The first of our Opponent Blogger Q&A features during this week of the twofer comes via Brendan of From Old Virginia. He was kind enough to join us to answer our inquiries regarding the 2011 Virginia Cavaliers on the eve of the battle for the coveted Jefferson-Eppes Trophy.
TN: Virginia sits at 7-3, an excellent record for a team picked to end up towards the bottom of the Coastal Division by many during the pre-season. To what do you attribute the success the ‘Hoos have seen so far this season? How has Mike London seemingly steered the UVa program onto the right track? Will UVa pay top dollar to keep London and his staff should other programs come calling?
FOV: UVA's success this season boils down to two things: offense and defense. (I know, I know....) Here's the thing: Even Al Groh's worst teams at the end of his tenure had good, solid defenses. The problem was that the offense spiraled down the tubes and by 2008, 2009, his final seasons, it was a pathetic shadow of an offense. Eventually the defense would crack from too much use. London's offensive coordinator, Bill Lazor, fixed things almost immediately, and UVA had a solid if not spectacular offense in 2010. But the defense was switched from the 3-4 to the 4-3 and the growing pains of a lot of guys playing new positions gave us a terrible defense. In 2011, the players got comfortable in the new scheme, the offense continued it's upward progression, and here we are.
No doubt in my mind that we are on the right track now. I said before the season that London's recruiting momentum was great, but in order to keep it going into 2013, he would have to go bowling this year to show proof of the "program on the rise" line. UVA has now exceeded expectations in that regard.
I don't think there'll be a question of paying top dollar for London and the staff. London is a Virginia kid from way back. Military brat and therefore a Tidewater native, graduated University of Richmond....these are his stomping grounds. I don't think this is a guy who's gonna take off when Alabama or Penn State or LSU come calling. UVA will pay him to keep him happy, no doubt about that, but I don't think we'll have to get in a bidding war with the SEC. And DC Jim Reid is kind of past the age of upward mobility and enjoys working with London. Plus, quite a bit of the staff is made up of ex-UVA heroes; Anthony Poindexter and Shawn Moore are on staff, and Poindexter is a holdover from the Groh years. Bill Lazor - well, UVA will certainly try and keep him, and we'd love for him to stay forever, but he's probably looking for that upward mobility; my guess is he'll stick around long enough to build a successful body of work and then take an NFL OC job. I think he's got NFL head coach ambitions and I think he's got a shot at getting there. So I'm not sure any amount of money would keep him around when he gets a good offer.
More after the jump!
TN: The Cavaliers brought in a nice recruiting class last year and many members of the class are seeing the field early this season. Talk a little bit about the effects of the influx of talented freshmen and more generally about how London and staff are approaching recruiting in the fertile Tidewater and D.C. areas.
FOV: We've seen quite a few true freshmen on the field, but honestly, 95% of this year's success has come from Groh's guys. Not to be disrespectful to the guys that have played, but I think only two true freshmen have come in and unequivocally contributed positively: starting cornerback Demetrious Nicholson and third running back Clifton Richardson. The others have been up and down, or their impact has been small. Not to say that that class isn't going to be a huge, huge building block going forward; London really laid the foundation for success on Signing Day 2011, and it's going to continue on Signing Day 2012.
As for recruiting in general, London really made an effort to reach out to high school coaches. UVA fans sometimes overplay the extent to which Groh damaged relationships with the HS coaches, but he did have a little bit of an attitude of "I'll do things my way and if you don't like that way I'll go somewhere else." He kind of took it for granted that certain places were going to send their guys to Tech or elsewhere and not UVA. London made it a priority to get each and every coach in Virginia back on board with UVA, and generated some creativity in ways such as holding one of UVA's 2010 spring practices on the campus at Old Dominion. The roadshow was extended this year with a practice at Darling Stadium in Hampton and one in Northern Virginia, too.
TN: Let's get into this week's game - the ‘Hoos come in ranked 42nd in both offense and defense by Football Outsiders. The offense is characterized by a solid running game, and has seen some rotation at the quarterback position between Mike Rocco and David Watford. The past few weeks, though, have seen a shift towards a more exclusively Rocco-led attack. How has this impacted the unit and do you see Saturday's offense featuring Rocco under center or a return to the rotation?
FOV: Rocco and other folks will deny it, but that rotation was killing us. Unless you believe it was pure coincidence that Rocco played one of his best games of the year the week that rotation was scrapped, and a better one the next week - but I don't believe in coincidences like that. I had a stat a few weeks ago, after the NC State debacle, where Rocco's completion percentage was over 70% before the scheduled QB switch in the fourth series of games, and under 54% afterwards. I mean, it was baffling that Rocco would lead an efficient and productive touchdown drive and then get yanked.
I think these days, Rocco is clearly throwing the football like a guy who's not afraid that if the other end of that throw goes badly, he'll be pulled. You won't see the rotation this weekend. I don't know if you'll see Watford doing anything but holding a clipboard. I suspect that if we see Watford again this season, it's either because Rocco was hurt or because it's the Virginia Tech game and London has a wrinkle or two ready.
TN: Which match-ups will Bill Lazor and the Cavalier offense look to exploit against the FSU defense, an extremely talented and deep unit that is the strength of its team? Are you worried about the quarterbacks having to carry the offense if UVa isn't able to run the ball against the stout ‘Noles front seven?
FOV: We haven't seen that Rocco can throw the ball consistently if the running game hasn't loosened up the field for him, so yes, that is an issue. I think our best chance is to go deep early, see if it works (like, if the ball doesn't bounce off someone's damn facemask like it did last week), and then go strength-on-strength and see if FSU can stop our run. That's a really good front seven, but then again, the UVA O-line is among the best, if not the best, in the conference; three of our linemen have earned O-lineman POTW honors from the ACC, two of them twice. 11 weeks in the season and five of those honors have gone to UVA linemen. So that'll be a really good matchup to watch.
TN: Florida State's offense features Virginia native EJ Manuel at quarterback, and he is the focal point of the ‘Noles attack. Manuel is a special player because of his legs; he's an incredibly fluid runner at 6'5"240lbs with a great feel for running the option. How has UVa's defense handled mobile quarterbacks this year? Which areas of the Cavalier D are its strengths?
FOV: We haven't played a mobile quarterback yet, not in this sense. Maryland didn't bother using C.J. Brown's talents, and Tevin Washington is an option-runner who occasionally throws, not a true "mobile quarterback." So that'll be a whole new challenge. I'm not very worried about Manuel's legs, though; UVA shut down the GT option game and bottled up Washington. I don't think Manuel will hurt UVA with his legs, except when he uses them to get into throwing position and/or avoid a rush. It's the scrambling I'm worried about.
Whoever Chase Minnifield is covering won't have a good day catching the ball. When it's on, the UVA secondary is the best secondary in the conference. Safeties Corey Mosley and Rodney McLeod are good run stoppers - the problem there is that Mosley is too good of a run stopper and gets sucked in on play action when he's supposed to be the free safety and covering deep. The linebackers are good in run defense, maybe not so much in pass coverage. Matt Conrath likes to occupy backfields.
TN: This match-up may present a risk vs. reward decision for the UVa defense. FSU's offensive line suffers from significant inexperience, as none of the five current starters began the season as a starter at the position he currently plays. As a result, the prudent strategy for the ‘Hoos defense might be to bring a lot of pressure to overwhelm the young line and stop EJ and the FSU offense before it is able to get started. How aggressive has the Virginia defense been and do you see the Cavaliers choosing this option to defend the Seminole offense?
FOV: I don't know if there will be a need to blitz much. UVA can bring pressure with the front four - especially if the O-line is shaky - and let the back seven cover the field and protect against a scramble. Conrath and Cam Johnson are a real handful. This is not a blitz-crazy defense anyway - we'll do it, but not as an every-down thing. I don't think we're very good at it anyway; the linebackers have to learn to disguise it better.
TN: Florida State fans like the match-up between the ‘Noles 3rdand 4th receivers and the Virginia nickel/dime corners and safeties, as the Seminoles wide receiver corps has been a pleasant surprise with outstanding depth and talent. The ‘Hoos second corner has often been Demetrius Nicholson, a promising player, but a true freshman (and high school teammate of EJ Manuel). How will UVa attempt to mitigate the concerns elicited by these match-ups?
FOV: As mentioned above, I think UVA will limit the blitzing, and they will have to emphasize to Corey Mosley NOT to get caught up in play action and to defend the field like he's supposed to. This was a problem against Duke. However, he did a great job in the Georgia Tech game of staying back and letting the linebackers and McLeod take care of the GT option; Mosley and Minnifield were all we needed to make sure GT never got anywhere through the air. So he's capable of doing this. When it comes to lining up three and four wide, we'll just have to hope we get the right linebacker matchups (there are certain linebackers on our team whose pass coverage is hopeless) and that the D-line creates pressure to keep Manuel from going through his reads.
TN: How do you see the game playing out on Saturday evening? Do you have a final score prediction?
FOV: My hope is that being a sandwich game plays into UVA's favor; FSU had Miami last week and Florida next week, and maybe little ol' UVA can sneak in and surprise someone. However, FSU has a talent advantage, with the two scariest things being FSU's front seven and run defense, and E.J. Manuel's talents, and UVA must play its A-game and hope for a B-game from the Noles. I think there's something to that sandwich game theory, but that it won't be quite enough. I won't have a proper score prediction til I've done my full game preview, but preliminarily, let's say UVA covers but loses, 27-17.
Thanks to Brendan for taking the time to chat with us! Our answers to their questions are here.