Rant Sports continues counting down to college football season with previews of 100 teams in 100 days and a look at No. 37, the Virginia Cavaliers.
The Cavaliers made huge strides in 2011, improving from 4-8 in 2010 to 8-5, and earning their first bowl berth since 2007. With an inexperienced wide receiving corps and a revamped defense, it’ll be tough to duplicate that success this season.
In 2011, the Cavaliers defense was third-best in the ACC in yards allowed per game, but it loses seven starters, including last year’s team leaders in sacks and tackles-for-loss.
It’ll be imperative for the offense to find more ways to score and take some pressure off the young defense. Last year, the team out-rushed and out-passed its opponents but struggled to get the ball across the goal line. Virginia finished fourth in the ACC in total yards but was ninth in scoring, often relying too heavily on senior kicker Robert Randolph, who made 16 of 23 field goals and was the team’s leading scorer.
Quarterback Michael Rocco won the wide open quarterback battle at the beginning of last season and started every game in 2011. He had a decent season but this year, expectations for the junior are much higher. His progression over the course of last season was evident; on the year, he was 222 for 366 (60.7%) with 2,671 passing yards, 13 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. In the last six games, though, his completion percentage improved slightly, to 61.4%, and he had nine touchdowns to just four interceptions.
With a full season under his cleats, Rocco should be even better, but the true leader on Virginia’s offense is senior captain Perry Jones. A running back who was also the team’s second-leading receiver, Jones accounted for 22% of the team’s all-purpose yards last season. He and running back Kenny Parks have high hopes for 2012; Jones told Charlottesville’s NBC29 they’re both aiming for 1,000-yard seasons.
They’ll be protected by a very tall O-line (the projected starters are all at least 6’6″) that should be solid even with some players swapping spots. Senior Oday Aboushi is a lock at left tackle; he started the last 25 games for the Cavs and earned second-team All-ACC honors in 2011. Junior Morgan Moses has 20 career starts and will likely be opposite Aboushi at right tackle.
The big question on offense is who will step up to replace Kris Burd, last year’s leading receiver. Junior Tim Smith, (565 yards and three touchdowns in 2011) will have a chance to take a larger role in the offense. Talented sophomores Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell each played in all 13 games last year, and the team needs at least one of them to have a breakout season in 2012.
Virginia’s star on defense is senior linebacker Steve Greer. He had a team-leading 103 tackles in 2011, good enough for 7th in the ACC and a second-team All-ACC nod. He and LaRoy Reynolds, who was second on the team with 88 tackles, will provide stability and leadership as the only seniors who are returning starters on defense.
The biggest holes are in the secondary and on the D-line. Sophomore cornerback Demetrious “Tra” Nicholson had two interceptions as a true freshman starter in 2011; as the only returner in the secondary, he has to step up to lead the new crop of defensive backs. Among them will probably be sophomore safety Anthony Harris, who played in every game as a true freshman and had 14 tackles as a backup.
Defensive ends Jake Snyder and Bill Schautz are expected to shore up the new line. Shautz had 28 tackles, two sacks, and two fumble recoveries off the bench in 2011 before breaking his leg in November; he hopes to have an even better senior season. Senior defensive tackle Will Hill also has a huge opportunity to make a name for himself. He’s already made an impact on his team – he was named captain despite having just one career start – and 2012 could be the year he shows the rest of the nation what he can do.
The Cavaliers will have their work cut out for them to match 2011′s eight wins. They face nine teams who were bowl eligible last season (although Miami did not play due to self-imposed sanctions), though they do luck out by missing Clemson and Florida State.
They’ll host Penn State in week two before tough road games at Georgia Tech and TCU. They return home to face WAC champion Louisiana Tech before a manageable string of conference games. Their bye week late in October comes right before a grueling home stretch: at NC State, home against Miami and UNC, and at Virginia Tech to close out the season.