April 13, 2014
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- For long stretches Saturday afternoon, it was easy to understand why UVa football coach Mike London believes his defense can be a force this fall.
Virginia's offense, though, sputtered for much of the Orange-Blue spring game Saturday at Scott Stadium.
Even with a running clock in the second half, the Cavaliers punted 16 times in their annual intrasquad scrimmage, which marked the end of spring drills for a team looking to bounce back from a 2-10 season.
"First and foremost, I don't want anybody to think that today is kind of how our whole spring has been," said rising sophomore quarterback Greyson Lambert, speaking for the offense. "It doesn't define us. We saved our worst for last."
The offense didn't stay down all day. On the penultimate series Saturday, Lambert led a 90-yard touchdown drive that ended with his 16-yard pass to wide receiver Kyle Dockins, another rising sophomore, who made a difficult catch and then reached across the goal line with the ball.
"It was good that you end on a positive note," London said.
On the drive, Lambert completed 6 of 7 passes for 80 yards, and he rushed twice for 10 yards.
"We've been able to put a lot of those last drives together all spring, so we knew that we were capable of doing it," Lambert said, "but to be able to end it on that, that was good."
Lambert, who backed up starter David Watford last season, has worked extensively with the first team this spring. He was the first quarterback to take a snap Saturday and finished 18-of-31 passing for 220 yards.
Watford, a rising junior, was the second quarterback to play Saturday, and he completed only 4 of 14 passes for 31 yards, with two interceptions.
"Today obviously wasn't the best offensively overall, and then, personally, I definitely didn't do my best," Watford said. "It's a part of the spring. You have your good days, you have your bad days. It's all about how you bounce back."
Lambert also threw two picks, the first coming on an ill-advised pass into triple coverage. The pass, intended for sophomore wideout Keeon Johnson, was deflected, and safety Mason Thomas made a diving interception in the back of the end zone.
"I got greedy," Lambert said, smiling sheepishly. "I got really greedy. I think we had two completions before that on the drive, and just felt confident in [Johnson] to go make the play. But, honestly, I think there two or three guys on him, and I had another guy that was wide open. I got greedy, didn't really read it as much as I should have."
So he wasn't perfect. But an afternoon when the offense scored only two touchdowns, Lambert was on the front end of each of them. The first was a 22-yard pass to wideout Andre Levrone, a 6-2, 210-pound freshman who redshirted last fall, the second the 16-yard pass to Dockins, another large target at 6-3, 210 pounds.
"I just went up the seam," Dockins said. "He threw it, I saw it at the last second, turned around and caught it. It happened so quick."
Levrone, who had four catches for 60 yards, outleaped Demetrious Nicholson, a 5-11 cornerback, on his TD reception.
Lambert "underthrew it a little bit," Levrone said, "but I went back up and I got it, and when I came down, I was just excited, excited to get some points on the board."
Dockins, who's been working in the slot this spring, finished with eight catches for 74 yards, both game highs. Two other big receivers -- 6-2, 220-pound Canaan Severin (four catches for 35 yards) and the 6-3, 215-pound Johnson (two catches for 21 yards) -- also distinguished themselves Saturday.
"Having guys like that, it does give you an opportunity to make plays on a ball that's up in the air," London said.
Three quarterbacks divided virtually all of the snaps Saturday: Lambert, Watford and rising sophomore Matt Johns, who completed 6 of 19 passes for 43 yards.
Asked if Lambert had won the starting job, London said no decision had been made but added that the coaching staff would "make that decision soon. We'll make that decision when all the opportunities to evaluate these guys present themselves."
A rash of injuries prevented London from splitting his roster into two teams, so Saturday's game matched the offense against the defense. For most of the game, the No. 1 offense faced the No. 2 defense, and the No. 2 offense faced the No. 1 defense. In all, 20 points were scored, six on field goals of 26 and 47 yards by rising junior Ian Frye.
Both sides were short-handed. Among the defensive players out with injury or illness were defensive end Trent Corney, defensive tackle Andrew Brown, linebacker Daquan Romero, cornerback Tim Harris and safety Malcolm Cook.
"We will be a different team [in the fall]," London said.
The absences didn't faze defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta's charges. The defense was credited with nine sacks, though that statistic is misleading. To protect the quarterbacks, plays were blown dead (and recorded as sacks) when defenders touched them in the pocket.
Rising sophomore Max Valles, who plays both outside linebacker and defensive end, had two sacks, as did rising junior defensive end Eli Harold and cornerback Kirk Garner, a freshman who redshirted last season.
"I believe we could be pretty good defensively, particularly with the rush," London said. "I believe we'll be able to provide some pressure."
Garner also had one of the defense's four interceptions. Thomas, a rising junior, had two picks, and Brandon Phelps, a starting safety as a junior last season, had the other one.
"We still have work to do, of course, but we're probably at a better place than we were last year," said middle linebacker Henry Coley, a rising senior who had a game-high 12 tackles Saturday.
The offense covered only 30 yards on its first touchdown drive, which came early in the second quarter. Its second TD drive was more substantial and, given the offense's earlier struggles, more satisfying.
"We felt a lot different coming off after the second half than we did coming off [the field after] the first half," Levrone said. "The first half we were disappointed as a group as a whole. They were a lot of missed opportunities. But when we came off at the end of the game, we finished on a pretty good note.
"It's not always about how you start, it's how you finish."
TEAM LEADERS: In voting among the players, selected as captains for the coming season were Coley, Parks, Lambert and Anthony Harris, an All-America safety last season. Of those four, only Lambert won't be a senior in the fall.
"I feel like I've worked really hard this offseason," Lambert said. Still, he admitted, "I was surprised, honestly. I really was."
Coley, who led the team in tackles last season, said he's always considered himself a leader, so "I never looked at it as something that would be impossible. But I'm definitely glad that I have that title, and I hope my energy, my passion for this game, will reciprocate onto the team, and then we end up taking that energy into the season."
FEARSOME FOURSOME: In Virginia's nickel defense, Valles and Harold line up as ends, with Mike Moore and David Dean at the tackles. Moore's primary position is end, but at 6-4, 270 pounds, the rising junior can handle himself inside.
The 6-1, 290-pound Dean had four sacks last season.
"Mike and David, they're big guys, but they're some of the most athletic people in our defense," Valles said. "Me and Eli, having the tackles kick out to [block] us frees up the inside gaps for them to make their moves."
As a true freshman in 2013, Valles was not an every-down player, but he still finished the season with four sacks. Harold led the Cavaliers with 8.5 sacks.
"I believe that those two guys could be special," London said. "I believe that you can do multiple things with them, whether their hands are on the ground or they're standing up."
Harold, who stands 6-4, is up to 235 pounds.
"I'm very pleased with Eli and where he is," London said. "He's done a nice job in the weight room. You look at him physically, and he looks the part. He'll have to be a dominant player on defense for us this year."
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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