at Scott Stadium. If London whiffs again this November, there’s a real good chance he’ll 0-fer his career in UVa’s most important rivalry game.

    2014 Fun Stats:
    – Turnovers: Virginia 24 – Opponents 29
    – Sacks: Virginia 34 – Opponents 16
    – Red-zone touchdown%: Virginia 47% – Opponents 56%

    Players You Need To Know

    1. FS Quin Blanding, Soph.
    Blanding was as good as advertised in his debut out of Bayside (Va.) High School. Nah, he was actually a whole lot better. Blanding authored one of the great all-time seasons for a first-year Cavalier defender, leading the team and all FBS rookies with 123 tackles. The imposing 6-1, 215-pounder was fittingly named ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year, showcasing the maturity, work ethic and tackling skills to make this his first of multiple All-American appearances before heading to the NFL.

    2. CB Maurice Canady, Sr.
    Canady elevated into one of the ACC’s premier defensive backs last year, while picking up the slack from the injured Demetrious Nicholson. In fact, it was a mild upset that he didn’t declare for early entry into the NFL Draft. The 6-0, 185-pounder has a next-level build to go along with emerging ball skills. And he’s cresting as a pass defender after turning three interceptions and a team-high dozen pass breakups into Second Team All-ACC honors in 2014.

    3. DT David Dean, Sr.
    Dean may never get the recognition that matches his importance to the D. But the Cavaliers are happy that their unsung hero has one year of eligibility left. The 6-1, 295-pound veteran of 23 career starts is stout versus the run, yet is also quick enough to rush the passer as an end in the 3-4. Dean was named honorable mention All-ACC in 2014 after tallying 40 tackles, eight stops for minus yards, a sack and an interception.

    4. WR Canaan Severin, Sr.
    Severin shook off a quiet first half to his career with a breakout performance in 2014. He started to put it all together with a team-high 42 receptions for 578 yards and five touchdowns, despite the inconsistencies at quarterback. At 6-2 and 215 pounds, Severin has a next-level frame to go along with outstanding ball skills. He’s shown a knack for artistically plucking the ball out of the air, extending his catch-radius to the benefit of the erratic Cavalier hurlers.

    5. CB Demetrious Nicholson, Sr.
    Now that the NCAA has approved his medical hardship waiver, Nicholson will be back in a Virginia uniform for one more year. The former all-star was limited to one game by a turf toe injury suffered in 2014. It was the same injury that shelved him for the final seven games of 2013. When healthy, Nicholson is a talented cover corner, sticking to receivers with his speed, soft hips and fluid back-pedal. The 5-11, 185-pounder breaks suddenly on throws, and has deflected 28 passes in his 31 career games.

    6. OT Jay Whitmire, Sr.
    Fingers are crossed on campus that Whitmire can return to full strength after sitting out all of 2014 with a back injury. He was supposed to be Virginia’s best—and most versatile—blocker a year ago, having swung between guard and tackle in 2013. The Cavaliers are cautiously optimistic about the availability of their 6-6, 300-pound veteran, because last season’s front wall had problems creating a push in the running game.

    7. RB Taquan Mizzell, Jr.
    It’s go time for Mizzell, the former can’t-miss recruit who’s been buried behind Kevin Parks the past two seasons. The Cavs are pining for a feature back now that Parks has graduated, and Mizzell is ready to handle the promotion. He’s a big-play weapon at 5-10 and 200 pounds, with the soft hands to serve as a valuable safety valve in the passing game. Mizzell was third on the team in all-purpose yards in 2014, rushing for 280 yards and two scores, and catching 39 passes for 271 yards.

    8. DT Andrew Brown, Soph.
    Injuries prevented Brown’s much-anticipated debut from ever getting off the tarmac. But the program is no less excited about the potential he has as a gap-busting interior lineman. While Brown arrived in C’ville as one of the highest rated recruits in school history, turf toe and a shoulder problem limited him to four tackles in six games. However, Brown’s mix of explosiveness and leverage in a solid 6-4, 290-pound frame will start paying enormous dividends in 2015 as long as he remains off the trainer’s table.

    9. DE Mike Moore, Sr.
    Moore is coming off a solid first season as a starter, which he’ll look to build on after fully recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. The son of legendary former ‘Hoos QB Shawn Moore chipped in with 36 tackles, eight stops for loss, three sacks and a team-high three fumble recoveries. While the 6-4, 275-pound Moore is being counted on to offset the lost pass rushing production of Eli Harold, Max Valles and Henry Coley, he has the size and strength to aid the run defense as well.

    10. PK Ian Frye, Sr.
    That Frye was one of the Cavaliers’ most reliable offensive weapons of 2014 was a double-edged sword. Sure, he was basically automatic inside of 50 yards, but Virginia is hoping he gets fewer chances this fall. At 6-6 and 205 pounds, the Groza Award semifinalist and All-ACC second-teamer is one of the tallest kickers ever. Frye made 22-of-27 field goal attempts, though he was good on just half of his tries beyond 40 yards.

    Head Coach: Mike London
    6th year: 23-38
    Schedule

    Sept. 5

    at UCLA
    Sept. 12 Notre Dame
    Sept. 19 William & Mary
    Sept. 25 Boise State
    Oct. 3 OPEN DATE
    Oct. 10 at Pitt
    Oct. 17 Syracuse
    Oct. 24 at North Carolina
    Oct. 31 Georgia Tech
    Nov. 7 at Miami
    Nov. 14 at Louisville
    Nov. 21 Duke
    Nov. 28 Virginia Tech
    Ten Best Virginia Players
    1. FS Quin Blanding, Soph.
    2. CB Maurice Canady, Sr.
    3. DT David Dean, Sr.
    4. WR Canaan Severin, Sr.
    5. CB Demetrious Nicholson, Sr.
    6. OT Jay Whitmire, Sr.
    7. RB Taquan Mizzell, Jr.
    8. DT Andrew Brown, Soph.
    9. DE Mike Moore, Sr.
    10. PK Ian Frye, Sr.

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