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STEVE DeSHAZO: Cavs got talent; can they coach ’em up?

CHARLOTTESVILLE—Virginia’s football roster has turned over nearly completely in Mike London’s three years as head coach, with an influx of talented young recruits. As a result, the Cavaliers’ cupboard is much less bare than Al Groh left it.

During the same time frame, though, London’s coaching staff has remained static. Perhaps it’s time for that to change.

Thursday night’s 37–13 loss to North Carolina knocked Virginia (5–6) out of bowl contention and should give London pause to take a long look at his staff—and his way of thinking. His assistants—many of whom he brought with him from Division I–AA Richmond—clearly can recruit.

But at the highest level, how well can they teach?

Yes, the Cavaliers are young. They started eight sophomores and a freshman Thursday night. (It would have been two first-year players if cornerback Maurice Canady hadn’t missed the game with an injury.) It’s no easy task for a team with three senior defensive starters to contain a UNC team with a veteran quarterback in Bryn Renner.

But twice in the second half, senior middle linebacker Steve Greer got caught in mismatches trying to cover much faster receivers on post patterns. Both times he was burned badly for touchdowns.

Greer, who’ll never be confused with Usain Bolt, is one of the last holdovers from the Groh era, and he’s been a dependable tackler for four seasons. But defensive coordinator Jim Reid twice put him in position to fail in his final home game.

London also needs to reflect on the fact that some of his veteran players aren’t getting better. Exhibit A is Morgan Moses, the Cavaliers’ massive right tackle who was a five-star prospect and has been a two-year starter. But Moses—who left late with an apparent knee injury—arguably played better as a freshman than he has the past two years, and Virginia’s guards and center have been unstable for much of the year. That reflects poorly on offensive line coach Scott Wachenheim.

Anthony Poindexter is a beloved Virginia icon, a former All-America safety whose promising NFL career was derailed by a gruesome knee injury he suffered as a senior. His duties include instructing the Cavs’ special teams, which have been below par for the past few seasons. On Thursday night, a holding penalty erased Khalek Shepherd’s long kickoff return, Shepherd fumbled away another runback, and an offside penalty led to a UNC field goal.

Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor learned at the knee of Joe Gibbs and is considered a good young play-caller.

But Virginia showed little innovation on three straight unsuccessful runs between the tackles from the 3-yard line late in the third quarter, never once trying to reach the edge. The Cavaliers turned the ball over on downs, and UNC drove 97 yards for a game-clinching touchdown London also needs to look in the mirror and decide if it’s worth it to play quarterback roulette in 2013, as he did for most of this season.

The conventional wisdom is that incumbent Michael Rocco has a better grasp of the offense, while Phillip Sims’ arm and athleticism are superior, but his grasp of the offense is limited because of his late start after transferring from Alabama over the summer. Each has had his highs and lows while splitting time in a rotation that apparently only London understands.

Rocco was the star of last Saturday’s come-from-behind win over Miami, but he badly underthrew Kevin Parks on a second-quarter pass Thursday night that UNC’s Tre Boston returned 36 yards for a momentum-turning touchdown.

Meanwhile, Sims bought time with his legs by rolling right and avoiding a pass rusher, then threw across his body to hit Darius Jennings on a 9-yard touchdown pass that it’s hard to imagine Rocco duplicating.

London needs to pick a quarterback after spring practice, when both Sims and Rocco (along with redshirting David Watford) begin on even ground, and stick with him.

Of course, sometimes even the best coaching goes unrewarded. Virginia sophomore Darius Jennings dropped what would have been an easy touchdown pass from Sims while running three strides clear of a usually porous North Carolina secondary.

You can’t blame the sideline for that.

If Virginia had made it to a bowl after a 2–6 start, it would be tempting to think things are moving inexorably upward. The Cavaliers do seem to be pointed in the right direction. But it’s not a straight line, and London may need to make some painful changes.

Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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