Cavaliers hold annual spring football game
London says starting quarterback decision to be made 'soon'
Saturday afternoon in Charlottesville, Va. football fans of all ages streamed into the sun-painted Scott Stadium for the Cavaliers’ annual Orange-Blue Spring Game to catch an early glimpse of the newest version of Virginia football.
“We will be a different team [this fall], but the good thing about it, you know, every aspect of the team we have is improving,” coach Mike London said. “The guys that were going to be in the depth had a chance to get significant reps this spring, and if anything has come good out of this whole process, it’s been [being] able to get a lot of guys reps.”
Sophomore Greyson Lambert, junior David Watford and sophomore Matt Johns switched off under center as the orange-clad offense scored 20 points against the blue-decked defense for a final score of Virginia 13, Cavaliers 7.
While no signal-caller truly shined for the Cavaliers, each had memorable moments. Johns connected with sophomore wide receiver Kyle Dockins for a 23-yard reception in the second quarter — the longest offensive play of the day. Watford counted an 18-yarder among his four completions.
Lambert came closest to stealing the day, throwing for 220 yards and both of the Cavaliers’ touchdown passes. At halftime, he was announced as one of Virginia’s four captains for the 2014 season, along with senior safety Anthony Harris, senior linebacker Henry Coley and senior tailback Kevin Parks. Parks sat this game out due to injury.
Lambert’s prominence in the game prompted a consequential question: is he Virginia’s starting quarterback? London would not go that far, though he did praise the sophomore’s character.
“We’ll make that decision early,” London said. “We’ll make that decision soon … when all the opportunities to evaluate these guys presents itself. But I will say this: that the captains that were voted on were voted by the players. … I think it’s a testament to the fact that players on this team recognize leadership abilities.”
Watford battled through a frustrating first half in which he completed only 1-of-6 passes and was picked off twice — once when redshirt freshman cornerback Kirk Garner came up with the ball off a high deflection in the opening minutes of the second quarter. Last season’s starter was not pleased with his performance, but he also said he does not intend to let the lows define him.
“I definitely didn’t do my best today, but you know, it’s a part of the spring,” Watford said. “You have your good days, you have your bad days. It’s all about how you bounce back from it, how you respond to it.”
Early in the second quarter, Lambert floated a pass into the left extreme of the endzone, where redshirt freshman wide receiver Andre Levrone won the jump ball in single coverage. The play was one of the more memorable on a day when points — and, in the first half, yards — were often hard to come by.
“He dropped back,” Levrone said. “I guess he liked the matchup he saw over there. … He underthrew it a little bit, but I went back up and I got it. When I came down, I was just excited — excited to get some points on the board.”
Lambert, Watford and Johns combined to throw for 294 yards on the day, completing 28-of-64 pass attempts. The defense hounded Lambert into two interceptions, both by junior strong safety Mason Thomas, and sacked the trio of quarterbacks nine times for a loss of 62 yards.
Lambert’s last series began with 4:39 to play and was the offense’s most fluent of the day. The quarterback hit sophomore tailback Taquan Mizzell for a 14-yard gain and followed with a nine-yard keeper. Two plays later, senior wide receiver Darius Jennings pulled in a pass near the right sideline to move the chains another 13 yards upfield.
The sequence took a worrisome turn when Jennings went down following a four-yard reception by Dockins. Jennings retreated to the sideline — London could not speak to the severity of his injury post-game — but the offense kept churning out positive yardage.
In the red zone after senior tight end Zachary Swanson’s 11-yard reception, Lambert slung the football slightly behind Dockins. His receiver made the adjustment and broke the goal line 2:47 after the drive’s start.
Though Lambert had the better day under center, he and Watford will continue to compete for the starting nod in the months to come. Levrone believes Virginia cannot go wrong with either quarterback.
“I mean, I love both of those guys to death,” Levrone said. “Both of them are very selfless players … both of them have extreme ability that they’ve been blessed with. Hopefully in the early stages of summer camp we can decide who’s going to lead us on, but I’m confident with whoever we have in the huddle.”
All in all, the defense won the day: Mizzell ran the ball the best of the rushing corps, managing just 28 yards on nine carries against the stifling unit.
Coley, whom London praised after the game, led the defense with 12 tackles. Garner, junior defensive end Eli Harold and sophomore outside linebacker Max Valles each picked up two sacks while combining for 21 tackles. Valles, in the midst of his first spring conditioning with the team, thinks he may be ready to take a big step as a pest to opposing quarterbacks.
“I was in good shape, but I wasn’t in great playing shape last season,” Valles said. “A lot of times, you guys picked up on it, I would cramp up a lot on the sidelines. [The coaching staff and trainers] would always bring ice over to me. This season, I feel like I’m in much better shape. My body fat’s really low now, so I’ve gained weight too, but I feel like [it’s] pretty much all muscle. I can really give everything I have now.”
Virginia opens the 2014 season at home Aug. 30 against UCLA.