There's a wealth of running back options, and yet, there's plenty of room for improvement in the ground game. With senior Perry Jones (915 yards last season), sophomores Kevin Parks (709 yards last season), Clifton Richardson (366 yards last season) from Menchville High and Khalek Shepherd and true freshman Kye Morgan, U.Va. boasts one of the deeper backfields in the conference in terms of players that could viably contribute during the season. Jones also had 48 catches for 506 yards and three touchdowns last season. Coach Mike London and running backs coach Mike Faragalli have talked about getting Jones and Parks — or even other duo combinations of their backfield — on the field together at the same time more this season. Despite all the talent in the backfield, U.Va. still only ranked 51st in the nation last season in rushing offense (162 yards per game), but it was the best showing for the Cavaliers in yards per game since 2004 (242.8 yards per game). With Oday Aboushi and Morgan Moses representing two of the nation's best offensive tackles, more running room should emerge this season.
Coming into preseason practices, cornerback Demetrious Nicholson was the only projected returning starter in a secondary that also included projected first teamers Drequan Hoskey at cornerback and Anthony Harris and Bethel High graduate Rijo Walker at the safety spots. Less than a week later, Hoskey had been replaced by freshman Maurice Canady and Walker had been supplanted by sophomore Brandon Phelps. It's fair to say U.Va.'s secondary scenario has been a fluid situation all preseason. Other than Nicholson, no other defensive back on the roster has had a single start in college. No matter which combination of youngsters U.Va. finally settles upon in its secondary, it'll be interesting to see how they communicate when a situation calls for a zone scheme. Will all the assignments get picked up? Will something fall through the cracks? Is Nicholson, who is only a sophomore, ready to assume a leadership role?
No new arrival in the entire ACC may have come with more buzz than quarterback Phillip Sims, a graduate of Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake who transferred from Alabama. He was deemed immediately eligible by the NCAA based on a family medical hardship waiver as a result of his father's heart surgery and ongoing condition. Sims, a sophomore, will see plenty of reps this coming season. Canady almost immediately caught the attention of the coaching staff in the preseason with his athleticism in the secondary — and the fact he's a 6-foot-2, 180-pound freshman cornerback. Freshman Eli Harold won't start, but he'll factor into the rotation at defensive end and provide a boost in the pass rush. Sophomore Daquan Romero, a Phoebus High graduate, was projected to be a starter at linebacker coming out of the spring. In the offseason, Henry Coley moved ahead of Romero, but Romero still could play a big role. Sophomore linebacker D.J. Hill and freshman cornerback C.J. Moore showed promise in the preseason and could be contributors.
Getting Lazor back for another season didn't look like a sure thing in February when he was flirting with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers about their vacant offensive coordinator position. The job eventually went to former New York Giants quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan, but it's clear Lazor has an ongoing interest in the NFL. He has seven seasons as an NFL offensive assistant on his resume, including two seasons as the Washington Redskins' quarterbacks coach under former coach Joe Gibbs, and two seasons as the Seattle Seahawks' quarterbacks coach under former coach Mike Holmgren. Considering how intrigued he continues to be by the NFL, Lazor seems like a candidate to bolt Charlottesville any time. He's done encouraging things at U.Va., which finished 37th in the nation in total offense (404.8 yards per game) in 2010 and 46th last season (399.8 yards per game). In the spring, he said his goal for this coming season was to become the nation's best intermediate passing team.
BEST/WORST CASE SCENARIO
If U.Va. can get past Penn State, and can slip in a victory either at Georgia Tech, at Texas Christian, at N.C. State, against UNC or at Virginia Tech (snapping that eight-game losing streak would be nice, huh?), the schedule sets up for the Cavaliers to claim at least eight wins again. That's assuming U.Va. doesn't stub its toe in any of the games it's supposed to win. With either returning starter Michael Rocco, who completed 61 percent of his passes last season for 2,671 yards, 13 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, or Sims at quarterback along with the backfield depth, U.Va. has the potential to have a very balanced offense if the receiving corps steps up. On the other hand, if the secondary doesn't mature and no pass rush develops, it might not matter how well-equipped the offense is because the defense could get in the habit of giving up 300-yard passing games. Given the questions that must be answered, a six-win regular season is the most likely.
— By Norm Wood
HOW TO GET TO POSTSEASON
Keep doing what they've done. In just the third season of football and first year as a full member of the best FCS league in the country, all Old Dominion did was go 10-3 and come one play shy of winning the league championship. The Monarchs were among the national leaders in scoring and total offense, thanks in large part to a true freshman quarterback who was better and more poised than anybody dreamed. If Taylor Heinicke, now a worldly sophomore, approaches the kind of season he had a year ago, with the personnel at his disposal the 'Narchs are a lock to average 30-some points and 400-plus yards per game again. That they did so with a defense that was statistically in the bottom half of the country speaks to the effectiveness of their offense and special teams. Incremental defensive improvement all but guarantees a second consecutive playoff berth.
KEY SCHEDULE STRETCH
The schedule gods smiled on ODU in its final season of FCS football. Eight games in the state of Virginia. No road trip north of Baltimore. Mid-season bye. No daunting stretches, no matter how much the coaches try to convince you otherwise. The closest thing to a gauntlet the 'Narchs face is the three-week October stretch of Villanova, Towson and Delaware. 'Nova almost certainly will be better than last year's 2-9, and might be a trap game, given that Towson is the following week. But the 'Narchs get 'Nova and Delaware at home, which should help. New Hampshire and Richmond come at the front end of that three-game span. The Wildcats have become playoff fixtures, and UR was and should be better than last year's 3-8 mark. But UNH is at Ballard Stadium (noon in mid-September? Say hello to Indian summer, you unsuspecting New Englanders), and ODU has a bye week after Richmond. William and Mary at home and James Madison on the road to end the season are no picnics. If the 'Narchs have six wins heading into the final two weeks, they need to win one to wrap up a playoff berth. If they have just six wins at that point, they won't be happy.
Offensive playmakers everywhere you look. The 'Narchs averaged 36.7 points per game last season. They return four of the top six rushers, six of the top eight receivers and nine guys who scored touchdowns. They're led, of course, by Heinicke, the sophomore triggerman who seems built for this offense. He's accurate, elusive, a little quicker than you think and nearly always makes good decisions. His primary targets are All-CAA Nick Mayers (62 catches, 11 TD), Antonio Vaughan (47, 4) and Larry Pinkard (37, 9). There are a wealth of options at running back, as well, starting with 210-pound Angus Harper (633 yards, 4.5 avg) and Colby Goodwyn (581, 4.5). Goodwyn (Phoebus) was slowed by injuries at mid-season, but should be healthy. The Monarchs also get back sophomore Tyree Lee (Phoebus), whose freshman season was cut short by a torn meniscus in his knee. Harper and Goodwyn also are capable pass catchers. Elsewhere, it's hard to overlook punter Jonathan Plisco (Woodside). The All-American averaged 46.1 yards per kick and had 20 punts of at least 50 yards. Heinicke also proved himself an effective punter, when ODU chose to quick-kick in attempts to pin opponents.
The defensive line. Yes, the Monarchs return all-conference nose guard Chris Burnette (49 tackles, 8 TFL), but they must replace tackle Ronnie Cameron, the CAA Defensive POY, and end Ed McClam. The 'Narchs hope that Burnette will be able to do for his mates what Cameron and McClam did for him — occupy blockers and permit those around him to make plays when he can't make them himself. Redshirt senior tackle Erik Saylor (20 tackles, 4.5 TFL) is the most experienced returning lineman. Redshirt sophomore Dominique Guinn-Bailey (15 tackles) and junior Nate Barnes (Heritage) were in the tackle rotation last season. To add depth and experience along the front, the Monarchs moved Kai Blanco from tight end to defensive tackle and Alex Arain from linebacker to end. Problems up front were illuminated in the playoff loss to Georgia Southern and in the first half against James Madison.