By Scott Haynes, College Football Senior Editor
2009 SEASON IN REVIEW: The 2009 season was the straw that broke the camel's back in terms of Al Groh's tenure in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers once again struggled throughout the season, finishing the year at just 3-9, including a sixth place finish in the Coastal Division at 2-6.
The year certainly got off to a slow start, with a 26-14 loss to FCS foe
William & Mary. The stunning loss to the Tribe was followed by spirited
setbacks to TCU (30-14) and Southern Miss (37-34), but nevertheless, left the
Cavaliers at 0-3 heading into October. Things would turn around however, with
three straight wins over the likes of North Carolina (16-3), Indiana (47-7)
and Maryland (20-9) and at 2-0 in ACC play, it looked like Virginia would
finally move towards respectability in the conference. However, the win in
College Park on October 17th would be the last taste of victory for Virginia,
which dropped six straight to close out the year.
Groh's nine years in Charlottesville were filled with ups and downs, as the
team made five bowl appearances, while Groh himself was tabbed ACC Coach of
the year in 2002 and 2007. However, over the last two years, the team managed
a mere 8-16 record, signaling the end of the Groh era. The school would
quickly find a replacement following Groh's resignation, in the form of former
Richmond head man Mike London, who led the Spiders to a 24-5 record in two
years at the helm, including the 2008 FCS National Title.
OFFENSE: The Virginia offense was stagnant for the most part in 2009,
averaging a meager 19.3 ppg, on just 269.6 yards of total offense. There are
only five starters returning to the fold in 2010, but that may not necessarily
be a bad thing for London and the new offense he is going to install. The good
news is that London has a solid base up front, with three of last year's five
starting offensive linemen back, led by junior guard Austin Pasztor (6-7,
325). who earned Honorable Mention Sophomore All-American honors in 2009.
Quarterback Marc Verica, who threw for over 2,000 yards in 2008, has the most
experience and may win the job by default this season. He will have a couple
of familiar targets in WR Kris Burd (31 receptions, for 413 yards, one TD) and
TE Joe Torchia (15 receptions, for 150 yards, two TDs). The ground game will
be overhauled as well in 2010, as the team's top four rushers from a season
ago are gone. Senior Keith Payne (6-3, 255) is a big body, but he left the
team last year, before retuning this spring and it remains to be seen if he
can earn the bulk of the carries. Sophomore Perry Jones (5-8, 185) is also a
viable candidate, with great speed.
Although the backfield lacks a bona fide star at this time, London knows the
importance of generating a strong ground game in his first year.
"It is very important for us to be able to run the ball and establish a
physical presence out on the field. Everyone knows by running the ball you can
control the clock in certain instances at the end of the game. You have to be
able to run the ball because you want the clock to run. If you can run the
ball you can also set up the play-action passes that come off those
complimentary run plays. It's going to be important for us to be able to run
the ball - push people back - create holes, I think we have good running
backs, I think if we can do that and control the line of scrimmage I think we
will be a much better team."
DEFENSE: The effort on the defensive side of the football was inconsistent at
times, but the strength had to be against the pass, where Virginia allowed a
mere 184.6 yards per game. A lot of that had to do with All-American
cornerback Ras-I Dowling, who is regarded as one of the very best cover
corners in the nation. Dowling has the ability to shut down an entire half of
the field and is coming off a season in which he tallied 58 tackles, eight
TFLs and three INTs. Five other returning starters on defense are back,
highlighted by players like DTs Nick Jenkins (41 tackles, one sack) and Matt
Conrath (45 tackles, two sacks) up front and LB Steve Greer (team-high 92
tackles, 5.5 TFLs) in the middle. Greer earned Second-Team Freshman All-
American honors in his debut season in Charlottesville last year.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The kicking game should remain intact, with juniors Robert
Randolph and Jimmy Howell reprising their roles at placekicker and punter,
respectively. Randolph was an efficient 17-of-19 last season with a long of 49
yards. Howell averaged just over 40 yards per punt, with 18 of his 66 ending
up inside the oppositions' 20-yard line.
OUTLOOK: London is making changes on both sides of the football, as the spread
offense has been replaced with a pro-style one and Virginia's 3-4 defense is
changing to a 4-3. It remains to be seen if the team has the right personnel
to pull it off in 2010.
It should be an emotional opener, as London leads his new team on the field
for the first time against his old one. The remainder of the non-conference
schedule after Richmond consists of a road trip to USC, and a pair of home
dates against VMI and Eastern Michigan. Florida State, North Carolina, Miami
and Maryland all come to Charlottesville and finding a home win in ACC play
won't be easy. The road slate isn't much better with trips to Georgia Tech,
Duke, Boston College and Virginia Tech on the docket.
It looks like another tough season coming up. London doesn't let the
prognosticators get him down.
"It is what it is right now," said London. People that are not associated with
the program as far as what is going on - have to start somewhere regarding
predicting our order of finish - and that is where we are starting. By no
means is this where our mindset is - that is what other people are saying and
all we are worried about is how we think and what we say about ourselves."
In his third stint with Virginia (two as assistants), London will be eager to
prove that he belongs. Wins won't come in bunches in his first season at the
helm, but there may be some surprising moments in year one.