Game Week: Virginia's O vs. UCLA's D

AUG. 27 -- Virginia's offense was one of the worst in the country last year, and while it may improve slightly this year, it will face a stern test in the opener against UCLA's rising defense...

Virginia head coach Mike London enters the 2014 season firmly on the hotseat. After seemingly having the Cavaliers on the upward tick through his first two years, with a 8-5 record in his second year after going 4-8 his first year, he’s now had two straight losing seasons, culminating in a moribund 2-10 record last year. He has publicly acknowledged that there is a great deal of pressure on him and his team heading into the season to produce results quickly.

Much of that pressure will be placed on an offense that had a miserable year last year, ranking in the bottom 20% in the country in many relevant statistical categories (120th in points per play, 112th in average scoring margin, 117th in offensive touchdowns per game — an astoundingly low value of 1.8). The rushing offense wasn’t great, with a fairly low 3.6 yards per rushing attempt, but the real culprit was an awful passing attack. The Cavaliers ranked dead last in the country at 4.9 yards per pass attempt. To give you some perspective, UCLA, which had some struggles throwing the ball at a few points last year, ranked 19th with 8.3 yards per pass attempt.

Many think that Virginia had difficulty adjusting to first-year offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild’s pro-style scheme. Last year’s quarterback, junior David Watford (6'2, 210), was unable to find much of a rhythm at any point during the year. Perhaps the clearest picture of his lack of improvement throughout the year: He threw eight touchdowns all year, but just one in his last four games. In that same four-game stretch, he threw six interceptions (with a total of 15 on the year).

As you might imagine, that performance has led to a quarterback change. Out with the 6’2 dual-threat Watford, in with the 6’5 sophomore statue Greyson Lambert (6'5, 235). Lambert, who was a four-star in the class of 2012 and the No. 9 ranked quarterback in the country, is much more of the typical pro-style quarterback that Fairchild wants running his offense. Lambert, for his part, has the strong arm you’d expect from such a big quarterback. He played some last year, during that same four-game stretch where Watford struggled, and really didn’t do a whole lot better. The expectation, though, is that the redshirt sophomore has made some real strides in the offseason, and offseason reports seem to indicate he has.

He’ll have some assistance in the backfield with senior running back Kevin Parks (5'8, 200) returning. Parks rushed for 1,031 yards last year on 227 attempts, which is an especially good line when you remember that teams could key on the run last year since Virginia did not pose much of a passing threat.
Kevin Parks.
Parks is a small back, but he runs with good balance, vision and strength. About the only knock on him is a lack of breakaway ability in the open field, but he’s shown an ability to consistently hit 8 to 10 yard runs. He’ll be joined in the backfield by fellow senior Khalek Shepherd (5'8, 200), sophomore Taquan Mizzell (5'10, 190), and sophomore Daniel Hamm (5'10, 190) — the four leading rushers (aside from Watford) from last year.

The offensive line has had some significant turnover, losing starting left tackle Morgan Moses and starting left guard Luke Buwanko to the NFL Draft and then starting right tackle Jay Whitmire to a back injury that could sideline him all year. Virginia is thin up front, with just two returning starters in junior Ross Burbank (6'4, 310) at center and senior Conner Davis (6'5, 300) at right guard. The three other starters are all true sophomores, with Michael Mooney (6'6, 290) getting the nod at left tackle, Ryan Doull (6'5, 300) replacing Buwanko at left guard, and Eric Smith (6'5, 295), who played significantly last year, getting the start at right tackle. Mooney and Doull do not have much playing experience, which could make the left side vulnerable.

Virginia’s receiving corps also took a hit in the offseason with tight end Jake McGee (the leading receiver from a year ago) electing to use the graduate transfer option to play his final season at Florida (which should tell you something about the locker room opinion of the Cavaliers’ offense). Darius Jennings (5'11, 175), the senior wideout and No. 2 leading receiver last year, returns, and he has some talent, with good speed. In reality, though, Virginia threw an astonishing 55% of its passes to tight ends or running backs last year, so either it isn’t a receiver-friendly offense, or there was some real issues getting the ball from the quarterback to the outside. By comparison, UCLA threw 37% of its passes to non-wideouts (and we’re including Ys and defensive players playing offense in that non-wideout group). The other starter at receiver, senior Miles Gooch (6'3, 210), barely played last year, recording just two receptions in 12 games. The tight end, senior Zachary Swanson (6'6, 250), played significantly last year and caught 19 balls, but he’s more of a blocking-type tight end than McGee. It’s still very much an open question what Virginia’s receiver rotation will look like, but it’s easy to expect redshirt freshman Andre Levrone (6'2, 210), sophomore Keeon Johnson (6'3, 210), freshman Doni Dowling (6'1, 215), and junior Canaan Severin (6'2, 210) all to factor into it.

On the surface, it’d be fair to assume that UCLA’s defense will take a hit this year. In the offseason, UCLA lost star outside linebacker Anthony Barr, rugged inside linebacker Jordan Zumwalt, and versatile defensive end Cassius Marsh all to the NFL. The Bruins also lost their defensive coordinator Lou Spanos, and replaced him with linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich, who’s never been a defensive coordinator. So why, then, are so many people expecting this to be the best defense of the Jim Mora era?

Perhaps the biggest reason is, in fact, the replacement of Spanos with Ulbrich. Spanos earned a reputation over the last two years for making excellent second half adjustments to slow down or completely stop offenses that ran amok in the first half. The question, though, was always why those adjustments weren’t made earlier. From what we’ve seen of Ulbrich, and what we’ve heard around the program, the feeling is that UCLA will go into games much better situated schematically to start games, and Ulbrich, who spent 10 years as an NFL linebacker, should be better able to quickly diagnose and correct issues from the sideline. What’s more, we already expect Ulbrich to show greater flexibility in the face of the wildly diverse Pac-12 offenses, as we saw through his use of multiple different formations and fronts throughout spring and fall camp.

It’s not just as if a coaching change should improve the defense. UCLA’s defense, thanks largely to an excellent 2013 class, has very talented players who started as freshmen last year and who should bump up a level this year. Myles Jack, the do-everything linebacker, looked much stronger this offseason, while showing better instincts and, shockingly, even better quickness and speed. He’s the engine for the defense in so many ways, with his versatility as both a run-stopper and pass-defender allowing the defense to use a variety of different looks with the same personnel.

Eddie Vanderdoes.
Up front, UCLA will start a couple of sophomores in Kenneth Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes, both of whom played significantly last year. Clark has earned rave reviews from the entire coaching staff over the last year, and many have touted him as one of the two or three most valuable players on the team. As the nose tackle, he plays with great leverage and strength, but has also shown an ability, when blocked by a single lineman, to break into the backfield for tackles for loss. Vanderdoes, in the new defense, should be able to play his more natural three-technique, and after a slow recovery from an offseason leg injury, seemed to come into his own toward the end of fall camp and seems poised for a big year.

At the other end, UCLA returns senior Owamagbe Odighizuwa, who sat out all of last year after undergoing hip surgery. Odghizuwa lost precisely none of his athleticism and strength with the year off, and looks like a more polished version of the player who ended the 2012 season as arguably the best defensive lineman on the team. He’s a physical specimen, with such good athleticism for his size that there will be times that he drops back into coverage in certain packages. Ellis McCarthy, the former five-star, has some work to do getting his weight under control, but should see time backing up along the interior. Eli Ankou and true freshmen Matt Dickerson, Ainuu Taua, and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner will all fill out the rotation.

At linebacker, along with Jack, UCLA returns senior inside linebacker Eric Kendricks, who spent most of last year nicked up with a variety of ailments. He appears healthy to start the season, which is a very good sign for the Bruins. His presence last year had a calming effect on the defense, as he does such a good job of making sure everyone is in the proper position. Alongside Kendricks, true freshman Kenny Young looks like he’ll get the start at the other inside ‘backer spot. Young was the most impressive freshman in fall camp, looking like a redshirt sophomore, rather than a freshman, with his excellent instincts and strength. He looks like he could be a fixture in the starting lineup for as long as he’s at UCLA.

The other outside linebacker spot is still somewhat up in the air, but there’s a chance it’ll simply be a committee of starters. Right now, Aaron Wallace is the front runner, and he looks like he’ll play most against run-oriented teams, which makes him a smart choice for Virginia. Deon Hollins and Kenny Orjioke are also options, with Hollins looking like a designated pass-rusher, and Orjioke providing great, albeit raw, athletic ability.

The secondary returns every starter from a year ago, and based off what we’ve seen in camp, one of those players has improved by leaps and bounds from a year ago: Fabian Moreau. The junior cornerback looks like a future NFL star, showing excellent quickness, uncanny recovery speed, and good ball skills. He’s consistently locked up virtually every receiver he’s gone up against in camp, and should have his name on the national radar by the end of the year. The other three starters are Anthony Jefferson, Randall Goforth, and Ishmael Adams, but you can also expect Tahaan Goodman, Priest Willis, Jaleel Wadood, and Marcus Rios to play significantly. Rios, as it should be noted every time we write about him, is returning from a life-threatening illness and is a truly fantastic story, regaining most of his weight, strength and athleticism over the last year after losing nearly 60 pounds.

Advantage: UCLA

There’s a good enough chance that Virginia’s offense will be improved this year — after all, it can’t get much worse. We expect that Lambert will be a better fit for what Fairchild wants to do offensively, which should allow for some improvement in the passing game. The issue is that an offense that performed as poorly as Virginia’s did last year really can’t be expected to be much better the next year with the same coaching staff in place— ranking in the 110s in most statistical categories is usually a systemic issue that comes from the coaching staff. Expecting performance to change by a significant degree without a coaching change is the kind of thinking that got UCLA fans in trouble from years 2003 to 2011.

If UCLA’s defense is as good as we think it might be, the Bruins should be able to handle every aspect of this Cavalier offense. We’d imagine that the UCLA strategy will key on stopping Virginia’s running attack, so we should see a steady diet of Aaron Wallace on the edge. The onus will be on Lambert to make plays through the air, and from what we’ve seen of UCLA’s secondary throughout camp, we’d have to figure they’ll be able to cover most of Virginia’s receivers effectively.

Virginia may hit a couple of big plays as UCLA irons out the kinks from a long offseason, but, considering the opponent and the improvement we anticipate from UCLA’s defense this season, we’d expect the Bruins to dominate this side of the matchup.

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