Offense Preview: Similar cast, new production
After dismal 2012 for offense, veteran running back and first-time starting quarterback spearhead attack
When Virginia opens the season Saturday against Brigham Young, fans may recognize many familiar faces with the offense returning seven starters. However, the unit is expected to look markedly different from last year, due to both the departures of major contributors and an entirely revamped strategy.
Entering 2012, the Cavaliers were fresh off an 8-5 campaign in which the run game was the focal point of the offense and figured to be again with the return of senior running back Perry Jones and then-sophomore running back Kevin Parks. But that smash-mouth style of football never materialized as the offense faltered, ranking No. 96 nationally in rushing yards and No. 93 in scoring offense.
This offseason, Virginia’s coaches have made a point of emphasizing toughness, which players and coaches believe may have been lacking last season.
“I feel like our mindset this year is totally different from last year,” Parks said. “We want to be physical, we want to wear teams down on offense, so hopefully those things are going to work this season.”
Parks will shoulder much of the burden for a Cavalier offense without a quarterback that has ever started a collegiate game. But coach Mike London is also expected to utilize junior running back Khalek Shepherd and highly touted freshman running back Taquan Mizzell as satellite backs and special teams ammunition.
“I think what you’ll see early on is trying to find plays and substitution groups that will have those guys in the game,” London said. “The great thing about [Shepherd] and [Mizzell] is they are our punt returners, kickoff returners [and] they can also play slot receivers in different formations.”
Possibly the most talked-about story of the offseason was the transfer of senior Michael Rocco and dismissal of junior Phillip Sims — both of the Cavaliers’ primary signal-callers in 2012 — and the resulting quarterback battle between sophomore David Watford and redshirt freshman Greyson Lambert.
Watford, who played in 10 games in 2011 before redshirting last season, was named the starter Aug. 12. He represents one of the biggest question marks facing the Virginia offense entering regular season play, but the coaching staff plans on easing the sophomore into the starting role.
“We’re not going to ask [Watford] to do more than what he’s capable of doing,” London said. “Obviously he’s a gifted and talented young man, but if he does what’s being asked of him to do in distributing the ball and using his legs and his arm and his brain, then I think that’s going to be critical to our success.”
Luckily for Watford, seven of the Cavaliers’ top eight pass-catchers from last year return, including starting receivers at the Z, X and F positions in senior Tim Smith and juniors Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell, respectively.
“I feel like our receivers are more experienced,” Parks said. “I feel like there’s going to be more big play ability down the field. Tim Smith has been around; it’s going to be a breakout year for him.”
Junior tight end Jake McGee, a fan favorite after his memorable last-second, game-winning catch against Miami last year, also figures to impact the passing game, despite sitting at third on the depth chart behind junior Zachary Swanson and sophomore Rob Burns. London indicated McGee slid down the chart due to blocking deficiencies.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t put too much into that,” London said. “He’ll play in the game because he has a skill set that we definitely need. We’ve got to require our tight ends to block, and I think that Jake will get better at that. But we’ll expect all three of those guys [will] have an opportunity to play and help us.”
The other burning question for Virginia’s offense concerned an offensive line that allowed 14 sacks and three safeties in the spring game and graduated first-team All-ACC offensive tackle Oday Aboushi. In one of the final position battles to be settled during camp, sophomore Ross Burbank beat out redshirt freshman Jackson Matteo for the vacant center spot.
“That battle had a lot of ups and downs for everyone that was involved,” senior guard and captain Luke Bowanko said. “The most impressive thing about Ross was the way he handled it. On days when he’d come out and maybe struggle a little bit, that next day he’d come out and you’d have to say, ‘Wow, he had a really great day.’ That’s big when a guy’s growing into a role and you’re trying to gain confidence in the guys you’re playing with.”
Virginia returned four starting offensive lineman, including senior left tackle Morgan Moses, a preseason All-American and first-team All-ACC selection. Junior guard Conner Davis switched to right guard after starting 11 games on the left side last year, while senior captain Luke Bowanko will return to his natural position at guard after starting all 12 games at center in 2012. Sophomore right tackle Jay Whitmire set himself apart in spring practice and rounds out the unit, with projected starter senior Sean Cascarano, who started every game at guard last season, still on crutches for a hip injury.
Parks likes what he’s seen so far from his teammates responsible for opening up holes for him this season.
“I’ve seen the offensive line doing great,” Parks said. “And I believe that’s the biggest factor for us going into the season. . . our offensive line and how they play.”
Training camp hype means little when a team kicks off the season against such formidable competition as Brigham Young and No. 3 Oregon. However, after a miserable 2012 outing, the optimism abounds among the Cavaliers’ offensive weapons.
“There’s a lot of excitement in the locker room, a lot of buzz,” Bowanko said. “That’s the great thing about college football is that first game comes around, and the whole nation kind of gets a good vibe going.”