Mike London enters his sixth season at Virginia squarely on the hot seat for the third consecutive season. The Cavaliers showed improvement last year, winning four of their first six games but struggled badly in ACC play over the second half of the season. In a wide-open Coastal Division, a postseason berth for Virginia and London may be the only thing that saves his job.
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Previewing Virginia’s Offense for 2015
Virginia has settled on an identity and style of play. And now, the Cavaliers can settle on a quarterback. Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns were competing through the spring. Lambert started nine games a year ago but wasn’t able to separate himself from Johns, who started three games when Lambert was hurt and played in all 12. Lambert decided to transfer in May, leaving Johns as the clear No. 1 quarterback this season. At 6'5", Johns is a tall-in-the-saddle type seemingly suited for a pro-style offense that seeks to emphasize the running game. Johns needs to be more accurate and less mistake-prone than a year ago, when the two Virginia quarterbacks combined for 18 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
Virginia ranked 97th nationally in rushing offense in 2014. Hopes of being a power-running team rest on an offensive line that was banged up last year and did a good job in pass protection but struggled to open holes on the ground. The upside is that 10 players with game experience are back, including seven who have been starters at some point.
The graduation of tailback Kevin Parks creates an opportunity for former five-star recruit Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell, a potentially dynamic player who has shown only flashes of that talent in two seasons. If the Cavaliers can establish the running game, they feel good about their chances of taking shots down field, with an experienced corps of receivers that includes senior Canaan Severin, and North Carolina transfer T.J. Thorpe.
Previewing Virginia’s Defense for 2015
A big chunk of Virginia’s pass rush left early for the NFL. Junior defensive end Eli Harold and sophomore linebacker Max Valles, who combined for 16 sacks and 27 tackles for a loss, are both gone, as is senior linebacker Henry Coley and his eight sacks.
Given those losses, it’s difficult to envision the Cavaliers being as disruptive again, even in a scheme designed to create havoc with blitzes and stunts.
The strength of the unit should be on the back end, where safety Quin Blanding, a Freshman All-American, should only get better, and where the return of cornerback Demetrious Nicholson from a turf toe injury adds to an already deep secondary.
Up front, tackle David Dean anchors a group that ranked 18th nationally against the run. Though not the speed rusher that Harold was, end Mike Moore had three sacks and will be counted on to bring heat from the edge. After an injury-plagued freshman year, former five-star recruit Andrew Brown is being counted on for a breakout season at tackle.
The linebacking corps must replace three starters, meaning the heart of the defense will be young. Expect a true freshman or two on the two-deep.
Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128
Previewing Virginia’s Specialists for 2015
Given Virginia’s inability to finish in the red zone, kicker Ian Frye was busy last year, hitting 22-of-27 field-goal attempts. Punter Alec Vozenilek was a valuable weapon and will be missed. Thorpe, the North Carolina transfer, is a former All-ACC returner who could bring some needed sizzle to the return game.
Coach Mike London is no stranger to the hot seat. He’s been under a cloud for three seasons. Last year’s improvement from 2–10 to 5–7 was encouraging to a point. But a second-half fade after a 4–2 start raised old questions about the team’s inability to finish close games under London.
Last year’s progress earned London a last chance. Nothing short of a bowl game appearance is likely to keep him around. With the usual questions on offense and big shoes to fill on defense — as well as another brutal non-conference schedule — Virginia has a lot to overcome for that to happen. Too much, probably.