London looking to Watford, big-play defense to move Virginia back to bowl-making days

Mike London isn't willing to say Virginia hit the reset button after his third season as coach, but with new offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators, the Cavaliers are in makeover mode.

London hopes, however, that the improvement will be immediate.

He overhauled his staff after last season's 4-8 finish, bringing in three former head coaches and a defensive coordinator whose charge is to turn that side of the ball into a big-play, aggressive unit that can dictate what offenses do.

The offense under new coordinator Steve Fairchild will remain a pro-style attack, but it's also the area of the biggest change with redshirt sophomore David Watford assuming the quarterbacking duties.

Watford played two years ago as a true freshman, completing just 30 of 74 passes in relief of Michael Rocco, and redshirted last season when Rocco and Phillip Sims shared the job in a rotation that never really worked.

Rocco transferred after the season, and Sims was dismissed from the program this summer.

Priority one for the young signal-caller: ball protection.

"We'll give ourselves a chance to win if we don't beat ourselves," Fairchild, twice an NFL offensive coordinator, said. "We've got to start from day one in fall camp not turning the ball over and not doing unforced errors. If we can line up right, attempt to do the right assignment, do it in a play-hard, play-fast way and protect the football, you'll be amazed at how many games you are in."

His linemen also know they can be more a part of the solution than they were a year ago.

"I think at times last year we didn't do enough to make them comfortable back there," guard Luke Bowanko said of the QBs. "It's just unfortunate because it's tough to sit back there and go through your progressions and throw a good ball when who knows who is coming through and knocking you out."

Virginia hopes to be doing some knocking out of its own on defense under Jon Tenuta. The Virginia alum and 32-year coaching veteran favors aggressive pressure, lots of blitzing and constant ball-hawking.

Tenuta's philosophy is pretty straight-forward: "The ball is ours. Go get it."


Here are five things to watch as keys to Virginia's season:

1. DAVID WATFORD: He has said his confidence grew as his understanding of the game from the sidelines did last season, and will have to show it in games. Teammates rave about his athleticism and speed, and he will need to use both in an offense with plays designed to let him show off those skills. His running means redshirt freshman Greyson Lambert needs to be ready, too.

2. OFFENSIVE LINE AND RUNNING GAME: The line's lack of toughness showed as the team struggled to run the ball. Getting tailbacks Kevin Parks and five-star freshman Taquan Mizzell into open spaces would make Watford's job much easier.

3. JAKE McGEE & TIM SMITH: By far the most talented receiver on the team, the 6-foot-6 McGee was under-utilized at tight end last spring, even though he has shown the ability to make tough, athletic catches in traffic. Smith is an oft-hobbled deep threat hoping his final college season is also his healthiest and most productive, and both can be explosive playmakers who afford Watford quick strike opportunities.

4. CLOCK MANAGEMENT: This may be one of the most challenging aspects for a young coach, and London, heading into his sixth season as a head man, struggled with it in a few key spots last season. Mentoring London seems to be among the jobs new associate head coach for offense Tom O'Brien has been asked to do, and guidance at crunch time will be beneficial.

5. SACKS, PRESSURE & TAKEAWAYS: Apart from a 594-yard debacle against Georgia Tech last season, Virginia's defense was solid, but not spectacular. It ranked eighth nationally in stopping opponents on third down, but was near the bottom in turnovers caused with just 12, and ranked 103rd with just 17 sacks. It needs to make more plays that shift momentum.



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