The schedule appears tougher, the defense less stout. So if
is to match or exceed last football season's encouraging 8-5 record, the burden likely falls to the offense.
Translation: Incumbent starter Michael Rocco needs to be better.
And he should be. He'll be surrounded by a veteran offensive line, three quality tailbacks and promising receivers.
All but the linemen — several are sidelined this spring by injuries — were on display Friday as Virginia conducted an open practice at Christopher Newport.
A year ago, Rocco was competing with
Metheney and Michael Strauss to determine the starter. Now he's the offense's acknowledged leader.
"Just being a year in the offense and being comfortable and knowing my guys believe in me," Rocco said following Friday's drills and before signing autographs for fans. "Just going out there as a leader and having command of the offense. It builds confidence. Definitely a difference from last spring to this spring."
Not to slight Watford, a sophomore from Hampton High whose sheer speed separates him from most quarterbacks. But after a Rocco-Watford rotation doomed Virginia in a home loss to
last season, coaches wisely settled on Rocco, now a junior.
Packages designed for Watford remain in the playbook, but there's no indication the quarterback pecking order has changed.
"He's always pushing me," Rocco said of Watford. "He's got a strong arm. We're always battling, seeing who can put balls on the money. It's just going to make us both better. …
"(Coaches) have confidence that I know what I'm doing out there. I'm going to make mistakes like everyone does, but I'm going to be able to respond after my mistakes."
Rocco could help make this the
's Year of the Quarterback.
Eight of the conference's top 10 in passing yards return. Nine of the top 10 in pass efficiency are back.
The roll call includes both All-ACC quarterbacks, first-teamer Tajh Boyd of
and second-teamer Logan Thomas of
. Not to mention
's EJ Manuel, whom Seminoles coach
considers an NFL talent.
's option offense, Tevin Washington doesn't throw often, or well for that matter, but he scored an ACC-high 14 touchdowns last year and is the league's No. 3 returning rusher behind
's Giovani Bernard and Clemson's Andre Ellington.
North Carolina's Bryn Renner led the conference in passing efficiency, while North Carolina State's Michael Glennon threw 31 touchdown passes, more than double Rocco's 13.
But with an offensive line anchored by tackle Morgan Moses, tailbacks Perry Jones, Kevin Parks and
, and athletic receivers Darius Jennings, Dominique Terrell, E.J. Scott and Tim Smith, Rocco has every opportunity to improve. He ranked ninth among ACC quarterbacks in passing yards (205.5 per game) in 2011, eighth in efficiency.
Virginia's hopes of earning a second consecutive bowl invitation may well hinge on Rocco and the offense. The Cavaliers are inexperienced along the defensive line and in the secondary, and their non-conference schedule includes challenging games against Penn State, Texas Christian and Louisiana Tech.
"I'm looking for the offense to be more explosive," third-year coach
said, "more down-the-field throws because of the (receivers') speed. And you have a guy like Perry Jones, and shoot, Clifton Richardson can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, too.
"I think if you ask (offensive coordinator) Bill Lazor, we're kind of pushing the envelope as far as how much we can do and how much more we can expand individually, their roles."
Virginia's pro-style offense reflects Lazor's NFL background. Establish the run, throw off play-action.
But while the Cavaliers generated plenty of yards last season — their 399.8 per-game norm was fourth in the ACC — they averaged a sub-par 23.2 points. Only
— combined record of 9-27 — scored less.
"As long as Michael and David continue learning the offense and how you throw the ball," London said, "and basically, our offense is based on the receivers running routes and (quarterbacks) throwing to spots in the field.
"And it appears in the spring so far that guys are getting to those spots a whole lot quicker, which would give Michael better opportunities to throw the ball."
Rocco was reasonably sharp Friday, save for a pass that linebacker LaRoy Reynolds intercepted during a "beat-the-clock" drill.
"I felt like I threw it pretty well," Rocco said. "That last ball was just a bad decision. But that's going to happen. I've got to improve from it, watch the film and make sure I correct it. In football there's going to be mistakes. You've got to realize that and not let them get you down."