Virginia Football: 2014 Spring Practice Preview

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Is 2014 the year the Cavaliers and Coach Mike London finally begin to show results, or are they destined for yet another season in the ACC basement?

From the "What Had Happened Was" File:

Overview UVA finished the 2013 season at 2-10 with a 0-8 ACC mark. They finished at the bottom of the ACC Coastal standings and were one of two teams in the entire conference to complete the season winless in the ACC (NC State).

vs. the Hokies Despite the Hokies having one of their least-productive offensive seasons in recent memory, lack of experience at wide receiver, and losing their leading rusher, r-Fr. Trey Edmunds to a broken  right tibia, the Hokies went into Scott Stadium and grinded out a 16-6 victory to complete a Decade of Dominance over Virginia: 10 straight victories over the Hoos.

Losses Oregon (59-10), Pitt (14-3), Ball State (48-27), Maryland (27-26), Duke (35-22), Georgia Tech (35-25), Clemson (59-10), UNC (45-14), Miami (45-26), VT (16-6)

Signature Win Gosh, so many wins to choose from...BYU or VMI...BYU or VMI...Well, given that BYU is at least an FBS team, we'll call the Hoos' 19-16 squeaker over BYU their signature win.

Postseason Virginia won only 2 games and therefore was not bowl-eligible in 2013.

From the "QB Shuffle?" File:

If anyone has proven that they can make a mess out of a quarterback situation in recent years, it's UVA Head Coach Mike London. The Rocco/Sims travesty that ran Rocco out of town and ultimately landed Sims a one-way ticket out of Charlottesville as well was like a gift from above to Hokie fans-it was almost as if the Maury Show had come to Hooville. Better still, Hokienation may be headed for a similar treat in 2014: 2013 starter Jr. David Watford (6-2, 205) returns, and another new face is to be added to the mix in incoming prep prospect, former Ocean Lakes standout Corwin "Turtle" Cutler (6-4, 200), who spent last season at FUMA.

This race could prove to be more theoretical than realistic; however, it has been widely whispered that London loves to promise playing time when recruiting highly-rated prospects, particularly out of the 757. Word on the street was that Sims transferred because he was promised the starting job and Watford committed to UVA because he was made assurances as well. That would certainly explain the carousel.  Given that, it becomes reasonable to then deduce that Cutler was also assured playing time of some form. If London goes with Cutler exclusively, I would expect Watford to transfer-understandably so.  I would also expect London to not have success at Hampton High School anytime in the near future. There were whispers that Watford was named the starter only after Coach Smith and others around the Hampton program expressed disapproval of how Watford's situation had been handled. It's hard to see them being forgiving a second time around.

Don't get it twisted: London's no dummy with people. Rather, he's a master at manipulating situations, "petting people," and telling folks-prospects, particularly-what they want to hear. He'll do everything humanly possible to keep both these guys in the fold-particularly if he believes Cutler is his pony moving forward.  If he's smart, he'd ride with Watford and convince "Turtle" that a redshirt is the way to go. But, I'd look for Watford to be the starter and Cutler to burn his redshirt and also get reps.

From the "Perception vs. Reality" File

Let's go directly for the elephant in the room: the perception is out there in specific areas of Virginia that UVA is far more successful in recruiting than VT-particularly recently-and that VT "holds back" its players, redshirting far more than UVA. Let's look at the true numbers. The following is each school's roster distribution by class, star ranking, and redshirt percentage. This is a combination of info from each team's roster on their respective official sports page and 247Sports. It's a lot of info in a compact chart, but there's telling stuff here:

Uva_14_roster_distribution_medium

Vt_14_roster_distribution_medium

Is the perception that UVA’s recruiting is knocking it out of the park  really that prominent? Absolutely. Take this quote from early-enrollee Andrew Brown, as told here to USAToday’s Daniel Ulthman:

"I know Coach London is jumping up and out of his shoes," Brown said. "We're bringing in one of the best classes ever. It's a great feeling to be able to change a program."

Do facts actually reinforce Brown’s assertion? The following are 247Sports recruiting rankings from the beginning of the Al Groh era in Charlottesville up until now. This info is in data and graph form to both accommodate all readers’ preferences and avoid any possible confusion:

14_natl_recruiting_vt-uva_medium 14_acc_recruiting_vt-uva_medium

14_natl_recruiting_vt-uva_graph_medium

14_acc_recruiting_vt-uva_graph_medium

So, London’s 2014 "one of the best classes ever" is actually the lowest-ranked class he’s brought in, excluding after he was just hired when he didn’t have a full year to recruit. Furthermore, London’s 2014 class ranks behind half of Al Groh’s recruiting classes.

London has smartly positioned himself well within a 757 hotbed (whether ethically or not, I’m not touching with a 10 foot pole), and as a result, has been able to pull in some of the top prospects in VA, which garners a lot of press and creates a lot of buzz around his recruiting. However, the rest of his classes aren’t all that impressive—they’re just top-heavy. VT, meanwhile, has been the model of consistency: some years better or worse, but overall, right in the same neighborhood. Incoming Hokie classes in terms of overall "star value" have actually gotten stronger from top to bottom the past couple of years than ever before.

That largely is a result of the infusion of fresh recruiting blood into the program. The return of Shane Beamer—aka He Who Recruited Jadevion Clowney to South Carolina—has resulted in many top Richmond-area commits for the good guys.  Nationally-respected quarterback guru/current Hokie Offensive Coordinator Scot Loeffler has certainly raised VT’s profile in terms of drawing quarterbacks to Blacksburg, bringing in two top 20 quarterback recruits in the 2014 class in early enrollee Andrew Ford (6-3, 198; #18 nationally), of Camp Hill, PA (Cedar Cliff) and former Michigan State commit Chris Durkin (6-4, 216; #19 nationally), of Youngstown, OH (Ursuline). He also—with an unheralded assist from current Virginia Tech Offensive Line Coach (and former Texas OL coach) Stacy Searles—had a hand in landing incoming Texas Tech transfer quarterback Michael Brewer. Wide Receivers Coach Aaron Moorehead is a rising stud of a coach and recruiter. VT would be VERY wise to lock him up and keep him around for many years. Hands down, he has the realistic potential to be the offensive equivalent of VT Defensive Backs Coach Torrian Gray.

London’s classes are reeeeallllly top-heavy. Apart from the initial flash of 1-3 highly regarded prospects, the rest of the group is none too impressive, and that’s been a consistent trend of his during his time in Charlottesville. His classes are very reminiscent of VT’s 2002 class, headlined by 5* Marcus Vick (yeah, yeah, I know…) and 4* Jonathan Lewis, but also including nine 2* and eight 3* prospects. That class ultimately produced many solid players for the Hokies, notably RB Mike Imoh, OL Jimmy Martin, DB’s Aaron Rouse, Jimmy Williams, and Brenden Hill, and some guy named Darryl Tapp. However, nearly all of those guys DEVELOPED into solid players over the course of their career and benefitted greatly from a redshirt year. London has proven to have a quicker trigger than Beamer on burning redshirts of "average" ranked prospects, which limits their development long-term. In Blacksburg, no one out of the incoming 2014 class is making national headlines (aside from possibly Holland Fisher); however, 2014 is the first class I can ever remember that has absolutely zero unranked or 2* prospects. Not "sexy," but quietly solid.

Two Biggest Question Marks for 2014

Incoming Impact?


The Hoos’ 2014 recruiting class ranks 32nd in the nation and got a lot of buzz because they are coming off a 2-10, winless-in-conference season, yet got commits from two 247Sports 5* prospects, both ranked in the top 10 in the overall Top247. Andrew Brown (6-4, 282) out of Chesapeake (Oscar Smith, originally Indian River), is the nation’s top-ranked defensive tackle and #9 in the Top247, and enrolled in January. Says Bud Elliott in this nifty scouting report:

"Elite defensive line recruits are all about a special combination of size, speed and potential. With a long 6'4 frame, Brown should eventually be able to play at more than 300 pounds. And he certainly has the quickness aspect down as well. Brown is quite quick off the ball, typically electing to rush up field, often using a swim move over the slower high school guard. Everything about his stance is about getting into the backfield and causing havoc.

However, despite rushing into the backfield quickly, Brown does a good job of maintaining his balance and control once in the backfield, breaking down and making the tackle.

Perhaps Brown's best attribute is his ability to bend and play low. Brown's best fit in college will be as an attacking three-technique tackle, as opposed to a nose guard or five-tech."

On April 2, it was widely reported that Brown suffered a turf toe injury that will keep him from completing spring practice.

Quin Blanding (6-2, 200) out of UVA stronghold Bayside (Virginia Beach), is the nation’s top-ranked safety and #8 in the Top247. He played wide receiver and safety in high school and conceivably could be slotted at either position in college; however, his talent level and ceiling are both higher at safety. Says Elliot of Blanding here:

Physically, Blanding is exactly what colleges want in a safety at 6'2 and 200 pounds. He has room for another 10 pounds of muscle as well.

Blanding shows impressive speed in his video. He is able to outrun most every player on the tape, and the competition he is facing is of a high level.

Bayside High School plays Blanding as a deep safety in many of the clips, but he has the ability to come down in the box as well. Blanding can be a big hitter, and is sound in his approach, not getting juked out too much. He is physical when meeting a ball carrier as well. Blanding uses his arms very well both in fighting off blockers and in press coverage when he drops down in the box to play man coverage

Blanding seems to have a good feel for the position, taking good angles to the running back and the ball on deep passes. While most of his interceptions weren't that impressive, being thrown right to him, he has plenty of other plays that do showcase his considerable athletic talents

Blanding is a man among boys, and it is easy to see why he holds 30 BCS offers. He has the potential to be a three-year starter and an early entry in the NFL.

Way Too Early Prediction:

Brown’s overall impact won’t be affected, as his injury isn’t a serious one. However, he did miss valuable reps in his first collegiate spring practice, and that might set his development back slightly. Regardless of injury, I’d bet my house that Brown will start. Frankly, he could have the leg amputated and London would still start him. In all seriousness, though, Brown is truly very gifted. I really like the pairing of Brown and returning Jr. DE Eli Harold. Frankly, I would like it more if Harold had more eligibility remaining to play with Brown on the d-line, but I digress.

Blanding’s path will be interesting. I’m sure he was assured he’d see the field. However, the Hoos are full of returning upperclassmen in the secondary with Sr. Demetrious Nicholson (5-11, 185), r-Sr. Drequan Hoskey (6-0, 180), Jr. Maurice Canady (6-2, 190) and So. Tim Harris (6-2, 200) returning at corner and Sr. Anthony Harris (6-1, 185) and Sr. Rijo Walker (5-10, 190) returning at safety. Will London & Co. burn Blanding’s shirt for spot duty spelling Anthony Harris and/or Walker? Will they slide him over to receiver? With that bunch steering the ship, anything is possible. But, I’d also bet my house Blanding won’t redshirt either.

London On Notice?

After his much-ballyhooed entrance and ambitions to "Build a Program," which resulted in his own TV miniseries, Building a Program, Mike London has not lived up to expectations.

London_w-l_record_2010-2013_medium

Or, if you prefer visuals:

London_w-l_record_2010-2013_graph_medium

Overall, since arriving in Charlottesville, London has gone 18-31 with an ACC record of 8-24 and one bowl appearance to his name. Yet, his per year salary ($2.63 million) is the second fattest in the ACC, second only to Jimbo Fisher ($2.75 million), who…ya know, just won the National Championship with his Seminoles.

At a salary of $2.63 million, London earned approximately $1.315 million per win in 2013.

With such a drastic disconnect between salary and results, it’s fair to ask why is London still employed at UVA. The answer is simple: dollars. Buying out London would cost the University of Virginia $8.1 million, and buying out his staff would add another $3.1 million to that tab. Not wanting to tie up approximately $11.2 million to pay London and his staff to go sit on the couch while still having to pony up to pay another coach and his staff makes a lot of sense. So, UVA AD Craig Littlepage instead chose to focus on London’s recruiting successes for the time being and ignore the obvious.

Will another bottom-dwelling season be the proverbial straw the breaks the camel’s back for London? How much turnaround is enough to keep him in Charlottesville? All valid questions that will be lingering around Charlottesville for the next few months.

Way Too Early Prediction:

I have a really hard time finding 4 wins on UVA’s 2014 schedule:

14_uva_schedule_medium

Will the London era finally be brought to an end? It's hard to say without knowing these two things:

  • 1. How delusional Craig Littlepage can convince himself to be
  • 2. How much the buyout amount decreases after the season

But, if 2014 results in another clunker of a season and an 11th straight loss to Frank Beamer and the Hokies, there’s a really good chance a bunch of very wealthy, important men in Charlottesville will have to have more than a few talks behind closed doors. However, if the Hoos have another poor season but end up beating the Hokies, there’s 0% chance London is relieved of his duties, as he would then have something on which to hang his hat…finally.

The Final Word—Fun Fact Edition

Virginia is set to film the follow-up to "Building a Program" in 2014. The show will laughably (but appropriately) be titled, "Still Building a Program".

After 5 years of "building" and now with a worse record than they had before, I hope the producers have got a laugh track handy.

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