Virginia, impact freshman relish UNC challenge
Tar Heels will play without senior starting QB Renner
Searching for a silver lining amid a six-game losing streak might seem futile as the Virginia football team travels to Chapel Hill to face North Carolina this weekend, but it is not impossible to find.
Although the Tar Heels (3-5, 2-3 ACC) just registered a 27-19 victory against NC State, they lost senior quarterback Bryn Renner to a season-ending shoulder injury. North Carolina must win three of its remaining four games without Renner to be bowl eligible for the first time under coach Larry Fedora.
Trying to put a winless October behind them, the Cavaliers (2-7, 0-5 ACC) are seeking their first ACC victory of the season.
“Going into this game with [North Carolina], you look at both teams having struggled a bit,” Virginia coach Mike London said. “We’re looking at it to prepare to go on the road and play North Carolina and win that game by any means necessary.”
One of the bright spots for Virginia during a deflating 2013 campaign has been the play of its freshman class. Of the 12 freshmen seeing field time this season, seven have started.
“This class that’s coming in in the fall is a class that you start to look at,” London said. “When you can recruit talented players and they can step in right away and play, then you will afford those young men the chance to do that.”
Injuries have given young players working diligently in practice a chance to step up and gain experience down the homestretch of a season that has no hope of ending in a bowl appearance.
“I was second team for the longest time — I didn’t even touch the field,” freshman defensive tackle Donte Wilkins said. “Once I worked for it, and I actually gave it my all, and actually put work in, it felt good to actually earn my spot playing.”
Even with seven losses on the season, each game offers a crucial opportunity for development and improvement of Virginia’s freshmen. In last week’s loss against Clemson, freshman wide receiver Keeon Johnson hauled in five catches for 77 receiving yards, both career highs.
“The first week of practice I was kind of out there like a chicken with his head cut off,” Johnson said. “Since I’ve studied the places a lot more, gotten to know how it feels in game type situations, I’m more calm and collected on the field.”
Although Virginia’s freshmen continue to gain valuable experience despite weekly losses, with only three games left in the season there is a sense of urgency as the Cavaliers search for a victory in North Carolina. To be successful against the Tar Heels, London reckons Virginia’s offense must limit the number of turnovers while converting more of its lengthy, productive possessions into points.
“There’s plenty of time possession, but not scoring is definitely an issue,” London said. “The need to score points is critical.”
The Tar Heels employ a multiple formation offense that has ignited their passing game in recent years. In pass offense, North Carolina ranks third in the ACC and 19th in the country.
“This is another offense that will have a lot of remnants to some of the teams that we played with shifts, motions, [and] hurry-up tempo,” London said. “Our job is to make sure we’re in a position to go up and contest balls and put a rush on the quarterback.”
Stopping junior tight end Eric Ebron, who has amassed 669 reception yards and averages 83.6 yards a game to lead North Carolina, is a major point of emphasis for the Virginia defense this week.
“Ebron is their all-everything guy,” London said. “He’s a tight end but he’s an excellent receiver that plays kind of like [junior tight end] Jake McGee does for us out in the slot position.”
Although No. 14 Miami and Virginia Tech loom after Virginia’s bye next week, London’s primary focus this week is to concentrate on the task at hand.
“The biggest thing I’d say is just prepare to win and taking it one game at a time,” London said. “For us, our bowl season is these next three games coming up, and the most important game is this game against Carolina.”
The contest will kick off at 12:30 p.m. Saturday and will air locally on the ACC Network.