This was a tremendous year for the Virginia Cavaliers... The men’s basketball team, that is... The football team, not so much. The Cavs put together one of their worst seasons in school history, finishing dead-last in the Atlantic Coast Conference at 2-10 SU and 5-6-1 against the college football lines. Both of Virginia’s wins were in non-conference action. Something had to change, and on Monday, change arrived in spades.
It’s been a pretty rough ride for head coach Mike London since he took over the Cavaliers program in 2010. There was the surprise trip to the Chick-fil-A Bowl after the 2011 season, which saw London earn ACC Coach of the Year honors. But it’s been a nightmare since then: the 2012 Cavs went 4-8 SU, and 2-9-1 ATS, after which both of their starting quarterbacks, Michael Rocco (13 TDs, 10 INTs) and Phillip Sims (nine TDs, four INTs), transferred out of Charlottesville.
That left sophomore David Watford to hold down the fort last year. He wasn’t quite up to the task, throwing nearly twice as many interceptions (15) as touchdown passes (8). Only two quarterbacks in the entire FBS threw more picks than Watford did last year – although it should be said that Watford also led the ACC in pass attempts. Still, in terms of passing efficiency, Watford placed No. 102 out of 104 qualifying quarterbacks with a 99.6 rating.
With London’s job security in question (four of his assistants were fired after the 2012 season), it was pretty obvious early in the spring sessions that there would be a new quarterback at the helm this year. That change was made evident on Monday when the Cavaliers listed sophomore Greyson Lambert at the top of the depth chart, with Watford and three-star prospect Matt Johns sharing back-up duties.
Lambert’s back-up QB stats from 2013 looked even worse than Watford’s: 33-of-75 for 340 yards, one TD, two picks and a woeful (for college) 81.1 passer rating. Lambert rose to the occasion when given an increased workload in road games against the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Miami Hurricanes, and this spring, London had Lambert working with the first-string offense from Day One. Lambert has already been named a team captain, and one of 13 players on the team’s leadership council. It’s a fait accompli.
The bigger surprise on Virginia’s depth chart is the demotion of senior WR Darius Jennings (38 catches, three TDs). The Cavaliers are well-represented in the running game with senior RB Kevin Parks (4.5 yards per carry), but they were expected to depend on Jennings following the departure of last year’s leading pass-catcher, TE Jake McGee (43 catches, two TDs). Also coming off the bench in 2014: senior WR Dominique Terrell (14 catches, zero TDs). What gives?
This could be another sign of bigger things to come in 2014 – literally. Sophomore WR Keeon Johnson (20 catches, one TD) figures to be one of Lambert’s top targets this year, and at 6-foot-3 and around 220 pounds, Johnson has the size to go deep against today’s cornerbacks. Jennings and Terrell both check in at 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds; they’ll still get their touches, but as secondary or tertiary options on shorter routes.
Provided the offensive line can rebound from last year’s train wreck, there’s no shortage of upside on this Cavaliers team (as they can prove to be valuable if played correctly with your college football picks), which already has one of the better defenses in the FBS. Last year’s unit was ranked No. 39 in defensive efficiency using the F/+ Combined Ratings at Football Outsiders, and now it’s up to London to prove that he’s truly Coach of the Year material. So far, so good.