First Look: Virginia

Quarterback uncertainty and a coach under pressure await Notre Dame in its road opener at Virginia. What kind of challenge to the Cavaliers present? Not much

Sometimes a quarterback competition doesn’t have a winner.

That reality has put Virginia head coach Mike London under pressure entering his sixth and perhaps final season in Charlottesville, where Notre Dame visits for its first road game of the campaign. So for how much quarterback uncertainty has dogged Brian Kelly in South Bend, it hasn’t pushed the Irish head coach to the brink.

London does have a set starter exiting spring practice in fourth-year junior Matt Johns, but he beat out Greyson Lambert, who won the job in spring practice a year ago. Lambert started the first four games of last season and the final five, finishing with a negative touchdown-to-interception ratio as the Cavaliers went 3-6.

 Johns started the middle three games – Kent State, Pittsburgh and Duke – and went 2-1.

“They’ve always had a quarterback drama,” said Jacquie Franciulli, who covers Virginia on “London said the competition this spring wasn’t close. Then the offensive coordinator said it was. Was it close? Not close? Everything goes back to the quarterback.”

London might not be equipped to solve an issue that’s dogged him since taking over the program where he served as defensive coordinator and defensive line coach in two stints over six seasons under Al Groh. London took over Richmond for two seasons before turning to Charlottesville following Groh’s dismissal in 2009.

Like Bob Davie (offense) and Charlie Weis (defense), a failure to handle the side of the football where a green head coach doesn’t have experience can be fatal.

In five seasons under London, Virginia is 23-38 with just one winning season. In ACC play, London is just 11-29 and winless against in-state rival Virginia Tech. It’s enough to make this fall a tipping point as the program attempts to run a spread offense with pro-style quarterbacks. Opening at UCLA, followed by home dates with Notre Dame and Boise State in September won’t help.

“I think this is the hottest seat London has had at Virginia,” Franciulli said. “The feeling around here is if he doesn’t do well this season he’ll get fired. He barely escaped last year and Virginia didn’t sign him to an extension with all the assistants getting one-year deals. That tells you this is make it or break it.

“I think London needs a bowl game to make it.”

Irish Illustrated continues its summer series with Virginia, where the Irish will be favored to win their road opener for just the third time in Kelly’s six seasons. Here’s what you need to know about the Cavaliers, which are 1-8 against Top 20 opponents under London. Notre Dame should be ranked at least that high heading into ACC country.

The Tenuta Bowl

Remember him? Of course you do.

Notre Dame will get a shot at Tenuta in Charlottesville, where the former Irish defensive coordinator enters his third year in that position at his alma mater. After a rocky first season, Tenuta had a decent encore as the Cavaliers had a Top 20 rush defense and allowed more than three touchdowns in a game just three times.

Tenuta shifted his focus to safeties this off-season where he got his hands on former five-star recruit Quin Blanding, who led the Cavaliers with 123 tackles as a freshman. Virginia also has five-star defensive tackle Andrew Brown entering his sophomore season after a middling debut. However, Brown made big jumps this spring.

“He enrolled early but had turf toe and a shoulder injury so he couldn’t do anything,” Franciulli said. “He just got behind. This spring he trimmed down, got down to 13 percent body fat, looked fit and looked explosive. He was one of the best players on defense in the spring game.”

Virginia needs Blanding and Brown to live up to their hype as the defense must replace five of its top six tacklers, including its top three in TFLs in Eli Harold, Max Valles and Henry Coley. They combined for 39.5 tackles for loss and 24 sacks.

Notre Dame finished with 26 sacks total last season.

Skill Suffers On Offense

Taquan Mizzell was supposed to be the next big thing at Virginia when he committed two years ago. But the five-star running back, according to at least one service, has struggled since he signed in-state, rushing just 64 times for 280 yards and two touchdowns as a sophomore. Yet unlike Greg Bryant, Mizzell hasn’t had Tarean Folston in front of him.

In fact, Mizzell’s top competition for playing time now is former walk-on Daniel Hamm, who new running backs coach Chris Beatty called the roster’s most complete back heading into summer. That’s not an endorsement of the former national recruit nicknamed “Smoke” out of high school, although Mizzell was second on the team with 39 catches for 271 yards last season.

“During his high school career Smoke could juke, go side to side and he didn’t grow out of that here,” Franciulli said. “He’ll have a brilliant run, then lose five yards on the next one. With the new staff you could tell he looked a little better in the spring game, but he also fumbled the ball. But at least he ran more north-south.”

Former four-star receiver recruit Jamil Kamara has yet to establish himself in the pass game (one catch as a freshman), with incoming fifth-year transfer T.J. Thorpe from North Carolina set to take reps there. The squad’s leading receiver is back in Canaan Severin, who had just 42 catches for 578 yards five scores last season.

Virginia had just one 100-yard receiving performance all year and two individual 100-yard rushing games. The unsettled situation at quarterback hasn’t helped that.

Can QB Get Fixed?

Riding one quarterback makes sense in theory, but every Virginia starter has been dreadful under London, whether he rotates or not. During the past five seasons the Cavaliers top quarterback has combined to throw 58 touchdown passes and 62 interceptions. All five starters hit double figures in picks, including Lambert pitching 11 interceptions against 10 scores last season.

That means Virginia might not have a quarterback solution at all between Lambert and Johns, who’s from the same Central Bucks South prep program in Pennsylvania that turned out incoming Irish running back Josh Adams.

On top of that, the offensive coordinator wants to be more spread. It’s not clear that suits either quarterback.

“These aren’t Fairchild’s guys,” Franciulli said. “They’re pro-style and Virginia doesn’t have the guys to do what Fairchild wants to do. They have to run it with what they have because there’s not help coming right away.”

It’s enough to feed some self-doubt in Charlottesville.

“Who’s your quarterback? Then you can move forward,” Franciulli said. “But there’s a feeling of ‘this is happening again’ with the guys, like there’s a mental block when one thing goes wrong.”

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