"Well, I've been coaching 38 years, and I've only been in two systems, George Welsh's and mine," O'Brien said Saturday after the Cavaliers' annual spring game. "It's unusual that I'm learning my third offense going into my 39th year.
"I've got a little bit of reservoir to fall back on in picking things up, but it's a matter of trying to figure out … what (terms) mean."
Appointed Virginia's associate head coach for offense in January, O'Brien rates among college football's most over-qualified assistants. He served as a head coach for 16 seasons, 10 at
So O'Brien is balancing his old-school, Marine-bred demands with a teacher's understanding that some lessons require time. That was certainly evident Saturday.
"I've never been involved in a (spring game) with three safeties," O'Brien said wryly.
Indeed, quarterback David Watford was "sacked" twice in the end zone, and running back Kye Morgan was swarmed there once. By rule, quarterbacks were down by touch, skewing the sack numbers (14 total), but clearly the offensive lines had issues.
Blitzes, stunts, even standard four-man rushes generated pressure, and the run blocking wasn't much better. Kevin Parks, Khalek Shepherd,
Sure, defensive linemen Brent Urban, Eli Harold, Jake Snyder and David Dean merit props. But there's no denying the o-lines, absent projected left guard starter Conner Davis (knee) Saturday, need work.
Another mitigating factor: This was only the Cavaliers' 12th spring practice, three shy of the
The flip side: Virginia now has three practices to correct deficiencies that emerged Saturday.
"If we don't," O'Brien said, "then we're going to have problems."
An upgraded offense is essential if the Cavaliers are to end a five-year slide in which they've gone a combined 13-27 against
Although redshirt freshman Greyson Lambert threw more passes Saturday (36) than Watford (10) and Phillip Sims (18) combined, O'Brien cautioned against conclusions.
"They all have talent," he said. "The thing is trying to figure out who can be the best leader of this football team. Their heads are swimming, too. … We need to settle down something for them. It's a situation that certainly has to go into (training camp). I don't think you can make a decision in the spring."
Adrian Gamble, Tim Smith and E.J. Scott had five receptions each, with Scott the leader in degree-of-difficulty. He snagged one over his shoulder, and snared another thrown behind him, both from Lambert.
"We caught more balls today than we have in practices," O'Brien said.
As important: Virginia did not commit a turnover in 121 snaps. The Cavaliers committed 26 in a 4-8 season last year.
O'Brien's offseason addition to the staff prompted questions about how a long-time head coach would handle returning to an assistant's role. Moreover, there was the curious job title.
Many teams have associate head coaches. But one designated specifically for offense? Where does that fall on the chain-of-command?
"It's not nebulous," O'Brien said. "All the military will understand, there's a commanding officer (London) and an executive officer, and I'm the XO, and I do everything the commanding officer doesn't want to do. That's my job, and it's worked out OK."
When I asked for examples, O'Brien smiled and declined to offer details.
Much has changed since O'Brien left Virginia for Boston College following the 1996 season. Charlottesville and Scott Stadium have grown. John Paul Jones Arena has been built.
But O'Brien still runs the same 3-mile loop every day at lunch.
"I'm a little bit slower than the last time I was here," he said, "but that's OK."
Now he and the Cavaliers need to get up to speed on their new offense.