April 4, 2014
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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- More than once this spring, Greyson Lambert has kept the football on the read option and run for a big gain against a defense fooled by his fake handoff.
At 6-5, 220 pounds, Lambert has the build of the prototypical pro-style quarterback, and he's not known for his running ability. But he's faster than he looks.
"If I can get started, I can get going," Lambert said with a smile after a recent practice. "It's just the getting-started part."
Lambert, who'll be a redshirt sophomore in the fall, is competing with rising junior David Watford and rising sophomore Matt Johns for the starting job at Virginia.
"It's been a very spirited battle," head coach Mike London said. "We're tracking every throw, every decision made by the quarterbacks, looking for accuracy, looking for a guy to take hold and run this offense."
Watford started all 12 games for the Cavaliers last season, but Lambert is getting ample opportunity this spring to impress offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, who also coaches the quarterbacks.
In 2013, Lambert appeared in seven games. He completed 33 of 75 passes for 340 yards and one touchdown, with two interceptions.
Watford was 244-for-427 passing for 2,202 yards and eight TDs. He threw 15 interceptions.
Johns appeared in every game as the holder on extra points and field goals, but in only one at quarterback, against VMI. He did not attempt a pass.
All three, London said, "have stepped up their game tremendously, and it's what needed for us to be a better football team."
At Wayne County High in Jesup, Ga., Lambert passed for 4,282 yards and 38 touchdowns in his three seasons on the varsity, and he rarely ran with the ball. The Cavaliers aren't looking for Lambert to become a dual-threat quarterback, but the more adept he is at the read option, the better.
"I am trying to be able to do that more often now," Lambert said. "It is becoming a big thing in college football. I'm trying to get a little bit bigger so I can take some of those hits and be able to run the ball. It's fun."
The highlights of Lambert's 2013 season were his performances against North Carolina and Miami in November. Against UNC, he completed 8 of 13 passes for 75 yards and a touchdown. Against the Hurricanes, Lambert was 13 of 19 passing for 134 yards.
A week later, though, in UVa's season finale against Virginia Tech, Lambert completed only 4 of 16 passes for 25 yards, with an interception.
When he watches videotape from 2013, Lambert said, "I can definitely tell that some games I had a rhythm and some games I didn't. But that also just comes from being experienced and being able to control that rhythm. And as an offense you want to control the rhythm of the game, control the tempo of the game, and I was not always successful in doing that."
Lambert graduated from high school early and enrolled at UVa in January 2012.
"So I have been here for a while now," he said, "and last year being able to get in some games really helped me see a lot of things that you might not be able to see in practice. It's really helped me kind of see the game a little bit differently."
If he looks more comfortable on the field -- and he does -- there's a reason, Lambert said. "That just comes from experience. It's all about experience. I've been here for three springs now."
The 2013 season was the offense's first under Fairchild, and the Cavaliers struggled to move the ball and to score. Lambert expects the offense to be vastly improved this year.
"We're building off of last year," he said. "We're building off of last year's installation. The whole offense is a whole lot more comfortable. We're not installing a whole lot any more. We're just lining up and running [plays]."
Fans can see for themselves April 12 at the annual Orange-Blue scrimmage at Scott Stadium. The spring game, which starts at 1 p.m., is free. Gates open at 11 a.m.
SIGNS OF PROGRESS: Also new in 2013 were the Cavaliers' coordinators on defense (Jon Tenuta) and special teams (Larry Lewis), and the transition to their systems did not always go smoothly.
The defense's familiarity with Tenuta's scheme has been evident this spring, All-America safety Anthony Harris said.
"You're seeing the progression of the guys getting the extra year under their belt in the system," Harris said. "I would definitely say we're well ahead of where we were last year in the spring. It's to the point where guys, they know the scheme, they know where they're supposed to be ... We kind of know what Coach is thinking, what calls he's making on a certain down."
Harris, who led the nation in interceptions last season, said the offense also looks better than in 2013.
"Going against them last year, I think the defense picked up on the different system a little faster than the offense," Harris said, "but coming out there and practicing against them this spring has been a different feel, the tempo of the offense. You can tell guys are getting to their spots, because they know where they're supposed to be, right away. Guys are coming out of their breaks very explosively, just confidently, knowing where they're supposed to be."
UNFINISHED BUSINESS: Some UVa fans worried that Harris might pass up his final college season to pursue an NFL career, but he says he never seriously considered that option.
"I thought about it for a second, but I just try to follow my heart," Harris said. "That's what my mom always taught me ... I started something out here with a lot of guys in my class, and we came in with a goal that we wanted to compete for ACC championships.
`We haven't been able to do that, but I feel like coming into this year, there's a lot of guys [back from] last year, and we've got a lot of guys behind us who are trying to follow where we're trying to go as a team this year. So I think this year could possibly be the year where we finally get it turned around. We wish we could have gotten it done sooner.
"I just felt like I wanted to stay here, finish out something I've started. Charlottesville is a great place. I've built a lot of strong relationships, and I just felt like I should enjoy my college career."
MAXING OUT: Max Valles didn't make his college debut until Virginia's third game last year. By season's end, he'd appeared in 10 games, with four starts at outside linebacker, and he's expected to be a disruptive force for the Cavaliers this fall.
One of 12 true freshmen to play for the Wahoos in 2013, Valles is going through spring practice for the first time. He was enrolled in the postgraduate program at Fork Union Military Academy at this time last year.
"Last year I didn't really feel comfortable when I first got here, adjusting to the whole defensive scheme," Valles said after practice Thursday. "But now this year I feel much better, more confident in what I have to do."
In his second college game, Valles wreaked havoc on Pittsburgh's offense, recording 2.5 sacks in UVa's 14-3 loss. He was unable to duplicate that performance, however, although he had 1.5 sacks in the finale against Virginia Tech.
"It seemed every time I would come on a blitz, the protection would slide towards me," Valles said.
He finished the season with 23 tackles. That ranked third among UVa's linebackers but didn't compare with the totals put up by Henry Coley (91) and Daquan Romero (89), whose teammates call him Da-Da.
Valles began his college career at tight end before moving to defensive end and, finally, strong-side linebacker.
"Last season with the playbook, I had to rely on Henry and Da-Da a lot," Valles said, "because I wasn't really too [familiar with] the system, because I started off at D-end."
The 6-5 Valles, who weighed around 235 pounds when he arrived at Virginia, is up to 245. He's not only bigger, Valles said, he's fitter.
"I was in good shape last season, but I wasn't in the shape I am now," he said. "So I feel like next year I'll be able to make plays on a consistent basis."
Romero is recovering from an injury and hasn't practiced this spring. With Romero out, UVa's first-team linebackers have been Coley, Valles and rising sophomore Zach Bradshaw.
IN FOCUS: In his first three seasons at UVa, wide receiver Darius Jennings totaled 106 receptions for 1,146 yards and nine touchdowns. The Cavaliers' coaches have reason to believe Jennings can increase his production this fall.
An offseason exam revealed that Jennings' eyesight needed correcting, and he now wears contact lenses.
What's impressive, London said, is "how it's translated into practice. I believe he's caught everything that's been thrown to him.
"It sounds like it might be kind of a small adjustment, but it's major in the fact that he feels more comfortable. He's probably our fastest guy at the receiver position, and he's caught some vertical balls downfield, which is something we need and very significant in our success."
SIDELINED: For one of the jewels of the Cavaliers' 2014 recruiting class, spring practice ended prematurely. Andrew Brown, a defensive tackle from Chesapeake, suffered a toe injury last month and won't be ready to practice again until this summer, London said.
Brown and offensive lineman Jake Fieler enrolled at the University in January.
"It's unfortunate," London said. "It was a freak accident that occurred. The great thing is he came here as a midyear player and got into his classes."
Brown is "doing well in his classes, getting acclimated to the college environment," London said.
EQUIPMENT SALE: Game-worn UVa football jerseys and helmets will be on sale before the April 12 spring game at Scott Stadium. Also available will be cheer uniforms and pom poms.
The equipment can be purchased behind the scoreboard at the open end of Scott Stadium, beginning at 11 a.m.
Helmets are $150 each, game jerseys $50 and Orange Crush practice jerseys each. Cheer uniforms are $35 and pom poms $10.
Cash and credit cards will be accepted, but no checks.
In addition, two signed NFL helmets -- one by Chris Canty and the other by Heath Miller -- will be raffled off before the spring game. Tickets for the raffle are $5 for one or $10 for three.