Leading up to UCLA’s season opener this Saturday at 9 a.m. PT, who better to scout the opponent than a Virginia beat writer? Andrew Ramspacher of The Daily Progress in Charlottesville took the time to answer five questions about the Cavaliers.
How hot is Mike London’s seat right now? Is there a rough performance bar he has to clear in order to keep his job?
You go 6-20 in your last 26 games, you have declining attendance (see an expected crowd in the mid-40,000s Saturday) and you struggle to handle the quarterback situation, your seat is obviously going to be hot. There’s no doubt Mike London is facing some serious heat this season. It’s his fifth year at UVa and the program has gone in the opposite direction after a 2011 campaign in which he took ACC Coach of the Year honors and guided the Cavaliers to eight wins and a trip to the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Virginia administration, despite multiple requests, has chosen to remain mum on the situation, not publicly stating a bar. But I would believe six wins would keep London for a sixth year. And, honestly, with this schedule, six wins could get him another ACC Coach of the Year award. Many, including myself, don’t believe the higher-ups have done London any favors with a gantlet that includes UCLA and a trip to BYU in the non-conference when a game at Florida State is already on the league slate. And should London be around in 2015, he gets a trip to UCLA and home dates with Boise State and Notre Dame.
After passing for 340 yards on 44-percent completion in reserve duty, sophomore Greyson Lambert doesn’t exactly look like starting quarterback material on paper. What are his strengths and weaknesses, and how does he fit in with the rest of the offense?
UVa offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild said recently that Lambert was in “no shape, way or form” ready to be a starter last season. In Georgia, he ran a pretty basic high school system. He needed a year or two to be brought up to speed with a more complex college scheme.
Sitting behind David Watford last season, Lambert, as you pointed out, played sparingly, but really flashed toward the end of the year at Miami when, in second half relief, completed 13 of 19 passes for 134 yards. Not only did he improve his playbook knowledge in the offseason, he became more of a presence in the locker room. He took command of the QB job in the spring, earning a co-captain spot along the way.
Physically, he’s 6-foot-5 and a doughnut shy of 240 pounds. That translates well to a big arm, a skill that had the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Georgia offering him in high school. He’s also not afraid to use that size to take on tacklers (although he’s not the most mobile of QBs). But, again, Saturday will be his first start. There’s certain to be growing pains, especially in decision making. I would expect a veteran UCLA defense to take advantage.
How significant are the offensive line injuries?
Extremely significant. Jay Whitmire, a 12-game starter last season, was projected to be the left tackle coming out of spring, but never could recover from a back injury. Virginia next went to sophomore Sadiq Olanrewaju, light in experience but high on potential, in that spot. He got hurt in training camp.
It all led to an August of mixing and matching. Conner Davis, the most experienced of the group, played three different positions in three weeks. The Cavaliers finally settled on a first team at some point last week. Between the five, there’s only 32 combined career starts, making it one of the least experienced lines in college football. It’s already an issue, but Virginia’s another injury away from potentially seeing it get really out of hand.
Virginia’s scoring defense ranked last in the ACC last season. What went wrong, and what — if anything — is different this year?
Some injuries played a role in that. When they were full-go — and had the services of corner Demetrious Nicholson and defensive tackle Brent Urban — they showed signs of dominance. Virginia’s defense really shut down a quality BYU offense in the opener and later sacked Pitt’s quarterback seven times in a 14-3 loss.
But inconsistency was a common theme. They just couldn’t sustain success over multiple drives, multiple games. Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta plays a blitz-heavy, aggressive scheme. When he guesses right, this unit looks spectacular. When he misses, it gets burned. A lot.
This year, there should be improvement. Nine starters are back, including All-American safety Anthony Harris on the back end and an emerging star in Eli Harold at defensive end. In the middle, there’s a pair of proven senior linebackers in Henry Coley and Daquan Romero. Together, it’s year No. 2 with Tenuta and they seem to be adapted better to playing his style.
How does the secondary look? Has five-star recruit Quin Blanding lived up the expectations so far?
The secondary is a strength. Between the veterans, there’s a combined 112 career starts between them. And then there’s the arrival of Blanding. The 6-4, 210-pounder has been the starting free safety since day one of training camp and, by all accounts, he’s done nothing to lose it. The coaches rave about his tackling ability, an obvious nod to his size.
He seems mature enough to handle the role. Plus, he’s got Harris, a co-captain, as his mentor. The duo was purposely made roommates during training camp.