By HANK KURZ Jr.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. —
Mike London and his Virginia coaching staff are facing a familiar problem during spring practice.
The Cavaliers are giving repetitions to three quarterbacks, and still hoping one emerges as a clear winner in the fight to be the starter. London said that David Watford, Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns all have made significant strides from last season and the competition will go as long as it needs to go.
“It’s been very competitive, very spirited,” London said, while acknowledging that Watford, who started all 12 games last season, and Lambert, who played in seven games, have a leg up because of experience.
Johns has been on the field, too, but only as a holder on field goals and extra points.
The Cavaliers finished just 2-10 last season, leading to wide speculation that this could be a make-or-break season for London, who is 18-31 in four seasons and has won just eight of 32 games in the ACC.
The need to turn that around isn’t lost on the team, London said.
“What’s different about this team, this group right now, is that guys are saying, ‘Where can I play? Where can I help? What can I do?’ That’s an attitude that’s different, and it’s welcome, it’s needed, because everyone knows we have to perform and play better,” he said. “When it comes from the players about ‘What can I do? What role can I take?’ You can make significant steps that way.”
Watford seemed to make minimal progress last season, when he completed just 57 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and 15 interceptions, and the running element he was expected to bring never really materialized. He ran for just 208 yards on 104 carries, and his longest run was for 27 yards.
Since last season, though, he paid his own way to spend time in California working on mechanics and footwork with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr., whose list of former pupils includes Heisman Trophy winners Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Johnny Manziel. London said Whitfield was complimentary of the junior’s progress, and said Lambert and Johns have “raised their football IQ” through intensive film and formations study.
Several of the players that figure to be the prime targets of the quarterbacks also have demonstrated significant improvement in the first nine practices, London said, suggesting the passing game could have more of a vertical element this year.
Darius Jennings, for example, now wears contact lenses at the suggestion of the training staff, and the leader among wide receivers with 38 catches last season seems primed to have a bigger impact.
“I believe he’s caught everything that’s been thrown to him and it sounds like it might be a small adjustment, but it’s major in the fact that he feels more comfortable,” London said of the 5-foot-11 senior, who will enter his final season with 106 career receptions. “He’s probably our fastest guy at the receiver position and he’s caught some vertical balls downfield, which is something that we need.”
The Cavaliers also moved 6-6 tight end Jake McGee to a hybrid position that will have him playing some tight end, and some wide receiver, hoping to utilize his athleticism and create mismatches downfield.
McGee, who led the team with 43 catches last season, caught only two touchdown passes, down from five as a sophomore, and the hope is that moving him around will help create those mismatches.
“Down in the red zone, now that he’s playing that slot receiver, you put a linebacker on him or a safety, he can go up and get it,” London said, noting that McGee also played basketball in high school. “He’s made some pretty athletic catches. ... It’s a matchup thing now and he’s shown that he can do that and I believe that we have in the right place that he can help us be more productive on offense.”