CHARLOTTESVILLE — After seeing how Virginia strayed from the ground game late last season, running back Kevin Parks' worst fear was coach Mike London transforming U.Va.'s offense into a passing-game-obsessed operation behind a new offensive coordinator allergic to all things running-oriented.
Once Parks did a little research on offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, and realized Fairchild espoused a balanced attack in his 20 seasons as either a college offensive coordinator or head coach or NFL offensive coordinator, it eased Parks' mind.
London left no doubt Tuesday when speaking to media about what he expects to see from the offense as it transitions from former offensive coordinator Bill Lazor's pro-style approach to Fairchild's own pro-style attack. London's assessment wasn't flattering to Lazor's legacy.
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"I think you'll see more of a commitment to running the ball, and not abandon it," said London, whose team opens spring practices March 18. "I think that you'll see the multiple formations of the personnel groups that can help get that done.
"The belief is to be tough and be physical and aggressive. You have to have those elements of guys that will buy into that."
That's exactly the kind of offense Parks, who led U.Va. last season with 734 rushing yards and five touchdowns, wants to play.
"I was kind of worried," said Parks, a rising junior. "I was hoping they wouldn't bring in a kind of pass-happy guy. For a running back, you want to touch the ball a little bit."
Though his intentions are to revive the running game, London was quick to add he certainly doesn't plan to put the passing game on the backburner. He said Phillip Sims and Hampton High graduate David Watford, a rising sophomore who redshirted last season, will split No. 1 reps at quarterback. Rising redshirt freshman Greyson Lambert also will get some looks with the starting offense.
Last season, U.Va. averaged 128.5 rushing yards per game, which was 96th in the nation out of 120 Bowl Subdivision teams in rushing offense. In the 2011 season, U.Va. put up 162.1 rushing yards per game, which was 52nd in the nation.
In its final five games last season, U.Va. averaged just 113 rushing yards per game — an average that even included a 248-yard outburst in a 33-6 win at North Carolina State. U.Va. ran the ball 20 times for 30 yards, which were season lows in both categories, in a 17-14 loss at Virginia Tech to end the Cavaliers' 4-8 season.
That five-game decline in the running game to end the season came on the heels of a midseason stretch in which U.Va. averaged 165.8 rushing yards per game at Texas Christian, against Louisiana Tech, at Duke and against Maryland — all of which were losses.
While U.Va. will have to replace running back Perry Jones (463 rushing yards last season, 2,033 yards for his career; 49 catches for 397 yards last season), Parks won't have to do it alone. Menchville High graduate Clifton Richardson, a rising junior, will enter spring practices healthy after being plagued by a hamstring injury all last season.
Rising junior Khalek Shepherd and rising redshirt freshman Kye Morgan also will factor in at tailback. In the summer, U.Va. will add elite incoming freshman running back Taquan Mizzell to the mix.
If U.Va. hopes to assert itself more in the running game, it'll need to get better push up front, where four starters are back on the offensive line. Sean Cascarano will move from guard to tackle.
Center Luke Bowanko said he's excited about Fairchild's background in the power running game. Fairchild, who was the coach at Colorado State from '08 through the '11 season and who had stints in the NFL as the offensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills and the St. Louis Rams, has worked with former running backs Marshall Faulk, Larry Centers and Travis Henry.
As far as diagnosing U.Va.'s issues running the ball last season, Bowanko mentioned how the Cavaliers' offensive players didn't always put themselves in the best down-and-distance positions to run the ball.
"I think coach Lazor was very honest in his play-calling," Bowanko said. "If things weren't working, he tried to find out what would work. He's a quarterback coach and he likes to throw the ball. I don't blame him at all for that. Sometimes we didn't earn (situations for) the run to be called last year. Obviously, that's going to have to change for even coach Fairchild to call it."