Can Cavaliers Surprise Again?
By Matthew Osborne
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With only 11 returning starters, Mike London hopes to keep Virginia competitive in the ACC this fall.
There is no doubt that the 2011 season was a pleasantly surprising one for head coach Mike London and the Virginia Cavaliers.
Despite being picked to finish at, or near the bottom of the ACC Coastal Division by just about every major news publication, the Cavaliers used a hardnosed, physical brand of football to grind their way to eight regular season triumphs. Virginia’s eight victories doubled their win total from the previous season, and also paved the way for Mike London to be named the 2011 ACC Coach of the Year.
While Virginia should be pleased with their performance on the gridiron last season, it is going to take another strong effort from the Cavaliers in order to overachieve once again in 2012, as the Wahoos return just 11 starters from last year’s team which earned a berth in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
The Cavaliers are set to return seven starters from an offense which averaged just 23.2 points per game. There is a significant reason for optimism on offense, however, as Virginia finished 86th in the country in scoring offense last season despite finishing 46th in total offense.
Such a large disparity between yardage production and point production can be attributed to the Cavalier’s poor red zone performance and inability to secure the football. Virginia ranked 99th in the FBS in red zone efficiency (76%) and finished tied for 104th in turnovers lost (28). The Cavaliers rarely had trouble moving the chains against opposing defenses, but were unable to secure the football and capitalize when scoring opportunities were presented to them.
The onus for improving the Cavalier’s offensive struggles will fall on rising-junior QB Michael Rocco. After splitting time with true freshman David Watford early in the year, Rocco emerged as the unquestioned leader for Virginia late in the season, guiding the Cavaliers to four wins in their last five regular season contests. Although he threw 12 interceptions in his first year as starter, over half of those came during a three-game stretch early in the year.
While Rocco will be looked upon for ball security and sound decision making, electrifying running backs Perry Jones and Kevin Parks will be counted on to carry the majority of the offensive load.
Running behind an offensive line that will not feature a starter under the height of six-foot-six, the Cavalier’s duo of diminutive runners should experience tremendous success slipping through tiny crevices created by their gargantuan front.
Statistically speaking, the Virginia offense was a far cry from being a dominant unit last season. However, it is easy to see that the potential exists for the Cavaliers to become an above-average offensive unit this fall.
Contrarily, the Cavaliers will likely find it difficult to replace many of their key contributors from last year’s defense, which finished third in the ACC in total defense.
Seven starters depart from Virginia’s 2011 defense, although the Cavaliers do return three of their four leading tacklers in LB Steve Greer, LB LaRoy Reynolds and CB Demetrious Nicholson.
The biggest area of concern for the Virginia defense will be defending against the pass. The Cavaliers return just one starter along the defensive front, as well as in the secondary. From a production standpoint, Virginia returns just three interceptions and seven sacks from a year ago.
Defensive coordinator Jim Reid should be commended for the job he has done transitioning the Cavaliers from a three-four defense to a four-three scheme, but he will be faced with the unenviable task of working with a predominantly inexperienced personnel group this season.
There is no doubt that Mike London was more than deserving of his ACC Coach of the Year distinction last season. He took a Virginia program that had struggled to recruit with some of the premiere programs in the conference and turned them into a legitimate contender by implementing an old-school, physical style of play.
Only Wake Forest will return fewer starters this fall, so it will take some ingenious coaching from Coach London and his assembled staff in order to keep the Cavaliers competitive in the Coastal Division this fall.
However, with his track record of producing winners, don’t be surprised if Coach London and the boys of Charlottesville somehow manage to shake up the conference once again in 2012.