By HANK KURZ Jr., AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. —
Mike London’s fourth season at Virginia feels a lot like his first one.
The coach made sweeping changes to his staff after stumbling to a 4-8 record a year ago, bringing in new coordinators for offense, defense and special teams, and an associate head coach for offense.
The young Cavaliers will debut their new look in their season-opener Saturday against BYU. The Cougars are coming off an 8-5 season and their school-record fourth consecutive bowl victory.
Virginia’s two most noticeable changes come at quarterback, where redshirt sophomore David Watford takes over, and on defense, where new coordinator Jon Tenuta likes to bring constant pressure.
Watford, who played as a freshman, then redshirted last season as the since-departed Michael Rocco (transferred to Richmond) and Phillip Sims (dismissed from school) shared the job, is something of an unknown. He’s heralded as a dual threat with breakaway speed, but has never really gotten a chance to show it.
He will in Steve Fairchild’s pro-style offense.
“We’re not going to ask him to do more than what he’s capable of doing,” London said. “Obviously he’s a gifted and talented young man, but if he does what’s being asked of him to do in distributing the ball and using his legs and his arm and his brain, then I think that’s going to be critical to our success.”
So will the play of his offensive line, which has two freshmen on the depth chart and will be going against a defense that finished third in the country last season, then had to replace six starters.
London said BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy ia “one of the best players out there.”
Virginia will likely bring a lot of defensive pressure to slow down BYU’s offense, which is led by Taysom Hill.
The sophomore quarterback will utilize 6-foot-4 wide receiver Cody Hoffman, who is closing in on school record for receptions, yards and touchdown catches, and a stable of running backs led by Jamaal Williams.
The Cougars plan to play very fast, and use a lot of players.
“I think when you play as many plays as we play, being a starter might be noticeable for a few plays but then it’s going to be a flurry of players coming in,” coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
Here are five things to watch when BYU visits Virginia:
DUELING DUAL THREATS: Teammates routinely gush about the blur Watford can be when he runs, but his 21 carries went for just 42 yards as a freshman, with a long gain of 15 yards. His ability to soften the defense would go a long way toward opening things up for Virginia. Hill ran for 336 yards in six games, and just two starts, last season before tearing a ligament in his knee. He showed no ill-effects of the injury in the spring, and could make Virginia pay dearly if its pressure doesn’t also contain him.
WHERE’S CODY? BYU WR Cody Hoffman leads all active Bowl Subdivision players with 28 career touchdown catches, and has 14 career 100-yard games, including eight last season. With the Cougars planning an up-tempo pace, Virginia’s secondary would be wise to know where Hoffman is on every snap.
WHERE THERE’S SMOKE: Five-star freshman tailback Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell figures to get ample opportunities to show what he can do for the Cavaliers as a backup to starter Kevin Parks and on kickoff returns. Virginia’s running game was anemic last season, averaging 128.5 yards. and the Cougars’ run defense ranked second in the nation, allowing an average of less than 87 yards. Can “Smoke” help?
VAN NOY’S BOYS: Remarkable stat: After being the only player in the nation to record at least one of every major defensive statistic in 2011, Kyle Van Noy was the only one to do it last season, too. He spends a lot of time in the opponent’s backfield (22 tackles for loss last year) and can be especially hard on quarterbacks (13 sacks, eight hurries) and ball carriers (six forced fumbles). But he’ll also have six new starters on the field with him, and they readiness might influence his ability to be disruptive.
STREAKS ON THE LINE: Mendenhall and the Cougars have won their last six season openers, five against teams from the power conferences, and London has a 5-0 record as a head coach in openers — 2-0 at Richmond, 3-0 at Virginia. His victories have come against four FCS-level teams and Duke. No Virginia coach has ever won his first four opening games.