They say Rome wasn’t built in a day. The same can be said of London—the Mike London era in UVA football, that is.
Implementing cultural change takes longer than one season, no matter what schemes you adopt, personnel you have or schedule you play. Still, the Cavaliers are showing signs of real progress.
After their first season, London and his staff generated enthusiasm on the recruiting trail while simultaneously building support and excitement among the program’s fan base. That was achieved with only a 4-6 record, a difficult task considering the environment of immediacy that pervades the college football world.
Two of London’s top assistants, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and defensive coordinator Jim Reid, took time to answer questions about the state of their respective units and the implementation of their philosophies.
Schemes are always hot topics among fans and the media, but is the idea of scheme a little overvalued?
Lazor: I think they overvalue the name of it. What’s important is how well you put together your system. You can do it any way—you can be a running team or a passing team—but what’s important is that you know what you want to be and you know what kind of players you want to recruit for it. Most important, probably, is that you can coach your current players to be good at it.
Reid: There’s a system of play, but you’ve got to be flexible. We went to the 4-3 and we were moving safeties to linebacker and linebackers to defensive end, and it was a huge change. I believe you recruit to a system, but you can’t be so inflexible that you try to push athletes into a system when there’s another system that might fit their talents a little bit better. You always have to recruit speed and you have to recruit size, so the faster big men you have, the better off you are.
How much did cornerback Ras-I Dowling’s absence, from injury, affect the defensive unit in 2010?
Reid: When we went through spring football, we thought we had two great corners, and we did have two great corners. The system of coverage that we employed certainly allowed Chase Minnifield to go from “Oh yeah, he’s the nickel and sometimes starter” to All-ACC, so I think that was the correct decision. Ras-I Dowling was in and out, but he was mostly out. The thing is, we always thought he was going to be in, so we kept our system of coverages. If we’d known that we weren’t going to have him at the start, we’d have changed our system a little bit. It really had a major effect on what we did and why we did it.
Minnifield is obviously a cornerstone, but the rest of that secondary looks seasoned and solid, too. How is that group shaping up?
Reid: [Cornerback] Rijo Walker had a really good spring—mentally, he’s tough and physically, he’s tough. [Strong safety] Rodney McLeod really runs everything back there, a guy who’s made a lot of improvements, setting everybody up, calling out formations and getting us into our coverage. He’s the guy you always search for—tough, physical and he’s really a complete player and a complete student and a complete man. And Corey [Mosley] is a tough nut. The position he plays [free safety] shows a lot of his toughness, but he’s very good in coverage. For example, he had a couple of huge interceptions in the game against Miami and allowed us to win that game. I like all those guys, but I like every position—like linebacker, these guys are great. Steve Greer came back and played really well. Aaron Taliaferro, we call him Lazarus because he came back from the dead this year [starting six games in 2010 after appearing in only six plays the prior season]; LaRoy Reynolds was extremely active in his first year.
Can the first-year players, a class that includes a number of highly regarded defensive playmakers like Daquan Romero and Demetrious Nicholson, make an impact?
Reid: You recruit great players in with a plan, but you have another plan with the players who are already here. As the players come in and progress through training camp, we have to make a decision to redshirt them or play them. But you try to recruit the best players you can and then you fit them where you think they go. You’re not going to turn down a 6-foot-4, 230-pound, 4.6 (40-yard-dash time) runner and say, ‘We just have enough of those guys.’ You never have enough of those guys.
In 2009, before London became coach, the offense was ranked 118 out of 120 teams in total offense and 105 in scoring. Last year, those numbers improved to 37 and 75, respectively. How did the statistical jumps affect this season’s preparation?
Lazor: For us now it’s going to be a challenge going from where we ended in 2010 to where we want to be in 2011, because the teams that we want to pass [in the national statistics] now offensively are better teams. It’s harder to make improvements, but the good thing about this offseason is that the players can go at a much faster rate and take a lot more responsibilities on their shoulders.
How has the open competition at quarterback between sophomores Michael Rocco and Ross Metheny, freshman Michael Strauss and early-enrollee David Watford played out so far? It’s appeared from the outside to be a healthy situation.
Lazor: It’s been indicative of what you expect a UVA quarterback to be. When I met with Coach London about coming to Virginia and running the offense here, I told him that, in my vision, Virginia should always have a great quarterback, one who can really be the face of the program. I think these guys are just those kinds of people as far as their quality of character, the way they approach things and how hard they work.
Will veterans like senior wideouts Kris Burd and Matt Snyder be able to help the younger offensive players come along?
Lazor: What’s exciting for me on the offense this year is that we have more guys who have proven that they’re ready to take on leadership roles than last year. Maybe it’s because I know these guys better or that they’re more comfortable being in the system for a year, but there are a lot of guys in that position. Kris Burd and Matt Snyder—I expect a lot out of them. On the offensive line, we’ve got a large group of guys back, and everyone who’s played for us in the past you can mention as a potential leader. Whenever I’ve been around a good team and a good offense, they’ve always gotten a lot of leadership out of the offensive line. And at running back, the most obvious one is Perry Jones, who is a returning starter and a captain. I think we can spread the leadership role pretty thickly throughout the offense.
Kris Burd (Col ‘11), wide receiver
5-foot-11, 190 pounds
2010 statistics: 58 catches, 799 yards, five TDs, team-leading 1,106 all-purpose yards
Excellent, reliable route-runner who emerged as a top-flight No. 1 wideout in 2010
Registered four 100-yard receiving games in 2010 (first Cavalier since Billy McMullen in 2001 to accomplish that)
Perry Jones (Col ‘13), running back
5-foot-8, 185 pounds
2010 statistics: 646 rushing yards, 4.7 yards per carry, 224 receiving yards
Versatile back with tremendous pass-catching ability out of the backfield
Won Virginia Group AAA Player of the Year honors at Oscar Smith in 2008
Chase Minnifield (Col ‘10), cornerback
6-foot-0, 185 pounds
2010 statistics: 48 total tackles, six interceptions, four pass breakups
Lockdown corner, gives Cavaliers a solid building block in secondary
Honorable mention SI.com All-American, first-team All-ACC
LaRoy Reynolds (Col ‘13), linebacker
6-foot-2, 220 pounds
2010 statistics: 66 total tackles, seven tackles for a loss
Fast learner who did most of the little things right in 2010, perhaps set for breakout season this fall
Moved from safety to linebacker during spring 2010 and started 11 games