ACC: Virginia Cavaliers

ACC Friday mailblog

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
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Hope everyone has a Happy Easter ...

JD in State College, Pa., writes: Where do you think Pitt sophomores James Conner and Tyler Boyd rank among ACC running back/wide receiver combos?

HD: I'm looking at every team in the league and it's tough to find one that compares. Some of them have half the equation, such as Jamison Crowder at Duke. But when you consider that Clemson has to replace its leading rusher and top two receivers from a year ago, FSU lost Kelvin Benjamin, James Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman ... Pitt has to be near the top -- if not No. 1 -- and last season was only the beginning for them. Based on potential, though, they could be surpassed by Miami's combo of Duke Johnson and Stacy Coley, especially with Johnson healthy again. And don't forget that FSU reloads. Karlos Williams and Rashad Greene could state their case. Here's a sleeper for you: UNC's T.J. Logan and Quinshad Davis. Logan drew rave reviews from the coaching staff this spring.


Tim in Blacksburg writes: HD, did you say no hope for Virginia Tech on offense!? The QB spot is up in the air, and in transition -- no doubt. Michael Brewer should have a say in that spot when he arrives. Beyond that however, your analysis of the offense is lacking, to say the least. The OL should be much improved this year. Have you seen Augie Conte and Wyatt Teller... Alston Smith... and it's the most experienced group we've seen in a number of years. Our top tight end, who missed all of last year -- returns, as does Kalvin Cline and newcomer to the position Bucky Hodges. BTW, have you seen Bucky Hodges? Bucky has a chance to be a HUGE playmaker for VT. The run game needs a big-time boost in production. That may be by committee again this year between [Trey] Edmunds, [J.C.] Coleman and newcomer Marshawn Williams, who has been turning heads and nearly breaking them so far this spring.

HD: No hope? I'd never say no hope. Hapless maybe, but not hopeless. Here's the scoop on VT's offense this spring: The Hokies are better everywhere on offense this spring. Every position is deeper and better. Except quarterback. It's still a huge question, and one that won't be answered until this summer when the entire roster is practicing. There's plenty of talent on that roster, but until they find an answer at quarterback, I'm not picking them to win the Coastal Division.


Josh in Palm Bay, Fla., writes: The other day, you were talking about Clemson as the best defense in the ACC. I was shocked that you would take such a stand for them! You saw they got flat-out destroyed in many games last year despite how good they played in their previous bowl vs LSU, I believe? FSU lost a few players, true, but in some cases, their replacements might be better (not [Timmy] Jernigan's). The new DC last year didn't stop us with a whole new system; a new DC this year with the same system won't either. Sorry ACC, Dabo, HD, AD... gonna still be a fantastic D at FSU, still gonna be better than Clemson, and still gonna be doubters, I guess!

HD: Yep, I'm pretty sure I said that one, though technically I think I said it could be the best D in the ACC, even better than Florida State's. Look, I know everyone is not used to Clemson's defense being a strength, just like you're not used to Duke being a contender in the Coastal Division race, but stay with me here. FSU's defensive line has been depleted in the past two years by the NFL draft, whereas Clemson's defensive line finally has a veteran look. I'm not going to make too much out of the turnover at the coordinator position because there's still continuity there for the Seminoles, but Clemson enters this fall with fewer questions on defense.


Jeremy Lambert in South Hill, Va., writes: Virginia's basketball success in recent years has clearly demonstrated the school's athletics potential across the board. Its resources to attract talent and fan support are on display for all to see in the basketball program. Having said that, UVa's football woes are extremely frustrating to watch. Its failures are excruciating. It is difficult for me to point to a specific factor, but it is hard to think that a lot of the Hoos' football woes could not be solved by having a good quarterback. Matt Schaub -- 10 years ago -- was the last good quarterback Virginia had. What is it about Virginia's program that a good quarterback is not compelled to commit to playing there? Or should Virginia's expectations be lower than I think?

HD: I don't think the overall expectations should be lower -- but maybe the expectations about routinely bringing in an elite quarterback should be. Granted, much of Virginia's woes can be traced to inconsistency, indecisiveness and underwhelming performances from that position. But look across the ACC, not to mention college football, and how often does a Matt Ryan come along? Philip Rivers? There are more of the likes of Logan Thomas, Chase Rettig and Tanner Price. You're right that UVa football is capable of more than what we've seen, especially with the increased commitment to facilities, recruiting and staff salaries. It should be a regular bowl-bound team, and every now and then make some noise in the Coastal Division race, but is it going to be the next Clemson? Probably not.

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
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Wishing everybody a great holiday weekend!
In spite of Andrew Brown’s injury-shortened spring, there is still plenty of optimism for Virginia’s top recruit heading into summer camp.

Brown, the No. 1-ranked defensive tackle in the Class of 2014, No. 5 overall recruit and the top player in the state of Virginia, suffered turf toe in March and missed most of spring practices. He is expected to return in time for summer camp, but was getting some first-team reps at the time of his injury. Expectations within the program are still high that Brown can be a contributor in his first season and supplement the talent returning up front.

“He’s a very intelligent young man,” said defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta. “Obviously the No. 1 thing is he likes football, so that’s a plus. He was fun at practice because every day you could see the young man work knowing, ‘I’m playing college football now against bigger, stronger, faster guys than I played in [high school]. It’s a shame what happened to him, but health-wise, once he comes back and gets himself 100 percent ready to go, he’s going to make a lot of strides here come camp and going into the season. I just like his whole demeanor.”

At 6-foot-4, 300 pounds, Brown is a physically gifted athlete who enrolled early already looming larger than many of his older teammates. He still attended all of the position meetings this spring and was constantly learning off the field even though he wasn’t always on it. Virginia has significant shoes to fill on the defensive line, as defensive end Jake Snyder and defensive tackle Brent Urban both have to be replaced, but there is enough experience on the roster that Brown doesn’t have to come in and be a superstar.

He just has to stay healthy.

ACC's lunch links

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
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Well, this rule ought to make games more interesting.

ESPN 300: Top ACC targets 

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
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video
With Wednesday’s release of the 2015 ESPN 300, here’s a look at five top ACC targets in the 2015 class.


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ACC's lunchtime links

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
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Boston strong.

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
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Bo Pelini is the cat's meow.

ACC spring games recap

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
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Eight ACC teams wrapped up their spring seasons this past weekend, with games and open practices taking place from Pittsburgh all the way down to Miami. Here's a look at the biggest storylines from all of the action surrounding six of those teams. (Colleague Jared Shanker has plenty of Florida State content over on our Seminoles site, while our David Hale was in the house for the second spring of the Dave Doeren era at NC State.)

CLEMSON
The Tigers entered their spring game down one quarterback after Deshaun Watson injured his collarbone five days earlier, and fellow signal caller Chad Kelly might have simplified the QB battle for the coaching staff down the stretch -- just not in a good way. Kelly got himself benched for the second half after questioning a punting decision on fourth down in the second quarter. Cole Stoudt took advantage of the opening, completing 15 of 23 passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns on a day that certainly did not hurt his chances at emerging atop the three-man race come August. Kelly, meanwhile, went 10-for-18 for 118 yards with two interceptions. The defense was credited with 14 sacks, though the quarterbacks weren't live. The White team beat the Orange team, 23-5, in front of a record 33,000.

LOUISVILLE
It's often too easy to draw general conclusions and overreact to what we all see during a team's main public display at the end of each spring. That is probably the case when looking at the Cardinals' Friday night fireworks. Redshirt sophomore Will Gardner threw for 542 yards and four touchdowns, leading the offense to 951 total yards and 11 touchdowns. Most of it came against the second-team defense, which underscored the feeling exiting 2013: The secondary is in need of some depth, especially after losing Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor. Is Bobby Petrino's first offense that good? Is his secondary that bad? Probably somewhere in between, though roughly 27,500 were entertained.

MIAMI
The defense was the main storyline ever since the end of the 2013 season, though Ryan Williams' ACL tear last week brought a new concern to the forefront. Still, the Hurricanes had to be pleased with how Mark D'Onofrio's unit performed on Saturday, with safeties Jamal Carter and Dallas Crawford leading the way with five tackles apiece. The defense won the game, 61-60, thanks to an unconventional scoring system. And, more importantly, it held Miami's new quarterbacks in check, with Kevin Olsen going just 7-of-21 for 65 yards and a pick and Gray Crow going 9-of-20 for 63 yards and a pick. Juwon Young and Tracy Howard came up with the interceptions.

NORTH CAROLINA
Quarterbacks took center stage in Chapel Hill as well, with neither incumbent Marquise Williams nor challenger Mitch Trubisky offering much in way of clarity. Williams completed 22 of 32 passes for 135 yards and an interception. Trubisky went 20-for-32 for 183 yards and an interception. Larry Fedora liked the decision-making from both of his signal callers on Saturday and knows he has two capable signal-callers, but he isn't offering any public hints about who his guy will likely be come this fall. The Blue team, by the way, beat the White team, 38-17.

VIRGINIA
The defense (Blue) dominated the injury-depleted offense (White), coming up with four interceptions and nine total sacks (albeit two-hand touch sacks). Greyson Lambert looked like the best of the Cavaliers' quarterbacks, completing 18 of 31 passes for 220 yards with two touchdowns and two picks. Incumbent David Watford went just 4-of-14 for 31 yards with two picks, while Matt Johns completed 6 of his 19 throws for 43 yards. Lambert and the Virginia coaching staff attributed the redshirt sophomore's improved play to a clear head, as he has taken pressure off himself this time around and looks like the front-runner, as he was voted one of four captains by teammates, along with Anthony Harris, Henry Coley and Kevin Parks. He was also one of 13 players -- and the only quarterback -- named to the leadership council.

PITT
The Panthers drew plenty of attention early for announcing that they would not hold a traditional spring game. Still, their "Field Pass" event on Sunday at its South Side headquarters drew more than 3,000 who came and listened to presentations from defensive coordinator Matt House, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, strength and conditioning coach Ross Kolodziej and recruiting coordinator Dann Kabala. A big theme around Pitt this spring has been the program's youth, but that storyline moved closer and closer toward its depth, which has been tested lately with injuries to running backs James Conner (sprained left knee) and Isaac Bennett (sprained left shoulder), who will have surgery but is expected to return in time for fall camp. Pitt held its 14th spring practice before Sunday's fan event and will conclude its spring season Tuesday.

ACC spring games preview

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
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Seven ACC teams will play their spring games this weekend, and eight will officially close spring practices in the coming days, as Pitt has opted to have a more fan-friendly event instead of an actual spring game on Sunday before closing practice on Tuesday.

For all of these teams -- including Florida State -- the quarterbacks will be among the most-watched players on the field. In Tallahassee, fans will get a chance to see the Heisman Trophy winner, returning starter Jameis Winston. At every other school, there is an ongoing storyline and competition with the quarterbacks. We’re giving you one additional thing to keep an eye on that might not be so obvious.

Check it out, and enjoy the games this weekend!

CLEMSON

When: 4 p.m. on Saturday (ESPNU) and on WatchESPN

Where: Death Valley

One thing to watch: The true freshman wide receivers. Artavis Scott, Demarre Kitt and Kyrin Priester were all highly touted recruits who enrolled early to help Clemson try to replace Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant (a combined 2,292 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns in 2013).

FLORIDA STATE

When: 3 p.m. on Saturday (ESPN) and on WatchESPN

Where: Doak Campbell Stadium

One thing to watch: The wide receivers. They haven’t exactly earned high praise from coach Jimbo Fisher, who called the receivers out last week for not getting open and making catches. Rashad Greene is the most experienced option as the Noles try to replace Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw, but the staff also needs to see more from players like Bobo Wilson and Kermit Whitfield.

LOUISVILLE

When: 7:30 p.m. on Friday

Where: Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium

One thing to watch: The safeties. Louisville lost Hakeem Smith, who started 51 straight games, and projected first-round draft pick Calvin Pryor. Jermaine Reve, Gerod Holliman and Chucky Williams are the leading candidates for those spots, but Reve is out for the spring with an injury. Reve and Holliman are the only players with game experience.

MIAMI

When: 6 p.m. on Saturday (ESPN3)

Where: Sun Life Stadium

One thing to watch: Defense, defense, defense. It’s been an area of concern, but the defense showed signs of progress this spring. The Canes return eight starters and 16 players from the two-deep depth chart. Denzel Perryman is now playing middle linebacker, and Dallas Crawford moved to safety to give that position a boost. Those within the program have said repeatedly that the defense has made strides since last season, and overall it was a good spring for the defense. We’ll see if they can punctuate it in the spring game.

NORTH CAROLINA

When: 3 p.m. on Saturday (ESPN3)

Where: Kenan Stadium

One thing to watch: True freshman running back Elijah Hood. The four-star recruit was rated the nation's No. 9 running back in the Class of 2014 by ESPN.com and No. 80 overall in the ESPN 300. The early enrollee has had such a good spring that he could see some immediate playing time, even though the Tar Heels are deep at the position.

NC STATE

When: 1 p.m. on Saturday

Where: Carter-Finley Stadium

One thing to watch: More young wide receivers. NC State has to replace Quintin Payton and Rashard Smith, both starters from last year. The talent pool to choose from includes a host of sophomores and freshmen, including two early enrollees. The leading sophomore candidates are: Jumichael Ramos, who finished the last three games of 2013 strong; Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who led the team in receiving at one point last year as a true freshman; and Bra'lon Cherry, who suffered a season-ending injury against Duke. Freshmen Bo Hines and Stephen Louis enrolled early, and redshirt freshman Gavin Locklear is also in the mix.

VIRGINIA

When: 1 p.m. on Saturday

Where: Scott Stadium

One thing to watch: Improved wide receivers. This is a group coach Mike London has praised this spring, for both its height and athleticism, as the staff has moved toward a longer, leaner look. London recently singled out Miles Gooch, Keeon Johnson and Kyle Dockins -- all listed at 6-foot-3 -- as players who have excelled this spring. Unfortunately, fans won’t be able to see starter Jake McGee, the Hoos’ star tight end who moved to receiver this spring, as he’ll be sidelined with a hamstring injury.

PITT (No spring game)

When: From 2-4 p.m. on Sunday, Pitt will host its “Pitt Football Field Pass”

Where: The UPMC Sports Performance Complex

One thing to watch: Instead of a game, Pitt will hold a public event that will include a kids’ clinic, an offensive strategy session with coordinator Joe Rudolph, a defensive strategy session with coordinator Matt House, a recruiting session with coordinator Dann Kabala and a strength and conditioning session with assistant coach Ross Kolodziej.

Virginia QB prediction

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
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There has been no ringing endorsement this spring of David Watford as Virginia’s starting quarterback this fall, but to be fair, none of the three quarterbacks on the roster have been anointed No. 1 just yet.

It just sounds like Greyson Lambert has at least closed the gap significantly this spring, which means the quarterback race this summer should be all the more interesting in Charlottesville.

[+] EnlargeGreyson Lambert
Dannie Walls/Icon SMIVirginia signal-caller Greyson Lambert has had a strong spring and could start for the Cavaliers this fall.
I asked Virginia offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild on Tuesday if Lambert has passed Watford as the leading candidate to start this fall, and this was his response:

“I don’t know that he’s passed [Watford], but we definitely have a quarterback battle,” Fairchild said. “We’ll sit down after the spring and let everybody know what we think so far, if there’s somebody who has performed well enough, we’ll name him the starter. If not, we’ll take it into the summer and August, but I think it’s good right now doing what we’re doing. We’re looking at all three guys. As soon as we can get it down to two, we’ll do it, and then when we can get it down to one, we’ll do that.”

Sounds familiar.

Here is Fairchild’s scouting report on all three QBs:

On Lambert: “Greyson Lambert had a good spring, much more consistent than he was a year ago. He’s got a big upside talent-wise in terms of a strong arm. Big, strong kid back there. Certainly knows a lot more about the offense than he did last spring or early fall camp, and has shown somewhat the capability of being involved in the quarterback run game and the zone read game, to function in that capacity."

On Watford: "David has picked up where he left off. He’s got to improve quite a bit with his consistency, but he’s throwing the ball well and certainly has the legs to help us in the run game, and as we improve around him, he’s looked better this spring."

On Matt Johns: "Matt Johns wasn’t really available for us last spring. He was made basically a scout-team quarterback. He’s obviously getting his first taste of action in this system and has done some nice things."

Prediction: Lambert wins the job in August. Watford was inconsistent as the full-time starter last season, and that hasn’t changed this spring, according to the coaches. To say that he “picked up where he left off” isn't necessarily a good thing.

Watford ranked No. 104 last season in passing yards per completion with 9.02. He was No. 102 in the country in passing efficiency and had an ACC-high 15 interceptions. Two of those picks came in a span of five minutes in the fourth quarter of a 45-14 loss at North Carolina.

Lambert made the most of his limited snaps last season when he replaced Watford at North Carolina and on his second attempt threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Keeon Johnson. He finished that game having completed 8 of 13 passes for 75 yards and a touchdown. Lambert finished the season 33-of-75 for 340 yards and one touchdown. Johns is simply behind the others in the learning curve and experience.

All three quarterbacks still have something to prove in summer camp, but Watford might have the most.

Reviewing the ACC pro days

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
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Pro days are now in the rearview mirror, with a month remaining between now and the NFL draft. With that, let's take a look back at some notable performances from ACC pro days this year.

Boston College (March 12)
Big name: RB Andre Williams. Representatives from 29 NFL teams were on hand to see the nation's top running back from last season. Williams says he improved on his combine 40-yard-dash time of 4.56. Also of note: Nate Freese, who went 20 of 20 last season on field goal tries, did not disappoint in front of his future employers, hitting a 60-yard try.

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins
AP Photo/Michael ConroyClemson WR Sammy Watkins in all likelihood will be the first ACC player drafted in May.
Clemson (March 6)
Big name: WR Sammy Watkins. Watkins stood on his 40 time of 4.43 from the combine but was there to help out quarterback Tajh Boyd, doing little to change the general consensus that he is the top receiver in this year's draft. Boyd said scouts told him his performance was much better than his showings at the combine and Senior Bowl, as he connected on short, intermediate and deep routes with familiar receivers in familiar environs.

Duke (March 26)
Big name: CB Ross Cockrell. Cockrell improved on his combine results, with Duke saying that his 40 time was sub-4.4, which is better than what he ran in Indianapolis (4.56).

Florida State (March 17)
Big name: Where to begin? DL Timmy Jernigan slightly improved his combine 40-time from 5.06 to 5.03. S Terrence Brooks, LB Telvin Smith, DB Lamarcus Joyner and LB Christian Jones all drew a crowd, but they declined to run the 40 in front of reps from all 32 NFL teams, content to sit on their combine performances.

Georgia Tech (March 28)
Big name: LB Jeremiah Attaochu. Attaochu ran drills at both linebacker and defensive lineman, recovering nicely from a hamstring injury in the Senior Bowl that forced him out of the combine. He said his 40 time was in the 4.5s. DB Jemea Thomas also impressed, reportedly running a 4.38 40.

Louisville (March 17)
Big name: QB Teddy Bridgewater. With scouts from 29 teams watching, Bridgewater was off target with several of his throws. He ran an unofficial 4.78 40 time, but the potential No. 1 pick misfired on at least 10 passes, leaving some questions lingering heading into the draft.

Miami (April 3)
Big name: OT Seantrel Henderson. This is the name that is going to stick out, as Henderson did not finish his workouts. His agent later told reporters that it was due to dehydration. With 30 NFL teams represented, quarterback Stephen Morris took a strong step forward, reportedly completed almost all of his 67 throws.

North Carolina (March 25)
Big name: TE Eric Ebron. Ebron stood on his 40 time from the combine of 4.60, but his pro day was marred by several dropped passes, though the always upbeat tight end was not stressed about the drops when speaking to reporters afterward.

NC State (March 25)
Big name: CB Dontae Johnson. Johnson showed his versatility, as he can play corner or safety, and he said he felt better than he did at the combine, where he ran a 40 time of 4.45 and jumped 38.5 inches in the vertical.

Pittsburgh (March 3)
Big name: DT Aaron Donald. College football's best defensive player rested on his combine numbers in the 40 (4.68) and bench press (35 times), but teammates Tom Savage and Devin Street helped themselves. Savage impressed during a scripted 100-throw workout while Street said he ran a sub-4.5 40.

Syracuse
Big name: LB Marquis Spruill. Spruill recovered nicely from a combine snub, weighing in at 231 pounds, nine pounds heavier than his playing weight. He did not disclose numbers. Running back Jerome Smith, meanwhile, said he ran in the 4.5-4.6 range, which would be an improvement over his combine time of 4.84.

Virginia (March 17)
Big name: OT Morgan Moses. A considerably different-looking Moses showed up at 311 pounds, roughly 20 pounds lighter from his playing days with the Cavaliers. After clocking in at 5.35 in the 40 at the combine, he unofficially ran between 4.9 and 5.06 at his pro day, though he pulled a hamstring during one of the runs, forcing him to miss the remainder of his drills.

Virginia Tech (March 19)
Big name: QB Logan Thomas. Thomas remains a fascinating prospect to keep an eye on in the NFL, and he threw well in front of NFL scouts at pro day. Corner Antone Exum impressed as well, running 40 times of 4.53 and 4.55.

Wake Forest (March 17)
Big name: WR Michael Campanaro. After seeing his final year end prematurely because of a shoulder injury, Campanaro, the only Demon Deacon to have garnered a combine invite, again impressed in receiver drills, making his case to become a potential mid-round pick. Nose guard Nikita Whitlock, meanwhile, saw himself lining up as a fullback for the first time in his career. Weather conditions were less than ideal for the NFL hopefuls.
Virginia running back Taquan Mizzell became a rookie all over again this winter when, at one of his first indoor track meets, the freshman realized he didn’t know how to set up his own starting blocks. Baffled, he looked around for some help.

Mizzell, nicknamed “Smoke” for his raw speed, was still learning how to run.

[+] EnlargeTaquan Mizzell and Larry Lewis
Jim Daves UVa Media RelationsTaquan Mizzell (left) has been learning the finer points of playing running back this spring.
The past year has been a dramatic learning curve for Mizzell, who came to Virginia shouldering the lofty expectations that accompany every highly touted recruit. With the ability to catch the ball and return kicks in high school, Mizzell quickly drew comparisons to versatile Miami running back Duke Johnson -- a parallel Mizzell not only embraced but used as a goal.

One of Virginia’s fastest recruits, though, was forced to slow down. He had to learn the playbook. He had to adjust to life as a college student. He had to compete against veterans. And he had to overcome the first injury to ever sideline him.

Now, finally healthy again and more knowledgeable in the playbook, Mizzell is primed and eager to show why he was widely considered one of the nation's top running backs in the 2013 recruiting class. For Mizzell, his desire to be the best isn’t about bravado, recruiting rankings or hype. (His coaches gush about his genuine modesty.) Instead, the former four-star, ESPN 300 prospect is simply trying to reach his ceiling -- which is why it was all the more devastating when his rookie season was derailed by an ankle injury. It was a hurdle he had to clear both mentally and physically, but also one that has helped him mature into a more complete player.

And a faster one, too.

“I can’t even ... it’s so exciting,” he said, searching for the right words to describe his return. “Sometimes you might not want to wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning for practice, but every morning I wake up, I’m so anxious to get on the field. As soon as I felt myself -- even after the season -- the moment I felt myself back 100 percent, I was ready to go. That’s why I started running track. I’m trying to get myself better right now. I don’t want to wait until August or September to get better. I want to get better right now. So I started running track, and now my opportunity to get back on the field, I’m going to take advantage of it and play to the best of my ability.”

This offseason, Mizzell, who never ran track in high school, has competed in the 60-meter dash during indoor track and the 100-meter dash in outdoor track. He’s also taking reps with the first and second teams at spring football practices and has been used in the return game. He’s in good company, as Virginia returns senior starter Kevin Parks and senior Khalek Shepherd, the Cavaliers’ two leading rushers from a year ago. Parks ran for 1,031 yards last year and started all 12 games, while Shepherd had 304 yards.

There doesn’t seem to be any concern within the program, though, about a shortage of snaps for Mizzell. Coach Mike London said the staff has made sure to evaluate Mizzell with the first-team offense in an effort to get him as many touches as possible.

“It’s about the maturation process,” London said. “He’s bigger, he’s stronger, his knowledge of the offense both in running the ball and pass protection and running routes, all of those things have really materialized. He’s back there catching punts now. He caught some kickoffs last year. There are some things we do in the backfield exclusively for him, but he’s also a running back. He’s learned the gamut from A-Z about how to be a complete player.”

He's bigger, he's stronger, his knowledge of the offense both in running the ball and pass protection and running routes all of those things have really materialized. ... He's learned the gamut from A-Z about how to be a complete player.

-- Virginia coach Mike London on Taquan Mizzell
Virginia fans are eager to see the total package.

On his first carry in the second game of last season against Oregon, Mizzell was taken down by two defenders and said he immediately felt the pain in his ankle when he tried to stand on it. He missed two games and never started a game but still finished with 695 all-purpose yards.

“I think he came in with a lot of high expectations,” running backs coach and special teams coordinator Larry Lewis said. “It probably didn’t go like he wanted to, but what he learned in that year has helped him to be the player he is right now, which right now I see what everybody’s expectations are. He’s healthy and knows what’s going on and has that experience from last year. It’s not like he’s a rookie player right now. It’s like he’s a veteran player stepping out on the field. You see a remarkable difference right now.”

Credit UVa track coach Bryan Fetzer with some of the change.

Through track, Mizzell has learned how to create power through his legs and properly accelerate, zeroing in on biomechanics and techniques that can make the difference of a fraction of a second -- or a first down.

“I tried to make it so he can relate it towards football,” said Fetzer, who has four other football players on his roster this spring. “I was a football-track athlete in college myself, so I understand the reason. He’s not coming out to be a track star. He’s coming out to improve his game for football and hopefully have some fun and get faster.

“We’ve talked about the process of it, that his first year he’s not going to see this incredible improvement. It’s going to take a little bit of time. It’s going to take him learning how to do things before he really sees the results.”

Just like it did in football.

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
12:00
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Lots of injuries, not a lot of quarterbacks ...
Last week at practice, a few of Virginia’s wide receivers were hampered by minor hamstring injuries, prompting quarterback David Watford to lend a hand as a receiver.

As it turned out, the reviews were pretty good.

“This spring is trying to find the best players in the best position to help us win,” coach Mike London said. “The quarterback position is very competitive and we’re trying to find a spot for all of the guys to come in and help us. David is very selfless. He said, ‘I’ll play wide receiver.’ He knows the offense. He made some great catches. We’re just going to keep moving in the direction to try and get the best guys on the field.”

[+] EnlargeMike London
AP Photo/Steve HelberMike London says he has seen "energy" and likes seeing guys "scrambling for playing time" this spring.
As Virginia reaches the midpoint of its spring practices, plenty of questions remain -- including who the starting quarterback will be for the season opener against UCLA -- but there is also a sense of optimism and progress in Charlottesville because of the experience returning and the continuity on the staff. After a 2-10 finish last season that included a winless record in ACC play, Virginia is leaning on 16 returning starters to help the program reverse its fortunes this fall. There is also the added benefit of limited turnover on the staff, as London hired only two assistants this offseason after a complete overhaul following the 2012 season.

So far, those intangibles have added up to an encouraging spring.

“Obviously we have to be better than what we were last year and we have to be better in terms of the point of production on the field,” London said. “Anything that can be measured can be improved. We have to play better defense -- we’ve always talked about that -- and we have to be more productive on offense, but I feel good about where we are and the people we have in the spots because they played in a lot of games.”

London said the defense, which returns nine starters, looks faster and has been aided by cornerback Demetrious Nicholson’s return from turf toe. The Hoos are still missing starting linebacker Daquan Romero, who is out with a shoulder injury, injured starting offensive tackle Jay Whitmire and defensive end Trent Corney, who is also out with a shoulder injury.

London also praised the wide receivers, and said the three quarterbacks -- Watford, Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns – have been rotating with the first-team and second-team offenses this spring.

“All three are battling for it,” London said, “and right now I’d say Greyson is doing a really nice job of where he’s at, and David understands nothing is given to him.”

While it’s still a young roster -- there are 34 sophomores -- it’s also a more veteran team, with 22 seniors. There’s a sense of urgency now as spring practices wind down, especially for the upperclassmen, as players continue to compete for starting jobs.

“I like what’s going on,” London said. “I like the energy. It’s hard to believe we’re at the midway point and we’re going down the back nine so to speak. Guys are starting to scramble to get playing time. If you’re standing on the sideline, you better get in line, whether it’s special teams or whatever it is because the production and performance element of it is the highlight of what’s going on this spring. If you’re producing and you’re productive, you’ll get looked at with a chance to play. If not, you stand on the sideline.”

That's one place the Hoos don't want to be again during the ACC race.

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