Virginia Football Won't Be Rebuilt in a Day
Mike London knew the challenge coming into Charlottesville.
The former head coach of the University of Richmond had two previous stints at Virginia before becoming the eventual successor to Al Groh after nine tumultuous seasons. He understands the culture and he recognizes the expectations upon him.
Most importantly, he realizes that this is a long-term project.
When London left Virginia in 2007 to coach his alma mater, he was walking into a team built for success. Current Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson had created a program on the verge of big things and London was able to maximize the talents of versatile quarterback Eric Ward and an experienced defense en route to the first national championship in school history.
The current Virginia Cavalier football team, fresh off the heels of an embarrassing 3-9 season which featured losses to William & Mary and Duke (teams that London beat last season at Richmond), is far from an emerging team. Indeed, the roster is quite a mess.
Perhaps the most pressing issue facing Virginia this offseason is the question mark at quarterback. With the departure of Jameel Sewell, the Cavaliers will need to find a new signal-caller to lead the troops. Junior Marc Verica showed flashes of brilliance in 2008 but regressed horribly last season in the new offense and his lack of confidence casts major doubts on whether he can successfully lead the Cavaliers next season.
That means Virginia must pin its hopes on either redshirt freshmen Riko Smalls or Ross Metheny. Neither man has taken a snap in a college game and although Smalls is athletic his small stature could put him in a bad situation. He has the potential to be the next Marques Hagans or Vic Hall, superior athlete but not a quarterback.
Even then, the problem becomes exactly who the new quarterback will be throwing towards in 2010.
Virginia had multiple wide receivers see time this season, but that resulted more from a lack of consistency than any sort of depth. Sophomore wide out Kris Burd led the Cavaliers with a paltry 413 yards and only one touchdown the entire season. By comparison, Kevin Ogletree in 2008 led the Cavaliers with 723 yards and five touchdowns.
Seventeen players caught a pass in 2009, not a single one of them averaged more than 40 yards per game.
Worse yet, en route to a three-win season, coach Groh decided to scorch the Earth on his way out by burning redshirts on many of these wide receivers for one or two receptions the entire year.
It's been seven years since Billy McMullen finished his career at Virginia second all-time in the ACC in career receptions. In many ways, Virginia is still searching for a suitable replacement.
Since the Cavaliers have struggled so much in the air these past few seasons, Virginia has tried to use a power running game. Unfortunately, that too features many problems heading into 2010.
With running backs Rashawn Jackson and Mikell Simpson on the way out, the cupboard is bare for the Cavalier backfield. Torrey Mack and Dominique Wallace were two praised prospects but injuries hampered both of their opportunities in 2009.
While Wallace looked good against Southern Mississippi, Virginia's top two leading rushers coming into 2010 will have a combined 139 yards to their credit.
The offensive line is really not that much better, the Cavaliers struggled mightily between the new offense of Gregg Brandon and the old style Groh had used beforehand. While the spread clearly was not well suited to these linemen, they did not light it up either when they reverted back to some old plays.
With all these problems, it is little wonder that Virginia ranked last in the ACC in scoring offense.
However, the defense, something that Groh had built his job around, could not pick up the slack either.
The Cavaliers were seventh in the ACC in total defense, allowing over 350 yards per game. Virginia's top player, defensive lineman Nate Collins, is graduating. This means that freshman sensation Steven Greer will have a great deal to live up to his sophomore year.
Greer, may be one of only two or three guys Virginia fans can look upon and be confident that he is a player they can build around.
Cornerback Ras I-Dowling was thought to be one of those players. Indeed, he was talked about as someone who might leave early for the NFL draft heading into this season.
Well the good news is that Dowling probably will not leave early, but the bad news is it's because of a sour junior season where the potential star seemed to regress. His performance against Danny Coale of Virginia Tech was pitiful.
Long story short, Mike London needs to roll up to sleeves and get to work.
We all know that London's greatest strength is his recruiting ability. Well, time is wasting if he wants to do something with the current recruiting class that is looking rather sparse at the moment.
Currently, Virginia only has one four-star recruit, Morgan Moses. Moses has been struggling academically and was deferred this year to Fork Union Military Academy to make the grade.
Even if the big offensive lineman can become eligible, there is more and more reason to think he will bolt with all this coaching turmoil.
Moses was particularly close with Virginia wide receivers coach Latrell Scott. With rumors that Scott could be named the new head coach at Richmond, the potential for Moses to decommit seems like an almost certainty.
That leaves London in a tough situation. Virginia currently has 11 high school senior commitments, one of whom London was able to get just hours on the job in quarterback Michael Strauss from Miami, Florida.
Recruiting for the University of Virginia is not a simple task. The strong academic requirements combined with their recent losing seasons have certainly dampened the Cavalier spirit throughout the Commonwealth.
London knows that one of his first priorities must be to mend some of the broken cogs in the recruiting pipelines around Virginia. At his press conference, he emphasized the importance of looking at academics not as a weakness but a strength.
This is an opportunity for young men to get the best of both worlds. Virginia has certainly found success before and it can find it again. However, the injuries inflicted over the past few seasons will take more than a band aid to heal things.
London will be challenged like he never has before as head coach of the Virginia Cavaliers. Fortunately for him and all the Cavalier fans, it's a labor of love.
Virginia may have wandered well off course these past few years, but with London at the helm, it can finally head in the right direction.
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