Change of direction

It’s heating up in Charlottesville this week, and I’m not just talking about the weather. I’m talking Cavalier football, baby!

I was intrigued when Virginia replaced next season’s Penn State game with a home-and-home series with Oregon — the first massacre of which will take place this fall right here at Scott Stadium. But when I saw the report that offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor was leaving Virginia to take a position with the Eagles, I was absolutely dumbfounded.

Coach Mike London’s hot seat just got hotter. Call me old fashioned, but I’m not a huge fan of major coaches bolting for another job eight days before national signing day, and I bet London isn’t either.
London had enough problems on his desk with the recent arrest and misdemeanor charge levied against Virginia’s only five-star 2013 prospect, Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell. London cannot comment on incoming recruits until they sign letters-of-intent, but how the head coach chooses to handle this situation is bound to draw unwanted attention to a program in flux.

Now he faces the even greater problem of convincing current commits and recruits who are on the fence that Virginia is a stable program, despite changes to the offensive, defensive, special teams and recruiting coordinator positions.

I still don’t believe Jim Reid and Jeff Hanson deserved to be fired. The defense was considerably more reliable than the offense, and I can’t overstate how frequently the defense was left on the field with poor field position by inconsistent offense and special team play. Shawn Moore’s termination as the tight ends coach also remains a mystery to me.

Having said that, I was pleasantly surprised by London’s subsequent personnel decisions.

I think former NC State head coach Tom O’Brien is an excellent hire as an associate head coach for offense and tight ends coach. O’Brien will bring valuable insight to the Cavaliers and hopefully help London manage games better — see: Virginia Tech, 2012 timeout debacle. Jon Tenuta, the Cavaliers’ new defensive coordinator is another solid addition to the staff because of his wealth of experience as a defensive coordinator for powerhouse programs and his ties to the University as a former Cavalier defensive back.

Although Lazor leaving may hurt the Cavaliers in the immediate future because of the timing of his departure, I think the team will benefit in the long run. Since elevating Virginia’s offense to No. 3 in the conference during his first year in Charlottesville, Lazor’s offense ranked No. 4 in 2011 before experiencing a significant drop-off to No. 8 in 2012.

I attribute much of this decrease in productivity to play calling, which at times seemed baffling. In 2011, the run game was unquestionably the strength of our team. Granted, graduating All-American lineman Austin Pasztor hurt, but I doubt anyone foresaw how the rushing game would recede to a shade of its former self in 2012 with Perry Jones and Kevin Parks still in the backfield. A decrease of 33.6 rushing yards per game from one year to the next is certainly not a positive when your running backs are your primary offensive playmakers.

And though London and Lazor share equally in the blame, the quarterback carousel from hell these past two seasons was inexplicable. I won’t even open that can of worms other than to wish former Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco the best at Richmond this upcoming season. I salute him for how he handled two incredibly frustrating seasons with dignity.

One last thing to note is that if the powers that be wanted to get rid of Lazor but couldn’t without paying out his salary — $458,350 in 2012 — then Lazor may have done them a big favor.
Hopefully the new offensive coordinator, whomever he may be, will refocus the offense on the running game. After the way Phillip Sims struggled to pick up the offense early last season, I’d hate to see him, or David Watford or Greyson Lambert for that matter, thrust into an entirely new system and be forced to watch another season of inadequate quarterback play.

With Lazor gone, O’Brien could be an early frontrunner to take over the job. This could be a great sell to recruits, unless O’Brien only plans to stay with Virginia for a short time while surveying head coaching jobs elsewhere. Another name that has been floated for the position is current NC State offensive coordinator, Dana Bible. Obviously Virginia Athletics is really into NC State football coaches.
But jokes aside, it would obviously be better to hire a long-term coordinator rather than someone who will leave after a couple years for the opportunity to be a head coach or make the jump to the NFL, which is how I see O’Brien’s tenure at Virginia playing out.

The biggest mistake the team could make is going out and hiring the wrong guy because they want to fill the spot quickly, even though time is of the essence in the cutthroat world of college football recruiting. I don’t think this coaching change will result in any decommitments. To those recruits that Virginia is still fighting for, however, Lazor’s departure may cause enough uncertainty with the program to scare them off.

As Cavalier sports fans hold their collective breath and signing day draws near, London must find an appropriate offensive coordinator and present himself as a steady presence in what is sure to be a heavily scrutinized year of Virginia football.

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