ACC Football 2013 Season Preview: Virginia Cavaliers

Can Kevin Parks Help Bail Out a Virginia Team That Lacks Experience in Several Key Areas?

Can Kevin Parks Help Bail Out a Virginia Team That Lacks Experience in Several Key Areas?

Team: Virginia Cavaliers

2012 W-L: 4-8 (2-6)

Head Coach: Mike London (16-21; fourth season)

Returning Starters: 13 (6 Offense, 7 Defense)

Virginia’s collected plenty of praise over the last few years for their torrid pace on the recruiting trail. Despite a minimal history of football success, Mike London has been able to attract top-tier talent to Charlottesville since he arrived, and that trend continues this offseason, with another likely top-40 class. But unfortunately, all of these recruiting wins have failed to produce actual wins for the most part. In three years, London has just one winning season (2011 at 8-5) and the current roster is based more on youth than actual proven talent. Should the team post its third losing season in four years, does that mean London’s shown the door, though?

Well, a large part of that can be answered (and prevented) by the offense. Returning four of five starters on the line, the Hoos would appear to be set, though they did lose the unit’s top player from last year in Oday Aboushi. Last season’s group also allowed 25 sacks last season, which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of their viability going forward. And it gets worse, too. Following up on a 2011 season that saw UVa average 162 yards on the ground, last year’s team had just 128 — and with the same two backs functioning as primary rushers. Starter Perry Jones is gone, but Kevin Parks still remains and the team may actually benefit from having a primary ball-carrier. Of the two, Parks was more effective, though at 5’8″ and 200 pounds, he lacks the physical make-up to be mentioned in the same breath as some of the ACC’s truly elite backs. Still, he’ll be expected to carry the entire load, and given the state of the passing game, it may end up being the entire offense.

Both of last year’s quarterbacks — Phillip Sims and Michael Rocco — are gone from the program, leaving the team in the inexperienced hands of David Watford. The sophomore hasn’t thrown a pass since 2011, so right off the bat, there’s some doubt about how quickly he’ll be able to jump in and be effective. Luckily, the Hoos do bring back a nice stable of pass-catchers, who should all help ease the transition into the starting role. Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell both have the promise of true play-making ability, though we’ve yet to really see it from either. Blame it on the fluctuating quarterback position if you want, but at this point, both need to find a way to produce at a higher level. A combined 86 catches won’t cut it to get through this year, and expect Watford to test both early to see who his most reliable target is. He’ll also have rising talent Jake McGee at his disposal at tight end. Hardly just a safety valve, McGee has some big-play ability and could be the team’s top receiver by year’s end.

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ACC Preseason Top 50 Players of 2013: #44, Demetrious Nicholson

Virginia’s Demetrious Nicholson is #44 on Our Countdown of the ACC’s Top 50 Players for 2013

Virginia’s Demetrious Nicholson is #44 on Our Countdown of the ACC’s Top 50 Players for 2013

We’re less than two months away from the start of the 2013 college football season, and that means preview countdowns! In the past, we’ve limited these lists to just the top 25 players, but this season, we’re upping our game to 50. So just about every day until the season starts, there will be a new player profile up here as we count down to the top ACC player for 2013.

Obviously these lists are always completely subjective — and thus completely bulletproof — so feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments, too.

No. 44, Demetrious Nicholson, CB/Virginia (Last Season: NR)

With an influx of youth last year, the Virginia defense struggled a bit. This much is known. But unbeknown to many, the Hoos did manage to turn a corner by late October. The big plays diminished, the games got closer and for the most part, they appeared to be a much more competitive group. It was a defense-wide effort, but it had to start with the incredibly young secondary — most notably,  Demetrious Nicholson, who really stepped up in a leadership role.

As a highly-ranked recruit in 2011, this is what Nicholson was always supposed to be. His 5’11, 170-pound frame appears average, but 4.43-second 40-yard dash time is what makes him such a threat. Last season, Nicholson was fifth in the conference with 15 passes broken up, despite zero interceptions. He’ll need to increase that number to be viewed as a more valuable defender, but it doesn’t take away from how important he is at all. Due to the high volume of defended passes, he was targeted less and less over the course of the season — a testament to how much respect opposing offenses started to pay to him, despite only being a sophomore in 2012.

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ACC 2013 Spring Football Preview: Virginia Cavaliers

Virginia QB Phillip Simms Won't Be Handed the Starting Job This Spring, Making for an Interesting Early Position Battle

Virginia QB Phillip Sims Won’t Be Handed the Starting Job This Spring, Making for an Interesting Early Position Battle

As the ACC‘s spring practices get under way, we’ll be previewing the big storylines for each of the league’s 14 (15, in this case) teams. Check back on weekdays for what to look out for during your school’s spring practices and spring game.

Team: Virginia Cavaliers

Spring Practice Start Date: March 18

Spring Game Date: April 6

Head coach Mike London felt some heat after a disappointing third season, replacing both his offensive and defensive coordinators in the hopes of sparking a new fire with his players. Now, he’ll need to hope that does the trick for a group returning 14 starters from last season; a decent amount of leadership coming back that should at least give the team a leg up compared to last year’s project (especially on defense). Virginia has also elected to schedule pretty aggressively this year (and for the foreseeable future), meaning progress may end up being tougher to spot in clear sight.

With a strong group of receivers returning, along with leading rusher Kevin Parks and most of the offensive line (four of five), you’d think the Hoos’ offense would be largely settled. Unfortunately, though, that’s not the case. Last year’s quarterback platoon of incumbent starter Michael Rocco and Alabama transfer Phillip Sims led to Rocco leaving the program, yet that doesn’t mean Simms automatically has the job. Junior David Watford‘s been around the program longer, though that may not matter in new O-coordinator Steve Fairchild’s system. As a former quarterback himself, Fairchild’s likely to favor the best arm, meaning Simms’s dual-threat capabilities may not be as important. It’s likely the offense sees some additional pro-style influence from former NC State head coach Tom O’Brien, now an offensive assistant with UVa. This spring will be a telling sign toward the direction the squad takes this fall, but at this point, expect anything — Watford or Simms as the starter, or maybe even both. While there are certainly critics of how London ran a two-passer system last year, I’m unsure whether that’ll deter him from doing so again if the two players are in a close competition.

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ACC 2012 Season Preview: Virginia Cavaliers

Does Michael Rocco Have What It Takes to Lead Virginia, or Will He Lose the QB Battle to Phillip Sims?

Team: Virginia Cavaliers

2011 W-L: 8-5 (5-3)

Head Coach: Mike London (12-13; third season)

Returning Starters: 12 (7 Offense, 5 Defense)

Mike London’s Virginia team surprised the conference last year, winning eight games on the backs of a veteran defense that ranked in the top five (in the ACC) against both the run and pass. Now, the question begs how they’re going to top that. So far this offseason, it appears they’re well on their way. Landing Alabama QB transfer Phillip Sims was huge, and getting him eligibility for this season was enormous (despite the ensuing/ongoing drama as a result). The biggest coup, however, may be what Mike London’s done in the recruiting game. As of last night, the Hoos are in uncharted waters — pulling down a top-20 class — and continuing to make waves. But will that momentum reflect at all on the field this year? That’s still up for debate.

For all the good will surrounding the program coming off last year’s over-achievement, there are still tons of question marks to be addressed. And of course, they start at quarterback. Last year, starter Michael Rocco was efficient enough, throwing for 2,600 yards and 13 touchdowns. Without Sims, he’s firmly entrenched as a team leader and returning starter. But with him, there’s a lingering doubt that he’ll be able to get things done. If you look at his game-by-game progression from last year, you see a quarterback that grew into his role and delivered consistent — though average — numbers, with upward spikes for a few impressive performances. What’s alarming, though, is his performance against quicker, more blitz-heavy defenses. In those games (I count five), the team went 1-4, with Rocco four TDs to six interceptions. At the collegiate level, Sims may not be a proven commodity, but in high school, the quarterback made a living under pressure and while not a “running QB,” he does know how to move his feet. Sims may not know the offense yet, but once he does, there may be a greater conversation to be had here, all dependent on Rocco’s results.

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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. Continue reading