You can hear the differences already at spring practices in Charlottesville. You can see it as the players bob their heads to the music being pumped through the speakers – a tactic that wasn’t exactly encouraged under former coach Al Groh.
“I liken the music to a noisy crowd,” first-year coach Mike London said. “If a guy is listening to music, and he executes a play flawlessly with his technique, and he can hear the snap count and do all those things, that was my way of creating a hostile environment and making it fun at the same time.”
Different coaches, different personalities.
London is the kind of coach who will lighten things up at practice by having a lineman return a kickoff. The length of practices, the types of drills, the different schemes on offense and defense – they will all reflect a change in coaching style under London. Whether or not these changes will translate into wins, and how quickly London can rebuild Virginia into a postseason program remains to be seen, but this spring is about changing the culture in Charlottesville first.
“I can’t stress enough just buying into the overall culture,” said quarterback Marc Verica. “A lot of things come with that. Little things, being very attentive to the little things, and details. Everyone looking the same in the weight room, following directions, being where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there. Being reliable, being responsible, and you’re accountable to your teammates, coaches and family and self. Just treat people with dignity and respect and show class and take care of your business. Those are the most important things we need to do a really good job of early on right now.”
Not that shaking out the depth chart isn’t important. Virginia needs to replace its top four leading rushers. It needs to solidify the quarterback position, where Verica is the only player with any game experience. It needs to replace two starters in the secondary, two starting linebackers and a top backup.
And everyone has to switch gears in the playbook – again.
London is converting the defense to a 4-3. Last year, Virginia tried to incorporate the spread offense, which didn’t suit the personnel. London wants a more traditional Virginia offense, which is built on tough offensive linemen, athletic tight ends and standout running backs, all who help make the quarterback successful.
Simply put, London needs to find some playmakers this spring.
“This recruiting class was reflected on dealing with the issues of the previous staff,” London said. “With a change in defensive philosophy and offensive philosophy, the key is to find out the playmakers and the scheme in the system we’re going to use this year and build off what they can do as opposed to can’t do.”
The Cavaliers aren’t lining up this spring as first, second and third teams. Instead, London calls them A-group, B-group and C-group. At anytime, any group can be interjected into the one that goes first.
“Everyone understands and knows this is a job audition again,” London said. “Everyone is going to be evaluated on what they bring to the position. There’s no preconceived notions going into this thing. Everyone feels like they have a chance to show what they can and can’t do and we’ll go from there.”
Despite the changes, don’t misunderstand London – he was a student of Groh. He adopted some of Groh’s philosophies and used them at Richmond, where he won an FCS national title. London regards Groh as one of the smartest coaches he’s ever been around when it comes to knowledge of the game. London, though, has a different, more easygoing personality than Groh, and the fans, coaches and players who have gotten to know him over the past few months seem to have embraced that.
“There’s definitely a renewed sense of optimism,” Verica said. “We’re headed in a positive direction. At this point, through this transitional process, the most important thing everybody in our organization can do is buy into the new culture coach London and his staff are trying to establish, and then from there the Xs and Os, the winning, that will take care of itself down the line.
“I think everyone is buying in,” Verica said. “Not only because we want to win, but because we’re all auditioning. It’s a new staff, so everybody has something to prove now. It will be important for us to be a unit, for everyone to be on the same page as an organization if we want to do big things.”