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UVa's Bennett Hits, Misses On Trail

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 7:32am
  • Tony Bennett (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
     Tony Bennett (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
By: Virginia Insider

CHARLOTTESVILLE – Coach Tony Bennett was busy in mid-September, taking an oral commitment from 6-10, 230-pound Jack Salt from Auckland, New Zealand, before losing point guard Robert Johnson from Benedictine High outside Richmond.

Johnson, the more heavily coveted of the two, picked Indiana over the three other schools he had visited – North Carolina, UVa and Florida State – and Bennett and his staff were left to wonder if they had waited too long to make Johnson an offer and if that could have been helped.

The Cavaliers didn’t really have a backcourt spot open until Taylor Barnette announced in June that he would be transferring. Had Barnette let the Cavaliers know a little earlier – say, in April, when Paul Jesperson left – they could have made an offer to Johnson and wrapped up the deal before he blew up during the summer and other schools became involved.

Salt, whose recruiting allowed Bennett to use some of the ties he had as a professional player in New Zealand in the mid-1990s, was the "mystery recruit" that services had been mentioning for several weeks. Pittsburgh and Boise were on a short list of suitors, but Bennett was so intrigued by Salt that he pulled an offer to 6-9 Lithuanian Martin Geben prior to a scheduled visit.

Geben, who plays at St. Maria Goretti in Hagerstown, Md., ended up committing to Notre Dame and was likely to pick the Irish in any event. UVa was left with one scholarship available for the spring and may step up its push for 6-6 Blairstown, N.J., wing Marial Shayok, who visited Charlottesville on the same late August weekend as Johnson and 6-8 Isaiah Wilkins, who subsequently committed to the Cavaliers.   

Football Picture Gets Clearer 

In an ongoing search for its football identity, Virginia has not been aided by its schedule.

Since rallying for a 16-13 victory over Brigham Young in the season opener, the Cavaliers have lost a game by 49 points, won a game by 49 points and had an open date.

Virginia was ranked 116th in FBS in total offense going into its Sept. 21 game with VMI. That statistic wasn’t a good reflection of the kind of offense Virginia has. Neither were the 580 yards in total offense, including 357 yards on the ground, that the Cavaliers registered in a 49-0 romp over the Keydets.

A clearer picture should come into focus when Virginia visits Pittsburgh on Sept. 28 for the Cavaliers’ first road game of the season. The Panthers, facing UVa for the first time as ACC members, are coming off a 58-55 shootout victory at Duke.

The last time Virginia played at Pittsburgh was in 2006, when the Panthers prevailed 38-13 in the season-opener. That was the season when Virginia used three different starting quarterbacks – Christian Olsen, Kevin McCabe and freshman Jameel Sewell – in the first month.

At least the Cavaliers don’t have a quarterback controversy this year. Sophomore David WatfordDavid Watford (AP/Steve Helber) David Watford was intercepted twice in the first quarter against VMI – the fourth and fifth times he had been picked off in two games – but rallied to finish 18 of 25 for 206 yards and two touchdowns.

Watford also rushed for a touchdown on the read-option that UVa had promised to unveil during the week. It was a little unclear why the Cavaliers waited until Game Three to use Watford as a running threat, but coach Mike London made no secret of those intentions going into the VMI game.

Virginia, which once lost to the Keydets three years in a row from 1976-78, has now won the last four meetings by a total of 169-7. The shutout Saturday was the Cavaliers’ first since 2008, when Al Groh was head coach of a UVa team that blanked Richmond and Maryland.

Some consideration probably will be given to the future scheduling of VMI, an FCS program that received a $325,000 paycheck from UVa but doesn’t provide the competition that UVa might get from some of the other FCS programs in the state – such as Richmond, James Madison and newcomer Old Dominion.

A crowd of 40,156 was announced for the VMI game, but there were obviously fewer actual spectators for arguably the least attractive game on the Cavaliers’ schedule. It didn’t help that there was almost a 100 percent chance of rain, although the heavy stuff held off until late in the third quarter.

More than 58,000 had turned out two weeks earlier for a visit from No. 2-ranked Oregon, one of eight UVa home opponents. Virginia fans were left to wonder why the Cavaliers had pulled out of a game at Penn State, particularly when the team that replaced UVa on the Nittany Lions’ schedule, Central Florida, beat the Nittany Lions in State College, Pa.

Associate athletic director Jon Oliver, heavily involved in UVa scheduling, figured that a name opponent like Oregon was needed to beef up sagging season-ticket sales. After selling more than 38,000 season tickets in 2008, Virginia had seen that number drop by almost 10,000 by 2012.

Of course, nothing keeps the fanbase engaged more than winning football, and the Cavaliers went 4-8 in two of London’s first three seasons, sandwiched around a Chick-fil-A Bowl appearance and 8-5 season that earned him ACC coach-of-the-year honors in 2011.

It was Oliver who pushed for the retooling of London’s staff, which now includes the tandem of Tom O’Brien, previously the head coach at N.C. State, and Jon Tenuta, the Wolfpack’s associate head coach for defense after stops at Oklahoma, Ohio State, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Georgia Tech.

Former Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild is the new offensive coordinator, and the UVa faithful have not fully embraced his play-calling. (But what would you expect following the 59-10 loss to Oregon?) One-time Idaho head coach Larry Lewis was put in charge of the special teams, another work in progress.

Fans were watching to see if the new staff would adopt a different stance from the “if they’re ready, we’re ready” stance on walk-ons that dates back to the Groh era and has been part of London’s mantra. Things remain pretty much the same on that front.

After UVa had used a total of three true freshmen in the first two games, the Cavaliers took the redshirts off seven other recruits against VMI. One of them, walk-on tailback Daniel Hamm, rushed for 136 yards and scored two touchdowns.

Hamm was pressed into service because the two principal back-ups to starting tailback Kevin Parks, Taquan Mizzell and Khalek Shepherd, were both dealing with foot issues that should be resolved in time for the Pitt trip.

Not only did Hamm play for the first time, but another true freshman, LaChaston Smith, entered the game in the fourth quarter. Mizzell, the Cavaliers’ top-rated signee this past winter, was always going to play. But with a proven workhorse such as Parks, was there really a need to get game experience for three first-year tailbacks and redshirt freshman Kye Morgan?

None of Virginia’s five tailbacks is in his final season of eligibility, and the Cavaliers have taken a commitment from a sixth, 5-10, 216-pound Jordan Ellis from Suwanee, Ga., while continuing to court 6-1, 202-pound Madre London from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.