Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Welcome to 2009, Virginia.
"I feel as though this offense, it creates more modern-day football," senior running back Mikell Simpson said of the Cavaliers' new offense. "A lot of teams are converting to the spread offense, and they've had a lot of success with it. If you look at the national championship teams, they've pretty much been running the spread offense. So it's just making changes to the modern-day game."
There were sweeping changes to Virginia's staff following its 5-7 finish in 2008, among them the hiring of Gregg Brandon as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. After finishing in the bottom third of the ACC in offense the past three seasons, it was time for a change.
Simpson said the players are excited about the new offense, in large part because they're all starting from a clean slate and Brandon wants the best five skill players on the field, regardless of what position they play.
Virginia lost its leading rushers and receivers, but four starters return on the offensive line and the Cavaliers still have offensive leaders like Simpson and quarterback Jameel Sewell.
It's a no-huddle offense designed to keep defenses off guard and create mismatches, and if the players notice a defense is lined up to stop a particular play, they can check out of it.
"Now it's get to the line, look over, get the signal and go," Simpson said. "It's not that difficult. The thing that will catch you off-guard is you have to look at your coach to get the signal and you can't miss the sign. If you miss the sign, you're eventually going to mess the play up, but everybody has been paying attention and getting the signals down."
Simpson said Brandon is as up-tempo as his offense. Brandon spent six seasons as head coach at Bowling Green, where he compiled a 44-30 record and led the Falcons to three bowl appearances. His 2004 team was one of the most potent offenses in Mid-American Conference history, finishing second in the country in total yards per game (506.3) and fourth in scoring (44.3 points per game).
"He knows his offense in and out, and he tells us the best five skill players are going to play, not according to position, so everyone is real excited about that," Simpson said. "Everybody is starting off new, whatever five guys are the best -- it doesn't matter what position they play -- he'll have five wide receivers out there or five running backs, it doesn't matter."
The practices are scripted where a few periods are focused on running the ball, and others are devoted entirely to running routes. Simpson said the running backs are practicing with the receivers half the time.
"Whatever they do, we do," Simpson said. "We're catching on just as much as they are."
Simpson said coach Al Groh has given Brandon the keys to the offense, that he can call any play and run any offensive set he wants to run.
"He just brought the whole Bowling Green system with him," Simpson said.
That's why they've been watching plenty of film of Bowling Green. In four of his six seasons as head coach, Brandon's teams averaged more than 400 yards of offense per game. Still, they need to find the players to execute it.
With Cedric Peerman gone, Simpson is No. 1 on the depth chart this spring. He's the most experienced returning ball carrier, but was hindered by injuries last year and missed the last three games as a result.
He ran for 570 yards in 2007 and 262 last year. In this offense, it sounds like he'll have more of a chance to get on the field.
"With the new offense, anybody can be in the game at the same time," he said. "So sometimes we can have two tailbacks in, and one lined up in the backfield and one out wide or in the slot, or we can go to three tailbacks. It really doesn't matter. So everybody is real energetic about this offense because everybody knows they have a chance to play, as opposed to the old offense, where it was just one running back in the game, and even if you were good enough to play, that one running back was on the field.
"Everything we're doing I pretty much love right now," Simpson said. "I'm excited to get back out on the field. Last year I had a down year. I'm trying to get back out here and prove to people I can still play."