Insider’s Preview: Virginia

Remember Jon Tenuta? Of course you do. Irish Illustrated caught up with Jacquie Franciulli of for an inside look at Virginia and its prickly defensive coordinator.

Pete Sampson: When we talked over the summer the vibe around Virginia with Mike London was sort of resigned. Did the UCLA loss confirm that or were there a couple bright spots?

Jacquie Franciulli: It was a little bit of mixed feelings, mostly negative. They weren’t really confident in the offensive play calling. During the first quarter things looked good with Taquan Mizzell running the ball, but as soon as UVA got to the red zone it couldn’t score touchdowns (1-for-3 during the game). That’s something fans have become very accustomed to under Mike London.

When you’re on the one-yard line, you’re losing at UCLA and you don’t go for the end zone, that’s tough to watch. It’s the same run-run-screen pass offense. It’s frustrating. Sure, it’s UCLA and UVA won’t face many teams with that kind of talent, although obviously Notre Dame is one of them.

PS: Virginia was No. 116 nationally in red zone touchdown percentage last year at 49 percent. Is that going to change?

JF: Honestly, I think at some point the coaches need to stop playing not to lose. That’s what it is. They recruited receivers because they’re tall and physical, but they didn’t throw one ball into the end zone. That doesn’t make sense. They have mismatches and they didn’t expose them. Instead it’s jet sweeps, screens and Wildcat formations. In the red zone they don’t take chances on the matchups that should favor them.

There’s actually a song with fans now, “Run the ball, run the ball, pass the ball, punt.” That’s what people expect. At some point you’re coaching for your job and your play calling should show that.

PS: Starting quarterback Matt Johns over Greyson Lambert (now starting at Georgia), right call?

JF: I think people are just frustrated that Johns wasn’t given more opportunity to show his skills. You watch UCLA and Josh Rosen and the first play is a deep ball. With Johns, he had three passes longer than 10 yards, maybe. He will throw interceptions, there’s no question. He forces some throws that he should throw out of bounds. He’s a quarterback with some moxie and the respect of the team. I’m not so sure the other quarterbacks here in the last few years had that. Guys would say they respected the other quarterbacks, but I don’t think they believed it.

If you give Johns a longer leash to throw deep and throw in the end zone, I think he can do better. It’s like when London names his starter he automatically puts him on a short leash. It happened to Greyson Lambert last year. I think the players are confident in Johns and fans want to see what he has. And if he gets hurt, the No. 2 and No. 3 don’t look good. Matt Johns is it.

PS: Virginia had some injuries on the offensive line coming out of last week. How serious are those losses?

JF: They lost two reserves and the issue is that it creates a musical chairs situation with the backups. There is an issue at center Jackson Matteo, who was hurt a couple practices into training camp and that forced a move where starting guard Ross Burbank is now the backup center. So really the issues, losing backups Jake Fieler and Eric Tetlow for the year, it affects how the coaching staff can line up in practice.

When you look at this line, they were part of an offense that only managed 98 yards rushing at UCLA. There wasn’t much running room. All off-season we were told offensive line depth was a strength of this team, but now we’re looking at a line down two reserves for the year and another for this weekend against Notre Dame.

PS: Defensively they lost so much pass rush and pressure from last year with Max Valles (12.5 TFL, 9 sacks,) Eli Harold (14.5 TFL, 7 sacks) and Henry Coley (12.5 TFL, 8 sacks) all gone. Do they have material to replace those guys within Jon Tenuta’s defense?

JF: We didn’t see much pass rush against UCLA and that was a big part of the game plan against a true freshman quarterback. They have some players to get pressure, but they’re not being all that affective. Defensive ends Mike Moore and Trent Corney are really their best options on the line. Moore was so used to playing inside last year that it’s a process to be a pass rusher. Corney, I think he’s going to be really good. He’s got a lot of athleticism and I think he’s one to watch in pass rush, but he’s new to the game. Right now there are so many guys learning Tenuta’s defense and that’s always going to be a struggle.

Out of the three linebackers – Zach Bradshaw, Micah Kiser and C.J. Stalker – only one had started a game before this year. Corney is from Canada, this is really his first year contributing. The good thing is the defensive tackles have experience, but it’s hard to see how they’re going to get pressure in the first couple games.

PS: So was the plan last week to blitz even if it doesn’t get home?

JF: Yes, that’s Jon Tenuta’s defense.

PS: Yeah, I remember it.

PS: What has to happen for Virginia to have a shot this weekend? What needs to change most from the UCLA game?

JF: It’s offense. If you look at the first quarter, they had a chance to be ahead at halftime when they went down twice and only got six points instead of 14. You could have been looking at a situation where you get a freshman quarterback down. So scoring points in the red zone could be the biggest difference for them.

If the offense gets going I think that means the defense will get going. Because when you have to go out there after three-and-outs and field goals, I think your confidence can get shot.

PS: Does this feel like a game where Virginia has a legit chance or is this a game where Virginia has to play perfectly to make a run at it?

JF: After watching Notre Dame on Saturday night, I think UVA has to play a near perfect game to win. I’m not very optimistic about this matchup. I think Malik Zaire is a mismatch for UVA because he’s multi-talented, can win with his arm and his legs. I think that’s really going to affect UVA because they’re still short on the pass rush. I just don’t know if their offense is ready yet. I think they’re going to play conservative again and that’s their downfall.

Q: For those who haven’t seen Virginia, who are the guys to watch most?

JF: Running back Taquan Mizzell, nicknamed Smoke. He’s a running back but plays in the slot a lot. He was very good last week and is a former top recruit. He’s really bought into running backs coach Chris Beatty’s style and has really improved. He had 100 yards receiving against UCLA, a career high. He showed some flashes that he gets it and is running north instead of east-west. You don’t see all the juke moves that worked in high school but don’t work in college. That’s a guy UVA will utilize a lot.

Middle linebacker Micah Kiser on defense is worth watching. He’s taken on the role that Henry Coley left. For a guy that didn’t have game experience before last weekend, he did really well at UCLA. He was able to stop Bruins back Paul Perkins, holding him to 59 yards. UVA’s linebackers are questionable, but he’s done well.

Safety Quin Blanding is their star on defense. He’s the former five-star recruit at the back of the secondary, second on the team in tackles last week with 10 stops. The other starting safety, Kelvin Rainey, is new and I think you’ll see that combination get better this season. Top Stories