The UCLA Bruin football team opens the 2015 season this Saturday at 12:30 p.m. PT at the Rose Bowl. The Bruins will complete the home and away series against the University of Virginia Cavaliers, out of the Atlantic Coast Conference's Coastal Division.
Last season, the Cavaliers lost to the Bruins in Charlottesville, 28-20, as the Bruin defense scored the majority of UCLA's points and quashed a potentially game-tying drive at the UCLA 17 yard line with a little more than three minutes left in the game. Virginia ended up with a 5-7 record, and Head Coach Mike London has pointed to the UCLA game as one game that they could have won, which would have made the Cavaliers bowl eligible.
The Bruins were heavy favorites last season, as they will be on Saturday. What can the Bruin defense expect offensively from the Virginia? Let's dive in and see . . .
Overview and System
Last season, Virginia's offense ranked 87th of of 125 teams, averaging 374.2 yards per game, 5.08 yards per play, running 74 plays per game. UCLA's offense, by comparison, ranked 22nd, averaging 467.8 yards per game, 6.13 yards per play, and ran 76 plays per game. The Cavaliers scored 31 touchdowns on offense (compared to 50 for UCLA).
Third year Offensive Coordinator, Steve Fairchild, has run a pro-style offense in his first two season at Virginia. In 2014, UVA had a balanced attack, with with 432 passing attempts over the season and 451 rushing attempts. After Spring practice, the UVA coaching staff has gone on record stating that the Cavaliers will try to establish more of a power running offense in 2015.
Last season, Grayson Lambert started the game against UCLA, but was largely ineffective, throwing two interceptions returned for touchdowns by UCLA, allowing the Bruins to gain a 21-3 advantage. Lambert was relieved shortly before halftime by sophomore Matt Johns, who threw for two touchdowns against the Bruins.
Johns, now a junior, won the starting job in the Spring over Lambert (which led to Lambert's transfer to Georgia upon graduation in May) and will lead the Wahoos' offense this Saturday against UCLA. In case you forgot, here is a video from YouTube of Johns' highlights against the Bruins last season, including his two touchdowns:
BRIEF DIGRESSION: I hope that we DO NOT see much of the weak, soft zone we see in the first pass in the video, which occurred in the fourth quarter as UVa was driving for the potential tying score. Stop the video at the five second mark. We rush three (against seven blockers, including the running back), all of three of Virginia's wide receivers were on the wide side of the field, and Deon Hollins and Eric Kendricks were covering nobody! On 3rd and 8. Terrible scheme. Please, Coach Bradley, no more. END OF DIGRESSION.
As they did in the opener last season against UCLA, Johns and Lambert split time under center last season, with Lambert getting the majority of playing time. Johns had 162 passing attempts to Lambert's 261. Still, Johns will have experience under center (unlike UCLA) on Saturday. Johns passed for 1,109 yards last year, on 89 of 162 attempts (a 54.9 completion rate), throwing for eight touchdowns and five interceptions.
A (three star) pro-style quarterback out of high school, Johns fits Fairchild's system well. At 6'5" and 210 lbs., Johns can see the field, and is surprisingly mobile for his size. Johns can also roll out to throw and can effectively run the read option.
It is reasonable to expect that Johns, as a junior in his third year in Fairchild's system, will continue to develop in 2015, so his somewhat pedestrian completion rate should improve, as should his touchdown to interception ratio. The UVa coaching staff obviously believes he will succeed, giving him the nod in Spring over Lambert, who will now start for the top-ten ranked Georgia Bulldogs.
Johns' backup is likely redshirt freshman Corwin Cutler (6'4"; 200 lbs.). Before Grayson Lambert's transfer, Cutler had announced that he was leaving UVa to go the community college route. After Lambert transferred, Cutler decided to stay.
Kevin Parks, UVa's leading rusher the past three seasons (gaining over 3,000 yards and scoring 29 rushing touchdowns in his college career) has graduated, and his primary backup, Khalik Shepherd (348 yards, 2 TDS), has also graduated. Junior Taquan Mizzell is next up, but sophomore Daniel Hamm and possibly graduate transfer, Albert Reid, are in the mix. At least for the UCLA game, the Wahoos figure to start Mizzell and get Hamm some carries as well.
Taquan Mizzell (5'10"; 195 lbs.), nicknamed "Smoke," would appear to have the most upside and will likely get the start against the Bruins, based on Head Coach Mike London's recent comments to the media. Mizzell was highly recruited out of high school, has very good speed and quickness, and is elusive. He can make defenders miss. The apparent issue with Mizzell is that he needs to become more of a downhill runner, and has had a bit of trouble adjusting his style to do so. Mizzell is also an above-average pass catcher out of the backfield. He reminds me of former UCLA running back, Jordan James, who was also shifty, but had issues adjusting to become a downhill runner.
Daniel Hamm (5'10"; 200 lbs.) came to UVa to run track, and was originally a walk on to the football team. Hamm may be faster than Mizzell, but is less elusive and has less experience, with only 40 carries over his college career. It stands to reason that he will be backing up Mizzell.
Perhaps a better fit for UVa's wish to adjust to more of a power running game is Albert Reid (5'9"; 210 lbs.). Although he is slightly shorter than Mizzell and Hamm, Reid has a more powerful body. Reid, however, did not have stellar numbers while at Maryland last season, carrying the ball only 16 times for 61 yards. London has made recent comments that Reid will have opportunities in the return game, which begs the question whether he will have opportunities in the running game.
None of these backs appear to be the type of "between-the-tackles" back upon which the UVa coaching staff could build a power running attack. It remains to be seen whether the Cavaliers will be able to achieve this stated goal. I think, based solely on experience, that Mizzell will get the start versus UCLA, but Hamm will see action as well.
The power running game, of course, is based largely on the proficiency of the offensive line. Virginia returns several offensive lineman who have started games in the past, although those players were better at pass protection than "road grading" for the running game last season. Conner Davis, who started every game last season at right guard, is the only casualty from the line. Based solely on experience, this group might be the strength of the Virginia offense.
Junior Jackson Matteo figures to start at center. Matteo appeared in the first five games last season at left tackle and center before breaking his foot against Kent State, missing the final seven games.
Senior Ross Burbank is the most celebrated of UVa's lineman. Burbank, one of Virginia's team captains and a pre-season third team All-ACC player according to Phil Steele, played mostly center last season (starting in 11 games) but is now listed at guard on the Cavaliers' depth chart. He should slot in a the right guard position. Junior Ryall Doull should get the call at left guard. Doull started at left guard for six games last season, and then missed five of the final six games due to injury.
Redshirt freshman Jake Fieler was listed at starting right tackle coming out of Spring practice and is still atop the depth chart. If he starts, he would be the only neophyte among the expected starters on the offensive line. Junior Eric Smith could also get the start at right tackle. Smith started all 12 games last season and is not injured, so it appears that he was simply beaten out at the right tackle spot by Fieler. ESPN has an article about this positional battle. Even if he doesn't start, Smith will provide depth at the position. Junior Michael Mooney should start at left tackle and will be protecting Matt Johns' blind side. Last season against UCLA, Mooney did not allow a sack at the left tackle position in his first career start. Mooney went on to play in 11 games last season, starting nine.
The anticipated starting five offensive lineman on the depth chart going into the season are the same anticipated starting five offensive lineman on the depth chart at the end of Spring practice. One would expect that this group has built some cohesion throughout the Fall camp, which is good news for Wahoo fans.
Virginia's wide receivers are big (all of the anticipated major contributors are over 6 feet, 200 lbs.) but, outside of Canaan Severin, they are inexperienced. Graduate transfer, T.J. Thorpe, was expected to be a significant contributor, but will miss at least the first month of the season with a broken clavicle and will not see action in Pasadena.
UVa's top receiver in 2014, Canaan Severin (6'2"; 205 lbs.), returns for his senior year. Last season, Severin hauled in 42 balls for 578 yards and 5 touchdowns. Check out the video below from YouTube to see Severin's big play capability:
Severin should be Johns' top target at the Rose Bowl and throughout the season. True sophomore Andre Levrone (6'3"; 215 lbs.) caught 15 passes for 248 yards and 2 touchdowns, and is UVa's second leading returning receiver based on yardage. Levrone, then a true freshman playing in his first game, is the one who caught the 29 yard touchdown pass over Fabian Moreau last season in the last minute of the first half.
Junior Keeon Johnson (6'3"; 215 lbs.) and sophomore Doni Dowling (6'1"; 215 lbs.) also return, and had similar seasons statistically in 2014, with Johnson grabbing 13 balls for 138 yards, and no touchdowns, and Dowling with 17 catches for 141 yards and no touchdowns, respectively. Junior Kyle Dockins (6'3"; 220 lbs.) and redshirt freshman Umar Muhammed-Wyatt (6'1"; 205 lbs.) are also expected to contribute.
Did I mention that this group is big? Frankly, I think that UCLA's starting secondary, along with Myles Jack in coverage, matches up with the Virginia receiving corps very well.
The Wahoos do not rely much on their tight end to catch passes. Senior Rob Burns (6'7"; 260) is a prototypical blocking tight end and only caught two balls for 11 yards last season. UVA will rely on Burns to help establish its power running game. Redshirt freshman Evan Butts (6'4"; 240 lbs.) is expected to be Burns' backup. Charlie Hopkins (6'6"; 255 lbs.), a graduate transfer from Stanford (the Cavaliers have A LOT of graduate transfers), may also see some playing time.
Matchup: Virginia's Offense v. UCLA's Defense
In Coach Tom Bradley we trust. With UCLA's returning talent and depth in the front seven, the Bruins should be able to derail UVa's plans to establish a power running game. I expect big things from Kenny Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes in this game, with each of them perhaps drawing double teams, freeing up the linebackers to make plays.
In defending Virginia's passing attack, Marcus Rios and Fabian Moreau, both of whom are 6'0", should match up well against the Wahoo receivers. Tahaan Goodman is 6'2", and Randall Goforth and Jaleel Wadood are both 5'10". This might be the game where we miss Ishmael Adams (5'8") the least.
In my opinion, there are just too many new pieces for the Cavaliers to establish the type of running game against UCLA in order for them to effectively pass the ball. I am expecting big things from Coach Bradley and UCLA's defense this season, and anticipate that Saturday will be the start of what hopes to be a series of solid defensive performances by the Bruins.
That's a wrap for BN's preview of the University of Virginia's offense. There are only three more days before we can all see if the game matches up with what we see "on paper."