New coaches take the field
Coaching personnel changes to push Virginia squad to new heights
After turning a Virginia football team that suffered three consecutive losing seasons into a bowl-eligible 8-5 team in just his second year on Grounds, coach Mike London seemed primed to push his success even further in 2012. But a promising 2-0 start last season eventually devolved into a disastrous 4-8 season and a major regression for the Cavaliers. Following the season, London cleaned house with a major shakeup in coaching personnel.
Out went associate head coach and defensive coordinator Jim Reid, along with recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach Jeff Hanson, running backs coach Mike Faragelli and tight ends coach Shawn Moore. Virginia legend Anthony Poindexter was stripped of his duties as special teams coordinator, but remained on staff as a defensive backs coach. Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor was spared the axe, but bolted in January to join Chip Kelly’s staff as Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback coach.
“The process of reevaluating myself and the program sometimes leads you to having to make decisions that are personally tough and challenging but are geared towards moving the program forward,” London said of the changes. “Sometimes you make difficult decisions and no doubt those were some of the toughest decisions personally I’ve ever had to make in my coaching career.”
To fill the voids, London turned to four new coaches, each with more than 30 years of experience at the college and professional levels. Jon Tenuta and Steve Fairchild were hired as the new defensive and offensive coordinators, respectively. Former NC State head coach Tom O’Brien was tapped as the associate head coach for offense and tight ends coach, while Larry Lewis was brought in to take over special teams and running backs. The hires reflect a change in culture for the program as much as a change in personnel.
Tenuta spent last season as defensive coordinator at NC State under fellow Virginia hire O’Brien, and brings a blitz-heavy, aggressive style of defense to his alma mater. He inherits a program that on the surface appeared to fare well.
The Cavaliers ranked No. 28 in the nation in total defense at 353.33 yards allowed per game, and No. 33 in passing defense at 208.4 yards per game. Those numbers stood in stark contrast to the team’s scoring defense, however, which at 28.92 points per game ranked 70th nationally. The team was especially poor at creating pressure, creating a mere 12 turnovers and 17 sacks last season, both near the bottom of the nation.
Those deficiencies could improve under Tenuta’s hyper-aggressive scheme. His Wolfpack defense was No. 27 nationally in sacks per game with 2.54 and No. 42 in recovered turnovers with 24 — nearly twice as many as Virginia in both categories. Tenuta’s system is indicative of his fiery personality, and the players hope the intensity will help lift up the Virginia defense.
“We may have been sitting back on a third and five last year trying to stop something, where we’re going to come after them this year and we’re going to be the aggressor,” senior defensive end Jake Snyder said. “We want to be the aggressor, we want to come out and throw the first punch and we want to get at you.”
Intensity is a common trend in the new hires, as Fairchild promises to implement a smash-mouth style on the offensive side of the ball. Even while embroiled in a quarterback battle between junior Michael Rocco and sophomore Phillip Simms, the 2012 Cavaliers managed to put up promising numbers. They ranked No. 62 nationally in total offense at 396.5 yards per game, but there was a divide between their passing success — ranked No. 37 nationally — and their rush game — ranked No. 96.
Fairchild has seen action in both the NFL and NCAA throughout his career, most recently as the senior offensive assistant with the San Diego Chargers. Prior to that, he served as the head coach at his alma mater, Colorado State, from 2008 to 2011. In the NFL, he also served as offensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams — where he coached greats such as Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk — and the Buffalo Bills.
His years in the NFL have given him experience with a pro-style offense, but with the recent announcement of sophomore David Watford as starting quarterback, he may look to incorporate more read option formations for his mobile signal-caller. With heir apparent junior Kevin Parks and highly touted freshman Taquan Mizzell at running back, the running game should figure to be a significant facet of Fairchild’s offense.
“I think with the way coach Fairchild has brought his offense to us, it helps out a lot of players,” senior offensive tackle Morgan Moses said. “In the run scheme, getting the best players the ball, getting the ball on the outside and just moving the ball up the field — that’s a lot of things we need to do.”
Perhaps the most intriguing hire is O’Brien, who was as an assistant at Virginia under legendary coach George Welsh from 1982 to 1996 before serving as head coach for Boston College and NC State. Like his fellow hires, O’Brien brings more than three decades of experience to London’s staff.
“He’s a great coach, a great man, a great leader and he commands respect from day one,” Snyder said. “He comes in, and guys want to work for him and want to play for him, and it’s an exciting time.”
London sees O’Brien as a trusted advisor, already giving London new tips on how to recruit and manage scholarships for kickers and punters. As tight ends coach, he will have the opportunity to tutor a budding star in junior Jake McGee, who was recently named to the Mackey Award watch list. O’Brien will not be calling plays — Fairchild will — but London is sure he will continue to affect the program.
“I’ve been around Tom for a while,” London said. “One of the great things about Tom is that he’s about process. He’s done it at Boston College and NC State … there’s a valued amount of experience that you always try to get from a man like coach O’Brien.”
As with Tenuta, Fairchild and O’Brien, Lewis’ hire as special teams coordinator demonstrates London’s commitment to hiring coaches with a wealth of experience. The head coach at Idaho State from 1999 to 2006, Lewis coached under Fairchild at Colorado State and then at Nevada just last season. At Virginia, he will try to improve upon the program’s No. 72 ranking in yards per kick return and No. 111 ranking in yards per punt return — a paltry 3.87 yard average.
With so much upheaval among his coaches it may appear that London’s footing in Charlottesville is uncertain. A 16-21 record after three seasons is not as stellar as London would have hoped, but he is confident that his tenure will not be as short as his former staff’s.
“I plan on being at Virginia for a long time,” London said.