After a week off, Mike London had plenty to talk about on Monday morning. The Virginia head coach had plenty of injury updates to share and more as the 'Hoos prepare to face Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Q. Generally speaking, bye week, how did you guys kind of respond after Boise State? Have you done anything to change or emphasize anything differently? Particularly on the defensive side of the ball coming off of Boise State?
COACH LONDON: Yeah, we've done a couple things that we've addressed internally as a staff. One of the few things is Coach Tenuta will be on the field from this point on, different opportunities there present itself. Our guys with Saturday being a day off, a lot of our guys stayed back, stayed around and they practiced on their own. They got together and they watched the Pitt game in our team meeting room, so no one was looking to get out of here. There are a lot of guys that stayed back, stayed behind and did extra work. So in moving forward for us, again, you have the opportunities. We spent a practice, special teams alone, and we spent a couple practices offensively and defensively with different elements that we need, emphasizing turnovers, emphasizing obviously hanging on to the ball, protecting the football. Those are all critical elements of having a chance to be successful. And knowing that the game against Boise is done and it's over and it's about what we do. Now with the conference games coming up - this is our first conference game and a chance to be successful from this standpoint. With a lot of goals still left, the mindset of the players and I'm sure you'll talk to some of them today, but I would ask them, I think it's very positive.
Q. The other day when I ask you about the long passes you've given up, you said a lot of times it was a matter of miscommunication. You've got a first year starter at linebacker and Blanding calling the signals back there. Explain how that works?
COACH LONDON: Like you said, it is mental errors. Things happen with lack of communication - getting it done - getting the points across. Making sure you understand who you have. That's obviously one of the things we need to work on and get better at. You don't want to give up those explosive plays. Ironically - our offense is doing a better job of doing that, of creating those explosive plays. This time last year we had defensive turnovers, and we have none. The team in terms of what we're doing and ‘who’ we're doing it with, the roles have changed for us. Defensively, we have to continue to make sure that we make it simple enough that our players understand - keep trying to utilize the offensive guys - we believe a lot of them are healthy now. I believe Doni Dowling just got cleared the other day. There are a lot of things for us to continue to be positive about and grow on and improve in, and obviously communication on the back end, but particularly in the secondary is important. But - also taking guys that are healthy now and have a chance to help us – having them play is important.
Q. Last year, I think Coley and Harris, the two seniors, did they do a lot of the play calling? COACH LONDON: Well, sure. You have veteran players that have a chance to do that, and we have guys. This is the point of the season where the non-conference games are over, and now we're into the conference games. The communication has to be sharper. It's got to be better. Can't be miscommunication. It has to be better - understanding whether it's verbiage or hand signaling or whatever it is. So we'll do a better job of doing that. We devoted some practices this past open week to shore up some things that will help us become a better football team, and the communication part of it was always key.
Q. Obviously Pat Narduzzi's background was defense coming from Michigan State. They were very aggressive Saturday in Blacksburg in terms of bringing pressure. Are they schematically much different than previous Pitt defenses in what they do?
COACH LONDON: I believe like all of us when we watch the films of the game that we have in the previous games, if you notice the East Carolina film there was an aggressiveness they showed, so that's also part of who they [Pitt] are. They'll play a multiple front defense and get in third down situations and they'll give you different looks and bring pressure. So, again, it's important for us on these first and second down opportunities to not be in second and long because they will try to -- we talk about dialing up defenses, and they do a good job of doing that. As I said, they did a great job of putting and applying pressure. And we're going to have to do a good job of protecting - getting the ball out quickly, and doing other things that can help you from that mindset. But - Coach Narduzzi is a good football coach and we know that it's important for us to be in rhythm. It's important for us to get the ball out and play well. I believe it's their homecoming, but we need to play well on the road.
Q. You mentioned the special teams practice. How unusual is that to do one of those? How do you think it went? And what were you looking for specifically in terms of different areas? COACH LONDON: We've identified some younger players that are going to start playing, so you have a chance to get them reps, because they didn’t go through spring practice. They go through early August camp. You identify some of the things that you need to work on. Obviously I believe right now we're No. 1 in the country in punt returns, and that's some athleticism with Olamide and also with Maurice Canady. We need to do a better job on punting - we had one blocked. We changed the scheme on what we do there. Our punter, Nic Conte is averaging, I think he's seventh in the country right now with 46 yards, a little bit over 46 yards per punt - to make sure we keep utilizing his leg strength. The kickoff return game has to get better. Obviously – there is a teaching aspect now with Olamide returning kicks, but it's okay to take a knee sometimes two yards deep because the ball goes out to the 25-yard line. Things like that - decision-making. Ball bounces inside, it rolls out when you pick it up. Just the technique and the fundamentals of special teams play and decision making that when it comes down to that time that you feel like you've practiced and you've addressed it, last-second field goals when you're running on to the field and there is only a certain amount of time left to get everybody getting on the field and hurrying up and getting the ball set. A number of things like that to take care of ourselves. As I said, we devoted some to defense and offense as well.
Q. Piggybacking on special teams, are you concerned at all about Ian's confidence after his recent misses? And then two, what is Demetrious Nicholson’s status after missing Boise? Is he back to practice?
COACH LONDON: The latter first. Tra’ has been cleared, so he's back, which is good for us. Ian, I've never been in a game where I've seen two kicks consecutively hit the up right, and he is diligent and hard at work at correcting his swing, his mechanics. I believe in him. I believe in Ian Frye. I believe he'll win. He'll kick some field goals here to help us win football games. He continues to keep working on it and working at it. It's the opportunities that will be afforded to him that you can only kick your way out of it or kick your way through it. And I know he's looking forward to having an opportunity to get back into a groove and into the swing of things particularly during the competition.
Q. In theory at least, a tough non-conference schedule is supposed to prepare a team better for its conference play. You've been through a grueling first month of the season. Do you feel because of that though that as you start conference play that you're going to be prepared for most of the things you'll see now?
COACH LONDON: Well, there are a lot of good teams we played. Any open date does prepare you for opportunities to look at what you're doing and how you're doing it. It allows yourself to look at as the season has gone on those teams that you've played if they continue to have some measure of success, and you see the games. You see the decisions. You have a chance to look at how other football games are played, and it's interesting that what you can take control of or take care of are the things that cause you issues that kept showing up where they keep showing up. For us moving forward, it's the dedicated practices that we just talked about that dealt with those things. I believe this football team can and will be a better football team coming out of those games that we played, and that's the focus. The focus now is first conference game, an opponent that's an away game, a team that we played last year, had some success. But it's about this year, this now, and this opportunity. So our mindset is on the focus of going and getting into the conference and playing and being successful.
Q. When you looked at the defense specifically, what things did you identify that you really want to see improve, especially in stopping the run. Schematically, is there anything you want to change there?
COACH LONDON: No, we actually have to tackle better. That's one of the things of defensive football. You look and you look across the board here at teams that tackle better, that fill the gaps and that you have in the gaps and things like that. Those things are critically important. Limiting now the calls, the things that we do. I think one of the reasons why Jon [Tenuta] is on the field now is to say ‘listen, we'll have a few calls here and let's just play fast.’ Let's just play hard. Don't try to outscheme anybody, and that's one of the dedicated things that, as we went into last week and as we'll go into this week's worth of preparation.
The other thing is obviously you want turnovers. As I mentioned before, we probably scored on defense a couple times last year at this point. The ball has been around us - we haven't gotten it. We have to keep reiterating the fact that being in the plus category of turnovers dramatically helps your chance of winning football games and we must continue to keep working on those things.
Q. Mike, you're averaging under three yards per carry among the lowest in the country. What reason is there to believe that will improve?
COACH LONDON: Well, we just have to keep making sure what we do and how we do it are evaluated. Whether it's a downhill run, whether it's a read run, whether it's whatever the running style or the goal or the objective. Obviously - you want to get over three to allow yourself to get yourself in a position in third down situations and create those third and shorts. Our offensive line is what it is. We'll have to find the best five that can go in and play. I think if you noticed Jay Whitmire now is one of the starters coming out of the Boise game, being an inside guy. So continue to keep trying to find the right ‘who’ in order to give us opportunities to be successful in running the ball. But that's something that's ongoing and it will continue to keep trying to make us a better football team in terms of being able to run the ball.
A lot of the guys that are back that are helping us from the standpoint of catching and running have been positive for us, Smoke, T.J. Thorpe who is back now, Canaan Severin, Olamide [Zaccheaus], now that Doni Dowling is back. So, again, we have to find a healthy mix, but being able to run the ball is important and we continue to work on those things.
Q. Do you notice anything with the way Boise played against Canaan, maybe, and against T.J. as well after he scored the touchdown? It seems they bracketed him and did different things with him. Do you expect that going forward with those guys on the field? How can they help each other get more open? Because it was tough to get open with that secondary.
COACH LONDON: It's hard to double-team everybody across the board. You've got to take your shots, No. 1. Recognize the coverages pre- and post-snap, and that is something that Matt Johns can do a better job of doing and will continue to do. Know that a guy like Smoke, if they're going to do that, that you can utilize his skill set. He's had catches on a screen and also on kind of a crossing route that he's gone and ran for touchdowns. Get guys back like Doni Dowling, and just be mindful of the throws, Matt being accurate. Not having the turnover situations that we have. And continue to keep harping on the productivity of what the guys that we have right now offensively that are playing now for us - what they have and what they can bring to us and for us. So we'll keep doing that.
Q. It's been a month now, but how much different is Pitt offensively without James Connor as opposed to the team that you had to go up against last year. Have they changed that much without a player like that?
COACH LONDON: They're still a very physical football team. You look at their offensive line. They double team and try to push to the next level. Connor was an exceptional player. Very tough, tough player, downhill player - it's unfortunate that his injury occurred. Then the next guy in, he had an injury. Now the guy that's playing for him now, they're still running their blocking schemes. What their offensive line had been used to, their fullbacks and their tight ends, they'll play multiple tight ends. So they're still basically running their offense, the scheme, or the system of it, it's a different cast of individuals that are carrying the ball for them. They still have Tyler Boyd who is a tremendous athlete who they use the jet sweep with and do different things with him. So it's when you start to get up to stop the run then they do the play action passes and feature Tyler Boyd, so the scheme and style of it looks very similar, but the who, who is doing it, those are things that are different.
Q. You mentioned Boyd. Third time around now that you'll see him. I think you had some success last year against him. Do you do anything different each year? I'm sure he improves each year. This year specifically he's kind of the man out there without Connor and kind of carrying his offense. What do you do now facing him the third time?
COACH LONDON: Yeah, you have to know where he's at based on his splits, based on the type of plays that they utilize his strengths. He's also a returner. So there are a lot of things. When you have one of your better players, you try to get the ball in his hands as many times as you can. There is no doubt that's one of the things that you do. So being conscious and aware of where he aligns is critically important to us. We talked about tackling, about communication, all those things are things that you can help yourself do to limit any negative issues or negative plays, and we're going to have to do that. Because like I said, he is a very good player. He's been a very good player for a long time. He's been around the league for a long time, not just three years.
Q. Without elaborating on Ryan Doull’s season-ending situation, how much is that, it looked coming into the season as if you had a lot of offensive line depth now. You have three out for the year. And will Sadiq come back, and how much have you missed Ryan?
COACH LONDON: Sadiq is still waiting to get cleared to practice. That should be soon. His availability to be productive during the season - that remains to be seen. Again, I'm not always one to take a guy's redshirt year or medical hardship year. I just want to be sure that he's ready and able to play. It does, with Jake Fieler - a guy that was starting at one point, as you remember. Doull had started some games. Football is a game of injuries. Football, you look at other teams that have lost players and you have to adapt and improve and move on and find other ways. The task now for Coach Borbely is to find the next best five, and who that swing guy, the sixth guy will be, and we'll continue to keep doing it as the season goes on. It's still a long season, and did your guys stay healthy, relatively healthy coming out of physical games when we're getting ready to play. But just continue to keep building your team on the ones that you have that are available to play.
Q. How much have you missed Doull? COACH LONDON: Yeah, obviously you miss a guy that's been a starter and a guy that's probably pound-for-pound one of the strongest guys on our team. But as I said, you've got to pick up, adjust, and move on and move forward, and that's what we're doing.
Q. Couple of times you've mentioned simplifying the defense. Was it just too complicated or as Doug mentioned, was there just so much miscommunication that it was throwing a wrench into things?
COACH LONDON: You talk about different things and we can do a better job communicating. When you're a pressure defense, there are some things you've got to make sure you're on point about doing. You simplify it for the players so they can play fast and play aggressive. Obviously we have different personnel. Every year there is a new team - there is a new identity to your team. This year's identity seems offensively there are more guys that we've been talking about. Last year it was Henry Coley and Anthony Harris, and you know, Daquan Romero, Eli Harold, those guys. This year's personality or the guys on the team are on the other side of the ball. But we still can keep things relatively aggressive for our guys defensively to have some success because we've done it. We've shown it. Now the goal is to do it in a consistent manner of a four-quarter manner to give you a chance to win a football game. Again, this is a team we're about to play a very deliberate team that says, ‘hey, we're going to run the ball right here,’ and we're going to have to do a great job in stopping the run and knowing that we just talked about a player like Boyd and his ability. When you start doing that, you've got to make sure that you take care of the potential playmakers as well.
Q. You mentioned stopping the run. How much more challenging does that become now that they appear to have a read option package for Chad Voytik?
COACH LONDON: You start to see kind of the style or vogue offense that a lot of teams are running a little bit. They're having an opportunity to get two quarterbacks in. Voytik started against us last year. Now when he comes in you may see more QB runs from his standpoint. So - knowing who is in the game is critically important. That is the identification that is the communication part we're talking about. Being gap sound and having integrity with what you do with those gaps and recognizing the potential plays that might be called based on who is in, that's critically important as well. So they found a way to find to run the ball and use the quarterback to run it, and run the jet sweeps, run downhill, be physical, play action pass. They found a formula that's working for them.
Q. Given how much time Boyd spends in the slot, how much is that going to put on Tim Harris on Saturday?
COACH LONDON: Yeah, they move him around. They do a good job of moving him around, whether it's Tim or Maurice Canady or whomever we've designated to be involved with knowing where Boyd is aligned is going to be critical to the overall execution of the defense. And again, that whole communication thing and recognition is going to be important for us because they will and they do find ways to utilize his skill set. Like I said, he's also in the return game as well.
Q. You mentioned last year's game against them, it was a pretty good crowd that got you to 4-2. It seems like a bit of a turning point for you? Was it frustrating to build off that win and finish off that season going into this year?
COACH LONDON: Yeah, that's last season and this season coming out of the games that we've played them and get one into our first conference game and leads to a new season, new opportunity, first conference game. The mindset of where we are. Like I said, I just saw Eric [Smith] walk in. You can ask him the question of where the mindset of the team is. I believe it's in a good place, a really good place. We talk about positive things. There is enough negativity that's around, but you want to talk about positive things. These are still 18, 19, 20-year-olds that are trying to find some success and do some things to allow them to achieve some goals. We'll continue to keep talking about those things. That wasn't a good game for us. We have to take this game and use it as a game that can also springboard us and help us move into the rest of conference play.
Q. I guess you can comment on those guys now, right? The three early enrollees that you've got there in front of you. How good is this for the program to get these guys that say they're coming to you in January and get that over with? And what kind of athletes are these guys?
COACH LONDON: First of all, very grateful for our admissions that looks at the credentials of these young men and they've displayed that they've done and exceeded what their high schools have asked them to do, and now they have opportunities to get here early. They have opportunities to be a part of this recruiting class by saying we're coming. New Jersey, North Carolina, Lynchburg, Virginia, and they're tough players. They're good players. Tre [Harbison] is a running back with a lot of skill and ability. Christian [Baumgardner] is a tight end, but he plays defensive end. He does a lot of long, lean, body type guy that when you're looking for athletes like that - you're looking for guys like him. Matt Terrell is the same thing. Linebacker, defensive end, big body guy, tall guy from Liberty Christian, and we know that is the place that Michael Rocco is, and I believe Mike is coaching there. It's very positive to have a guy like Matt coming to us knowing that Mike is coaching him. Like I said, it's great to have the amount of success from the recruiting part of it. Just we want that to happen on the field as well so we can continue to solidify this thing and get this moving in a very positive direction.
Q. You played seven true freshmen. Are there some other kids you think you'll play or is that pretty much it for the class?
COACH LONDON: At this point they're not going to play this game. Perhaps not - no injuries or things like that did occur. Getting older players back, obviously we lose Andre Levrone, which is tough, but then you gain a Doni Dowling back - kind of a tough minded, very physical type of player. Warren Craft is back. Whether he'll play, he'll be able to practice, and that starts his development. R.J. Proctor will be practicing soon to continue his development. We're not talking about whether he's playing or not.
But, again, the ones that are playing this open week was good for us because they got several reps, and they'll continue to be put into situations that will allow his football team to win as we move down the road.
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