CHARLOTTESVILLE – One of the many issues surrounding the Virginia football program is the disposition of the Cavaliers’ 2014 recruiting class.
The Cavaliers received early commitments from two of the state’s consensus top-five prospects, safety Quin Blanding from Virginia Beach and defensive lineman Andrew Brown from Chesapeake, and they also landed the state’s top offensive-line prospect, Steven Moss from the Fredericksburg area.
Moreover, 2013 signee Corwin Cutler, a quarterback from Virginia Beach, is prepping at Fork Union Military. Under four-year head coach Mike London, recruiting in Southeastern Virginia, widely recognized by its 757 area code, has never been better.
Certainly, questions about the long-term viability of the London regime have crept up during the Cavaliers’ escalating losing streak, but what’s clear is that 757 recruiting would be better with London than without him.
Some might question if 757 talent is overvalued, but players from Southeastern Virginia had a major impact on rival Virginia Tech’s rise to power, starting with quarterback Michael Vick and including the likes of DeAngelo Hall.
Bringing back London for a fifth season gives Virginia its best chance and maybe its only chance of holding onto Blanding, Brown and Co., but what if the Cavaliers’ current four-game losing streak escalates into a season-ending nine-game losing streak?
How could athletic director Craig Littlepage and executive associate athletic director Jon Oliver face big-money donors, not to mention the season-ticket base?
Coach’s Path Has Been Rocky
It is a widely held opinion that Virginia botched the original search when former head coach Al Groh was fired following the 2009 season. The Cavaliers did not even contact then-Temple coach Al Golden, a former Cavaliers’ defensive coordinator who had cut his coaching teeth as a UVa grad assistant under George Welsh.
So, a year later, Golden took the job at Miami, where UVa fans regularly get to see him on television, most recently when his unbeaten Hurricanes faced North Carolina in a Thursday night game on ESPN. Golden’s button-down Oxford and tie wouldn’t play better anywhere than it would in Charlottesville.
Oliver, the UVa administrator who oversees football, realized that Virginia was in a danger zone when it lost six straight games in 2012. As a result, he pushed for the dismissal of four assistant coaches within 10 days of the end of a 4-8 season.
A fifth assistant, three-year offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, resigned in early February to take a job as quarterbacks coach for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Nobody at Virginia wanted to lose Lazor, and the Cavaliers suffered another loss when Jeff Banks, slated to take over the UVa special teams, resigned in his first week in Charlottesville.
Banks had come from Texas-El Paso, not exactly a cradle of coaches, but he was considered one of the top special-teams coaches in the country. He also coached running backs and had been a recruiting coordinator.
Fans may not have realized what they were losing when Banks subsequently resigned to join the staff of old friend Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M, but, at 38, he would have been the second-youngest assistant on the Cavaliers’ staff. Lazor would have been the third-youngest at 41.
Much has been made of this year’s retooled Virginia staff, which includes three assistants who have been head coaches at the Division I level: associate head coach Tom O’Brien, offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild and Banks’ special-teams’ mentor, Larry Lewis.
That’s a tremendous amount of experience and the assistants spoke glowingly in the preseason about the daily exchange of ideas, but when you add new defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, that’s four new assistants in their 50s or 60s.
One might wonder how they might relate to teenagers, in some cases, but Duke head coach David Cutcliffe is 59 and has some older coaches on his staff. They didn’t seem to have much problem getting the Blue Devils’ attention when they rallied from a 22-0 first-half deficit to defeat the Cavaliers 35-22 on Oct. 19.
Maryland, Duke Losses Sting
Not only was it UVa’s fourth loss in a row, but it was also the Cavaliers’ third straight loss after leading or being tied in the second half. One week earlier, Virginia lost 27-26 at Maryland when back-up kicker Alec Vozenilek missed a 42-yard field goal with 10 seconds left.
Vozenilek earlier had kicked four field goals, and it was hard to blame him. Criticism centered on play-calling that put the onus on Vozenilek rather than making an effort to score a touchdown.
Virginia got as far as Maryland’s 10-yard line or deeper on six possessions but came away with only two touchdowns. The day started with the Cavaliers kicking a field goal after failing to score on second-and-inches from the goal line.
London was correct in pointing out that the Maryland game was the high point of quarterback David Watford’s season. Watford followed that by posting his third straight 200-yard passing day against Duke, but Watford completed only seven of his last 19 passes and continued to demonstrate a problem with overthrowing receivers.
Watford finished 20-of-38 but completed only three passes to wide receivers, which has been a growing trend. The wide-receiving corps, viewed as one of the Cavaliers’ strong points going into the season, has not flourished under Marques Hagans, in his first season as a full-time assistant after coaching the UVa wideouts as a grad assistant in 2012.
The inability to generate a first down on four straight possessions put a huge burden on the Cavaliers’ defense in the second half and that group was not up the challenge. For one thing, UVa was without two of its five best defensive players, fifth-year defensive tackled Brent Urban and cornerback Demetrious Nicholson.
Nicholson, who was at the forefront of the 757 emigration to Charlottesville, had started 30 consecutive games – every UVa game since his arrival in Charlottesville – before an undisclosed lower-extremity injury put him out of commission for three games and who knows how much longer?
Urban, a 6-7, 295-pound fifth-year senior, was having a breakout year until he suffered an ankle injury while recording a sack early in the second quarter at Maryland. He missed that game and was on crutches, wearing a boot, while watching the Duke game from the sidelines.
Fifth-year defensive end and co-captain Jake Snyder said after Maryland game that Urban had been UVa’s best player to that point, and nobody disagreed with him, although the D-line continued to play at a higher level than the secondary, whose poor tackling and inability to disrupt jump balls led to the loss in College Park.
Some insiders say that UVa’s biggest problem is a shortage of talent, but it’s reasonable to wonder where the Cavaliers would be if two-year starter Michael Rocco had not transferred to Richmond as the result of what he called “an unhealthy environment” for quarterbacks at Virginia.
Errant Rocco throws were factors in several UVa losses during the 2012 season, but he was also the starting quarterback in wins over Florida State, Penn State and twice against Miami. That seems so distant now.