ACC 2012 Spring Practice Expectations: Virginia Cavaliers

Does Virginia's Michael Rocco Have What It Takes to Guide His Team to an ACC Title?

As spring practices get under way, we’ll be previewing what needs to happen for the teams and players of the ACC, culminating with notes on all 14 spring games.

Today’s featured team: Virginia Cavaliers

With all the good that came out of Virginia’s surprisingly successful 2011 season, the one thing truly missing were points on the board. Though the team ran a balanced offensive attack, ranking in the country’s top 60 in both passing and rushing, they had a difficult time punching it into the endzone — averaging just 23.2 points per game. Bringing back just seven starters on offense probably won’t make changing that number any easier, but collective experience may. In his first full season as a starter, then-sophomore Michael Rocco showed poise and leadership in completing nearly 61 percent of his passes for 2,600+ yards and 13 touchdowns. If the unit is looking to take it up a notch this spring, it’ll all start with Rocco’s improvement and the passing game overall. Last year’s leading receiver Kris Burd is graduating, but fellow starter Tim Smith will be back in a more active role for 2012. Competing for the spot alongside him will be sophomores Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell — two receivers who combined for just 28 catches last year in limited action. At running back, senior Perry Jones will also continue his jack-of-all-trades act this spring. As the motor that runs the Virginia offense, he racked up 1,400 total yards on 220 touches, and will once again serve as the main safety valve for Rocco in the passing game.

On defense, the Cavaliers have plenty of work to do, replacing seven starters on offense. Most significantly, however, is the fact that the entire linebacking corps. will return to continue its strong play in the middle of the field from 2011. The all-senior unit of Ausar Walcott, Steve Greer and LaRoy Reynolds each have all-conference potential, and for a team that last year allowed just under 24 points per game, they’ll decide how far the unit progresses this spring (sans Greer, who’s injured this spring). The front four and secondary are as up-for-grabs as any in America, but there’s still plenty of experience left to slot in at their starting positions, too. On the line, Will Hill and Jake Snyder are likely to lead the way, while the secondary comes down to Demetrious Nicholson‘s leadership and whether or not departing senior Rodney McLeod can be easily replaced. Depth-wise, the Hoos may see some trouble, though. While there’s enough limited experience to fill the starting slots (and it’s unlikely all positions will be sorted out this spring), injuries or ineptitude could easily derail this unit as well. Sporting a very young group overall, it’ll be up to coaching and motivation this spring. The most glaring weaknesses from a productive 2011 season were a lack of sacks (20) and interceptions (12). Given the conference’s improved quarterback play, they’ll need to apply more pressure and force more turnovers in 2012.

Virginia’s improvement — while significant — also featured plenty of flaws that may indicate a step back in 2012. Close wins versus non-contenders Idaho and Indiana are suspect, as are blowout losses to Virginia Tech and Auburn. Head coach Mike London has this team on the right track, but to take that next step, it has to put games like these in the rearview mirror — a difficult task given the amount of seniors on the way out this offseason.

Previously: Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Miami, NC State, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Syracuse

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