by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

What a difference a few months can make!

Take Virginia Cavaliers football, for example. Last year at this time, we were wondering if then second-year HC Mike London had the right stuff to put UVa back on the college football map. Now, twelve months later, we are wondering how long the Wahoos are going to be able to hold on to their coach.

Indeed, London is in demand these days, especially after leading UVa to a surprise 8-5 mark and Chick-fil-A Bowl appearance last fall. London had a chance to say “no” in the offseason to Penn State, opting to stick around a while longer in Charlottesville. We expect the Nittany Lions to be the first of many future London suitors.

Virginia backers are hoping their association with London can be a long-term relationship. The school, rich in tradition, has plenty to offer, and forward-thinking recruits are well-advised of the benefits of a UVa degree in the region. Especially in the Commonwealth, where many of the movers-and-shakers are former Wahoos, just as they populate much of the area inside of the nearby D.C. Beltway. UVa alums are also familiar in the national media; Brit Hume (right), Katie Couric, Fred Barnes, Rich Lowry, and Laura Ingraham, not to mention contemporary celebs such as Tina Fey, are all former Cavaliers. And then there’s the political roll-call of UVa alums, which is too extensive to list.

Upgraded Scott Stadium, along with overall facility improvements, also now rank among the finest in the ACC.

Although there has often between a needle through which Virginia gridiron success has to be threaded because of the school’s academic requirements, London’s predecessor Al Groh succeeded in convincing the admissions office to let down its guard just a little for football recruits. Unlike HC George Welsh, under whom the Cavs won consistently for two decades, Groh was able to slip in several more “special admit” academic cases, those who meet NCAA admission guidelines but not usually among those accepted into the prestigious Charlottesville campus. London also benefits from those somewhat-relaxed entrance requirements for gridders, although the Cavs still have more stringent admission norms than most ACC rivals.

But being able to accept some borderline academic qualifiers has been a plus for UVa football, which has been able to attract more preps from the talent-rich Tidelands area (long a recruiting stronghold of Frank Beamer and Virginia Tech) and also access more of the D.C.-area talent. The Charlottesville location, and its proximity to those nearby prep hotbeds, is another reason why London might want to think about hanging around UVa for awhile.

These days, they expect to compete on the gridion in Charlottesville. Especally since the aforementioned George Welsh (right), hired in 1982 from alma mater Annapolis, ushered in an era of prowess for Cavalier football. Prior to Welsh’s arrival, Virginia was a gridiron laughingstock, not too different from longtime punching bags such as Northwestern and Vanderbilt. Welsh, however, ended up taking the Cavs to 12 bowls in his 19 seasons, even pushing Virginia to the top of the national rankings for three magical weeks during the middle of the 1990 campaign. Successor Groh kept Virginia competitive for most of the next decade following Welsh’s retirement after 2000, but a downturn in Groh’s later years in charge had Hoo backers worried that another slip into gridiron irrelevance was just around the corner.

London, hired away from Richmond after the 2009 season, came with some credentials from years as a defensive mastermind, having been a member of Groh’s staff (as well as an NFL stint on the staff of the Houston Texans in 2005), before experiencing considerable success as a head coach on the FCS level, winning the national title in 2008. Still, some noted that London had inherited a powerhouse Spider team from predecessor Dave Clawson. And, after a 4-8 Charlottesville head coaching debut in 2010, some in the region were openly skeptical about London’s qualifications. Those concerns, however, were mostly put to rest after last season’s resurgence.

ACC sources are duly impressed with the London style, featuring a balanced offensive approach and aggressive defensive schemes, not to mention apparent recruiting acumen. London seems to have the bases properly covered, although replicating last year’s breakthrough campaign might prove a challenge.

That’s mostly because UVa has lots of dike-plugging to do on a defense that lost seven starters (many of the high-impact variety) from last season's stop unit. Psychologically, some are also wondering about the mindset of the platoon after it was shredded at the end of 2011, first by rival Virginia Tech in the regular-season finale, then by Auburn in the bowl game at Atlanta.

The 2012 campaign is also going to be the next, and most extensive, test of London’s supposedly upgraded recruiting efforts, as many of his additions to the program are going to be asked to step into important roles on the defensive side of the ball. The secondary is a particular area of concern with three new starters set to debut in the defensive backfield, and 10 of the top 12 on the post-spring depth chart being London-recruited frosh or sophs.

Three of those sophs are slated to start in a mostly-rebuilt secondary that returns only one starter, long-haired soph CB Demetrious Nicholson (right). One of London’s recruits, soph SS Anthony Harris, suggested that he is ready for the starting challenge with hard-to-ignore impact in spring football.

Still, pass defense looms as an area of real concern this fall for London and d.c. Jim Reid, as a total of 92 starts were lost via graduation. Moreover, the Cav passers torched the DBs in the spring game; the Hoo QBs combined for 400 yards through the air. The move of former CB Rijo Walker to FS was not without a few hiccups in spring, but sources say London is quietly confident that what the DBs lack in experience, they will eventually make up for with speed. Indeed, they’re relay-type quick in the Cav secondary.

But if the rebuild theme is being played in the secondary, it’s being literally blared on the defensive front where London and Reid must replace a combined 122 starts worth of experience from last season’s line. One of London’s newest ballyhooed additions, true frosh DE Eli Howard, one of the many Tidelands recruits (Virginia Beach) who opted for Charlottesville instead of Frank Beamer’s Blacksburg, is a pass-rush demon who could make an immediate impact on a stop unit that, despite its impressive numbers a year ago, generated negligible pressure on opposing QBs (just 20 sacks, ranking a down-the-table 90th nationally).

Looking to ignite more of a push up front, London and Reid have moved sr. Ausar Walcott, who has started in the past at LB, to a DE spot, where his quickness could come in more handy if lining up closer to the line of scrimmage. Senior DE Billy Schautz is also back in the mix after suffering a broken leg last November. London recruits such as soph DT Chris Braithwaite and RS Frosh DT David Dean are going to be asked to step into the breach up front this fall.

The strength of the stop unit, which was a top 40 platoon a year ago, likely rests with the LB corps that returns a pair of senior starters in hard-hitting MLB Steve Greer (left; team-high 103 tackles LY) and fleet OLB LaRoy Reynolds. ACC sources say that London and Reid would like to find a way for soph MLB Henry Coley, who impressed in the bowl game vs. Auburn, to get on the field more often.

If the largely-rebuilt “D” indeed drops off a bit this fall, at least the offense looks prepared to do its part in expected shootouts. Seven starters return from a well-balanced strike force that ranked a respectable 46th in total offense a year ago (although the Cavs were not quite as efficient as those numbers suggest, ranking a much-lower 86th in scoring at 23.2 ppg).

Again, twelve months can make quite a difference, and whereas most in the region at this time last year were wondering where London was going to find a QB, no such issues exist heading into 2012. That’s because jr. Michael Rocco (right, in the bowl game vs. Auburn), a classic drop-back passer, emerged as a competent offensive pilot in 2011, passing for 2671 yards. Rocco also impressed the staff by assuming a leadership role in the clubhouse immediately after the bowl loss to Auburn, which carried over to an impressive spring.

Just in case Rocco goes down, soph backup David Watford, beaten out for the starting job last fall, flashed enough upside in his brief appearances to suggest the Cavs have quality depth at QB. The dual-threat Watford, the gem of last year’s recruiting class, is explosive enough to tempt London and o.c. Bill Lazor to use him in special situations, although the possibility to redshirt Watford this year or next is something that has been addressed internally.

Look for the “O” to open up this fall, especially if the Cav receivers can step up their game, as expected. Last year’s leading receiver Kris Burd (who’s spending summer in the New York Jets camp) has graduated after a team-best 66 catches a year ago, but plenty of familiar targets for Rocco remain, including deep threat Tim Smith (left), who gained better than 17 yards per catch on his 33 receptions a year ago. A couple of London recruits, sophs Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell, were each touted preps and have the speed to get deep, as demonstrated in spring.

If nothing else, ACC sources are convinced that Rocco will have plenty of receivers capable of stretching enemy secondaries this fall.

That overhead threat is likely to open more running lanes for sr. RB Perry “Superman” Jones (right), an electric presence who accounted for 1458 combined yards a year ago. The only concern for Lazor is finding enough touches for Jones (also an excellent receiver out of the backfield, as his 48 catches last fall would confirm), but also soph Chris Parks, a clone of Jones who blasted for 702 rush yards of his own in 2011. If Lazor wants to opt for a bigger back, punishing 215-lb. soph Clifton Richardson ran with considerable power in brief glimpses a year ago when gaining 366 YR.

Regional insiders believe one of London’s trademarks will always include big, physical offensive lines. Sources say the forward wall will be formidable again this fall with three returning starters, including monstrous bookend 310-lb. + tackles sr. Oday Aboushi, who earned all-ACC mention last fall and is on the radar screen of NFL scouts, and jr. Morgan Moses. Those bookends helped protect Rocco (and occasionally Watford) very well a year ago when the Cavs allowed only 16 sacks, good for a solid 24th ranking nationally. Upperclass lettermen Matt Mihalik and Sean Cascarano move into the open C and LG positions, respectively, and are expected to prove no drop-off from a year ago at those spots.

Some clouds, however, loom on the horizon this fall; the schedule is no picnic; even the opener vs. nearby lower-division power Richmond (which won at Duke in the same spot a year ago) will be a highly-charged affair, especially with the London connection. (The Spiders, by the way, were also London’s first foe as Cav coach in 2010, when UVa won 34-13.) A curious test vs. Penn State (again, laced with intrigue after London summarily rejected overtures from Happy Valley in the wake of last fall’s scandal) follows, then tricky road games at Georgia Tech and TCU before returning home vs. WAC favorite La Tech in a very treacherous September slate. Several ACC foes will also be looking to get even with the Cavs from a year ago, although the one game London will really want to win is the finale at Virginia Tech, whose win streak over the Hoos grew to eight in a row (a very sore subject in Charlottesville) with last year’s 38-0 Hokie wipeout at Scott Stadium.

Trend-wise, note the recent “under” slant (10-3-1 last 14 since late in the 2010 campaign), although we suspect that could change in the fall as the Cavs might be forced to win shootouts as the new-look defense matures.

Summary...We would not be surprised to see Virginia take a temporary and slight step backwards this fall, as a tricky slate and rebuilt defense might make it hard to match last year’s eight wins. On the other hand, if Mike London’s many recent roster additions prove no immediate letdown on the stop end, the Cavs could be a surprise contender in the ACC Coastal. Even if the “D” falters, the Hoos will still prove interesting; in the third year of o.c. Bill Lazor’s pro-style offense, and with several big-play elements on the attack end, UVa will have a puncher’s chance vs. everyone on its schedule. We suspect that will at least be enough to get the Cavs to a minor bowl...and keep potential big-time suitors very interested in Mike London.


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