When coach Mike London reflects on last season and what it took to get Virginia into its first bowl in four years, there are two very different versions of his team he recalls.
There’s the group that won four consecutive games in October and November, matching U.Va.’s longest winning streak in four seasons and featuring dramatic road wins against Miami and Florida State. Then, there’s the bunch that got crushed 38-0 at home against rival Virginia Tech and 43-24 in theChick-fil-A Bowl against Auburn at the end of an 8-5 season.
In the opening weeks of preseason practice, London will be seeking the ingredients that made his team a surprise challenger for the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division title – before Tech put that goal to rest in convincing fashion.
“We’ve got to find the identity,” said London on Monday at the ACC preseason football media gathering. “We’re going to have to find it early this year, because of who we play.
“I know (defensive coordinator Jim) Reid and the defensive coaches look at those last couple of games and have to assess, ‘Do we need more firepower?...Do we need a new coverage here?’ Whatever it may be, and hopefully we can address that.”
London has spent a lot of time worrying about the development of his secondary and his kicking game, the latter of which he said has kept him up at night, adding “Ambien helps a lot,” but there’s something more specific he’s looking for from his defense.
With a September slate that includes games against Penn State, at Georgia Tech, at Texas Christian and against Louisiana Tech in consecutive weeks, U.Va. should get a firm handle on what kind of season it could be in for before it plays its first conference game.
“We have high expectations within the team, but…we like being in the underdog role,” linebacker Steve Greer said.
“As a program, we want to prove ourselves, and I think this schedule is going to give us the opportunity to do that.”
U.Va. has just five returning starters from a defensive unit that thwarted Miami and FSU on a combined 17 of 22 third-down opportunities, and cornerback Demetrious Nicholson is the only returner in the secondary. Cornerbacks Rijo Walker, a Bethel High graduate, and Drequan Hoskey and strong safety Anthony Harris will enter preseason practice as projected starters, but none of them has started a single college game.
In addition to the questions in the secondary, Greer is coming off surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Despite missing the bowl, he led the team with 103 tackles. On Sunday, he declared himself 100 percent healthy.
Prior to the start of classes, teams are permitted to have 105 players participating in preseason practices. Nearly 15 percent of the 105-player limit may be consumed by kickers, punters and quarterbacks, which will include immediately eligible Alabama transfer Phillip Sims, a graduate of Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake.
“In the 105 (players) that you bring into camp, sometimes you bring in more linemen or skill guys,” said London, who will enter the preseason with punter Alec Vozenilek and kicker Ian Frye trying to hold onto starting roles. “I’m committed to bringing in a full complement of kickers to find out early, particularly of the high school guys that are coming in, how good they are.”
While London looks for answers in the preseason at some of U.Va.’s most unstable positions, one of the Cavaliers’ offensive leaders may have motivation heading into August if he ponders how his 2011 season concluded.
After posting just 45 combined rushing yards against Virginia Tech and Auburn, running back Perry Jones finished 85 yards short of becoming U.Va.’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Alvin Pearman ran for 1,037 yards in 2004.
“We definitely learned about ourselves, but we also know those two games don’t define what type of team we are,” Jones said. “We know we were a better team than those two games, and we pride ourselves on being able to compete with anybody on any day, so it’s pushing us into the next season. We ended the season with a sour taste in our mouth. We know we’re capable of getting the job done, so that’s what’s going to drive us this fall camp.”Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times