Several promising 2014 recruits likely played a big role in Mike London's return as UVa's coach next season.
CHARLOTTESVILLE – At least one of the reasons that Mike London will be returning for a fifth season as Virginia football coach is the largely completed recruiting class the Cavaliers have put together for 2014.
Virginia has commitments from two of the top players in the country at their positions, defensive tackle Andrew Brown from Chesapeake and safety Quin Blanding from Virginia Beach, but this weekend will be crucial as the Cavaliers attempt to upgrade their offensive game.
Headed to Charlottesville for an official visit is Jamil Kamara, a 6-1, 202-pound wide receiver from Virginia Beach. He will be joined by 6-4, 190-pound quarterback Corwin Cutler, a 2013 UVa signee who is taking a postgraduate year at Fork Union Military Academy.
It’s hard to see Cutler coming in and taking the quarterback job from David Watford, who has two years of remaining eligibility, or Greyson Lambert, who has three more years, but Kamara knows Cutler and would be comfortable with him going forward.
Virginia long has been seen as the leader for Kamara but it seemed the Cavaliers (2-10, 0-8 ACC) were fading as their losses began to mount and teams like South Carolina entered the fray. Kamara has taken visits to Wisconsin and Michigan State but an early contender, Pittsburgh, no longer is in the picture.
Virginia, with 12 commitments to date, had two prospects on campus for the Cavaliers’ regular-season finale against Virginia Tech, won by the Hokies 16-6. One was previously committed California wide receiver Jeffery Farrar. The other was 6-5, 240-pound tight end Blake Whitley from Vancouver, British Columbia, by way of Arizona Western Junior College.
Two of Virginia’s more prominent returnees are tight ends Jake McGee, the Cavaliers’ receiving leader this season, and Zach Swanson, the more accomplished blocker of the twosome. They will be fifth-year seniors in 2014 and there is no obvious successor on the current roster.
Only seven scholarship players completed their eligibility with the loss to Virginia Tech. One of them was fullback Billy Skrobacz, a walk-on who received a grant during the summer. The others are offensive linemen Morgan Moses and Luke Bowanko, defensive linemen Jake Snyder and Brent Urban, wide receiver Tim Smith and defensive back Rijo Walker.
Another senior, offensive lineman Sean Cascarano, was injured and never played this season after starting every game in 2012. He was not an all-conference player at that point but would have provided options for a UVa offensive line that had a true freshman, Eric Smith, starting at offensive tackle for the second half of the season.
Predicting a vast improvement for 2014 would be risky, but Virginia will add two players who missed all or part of the 2013 season. They are defensive lineman Chris Brathwaite, who returns for a fifth year after spending this season on academic probation, and cornerback Demetrious Nicholson, who did not play after the fifth game of the season.
Nicholson, shut down for the season as the result of a turf toe, had not missed a start over the 30 games since his arrival at UVa and was one of London’s signature early recruits. UVa’s other starting cornerback, Maurice Canady, missed a chunk of games during the second half of the season as the result of a lacerated kidney.
Canady was available for the last two games of the season, although he was pressed into service at safety for the finale. Anthony Harris, the Cavaliers’ best defensive player from start to finish, was suspended for the first two quarters of the Virginia Tech game after his ejection one week earlier for “targeting” in a 45-26 loss at Miami.
While the record indicated otherwise, Virginia made strides defensively under first-year coordinator Jon Tenuta, significantly improving its numbers in terms of takeaways and sacks. UVa potentially could start a secondary next year of Nicholson and Canady at cornerback, with Harris and Blanding at safety.
Defensive end Eli Harold had three of Virginia’s five sacks against Virginia Tech in what was arguably the best game of his first two seasons at UVa. While the case is seldom made in debates over whether London should be given a fifth year, the injuries to Nicholson and, Urban, who suffered a high-ankle sprain Oct. 12 at Maryland and didn’t return for six weeks, clearly had an impact.
Given that Virginia lost to Maryland 27-26, the case could be made that an able-bodied Urban might have made a difference and there were two subsequent games, against Ball State and Duke, that got out of hand late. Injuries on the defensive side of the ball certainly qualified as mitigating circumstances.
Could Rocco Have Made Difference?
While the availability of Nicholson, Urban and Canady may have led to one or two more victories, UVa followers were left to wonder how things might have been different if quarterback Michael Rocco, a starter in 21 of 26 games the past two seasons, had been available. Rocco transferred to Richmond, where he was redshirted and will compete with another former UVa quarterback, Michael Strauss, who passed for 3,808 yards and 26 touchdowns this year.
In hindsight, Rocco would have been better served by waiting until the spring, at which point rival Phillip Sims was on his way to being declared academically ineligible. One wonders, when Rocco requested his release in early December, if London made every argument to keep him.
At that point, London was looking at a possible three-way battle between Rocco, Sims and Watford for 2013. It has been clear since Watford enrolled in January 2011 that he was viewed as the Cavaliers’ quarterback of the future. He played at some point during each of the first six games of the 2011 season and clearly wasn’t ready.
The question is, can Watford take the Cavaliers to a higher level in 2013? Watford threw just eight touchdowns against 15 interceptions and finished the season 102nd out of 104 FBS quarterbacks in passing efficiency.
What will be interesting is to watch what happens to the coaching staff. One week after the end of a 4-8 season in 2012, four assistants were let go. However, the biggest loss may have been the late January departure of three-year offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, who resigned to join the new Philadelphia Eagles staff as quarterbacks coach.
His replacement was former Colorado State head coach Steve Faircloth, whose impressive résumé included two stints as an NFL offensive coordinator. Faircloth had some weapons, including a running back (Kevin Parks) who rushed for more than 1,000 yards, but the UVa passing game was a mess.