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Preseason Preview: BYU vs. Virginia

25 July 2014 Brett Richins
BYU will look for payback vs. UVA when the Cavaliers vist Provo Sept. 20.

BYU will look for payback vs. UVA when the Cavaliers vist Provo Sept. 20.

BYU’s home game against Virgina in week four of the 2014 season is an opportunity for the Cougars to redeem themselves following last season’s disappointing loss to the Cavaliers.

Despite outgaining UVA by 140 yards, the Cougars left a rain-soaked Scott Stadium on the wrong end of a 19-16 decisions.

The Cavaliers would not win another game against an FBS Division-1 opponent the rest of the season, finishing with a 2-10 record.

The Cougars stumbled out of the gate in their first game implementing Robert Anae’s new fast-tempo, read-option offense.

A deluge of rain, combined with a 2-hour lightening delay didn’t make breaking in a new offense any easier. Even so, BYU looked like it had a the game sewed up until Taysom Hill’s pass went off the hands of Jamaal Williams and ended up in the arms of Virginia safety Anthony Harris.

UVA turned the Cougars’ only turnover of the game into a touchdown for the come from behind victory.

Despite winning just two games in 2013, and going 6-18 over the past two seasons, head coach Mike London kept his job. However, he begins 2014 squarely on the hot seat and is under pressure to produce significant results.

London brought in some heavy-hitting assistants last year in an effort to get the program headed in the right direction. Former Colorado State head coach Steve Fairchild was hired as the offensive coordinator, former Boston College and NC State head coach Tom O’Brien as associate head coach for offense and Jon Tenuta as defensive coordinator.

BYU Defense vs. Virginia Offense

The Cavaliers coaches named sophomore Greyson Lambert (6-5, 225 So.) as the starter at quarterback following spring camp. Virginia finished 81st in the country in passing yards per game with an average of 211 yards in 2013. Lambert supplants David Watford (6-2, 200 Jr.), who completed 57 percent of his passes for just 183 yards per game while throwing eight touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Against BYU, Watford was 18-for-32 for 114 yards, a touchdown and a pick.

Lambert appeared in seven games last season, completing 33 of his 75 passing attempts (44%) for 340 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. The former high school All-American turned down offers from Alabama, Georgia, Miami and Clemson to play in Charlottesville.

Lambert and the Cavs will be without tight end and leading receiver Jake McGee, as well as key wide receiver Tim Smith. McGee earned his degree and bolted to Florida for his senior season, while Smith finished his eligibility.

Virginia does return its second-leading receiver in Darius Jennings (5-11, 175 Sr.). Jennings caught 38 passes for 340 yards and three scores last year. After making just five starts in 2013, Jennings could develop into Lambert’s go-to guy in the passing game this season. He led the way against the Cougars last year with seven catches for 62 yards and a touchdown.

Keeon Johnson (6-3, 215 So.) is likely to start opposite Jennings. Johnson is a big receiver who accounted for 282 yards, the most for a true freshman at UVA in the last 14 years. He started seven games in 2013.

With the loss of McGee, UVA is expected to go with more three wide receiver sets. There are a number of highly-touted players with little or no playing experience who may be relied upon to step up.

The running game should be in good hands with the return of Kevin Parks (5-8, 205 Sr.), Khalek Shepard (5-8, 195 Sr.) and Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell (5-10, 190 So.). Parks led the Cavaliers with 1,031 yards on the ground and scored 11 touchdowns. He also caught 38 passes for 329 yards and a score. Shepard was the second-leading rusher last year while Mizzell was fourth on the team both rushing and receiving.

Of course, the job of opening holes for the running backs and protecting the QB is the job of the offensive line. For UVA, there are a number of questions marks that need to be addressed up front, especially after a number of O-linemen were limited in spring camp because of injuries.

Gone to the NFL is left tackle Morgan Moses, leaving a huge hole there. Jay Whitmire (6-6, 310 Jr.) may be the logical choice to replace Moses after starting four games last year at tackle and nine at guard, however the junior is dealing with a back injury and is expected to miss the start of the season. It’s unsure if he will be ready to play when Virginia visits Provo.

With Whitmire dealing with injury, the all-important left tackle spot may end up being manned by up-and-coming talent Eric Smith (6-5, 295 So.). Smith was named to a couple of freshman All-American teams after starting the final eight games of the season at right tackle. If Whitmire is ready to go against BYU, he and Smith are good bets to be the bookends of the offensive line.

The interior of the line figures to be anchored by Conner Davis (6-5, 300 Sr.) and Ross Burbank (6-4, 310 Jr.). Davis missed three game last year due to injury but he was a starter at guard in the nine games in which he was healthy. He’s the likely starter at left guard next to Smith after starting seven games there last year.

Burbank can play either guard or center for the Wahoos. He started four games at center last season and may fill that role again once the 2014 season kicks off. Assuming Burbank stays at center, veteran Cody Wallace (6-4, 300 Sr.) could be called upon to hold down the right guard spot. He made two starts at guard in 2013 and was listed as the starter going into the 2012 season before losing his starting job following an injury.

Against BYU last season Virginia managed just 223 yards of total offense, the Cavs second lowest output of the season.

BYU Offense vs. Virginia Defense

While the offense is a work in progress, the defense under the direction of Tenuta has the chance to be one of the best in the ACC.

The Virginia secondary may be the best that the BYU offense will face this year. It’s a deep and talent group led by Harris (6-1, 190 Sr.) at strong safety. Harris has been named as a preseason candidate for five different national awards. He led the nation last season with eight interceptions, including the pick against Hill.

Free safety Brandon Phelps (6-0, 185 Sr.) joins Harris to create on of the top safety tandem’s in the ACC. He’s started 22 games over the last two seasons.

Because of injuries last year, UVA has four very capable corners with with plenty of experience. Demetrious Nicholson (5-11, 185 Sr.) had started every game since joining the program as a true freshman in 2011, until he was forced to sit out the last seven games of 2013 with turf toe.

DreQuan Hoskey (6-0, 180 Sr.), Maurice Canady (6-2, 190 Jr.) and Tim Harris (6-2, 200 So.) are all very good players. Hoskey started 10 games last year and had two pass break ups against the Cougars. Canady had a career-best 13 tackles against BYU and ended up starting eight games in the secondary.

Harris saw considerable action as a true freshman last year, starting the final seven games at corner in place of the injured Nicholson. He’ll bring good size and physicality in Virginia’s effort to match up with BYU’s big receivers on the outside.

Along the defensive front, the Cavs lose DL/LB Brent Urban, who was a fourth-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens. However, the very talented Eli Harold (6-4, 235 Jr.) will be back and ready to build on a fabulous sophomore season that saw him rack up 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss. He’s not only one of the top defensive ends in the ACC, but one of the best in the entire country. He was virtually unblockable against BYU last year, recording 11 tackles, two sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss.

The combination of Mike Moore (6-4, 270 Jr.) and Trent Corney (6-3, 250 Jr.) will vie to replace defensive end Jake Snyder, the only other loss from last season’s two-deep up front. Another DE that could emerge and be in the mix this season is Kwontie Moore (6-2, 250 Jr.), a former four-star recruit who has been buried on the depth chart.

David Dean (6-1, 290 Jr.) started all 12 games for the Hoos at defensive tackle last year and had the best game of his career against the Cougars with seven tackles. Meanwhile Chris Brathwaite (6-1, 305 Sr.) returns after being declared academically ineligible last season. In 2012 he was second among UVA defensive linemen in tackles.  Deonte Wilkens (6-2, 290 So.) and Chris Gallop (6-1, 300 Sr.) are very capable in the middle of the defensive line as well.

Virginia returns seven linebackers who played in at least nine games last year. Six played in all 12 games.

Middle linebacker Henry Coley (6-2, 230 Sr.) is the leader of the group and led the Cavaliers with 91 tackles in 2013. He had 11 stops against BYU and was the player who advanced the ball to the BYU 12-yard line on a lateral after Harris’ interception late in the fourth quarter. He’s the captain of the defense and starts the season on the watch list for Lott Trophy.

Will linebacker Dequan Romero (6-1, 235 Sr.) was second on the team in tackles last season. He was credited with 7.5 tackles, 1.5 sacks and defended four passes vs. BYU. He’s likely to be joined by big Max Valles (6-5, 240 So.) on the strong side. Valles played in 10 games and made four starts as a true freshman.

Tenuta’s blitzing style of play is a dream come true for linebackers. As he did last year, expect the veteran defensive coordinator to bring the pressure early and often. The Cougar offensive line struggled mightily in this game last year and Hill was under constant pressure. UVA also held the BYU quarterback to just 42 yards on 11 carries (3.8 average).

The BYU offense should perform at a much higher level in game two, but the Cavalier defense should also be improved in the second year under Tenuta.

Special Teams

Virginia returns its punter in the form of Alec Vozenilek, who average 41.2 yards per punt. He also made 12 of 16 field goal attempts in the place of regular place kicker Ian Frye. Frye was injured in the fourth game of the season, but kicked a career-best 53 yard field goal against the Cougars. It was the fourth-longest kick in UVA history.

The return game for UVA was pretty average to say the least. The Cavaliers averaged just 7.1 yards per punt return and 18.6 per kick return. Jennings was the top kick returner with a 21.8 average. He and Mizzle (16.5 yard per return) will look to improve their numbers this year. The punt return duties will be up for grabs once fall camp begins.

The Bottom Line

The Cougars need to get this win. Their loss last season turned out to be an awful one considering that UVA’s only other win came against VMI, an FCS team that won just two games.

The program at Virginia has mostly struggled the past few years due in great deal to poor play at the quarterback position. The hope is that Lambert will be able to live up to his billing as a big-time quarterback and help the offense take a big step forward. Fairchild’s offensive philosophy is pass-first, but the Cavs inability to throw the football made it difficult for him to get much going in year one.

London’s won-loss record belies the level of athleticism that he has been be able to assemble in Charlottesville and it’s widely believed that UVA must get to a bowl game in order to save his job. The fact that the Cavaliers won just two games last year despite having eight home games speaks to the futility that the program has experienced.

We’ll get a pretty good feel for how much progress this program has made early on, seeing the Cavaliers are scheduled to face UCLA and Louisville at home before making the trip across the country to Provo.

The defenses for both teams should be very good this year. The difference in the game is on the offensive side where BYU should enjoy the advantage. That, along with the home field should work in BYU’s favor.

Preseason Prognostication: BYU 27 Virginia 13

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