Virginia’s Offense vs. UCLA’s Defense
Somehow, some way, Virginia head coach Mike London was able to stave off those calling for his firing after his 5-7 performance last year, despite plenty of buzz before the season that Virginia would need to get to a bowl game for London to maintain his job status. Heading into this season, London is once again firmly on the hot seat, and the Cavaliers will have a very tough road in the non-conference, with games at No. 13 UCLA, against No. 11 Notre Dame at home, and against No. 23 Boise State at home all in the first month of the season, before hitting an ACC slate that could prove difficult for the Cavaliers to navigate.
That the Cavaliers were even able to go 5-7 a year ago was pretty spectacular, given that the offense was quite bad for the second year in a row. Virginia averaged just five yards per play last season, good for 96th in the country. Shockingly enough, that was actually a substantial improvement for second-year offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, who put together an offense in 2013 that somehow managed to average just 4.2 yards per play. Most of that was due to improvement in the passing game, as the running game continued to struggle, averaging just 3.6 yards per rush for the second straight year.
Fairchild, perhaps deciding that a 3.6 yards per rush number simply won’t do, has opted this offseason to emphasize the idea of being a power-running team, albeit without any major formational changes (the Cavaliers will still likely operate primarily out of the shotgun). It’s obviously going to be interesting to see exactly how successful Virginia can be building its offense around the run game when it hasn’t run the ball well in years.
The quarterback is junior Matt Johns (6'5, 210), who lost a close competition with Greyson Lambert to start last year, replaced Lambert quickly in the opener against UCLA, and then was on-again, off-again as he and Lambert battled it out the remainder of the year. Johns then won the job decidedly in the spring, to the point where Lambert transferred to Georgia, where he has now been named the starter. The Bruins should well remember Johns from last year, since he came into the game at the point where UCLA seemed to comfortably be on its way to a rout, up 21-3. Johns then quickly led a 75-yard touchdown drive and, by the end of the game, put the Cavaliers within a score of tying the game.
Johns isn’t quite the strong-armed statue that Lambert is. Though 6’5 and 210, he doesn’t have the biggest arm, but he makes up for it by being a little bit more of a gamer. He keeps plays alive with his feet and does a nice job of checking down to open receivers. He ended up only completing 55% of his 162 attempts last year, but rushed for 107 yards on 22 carries, which is more than respectable. He’ll also have a good deal more job security than Lambert did last year, since he has a very inexperienced and untested group of quarterbacks behind him.
The offensive line is still a little unsettled heading into the season, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s an experienced group of about eight players battling for five spots, and with London matching Jim Mora in not releasing a depth chart this week, it’s uncertain how those battles have shaped up. We’re pretty certain that the starting tackle tandem of junior left tackle Michael Mooney (6'6, 290) and junior right tackle Eric Smith (6'5, 305) from last year will enter this year as the starters again (despite Smith being pushed by redshirt freshman Jake Fieler), and that senior Ross Burbank (6'4, 300) will probably start at one of the guard spots. What’s less certain is who starts at the other guard spot. Left guard Ryan Doull (6'5, 300) was at the top of the depth chart in spring, so he could start at one of the guard positions, but junior Sean Karl (6'6, 305), sophomore Eric Tetlow (6'6, 305), and senior John Pond (6'3, 320) could all factor into that competition as well. Junior Jackson Matteo (6'5, 290), the center, exited spring as the first-string center, so he is probably in line to start there.
The point is there is a good amount of talent and depth on the offensive line, and it makes sense that Virginia is opting more for a run-oriented scheme this year, since the group as a whole projects better as run-blockers than as pass-blockers. What was a young offensive line still figuring things out last year should be a unit more capable of accomplishing what Fairchild wants.
As his stated intention is to run the ball more consistently, Fairchild is going to lean on a trio of running backs, led by star junior Taquan Mizzell (5'10, 200), the former four-star recruit. Mizzell’s nickname is “Smoke” after the breakaway speed he showed in high school, but he’s yet to really show it off to any great extent at the college level. He actually was used more as a receiver out of the backfield last year than as a runner, and averaged a little over four yards per carry. This offseason, he reportedly put on a little more weight and is expected to be better able to withstand the rigors of running between the tackles, and as such is expected to be the lead back for the Cavaliers.
The other two running backs in the rotation will likely be sophomore Daniel Hamm (5'10, 190), a former walk-on, and incoming transfer redshirt freshman Jordan Ellis (5'11, 220). Hamm will likely be the primary backup to Mizzell, with Ellis being more of a short-yardage type of back. If Virginia legitimately wants to be a dominant running team, each of those three guys will likely see a substantial amount of carries this season.
The receiving corps has some talent, but has also been hit by some injuries this offseason. Expected starter senior T.J. Thorpe (6'0, 210) broke his clavicle during fall camp will be out until at least late October, and Doni Dowling, expected to be a rotational receiver this year, tore his ACL in February. That’s obviously a hit for a Virginia team that can use all the offensive firepower it can get. The Cavaliers do return last year’s leading receiver, senior Canaan Severin (6'2, 215), who caught 42 passes for 578 yards a year ago to go along with five touchdowns. He actually had a pretty nice game against UCLA last year, hauling in five catches for 55 yards. Mizzell will also see a good amount of work in the passing game, both catching out of the backfield and occasionally lining up in the slot. Sophomore Andre Levrone (6'2, 210) and junior Keeon Johnson (6'3, 210) are the other two returning players to watch, as they combined for 28 receptions and 386 yards last season. Among true freshmen, David Eldridge (6'1, 170), a possession receiver, and Olamide Zaccheaus (5'8, 190), a smaller, speedier receiver, are expected to contribute.
At tight end, Virginia has some good options, including big Stanford transfer Charlie Hopkins (6'6, 240) as well as redshirt freshman Evan Butts (6'4, 240). With the Cavaliers wanting to run the ball more and develop more of a power offense, tight ends are very important, and it looks like Virginia should have plenty of options in that department.
UCLA’s defense is led by a new defensive coordinator in Tom Bradley. Bradley’s last stop was West Virginia, but prior to that, he led some of the best defenses in the country at Penn State through the early years of the 2000s. Bradley is that proven defensive coordinator that UCLA hasn’t had in a long time — someone who has had success at the major college level as a coordinator. The expectation is that he should be able to take what has been a very talented UCLA defense and turn it into one of the strongest defenses in the conference and country.
He’ll certainly have some tools to work with. Starting on the defensive line, UCLA has two of the top defensive tackles in the Pac-12 in Kenneth Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes. Clark is a pure nose tackle, and has quickly developed into one of the top nose tackles in the country. He is very strong, virtually impossible to move, and capable of occupying multiple blockers. Vanderdoes, who has slimmed down in the offseason, looks much more capable of providing a credible pass rush from the three-tech than he did a season ago, but even if that doesn’t happen, he combines with Clark to provide a two-man run defense that would be the envy of almost all college teams.
Book-ending Vanderdoes and Clark will be defensive end Takkarist McKinley and linebacker/defensive end Deon Hollins. It’s expected that those two players will provide the bulk of the pass rush this year, and Hollins in particular could be headed for a year with double-digit sacks. He has a very quick first step and has continued to get stronger, which has added to his capabilities as a pass rusher. He really came on toward the end of last year, and the biggest thing for him this season is to show he can hold up against the run better. McKinley also had that question mark in the offseason, and he responded by putting on about 15 pounds. The junior defensive end is now a little more seasoned than when he came in midseason last year as a junior college transfer and could become a very good pass rusher in his own right.
The linebackers lose Eric Kendricks, which is a blow. Kendricks provided a great deal of leadership to the defense, and was also a one-man clean-up crew, oftentimes making up for other players being out of position with a saving tackle. UCLA will attempt to replace his contributions with a combination of two players: Kenny Young and Myles Jack. Young had a really good offseason, looking much more comfortable in pass defense especially. He has very good instincts for a true sophomore and his mobility is improved from a year ago. Jack is, as always, a complete freak, and his mobility sideline-to-sideline is second to none. He is a freak in coverage, and despite putting on another five pounds or so this offseason, looks just as quick and agile in the open field as he’s ever been. Those two players should rack up a ton of tackles this year behind Clark and Vanderdoes. Jayon Brown will be the primary backup behind Jack, and Isaako Savaiinaea should see some time behind Young. On the outside, Aaron Wallace will get the nod to start the year, and he’s a solid player who should hold up well against the run. Kenny Orjioke is waiting in the wings, though, after offseason knee surgery, and if he shows some comfort level early, he could snatch that starting spot pretty quickly.
Much will be made of UCLA not having Ishmael Adams for what may be an extended period of time to start the year, but interestingly enough, Adams actually lost his starting cornerback job in the spring to junior Marcus Rios. Rios, who made a miraculous recovery from a life-threatening fungal infection, has looked very good this offseason, both physically and in terms of his understanding of the game. Fabian Moreau will start on the opposite side for the third straight year, and he too had a good offseason. We’re reluctant to put too much stock in that until we see what happens on the field, but it bears noting that he once again shined in practice. The safeties will be Randall Goforth and Jaleel Wadood. Goforth sat out the vast majority of last year with a shoulder injury, and Wadood started in his place. So, despite losing Anthony Jefferson, UCLA has the luxury of starting two players at safety with considerable starting experience. With Adams out, the starting nickel might end up being Goforth or Wadood, with Tahaan Goodman, who had a really encouraging fall camp, moving into the starting lineup at safety.
We don’t like to make too much of a single game, particularly at the beginning of the year, but if UCLA’s defense struggles against this Virginia offense, that would be a significant worrying sign for the rest of the year. The Bruins have an extremely talented, extremely experienced defense across the board, led by an extremely talented and experienced defensive coordinator, and those adjectives can be used for very little related to Virginia’s offense.
Bradley showed a good amount of blitzes during fall camp, and we’re hoping we see some on Saturday. Virginia’s offensive line is good enough that this game could be a good test of the blitz concepts in live action, and could give UCLA some useful data with which to refine and tweak things heading into the meat of the schedule in a couple of weeks.
Realistically, Virginia is probably going to try to run the ball, and it’s hard to envision a scenario where the Cavaliers have a great deal of success doing so. UCLA is very stout up the middle with Clark and Vanderdoes, so even though Virginia has some experience on the offensive line, UCLA has just as much on the defensive line, coupled with better talent.
If the Cavaliers go to the air, they could have more success. Moreau had some issues last year tracking and making plays on the ball, and this will be Rios’ first extensive action in a long time. Johns doesn’t have the strongest arm, though, so if Bradley can put some pressure on him, that could force him into some tough spots where he could throw some interceptions.
UCLA’s defense is simply a significantly more talented unit, so the Bruins should win this side of the matchup with relative ease. What we’ll be watching for, though, will be how aggressive the scheme and play-calling are, as a sign of what kind of defense we’ll see when the Bruins hit the big boys on the schedule in a couple of weeks.