Raise your hand if you predicted Virginia would win eight games last year. Nobody should have their hands up on that. That was an amazing coaching job by Mike London and his staff. They brought back most of their team from 2010 that won four games. It was their most wins in a season since 2007, a season that in a lot of ways was similar to 2011.
Michael Rocco was a mess the first four games, throwing for one touchdown and seven interceptions in that span. But he improved vastly as the season went on, throwing for 12 touchdowns and five interceptions in the final eight games. For the season, Rocco completed 60.7% of his passes for 2671 yards, with 13 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He will start, but don't be surprised to see prized transfer Phillip Sims get some playing time at some point this season.
Virginia's running backs are arguably the deepest in the conference. There are three running backs who get to see a lot of carries. Perry Jones is in the mix for best all around back in the conference. He ran for 915 yards and five touchdowns last year, averaging 5.0 yards per carry. His receiving skills are very good as well, catching 48 passes for 506 yards and three touchdowns. Behind him, Kevin Parks had a solid freshman campaign, rushing for 709 yards and nine touchdowns, and Clifton Richardson put up 366 yards rushing. Expect all three too continue to see plenty of carries throughout the season.
The wide receivers aren't stars, but it's a solid group. It does lose its top receiver from last season, but returns its number two receiver in Tim Smith, who caught 33 passes for 565 yards and three touchdowns. On the other side, Darius Jennings will get his first chance to start. Jennings caught 20 passes for 238 yards in his freshman season. At tight end, seniors Paul Freedman and Colter Phillips will start. Freedman caught 11 passes last year, and Phillips was not much of a contributor.
What makes the offensive line so good are the tackles. Both Oday Aboushi and Morgan Moses are All-ACC caliber players, and will likely be playing on Sundays in the near future. Other than that, the middle will be different. Luke Bowanko is transitioning from guard to center, leaving two new starters at the guards. Sean Cascarano and Cody Wallace will be the new starters.
Where you can attribute some of Virginia's success last season is the improvement of the defense. The defense allowed over 40 fewer yards per game, and had it's lowest points pre game total since 2008.But this year will look a lot different for the defense. There are a lot of new starters throughout the defense. Only one starter returns on the line, and that's Jake Snyder. He started 12 games last year. His counter part on the other side is Bill Schautz, who really came on at the end of the season before a terrible injury forced him to miss the last two games. Schautz was among the team leaders in tackles for loss with 6.5. In the middle, Will Hill only started once, but had seven tackles for loss. Brent Urban will start along side Hill. He contributed 15 tackles as a backup.
The linebackers are probably the strength of Virginia's defense. It returns its top two tacklers from last year in Steve Greer and LaRoy Reynolds. Greer has led the team in tackles in two of the last three seasons, and Reynolds led the team the other year. Last year, Greer had 103 tackles, two sacks, and four pass break ups, and Reynolds had 88 tackles and eight tackles for loss. There is one new starter, however. Henry Coley started once, and contributed 15 tackles last year.
Just like the defensive line, only one starter returns in the secondary. But this area is more of a question mark than the defensive line because of the lack of experience. The lone returning starter is cornerback Demetrious Nicholson, who started every game as a true freshman. Nicholson finished fourth on the team with 60 tackles, and tied for the team lead with eight pass break ups. He also had two interceptions. On the other side, sophomore Drequan Hoskey will start. He played sparingly as a freshman, contributing 12 tackles. Look for freshman Maurice Canady to see the field as well in the nickel package. The two starters at safety are new as well. Sophomores Anthony Harris and Brandon Phelps will be the new starters. Neither played a lot last year.
This is also a big question mark for the Cavs. Both kicker and punter will be new this year. Junior Drew Jarrett is the new kicker. He kicked some extra points as a freshman, but has not seen the field since. Sophomore Alex Vozenilek will take over as the new punter. There is some continuity in the return game, however. Darius Jennings will resume the kick return duties, along with running back Kahled Shepherd, and Dominique Terrell will return punts.
While Virginia has not been an upper echelon team in the ACC, it has had a proven track record of getting players in to the NFL. At least one Virginia player has been drafted in every NFL draft since 1984, which is the second longest streak in the ACC.
While the sample size is only two years, it really looks like Mike London and his staff really have something going. They defied expectations and were in the hunt for the ACC Coastal division title until the season finale, and while they were beat in their bowl game, had some positive things to take out of it, especially on offense. This year's offense should still be very strong. The running game will be among the best in the conference, and the passing game should be improved this year. The lack of experience on defense is a concern. It will not be a surprise if Virginia struggles on this side of the ball early on. Special Teams is also a concern, but to a lesser degree. If the defense meshes, I won't be surprised if they equal last year's eight win total, but I think six or seven wins is more likely.