A whirlwind of change has surrounded the Virginia football program since William & Mary last entered Scott Stadium and claimed a shocking victory against its heavily-favored in-state rival in 2009. Mike London now patrols the sidelines once commanded by former coach Al Groh, and a young group of promising talent currently occupies the spots once held by players who have long cleaned out their lockers. The Cavaliers have even sported a whole new set of uniforms. But perhaps the biggest change can be seen in how the Cavaliers view the Tribe; never again will the Cavaliers overlook a matchup against their cross-state foe.
"As a BCS opponent, sometimes you get into that lull that you're supposed to win this game," London said. "I've been on both sides of that. If you don't play to your capabilities, you're in for a long day."
During the last meeting between the two programs, William & Mary brought a level of intensity that the Cavaliers failed to match. The Virginia offensive unit turned the ball over seven times, while then-redshirt senior quarterback R.J. Archer burned the defense for 230 total yards and a touchdown in the 26-14 triumph.
Although Archer and many of his teammates from the 2009 squad have since graduated, the Tribe still boast a talented group of athletes who London believes can compete at the level of an FBS squad. Entering the 2011 season, William & Mary has garnered a top-five ranking at the FCS level. The Tribe welcome back a multitude of starters on both sides of the ball, including standout senior running back Jonathan Grimes and junior cornerback B.W. Webb. Grimes, who scored 24 touchdowns out of the backfield in 2010, will look to add to his school-record 5,445 career all-purpose yards and create openings downfield for senior quarterback Michael Paulus - a North Carolina transfer. Webb, meanwhile, is eying a repeat of his impressive performance against the Cavaliers two years ago when he nabbed three interceptions - including one for a game-sealing touchdown.
"They're a very good team," London said. "I've seen them up close and personal. I've been on the staff. I know what's being taught down there. I know the mindset that those guys are going to have coming in ... We have to play better, way better, than them if we're going to have the kind of success we're looking for."
In just his second year at the helm of the Cavaliers, London expects his team to improve on its 4-8 2010 showing, especially as one of the ACC's most experienced teams. The Cavaliers return eight defensive starters, including senior cornerback Chase Minnifield and senior defensive end Cam Johnson. Minnifield led last year's squad with six interceptions, while Johnson looks to best his total of 14.5 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks from just a season ago. The defensive unit, spearheaded by the likes of Minnifield and Johnson, believes that it has made the necessary steps to improving its No. 70 scoring defense and will yield far fewer than the 28.3 points per game average the group gave up in 2010.
"We're way ahead of where we were last time during camp, and you can see it as far as a defensive standpoint," senior safety Rodney McLeod said.
On offense, Virginia welcomes back all five of its starting linemen, though senior tackle Landon Bradley will likely miss the season opener because of an injury. Veteran junior tailback Perry Jones, who tallied 646 rushing yards and 31 receptions in 2010, will look to provide a spark out of the backfield with his shifty feet and ability to get low to the ground, while senior wide receivers Kris Burd and Matt Snyder bring years of experience to the receiving corps. All three skill-player standouts hope to provide support for sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco, who London tabbed as the starter Monday afternoon. Rocco replaces graduated signal caller Marc Verica under center after going 13-for-25 in six appearances off of the bench last year.
"There's a calmness about Michael, and there's an understanding about the style of offense that we have, about how to distribute the ball to the different playmakers," London said. "He's a pocket guy that can make some of the reads. Over the course of camp, he kept demonstrating his ability to do that."
London also expressed interest in inserting freshman quarterback David Watford into situations which may require a more athletic playmaker.
"He can do some things that are special," London said. "Does he still have to learn? Yes, he does. But that's part of the process. But I'm committed to playing him and trying to give him that development and that playmaker ability that I think this team needs."
But no matter who is under center, London expects nothing less than maximum effort from his players as the Cavaliers gear up for the 2009 rematch with hopes of redemption. Kick-off is slated for 6 p.m. at Scott Stadium.