Lambert, running backs lead offensive returners
Offensive line still in question as season nears
Coming off a disappointing 2-10 season, the Virginia football team has significant room for improvement heading into its 2014 campaign. The Cavaliers hope a slew of returning skill position players will give the offense a much-needed spark to earn the program what would be its first winning season since coach Mike London’s second year in Charlottesville.
“We think we’re better coming out of spring ball, and I think we’ve improved on the offensive side of the ball,” offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild said.
The Cavaliers entered the offseason with one primary question: who would start behind center? Senior David Watford and sophomore Greyson Lambert increasingly split time a season ago. As spring practice wore on, however, and Lambert started the Spring Game and earned a position as captain, it became clear the quarterback job was his.
The Jesup, Georgia native appeared in seven of Virginia’s 12 contests last year, in which he put up 340 yards on a 44 percent completion rate and tossed one touchdown pass. Though the numbers are modest, Lambert saw sporadic action, which likely hindered his ability to establish any consistency. When given the opportunity to play for an elongated period of time, though, Lambert performed well, as evidenced by his 13-19 performance at Miami.
Aiding the first time starter will be a trio of solid running backs. Senior Kevin Parks leads the corps after rushing for more than 1,000 yards in 2013 — the first Virginia player to accomplish this feat in nine years. Parks has been named to the Doak Walker Award preseason watch list as well.
“Kevin is definitely our starting running back,” Fairchild said. “He went for over 1,000 yards last year and is having a good camp. He brings that leadership and physicality to the game that we’re looking for.”
Backing up the talented Parks will be fellow senior Khalek Shepherd and former five-star recruit Taquan Mizzell. Both Shepherd and Mizzell showed promise last year at both the tailback and slot positions, which gives Virginia immensely increased flexibility.
“We’ve got guys not just playing the running back spot, but lining up in the slot and other things,” Fairchild said. “It’s a good issue to have and all three are going to play.”
Another question the Cavaliers faced offseason was how to replace Jake McGee, who was the team’s leading receiver in tight end before transferring to Florida.
“It’s just the situation — guys graduate, guys get hurt, guys leave the program,” said Tom O’Brien, associate head coach for offense. “Then it’s just time for the next individual to step up and play.”
The Cavaliers are confident, however, they have found that next individual in Zach Swanson. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound senior tight end played in 10 games and hauled in 19 catches for 173 yards last year, ranking him sixth on the squad. Coaches have also raved about Swanson’s abilities in the running game, often citing him as a key blocker in their perimeter attacks.
“I think Zach has put himself in a position to have a heck of a year,” O’Brien said. “He’s a senior, it’s really important to him, he works hard and everything he does now in practice is full speed.”
Complementing Swanson in the passing game is a talented group of receivers, lead by senior Darius Jennings. For Jennings, 2013 was a bit of a down year after leading the program with 568 yards in 2012. Still, he caught 38 passes and three touchdowns — good enough to rank him No. 3 on the team.
In addition to Jennings, the Cavaliers will return starting senior Dominique Terrell and sophomore Keeon Johnson, whose 282 receiving yards a year ago were the most by a Virginia true freshman since 1999. Virginia also added several solid recruits at the receiver position this season. Four-star recruit Jamil Kamara highlights the group.
“We’re getting some real production out of that spot,” Fairchild said. “As a whole, our receiver group is probably the most improved facet on the offensive side of the ball.”
The Cavaliers’ primary area of concern will be allowing Lambert to get the ball to the skill players. The offensive line is still an unanswered question for Virginia, forced to rebuild its starting five following the loss of Morgan Moses and Luke Bowanko to the NFL.
Additionally, Virginia has had to cope with several key injuries during camp, including a back injury to one of the three returning starters in tackle Jay Whitmire. Amid uncertainty, the Cavaliers will look to fifth-year senior left guard Conner Davis for leadership.
From there, however, the coaching staff has continuously shuffled around player combinations in an attempt to find the best alternative.
Three sophomore linemen played last year as true freshmen and will look to compete for starting jobs in the fall: tackles Eric Smith and Sadiq Olanrewaju, and center Eric Tetlow. Smith is the only of the three with starting experience.
“The thing that has really impressed me about these guys is that they have a great enthusiasm for the game of football,” line coach Scott Wachenheim said. “They practice with unbelievable energy — they’re running around and flying around. They’ve got a true desire to be the best they can be.”
The first time Lambert will lead the offense onto Scott Stadium’s field for his first time as a starter Saturday at noon against UCLA.