10 Ways to Improve Virginia Football Now
Five games into the season, and the Cavaliers are at a crossroads literally and figuratively.
The promise of a new season has faced severe hardships with two straight losses and an underwhelming victory against the Idaho Vandals in overtime.
With the likes of Georgia Tech, Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech on the schedule, fans are justifiably nervous as to how the Cavaliers will fare the rest of this season.
A 3-2 record now may be good, but will it be good enough to sneak into a bowl game by season's end.
While fans are complaining about numerous things, several changes cannot be solved right now.
Hiring a new defensive coordinator, for instance, is not a mid-season move most would recommend.
New players are not going to fall from trees; you are stuck with what you have.
Therefore, rather than pining for the impossible or lamenting games past, it is time to focus on the present.
The following are 10 realistic and plausible suggestions for Virginia. Strategies for the short-term and potentially long-term to put the Cavaliers back on track for 2011.
Let Clifton Richardson Play
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This is Virginia running back Perry Jones.
See how he is hurting. That is because Jones is not an every-down back.
If Virginia wants to be a power running team, it needs a power running back and Jones is a speed guy.
If Kevin Parks is injured, Clifton Richardson needs to get more play. Richardson is a good complementary back and deserves more than just a handful of touches.
This makes Jones a more dynamic player and adds complexity to the offense.
Considering how other freshmen have shown less and gotten more playing time, it only makes sense that Richardson get more play.
Challenge the Offensive Line
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Virginia's offensive line is big and strong, yet they have lacked the dominance one would expect.
While it has been an area of strength, Virginia has been unable to impose its will on smaller defensive lines, even teams like Southern Mississippi who are built to stop spread offenses.
Against Idaho, the offensive line looked to be throwing players out of the way, but once momentum shifted, those big holes began to disappear.
With the bye week come and gone, Virginia's coaching staff needs to get in the ears of these players. Challenge them to dominate for 60 minutes and not let conditioning be an issue.
Virginia needs to be able to run the ball in critical moments, and that has not been true the past few games. If the Cavaliers want to turn their fortune around, it starts up front.
Pick a Quarterback Already!
It's the biggest problem facing the Cavaliers right now.
With two quarterbacks competing neither one has confidence nor much success lately.
Michael Rocco, the red-shirt sophomore, began the season as the starter and true freshman David Watford was placed in a weird system where he would be brought in on particular series predetermined by the staff.
For instance, Watford has been the quarterback on the fourth offensive drive in every game this season, regardless of how the previous three had gone.
Whether that drive started at the 1-yard line or the 50, Watford would play.
Whether Rocco had three touchdown drives or three interceptions, Watford would play.
After three interceptions by Rocco against Southern Miss, Watford got more play.
Against Idaho, both kept coming in and out without much rhyme or reason.
Coach Mike London has made this offense impotent with this chaos under center. Virginia was up 14-0 early against the Vandals before he started messing with what was working.
Watford threw an interception on his first drive and the momentum was turned.
Both quarterbacks are talented, both have good and bad qualities, but both cannot continue to be played like this. London must choose one or suffer the beating from a ravenous fanbase.
Let Chase Minnifield Return Punts
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Nothing has been more disappointing than the play of the special teams unit in the past few weeks.
Particularly on returns, Virginia has either not fair caught when they needed to or allowed their returners to be rag dolls and take a beating from the coverage team.
The Cavaliers are averaging a paltry return average, and it has truly hurt the team's momentum in these close games.
Chase Minnifield may not be as explosive as his true freshman counterparts, but the senior cornerback has experience and mental toughness.
Minnifield knows what to do in particular situations, and he brings a much needed stability to the position.
Maybe Virginia can play safer with two return men on punts, but clearly the current system is not working.
Bench Penalty Causers
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The amount of penalties last year on Virginia was pretty much ridiculous.
The Cavaliers had the most penalty yardage of any ACC team, making big mistakes at critical junctures. Penalties will happen, but the propensity of racking up 15-yard penalties will kill any team's chances of winning.
Virginia had over 400 more penalty yards than North Carolina State in 2010, and that trend is not going away in 2011.
The Cavaliers have the third most average penalty yards per game this season. Last year some of the mistakes could be blamed on players adjusting from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defensive scheme.
This year, despite the youth, excuses are not going to cut it. Veteran Virginia players are making mistakes, and the younger ones are making decisions that would not be acceptable in Pop Warner football.
Virginia, despite its academic standing, cannot stop making a handful of painful penalties in a game.
That is why coach Mike London needs to go further in addressing these issues. Rather than seem shocked that referees are calling penalties that are blatant upon replay, discipline those who cause the infractions.
Sit people down, particularly wide receivers caught holding or needless late hits.
Sometimes penalties are the lesser of two evils, but all too often these were mistakes that could have been avoided. Virginia must do its part to show they are serious about eliminating these mistakes.
Do Something Unpredictable
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What has cost Virginia in the past is its predictability.
Over the years, it has been easy to guess what Virginia was going to do offensively and defensively. In-game adjustments were simply not going their way.
Having an identity is important, but teams have to be able to adjust with what the opposition is throwing against them. If teams stack the box to stop the run, Virginia must exploit it.
If Virginia tries a screen pass 15 times in one quarter, the team should not be surprised when it stops becoming effective.
The Cavaliers do not have the talent right now to be an upper echelon ACC team. However, they do have playmakers who can make a difference.
Virginia needs to throw caution to the wind more and try to roll the dice on trick plays and innovative schemes.
In all honesty, this might have been the plan all along. The Cavaliers were playing the first five games expecting to win four of them. Now they will be the underdog in virtually every game left this season.
Virginia does not have the pressure of expectation and should try some fake punts and some Wildcat formations using both quarterbacks.
The Cavaliers need big plays to match the ones they have been giving up on defense. They would not only ignite a dormant crowd but give the players momentum to finish games strongly.
Can they backfire? Of course but nothing ventured, nothing gained. Virginia needs some excitement and opening up the playbook would do just that.
Make Perry Jones the Next Reggie Bush
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Perry Jones is arguably Virginia's biggest weapon.
The sophomore running back has speed comparable to just about anyone in the ACC.
His small frame makes him a liability as an every down back, but his versatility makes him special.
So why does Virginia seem content on keeping him next to the running back.
Jones is the leading rusher with 386 yards on 80 carries, but he is also second on the team with receptions with 199 yards to his credit. Not bad considering most of those were in check downs or screens that did not give Jones much to go on.
Although Virginia's depth at wide receiver is good, playing Jones in the slot would be a huge asset to the team.
It would give the linebackers something to deal with, preventing them from being able to blitz our young quarterbacks so often.
It would allow Virginia to have two very good running backs on the field at the same time.
It could even give wide receiver Kris Burd less attention from the secondary.
Is Perry Jones going to have great hands? Not necessarily.
However, Jones has all the skill set to play a Reggie Bush role in Virginia's offense. He may not be as talented, but he deserves the opportunity.
The 46-yard scamper against Indiana proved that Jones should be given more opportunities to have the ball in space.
If Virginia can accomplish that, their offense will improve greatly.
Reward the Best Tacklers
Virginia's tackling the past few years has been a disappointment.
Regular form tackling has given way to either attempted big hits or shoves out of bounds. The Cavaliers have to go back to fundamentals if their front seven on defense are going to improve.
A critical play came against Southern Mississippi where a shove rather than a wrap-up tackle from a Virginia defender allowed the Eagles to make a first down and milk precious time off the clock.
Later in the game, on 3rd-and-23, Virginia could not properly defend a screen pass. The Eagles sped for 41 yards and a first down. Worse yet, they allowed a field goal and forced the Cavaliers to have to score a touchdown to win.
Virginia has to go beyond pointing out mistakes in the post-game conference, they need to celebrate those players who are executing fundamentals.
Football is not about the "hit stick, Madden football culture" we have become accustomed to. Virginia needs to be about old-school form tackling program.
If they can make examples of those who play the positions the right ways, they can attract recruits with similar knowledge and skill sets.
It will make Virginia fans less likely to pull their hair out and make the team better.
Blitz the Linebackers More
Virginia's linebackers have not had a great start to this season.
The pass coverage by the linebacking corps has been suspect, and their ability to get to the quarterback has been disappointing.
LaRoy Reynolds is a talented young man and a leader on defense, but his charges simply are not living up to the legacy left behind by other playmakers like Darryl Blackstock, Clint Sintim, Ahmad Brooks, Kai Parham and many others.
If Virginia is going to win games, they need to be able to control the turnover battle.
So far this season, the Cavaliers have nine takeaways compared to 13 giveaways.
To improve that number defensively, Virginia will need to bring the pressure more often than they have lately.
Take for example the end of the Indiana game where Cam Johnson stripped the ball away from Indiana's quarterback.
That play came on a blitz where Indiana did not pick up the blitz at all.
Is there a potential for a big play for the opponent? Of course. The problem is that the conservative gameplan has not helped avoid these big plays either.
Chase Minnifield is a good enough corner to leave him on one-on-one coverage during a blitz, and true freshman Demetrious Nicholson has gotten in more trouble because of his height than any particular blown coverage.
Virginia simply cannot give quarterbacks all day to carve apart the defense, and if the linebackers are not going to help in pass coverage, they might as well be used to generate pressure and force opponents into mistakes.
Build for the Future
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Virginia has an incredible amount of young players.
Already, many true freshmen have made their debuts, and while some have flourished, others have floundered.
Having depth is important, but so is knowing where you stand.
London now has five games, nearly have the season to use as a measuring stick, and it is time to build around what is working and get rid of what is not.
The ACC is not a time to try and make everybody feel warm and fuzzy by splitting playing time and giving everyone a gold star for participation.
Virginia needs to pick their best 22 players and stick with them.
If they struggle, lift them back up.
If they succeed, keep it going.
Virginia cannot afford to let a mediocre senior cost an up-and-coming freshman valuable playing time.
If London thinks that a kid has the talent, let them play. Seniority does not have the same emphasis on a team that has not gone to a bowl game since 2007.
Experience is important and should be part of any consideration, but the time to make tough decisions has arrived.
Virginia needs a corps to build around, and right now no one knows who is in that group.
Virginia needs an identity, something to sell to the players, the fanbase and recruits.
Without an identity, you are worse than bad, you are irrelevant.