March 15, 2010

Virginia starts anew under London

Change is in the air at Virginia.

Virginia heads into spring practice with a new coach, a new offensive philosophy and a new defensive scheme. The Cavaliers can only hope all those alterations produce a change in results.

The Cavaliers' combined record of 8-16 the past two seasons resulted in the firing of coach Al Groh. The new man in charge is former Virginia defensive coordinator Mike London, who posted a 24-5 record and won an FCS national title in two seasons as Richmond's coach.

London plans to instill a physical, ground-oriented offense while switching the defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3 alignment.

Here's a look at Virginia heading into spring practice.

VIRGINIA AT-A-GLANCE
New Virginia coach Mike London inherits a roster thin on experience.
THE BASICS
COACH: Mike London
LAST SEASON: 3-9, 2-6 in the ACC
SPRING DATES: March 15-April 10
RETURNING STARTERS
OFFENSE (5): T Landon Bradley, WR Kris Burd, G B.J. Cabbell, G Austin Pasztor, TE Joe Torchia.
DEFENSE (6): E Matt Conrath, CB Ras-I Dowling, LB Steve Greer, T Nick Jenkins, LB Cam Johnson, S Rodney McLeod.
SPECIAL TEAMS (2): P Jimmy Howell, K Robert Randolph.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH:

Virginia's secondary should be in good shape. Ras-I Dowling's return gives the Cavaliers an all-conference - and perhaps even an All-America - candidate at cornerback. Dowling earned second-team All-ACC honors last season. Rodney McLeod was a full-time starter and Corey Mosley was a part-time starter at safety last season. Those three defensive backs helped Virginia rank 23rd in the nation in pass efficiency defense a year ago. Virginia returns three starters on the offensive line. Although the Cavaliers don't have any experienced running backs, their rushing attack could emerge as a surprise. Redshirt freshman Dominique Wallace and sophomore Torrey Mack give the Cavaliers a pair of promising running backs, though both lack experience.

POSITIONS OF NEED

The Cavaliers are in dire straits at quarterback. The only quarterback on the roster who has played a college game is senior Marc Verica, who has thrown 17 interceptions and only eight touchdowns in his college career. Verica doesn't necessarily enter spring practice as the favorite to win the job, but he is the only experienced contender. Other candidates include redshirt freshman Ross Metheny and early enrollee Michael Strauss. Strauss threw for 3,193 yards while leading Miami Gulliver to a Class 2A state title his junior year. Strauss and Miami's Jacory Harris are the only two players in Dade County high school history to throw for 3,000 yards in a single season.

THREE GUYS TO WATCH

DL Zane Parr: Although he finished second on the team with 3.5 sacks last year, Parr was overshadowed by teammates Nate Collins and Matt Conrath. Collins has completed his college career, which should give Parr an opportunity to develop into more of a featured performer alongside Conrath. Parr's ability to play end and tackle could make him one of the Virginia defense's top players as the Cavaliers shift from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme.

WR Tim Smith: Virginia is focusing on establishing more of a vertical passing game to complement its power rushing attack. That change in philosophy could benefit Smith, who caught 15 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman last season. Smith, a former four-star prospect, arguably has as much big-play potential as any Virginia receiver.

RB Dominique Wallace: Rated as the No. 1 fullback in the 2009 recruiting class, Wallace sprained a foot in a Sept. 19 loss to Southern Miss and missed the rest of the season. Wallace actually rushed for a team-high 35 yards in that game before getting hurt. The redshirt freshman's bruising style could make him an ideal fit as Virginia attempts to switch to a power-I formation.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

QB Marc Verica: After leading Virginia on a four-game winning streak that included victories over Maryland, East Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia Tech midway through the '08 season, Verica hasn't come close to recreating that performance. He tailed off badly late in the '08 season and went 28-of-63 with one interception and no touchdown passes in spot duty last season. Although he's the only experienced quarterback on Virginia's roster, that doesn't necessarily mean he's the favorite to win the starting job. He must prove that four-game stretch during the '08 season wasn't a fluke.

THE BUZZ

Virginia football hasn't created much excitement the past two seasons, but all the changes should make for an interesting spring practice. This marks the first chance Virginia fans have to see the offense's move to the power-I and the defense's shift from a 3-4 to a 4-3. This spring also should offer the first clues as to which players have the leg up in the quarterback and running back competitions.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.


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