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September 15, 2011

A Closer Look: Virginia

CavsCorner.com publisher Brad Franklin was kind enough to provide us a comprehensive Virginia preview heading into Saturday's matchup between the Tar Heels and Cavaliers in Kenan Stadium.


What is going on with UVa's QB? Who is Michael Rocco? What kind of a signal caller is he?


The back story here is that after Marc Verica graduated last year, UVa needed a QB. It had four players on the roster going into the spring vying for the job: redshirt sophomore Ross Metheny, sophomore Michael Rocco, redshirt freshman Michael Strauss and true freshman David Watford who enrolled in January.

Through the spring, in the summer and even through the early portion of training camp, the position was still a four-way race publicly, though privately many expected Metheny or Rocco to get the nod since they were the two players who got in at times in 2010. Ultimately, Mike London announced the staff would be giving the bulk of reps to Rocco and Watford, since they hadn't had the same chance to evaluate him as the others since he was part of the 2011 recruiting class.

So, Rocco won the job and Watford became "other" in that he's not necessarily No. 2 but he does see the field for a series here and there. The goal is to get him on-the-field experience, which this coaching staff really puts at a premium.

Rocco is coach's son with a good but not great arm who is very cerebral and good about going through his progressions. Mechanically, he's sound and he really emulates what offensive coordinator Bill Lazor wants.

Watford is a much more athletic quarterback but when UVa brings him in, it won't be to run any wildcat or run-oriented offense. Watford comes in and runs a limited menu of plays from what the offense normally runs. Again, the point in getting him into the game is more about preparing him than it is to throw a change up at the opposing defense.

Rocco is still young but his 15-play, 77-yard drive to come back at Indiana was a difference maker. He looked as comfortable and as confident on that drive as any all season. Keep in mind, UVa had just given up a 20-3 lead and allowed IU to score 28 unanswered.

The Cavs were down 8 a long, long way from home. But Rocco made the right reads and calmly led the team down the field for the touchdown, made a nice throw for the had-to-have-it 2-point conversion and then when UVa got the ball back, he made sure the offense took care of the ball and got it in midfield for Robert Randolph's game-winning 23-yard field goal. I would say that right now, Rocco is a different player than the one who took the field Sept. 3 for the opener at home against William & Mary.


In terms of what UVa expected to be this season, where are the Wahoos through two games? Better? Worse? Same? Undetermined?


I think the team itself (coaches, players, admin) is where it hoped it could be but wasn't sure it would be. Fans, on the other hand, are pleasantly surprised. UVa expected to beat W&M to open the year but the road woes for the Cavaliers were a major concern going to Indiana.

That Virginia gave up a big lead, got down and came back was a stark departure from the way things have been and it really appears to be another 'next step' in London's rebuilding process. Though there were some mistakes in the second win that UVa would rather not have had to suffer, being 2-0 is always a good thing.


Who do you see as the playmakers?


I'm looking for four or five guys on either side of the ball or in special teams that will make noise both in the game itself and in the box score.

Five players who could make a difference for UVa on Saturday:

Cam Johnson- His sack-fumble at the end of the Indiana game gave life to the Cavaliers. Sure, the game could've easily head to OT but in one play, Johnson both killed the IU drive and got the ball deep in Hoosier territory. More importantly, he showed the team that he can be the guy to make a play when it's needed. He's a former linebacker in the 3-4 turned defensive end in the 4-3 with a lot of size, great quickness, and a good feel for the game. He's also historically been a player who really comes through in big spots.

Chase Minnifield- One of the best cornerbacks in the country, Minnifield hasn't had a hero's beginning to 2011. He was sixth in the nation last year in interceptions but thus far, no picks for the senior corner. But Minnifield is a guy who thrives off of big situations, never shirks away from pressure and loves to be in that moment.

A trash talker by design (his father, Frank, was an All Pro defensive back in the NFL), Minnifield makes very few mistakes and is as shut down a corner as the conference knows. UVa will put him on that island, especially against a Carolina team with quality backs in an effort to stop the run.

LaRoy Reynolds- The junior linebacker is really coming into his own after making the switch from safety in the 3-4 to backer in the 4-3 last year. He had some growing pains, especially with run fits. But thus far in 2011, it's clear that the light has gone on for him and he much more comfortable in his role. His athleticism is the biggest thing, as he's a fast linebacker who can bring pressure on the QB or chase a runner down once he's made it to the second level.

Reynolds is UVa's leading tackler and along with MLB Steve Greer, he's a guy the Cavaliers count on for consistency. He does have a tendency to over run plays because he normally gets there so fast, but there's been much less of that in 2011 than in 2010. And with safety skills, he's also pretty good in coverage when called upon and gives UVa a little insurance should Carolina try to create a mismatch.

Perry Jones- Last week, the junior captain was UVa's leading rusher and receiver and his play was instrumental in that big drive at the end of the game to come back for the win. Jones is a former linebacker at the high school level whose size and speed coupled with his strength make him a tough running back to bring down. He was the starter last season and got a lot of yards while Keith Payne (now graduated) scored the TDs.

This season, Jones has split time with redshirt freshman Kevin Parks (a Carolina native) and true freshman Clifton Richardson. Parks is a bowling ball and though he and Jones are roughly the same size physically, their games are very different. Jones is a shifty, hard to bring down "waterbug" type of back. Parks is a one cut and go kind of back who will run over you, 5-foot-8 or not. Richardson is a much bigger back who has a nice blend of size and speed and has given the Cavs some nice yardage when called upon. Jones is the bigger threat in the passing game and UVa likes to create space for him to work.

Darius Jennings- UNC and UVa both played double-digit true freshman in their respective season openers but I think the Wahoos are leaning on their young guys more right now. Along with Watford and Richardson, there really are three other true freshman who play big roles. Demetrious "Tra" Nicholson is the first true freshman to start at cornerback for UVa since the 1960s and already has one interception this season.

Very athletic and highly skilled, he's still adjusting to the college game. The other two are almost interchangeable at times: Dominique Terrell and Jennings. They both will see time at receiver. They both will play a role in the return game (Jennings on kickoffs, Terrell on punts). They both will likely see handoffs in motion.

Both are on the field because they are big upgrades for UVa in terms of athleticism and right now, they are a gift and a curse. They make great plays but also tend to make big mistakes. There were a couple of miscues between them on special teams against Indiana and it'll be interesting on Saturday to see if Virginia uses them in certain spots or turns to veterans like Minnifield.


What kind of injuries does UVa have right now? Will those play a role?


There are several injuries worth noting. The biggest right now is to Parks and as of this writing, we don't know what his status will be for the game. He appeared to tweak a quad or a hamstring in the second half against Indiana. Also, sophomore wide receiver Tim Smith didn't see much time in the second half of that game after taking a nasty bump to the back of the head on a fade route in the corner of the end zone. Lastly for the offense, starting tight end Colter Phillips missed the game due to an injury to his left foot/ankle. Redshirt freshman linebacker Henry Coley and senior strongside linebacker Aaron Taliaferro are battling some injuries right now. Both are believed to be foot/ankle but again, until we see the injury report, it's hard to tell.

I expect Parks and Smith to play couple. The other two remain to be seen. But in the big scheme of things, Parks' injury is really the only one that hurt UVa's game plan. The others right now because of some depth that Virginia does have only become a real problem if other guys go down with injuries.


What weaknesses have become apparent on both sides of the ball for Virginia? Any new players struggling? Vets still trying to hold on to their jobs?


UVa's strength is it offensive line and so, that means a lot of rushing offense. There haven't been nearly as many passes to tight ends this season, which isn't so much about Phillips' injury as UVa trying to get the ball to playmakers in space. As such, Rocco has moments where his throw can be intercepted.

For a young quarterback, even a heady one like Rocco, that's a concern. Nicholson is still inexperienced at cornerback and gets a lot of heat give that Minnifield is on the other side. Virginia was also very susceptible to the big play last year, as its game against UNC clearly showed.

The defense has to prove it can show consistency, though that wasn't the problem in giving away the big lead against Indiana. That game was more about the turnovers (INT, fumble return for a TD, muffed punt that was a questionable call).






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