Nov. 11, 1999
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - For both defensive coordinator Rick Lantz and linebackers coach David Turner, the 1999 season has proved to be one of the most challenging years ever. Throughout the Cavaliers' first eight games, the defense has been devastated with injuries. Several key players have been sidelined at different points during the season, leaving many freshmen and sophomores to carry a large portion of the defensive load. The extremely unusual circumstances surrounding this year have created a truly unique experience for both coaches.
"I don't know that I have ever been exposed to this type of situation before. We've had guys injured who we expected to be playing, and we've had guys suspended who at least would have given us depth on defense," said Lantz. "We've had to try to develop leadership as we go along, and I think that is still a big challenge for us between now and next August. We will still be without a lot of veteran leadership [next year], and one of our jobs is to help develop the leadership."
Five defensive starters have missed at least one or more games this season, and two other starters have battled nagging injuries all year long. With so many starters out of the lineup at some point, the coaches have relied on true freshmen Jerton Evans, Chris Williams, Merrill Robertson, and Colin McWeeny to all step in and play quality minutes. According to coach Lantz, this year's defensive squad might feature the most true freshmen to take the field togehter since he came to Virginia nine years ago.
"I'm not sure we have ever had four true freshman in the game at one time unless the game was way out of whack," said Lantz. "We had four of them in the game at one time this season against N.C. State, when the game was on the line."
With so many young, inexperienced Cavaliers expected to produce, Lantz and Turner spend a great deal of time helping their players adjust to college football. One of the toughest challenges both coaches face is finding the position where each young player can best help the team. As both coaches work with the players and help them adjust to their new positions, they often concentrate on enhancing the finer points of the game.
"The big thing is for these guys to try to get better each week, and try to improve on the little things. If they improve on the little things, some of the bigger things will fall into place. After a period of time, they get better," said Turner. "We don't want to overwhelm them, but at the same time, we ask them to know what's going on and to have a working knowledge of several positions."
Yet, Virginia's newest players do not represent the only ones trying to adjust to a new position. After coaching the defensive tackles the previous two years, he assumed the new duties from Lantz, who doubled as defensive cordinator and linebackers coach from 1993-1998. During that time, Lantz helped develop some of the greatest linebackers in school history, including NFL standouts James Farrior and Jamie Sharper.
Throughout the year, Coach Turner has relied on Coach Lantz's veteran leadership to help him make the proper adjustments. "Coaching the position of linebackers is probably the most challenging position on the team," said Turner. "I have the good fortune of working with Rick Lantz, and he has helped me out a lot. With his help, it has been a smooth transition."
Unable to prepare for the many unforeseen challenges of the '99 season, both coaches have met the problems head on throughout the year. Though this season remains unlike any situation they have ever faced in their entire coaching careers, they remain optimistic.
"I have truly enjoyed coaching this football team. Even though it has been frustrating at times, we have not had any guys who try and do things their own way," said Lantz. "They are really trying to learn, trying to get better, and trying to become a good football team. They have been fun to coach."