CHARLOTTESVILLE – Although staff changes that followed the 2012 football season weren’t entirely of his volition, Virginia coach Mike London couldn’t be more enthusiastic about the results.
“I think I’ve got one of the best staffs in college football,” said London at the ACC Kickoff in July.
Virginia was able to go 8-5 and get to the 2011 Chick-fil-A Bowl with his original staff, but London’s second 4-8 season in three years brought calls for changes from his superiors.
London’s retooled staff includes three former Division I head coaches, as well as a defensive coordinator, Jon Tenuta, whose credentials are as impressive as any of them.
Tenuta has been the defensive coordinator or associate head coach for defense at Ohio State, Notre Dame, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and N.C. State. He’s also a former Virginia defensive back who is married to a former UVa women’s basketball player, which may explain why the Cavaliers were able to get him.
Also, N.C. State did not retain the coaching staff of former Wolfpack head coach Tom O’Brien, who appeared headed for his Charleston, S.C., retirement home until he was persuaded to return to Virginia as associate head coach for offense.
Earlier in his career, O’Brien had worked at Virginia for 15 years as an assistant to head coach George Welsh during the most successful era in school history.
O’Brien, who left Virginia in 1996 to become the head coach at Boston College, is one of three former Division I head coaches on the UVa staff. The others are offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, head coach at Colorado State from 2008-2011, and Larry Lewis, head coach at Idaho State from 1999-2006.
Dismissed at the end of the 2012 season were defensive coordinator Jim Reid, defensive-line coach and recruiting coordinator Jeff Hanson, running backs coach Mike Faragalli and tight ends coach Shawn Moore. Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor resigned in January to take a position as quarterbacks coach for the Philadelphia Eagles.
In hindsight, London’s original Virginia staff had very little experience at the FBS level. Associate head coach Reid had spent one year on the staff at Syracuse and was with the Miami Dolphins when tapped by London but his head-coaching experience had come at FCS Richmond and VMI. (To his credit, Reid’s defense was performing at a higher level than Lazor’s higher-touted offense at the end of the season).
What the Cavaliers’ new staff has come to find out is that decisions made in recruiting have left Virginia with an uneven position mix. UVa has signed some of the state’s most elite prospects in recent years, players such as cornerback Demetrious Nicholson and defensive end Eli Harold, but some positions have been over-recruited and other have been under-recruited.
O’Brien, a terrific recruiter when he was a Virginia assistant, was quick to notice the disparity.
“There was no real planned number of scholarships,” O’Brien said. “I can’t say there wasn’t, but it certainly didn’t seem to be, as far as positional needs.
“The first thing we did, with 85 scholarships, was you allot three to the specialists – your kicker, your punter, your long snapper. I said to Jon and to Steve, ‘You guys each have 41 scholarships.’
“If you’re only allowed 41, you can’t have 14 wide receivers and seven offensive linemen. It doesn’t fit that way.”
The current Virginia roster includes 17 defensive backs – corners and safeties. Considering that many of the wide receivers and defensive backs were considered interchangeable when they were recruited, that’s an uncommon emphasis on one player type.
But, in all likelihood, there wasn’t an emphasis at all. Virginia was taking the best players it could get and, while it did get some good ones, the positions were out of whack.
The new recruiting coordinator, Chip West, is a holdover from the old staff. It was West who revitalized Virginia’s recruiting in the area of Southeastern Virginia often recognized by its area code, 757, but O’Brien’s charge is to keep an eye on such matters.
O’Brien’s lone position responsibility is the tight ends and he’ll be coaching one of the ACC’s best, Jake McGee, who had game-winning touchdown receptions last year against Penn State and Miami. Yet, McGee had fewer snaps last year than two other tight ends, seniors Colter Phillips and Paul Freedman, who were more valued for their blocking.
McGee was a high-school quarterback and safety, and O’Brien lamented the fact that there was not a tight end on the roster who had ever played with his hand on the ground. Moreover, there were several times a week when McGee had to leave practice early because of a class commitment.
O’Brien isn’t going to change UVa’s class schedule or curriculum but you can believe he’s asking if there’s a better time for the Cavaliers to practice.
Hagans Has Experienced Receivers
One of the less publicized staff changes involved Marques Hagans, one former UVa quarterback taking the full-time position of perhaps Virginia’s greatest all-time quarterback, Shawn Moore. You could have seen that coming when Moore, who had been coaching the wide receivers, was assigned the tight ends in 2012, with Hagans handling the wideouts as a grad assistant.
The receiving corps could be among Virginia’s top position groups this year with the return of Darius Jennings (48 receptions), Dominique Terrell (38), E.J. Scott (29) and Tim Smith (20). The oft-injured Smith, maybe the fastest group, has enjoyed his best preseason as a fifth-year senior.
For whatever reason, a unit that included the likes of McGee and running backs Perry Jones and Kevin Parks, who has rushed for 1,443 yards in his first two seasons of eligibility, sputtered late in the season. It will be up to Fairchild, previously an NFL coordinator for the St. Louis Rams and Buffalo Bills, to do more this year.
Uncertainty remains at the quarterback position since neither designated starter David Watford nor any of the other candidates attempted a pass last season. There’s also the matter of the schedule, which includes 2012 bowl participant Brigham Young and perennial national power Oregon coming to Charlottesville in the first two weeks.
On the other hand, Virginia will have a record eight games at Scott Stadium, where the Cavaliers were close to invincible during stretches in the 1990s. If the new guys aren’t aware of that, O’Brien is available to tell them it can happen.