by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Before joining in the chorus around Charlottesville that Mike London was the perfect hire for the Virginia football program (which he eventually might be), a review of the Cavaliers’ gridiron history is probably in order. And a quick conclusion can be drawn from any such retrospect.

It’s not easy to win at Virginia.

Indeed, there have only been a few periods of extended success at Charlottesville, where academic requirements have usually stood in the way of the school establishing itself as a football power in a region that has always been hard-pressed to keep its best talent at home. Art Guepe won consistently in the post-war era before moving to Vanderbilt, and George Welsh’s 19-season run between 1982-2000 is unmatched in Virginia annals, compiling a 134-86-3 mark over that span. Those, however, were a couple of the giants in the coaching profession, and almost all others who have tried with the Cavs have failed. Welsh successor Al Groh eventually found out how tough it was to put a consistent winner on the field at UVa, which after a quick start faded under Groh’s watch despite the fact he successfully lobbied to loosen some of the admission requirements for his recruits. Groh was taking kids Welsh wouldn’t have been able to touch in his era, but a handful of minor bowl bids was the best Groh could do in his 9-year stint, which ended when he was forced out after the 2009 campaign finished a desultory 3-9, on the heels of another losing mark (5-7) in 2008.

Enter London, a longtime assistant who had served honorably in different roles on Groh’s staff (including a stint as defensive coordinator) before taking the top spot at Richmond in 2008. Inheriting a lower-division powerhouse from Dave Clawson, London took the program to new heights when the Spiders won the FCS Championship in his first season, then reached the quarterfinals the next year before getting the call from Charlottesville.

London was thus an understandable choice for the Cavs, and considering what he inherited from Groh, and the schematic changes Virginia was implementing throughout 2010, the 4-8 record from last fall should be viewed in context. And, for the moment, at least, the fact it was better (if only slightly so) than Groh’s last season indicates some progress has been made, and buys London some more time to put his stamp on the program. But we need a bit more evidence before proclaiming that Virginia really turned any corners in 2010, when an ugly 4-game losing streak concluded the campaign. In particular, the defense mostly disappeared from view down the stretch and put a bit of a damper on whatever enthusiasm London hoped he had created after a 24-19 upset win over Miami on October 30, in retrospect the Cavs’ high-water mark of the campaign.

But prospects for continuing the climb back to respectability in 2011 are at best guarded, thanks to questions about an offense that underwent a significant transformation last fall. London and o.c. Bill Lazor junked the spread looks that had mostly misfired in the later Groh years, instead opting for a pro-style scheme that emphasized development of a smashmouth infantry diversion. Results were definitely mixed a year ago as the attack displayed intermittent signs of life, but mostly struggled with consistency. Replacing seasoned QB Marc Verica, who provided steady if not spectacular leadership at the helm last fall when passing for 2799 yards and 14 TDs, was a major topic of discussion during spring, but London and Lazor exited those drills still looking for a pilot to emerge. There is little experience in the mix that included four candidates in March; when spring work concluded, sophs Michael Rocco and Ross Metheny, each of whom featured only briefly in mop-up duty last year, appeared to emerge from the pack, but the competition will continue into fall camp. The early consensus is that the bigger (6'3) Rocco possesses the stronger arm, but southpaw Metheny owns a quicker release and better accuracy. There’s also a chance that Lazor might opt to rotate the pair if neither emerges as a clear-cut leader when camp reconvenes, and allow their performances to determine playing time. Stay tuned for further developments.

Four starters return along an OL paced by earth-moving 350-lb. tackle Morgan Moses, who could be the latest in a long list of NFL-bound Cavalier linemen including D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Eugene Monroe and several others from recent years. But this is still a line better-equipped at pass blocking (thanks to NFL prototype Moses) than the sort of drive blocking that London and Lazor desire to detonate a power ground game. And the graduation of punishing, 255-lb. battering ram RB Keith Payne (749 YR and 16 TDs LY) removes the sort of pile-driver from the equation that London so covets. Instead, 185-lb. jr. Perry Jones (646 YR LY), surprisingly effective when running between the tackles, will be asked to carry a heavier burden, but the sledgehammer dimension provided by Payne could be missed. And considering Jones’ size, durability is a concern; only once did he carry as many as 20 times in a game last season. It is hoped that RS frosh Kevin Parks, a decorated recruit out of North Carolina a year ago, can provide some relief for Jones, but at a similar size he does not provide much of a different look.

On the periphery, speedy sr. WR Kris Burd, who caught a team-high 55 passes last year, could be one of the ACC’s best if one of the new QBs has enough confidence to get the ball downfield. 6'4 junior Matt Snyder, with 30 catches in 2010, provides a bigger target, and former top recruit Tim Smith might be ready to make an impact after missing all but two games in 2010 due to foot problems. Meanwhile, jr. TE Colter Phillips provides a reliable underneath threat.

Perhaps the most-disturbing element of London’s debut season was the disappearance of the Cavs’ run defense, which played roadkill for much of the campaign and hardly reinforced the physical stereotype the new staff was hoping to instill. London, a defensive coach throughout his career, had authorized a change from Groh’s preferred 3-4 looks to a more-conventional 4-3, but UVa nonetheless allowed foes to gain a whopping 5.1 ypc and 28 rush TDs, both worsts in the ACC. Eight starters return on the platoon, but upgrades need to begin immediately up front, where sr. DTs Matt Conrath and Nick Jenkins must show improvement from a year ago. Concerns continue into a LB corps that could be without jr. OLB Ausar Walcott, suspended in the offseason for his alleged role in an assault and burglary. If eligible, London and d.c. Jim Reid were likely to experiment with Walcott in a “hybrid” role, lining up as a DE or LB as situations dictate. With Walcott’s status very much up in the air, however, Reid and London did some position juggling at LB in spring, moving Adam Taliaferro from inside to an outside spot, but another byproduct of Walcott’s potential absence is the depletion of depth at what was already considered one of the thinnest positions on the roster. As a consequence, LB newcomers such as RS frosh Henry Coley and true frosh Daquan Romero might have to assume more responsibilities.

The strength of the defense likely lies in the secondary, paced by sr. CB Chase Minniefield, a likely All-American contender (and son of former Browns CB Frank), although he would like to have jr. Devin Wallace partnering him on the other side. Wallace, however, like LB Ausar Walcott, is currently suspended after being involved in the same off-field melee as Walcott (and C Mike Price) in late January, and his status is also questionable for the fall. The senior safety pair of Corey Mosley and Rodney McLeod is regarded as one of the ACC’s best.

Summary....Mike London is entitled a few years to get the Virginia program moving in the right direction after the wheels came off at the end of the Al Groh regime. The pivot seemed to begin a year ago, but we suspect any further progress will be hard to measure this season as London breaks in new QBs and the offense strives for consistency. A shut ‘em down defense could make the offensive growing pains more palatable, but the Cavs’ stop unit can hardly be considered as such, especially considering the yardage and TDs it allowed on the ground last season, not to mention the off-field problems of Ausar Walcott and Devin Wallace, potential key defensive contributors. A sign the Cavs might be turning the corner would be if they can win a game in November; they couldn’t a year ago for London, and haven’t done so since 2007, dropping 13 in a row since, and there is no evidence yet that London is closing the gap on rival Virginia Tech, which buried the Cavs 37-7 last November 27 to win for the 7th straight time and 11th in the last 12 meetings. Until either of those situations begin to change, there won’t be any meaningful progress in Charlottesville. A fourth straight losing record for the Cavs appears a likely scenario this fall.

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