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ACC preview: Virginia

The SportsXchange

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- This is the fourth season Mike London has been in charge of the Virginia football program. But, in many ways, the 2013 campaign feels like a clean slate for the Cavaliers.

London has new coordinators on both sides of the football, with Steve Fairchild arriving as the new offensive coordinator and Jon Tenuta coming aboard as the defensive coordinator. The Cavs also have to replace some key personnel on both sides of the ball.

Linebacker Steve Greer, one of the most prolific defenders in team history, has graduated. And on offense, the two quarterbacks who spent time splitting reps last season -- Michael Rocco and Phillip Sims -- both have transferred to programs that play at lower classifications.

Losing Sims was particularly galling to the Cavaliers. He had the inside track on being Virginia's clear-cut starter after Rocco decided to transfer to Liberty not long after the 2012 season concluded, but academic issues precipitated his exodus to Winston-Salem State, a Division II school.

"I guess that's just how the cookie crumbles sometimes," receiver Tim Smith, also a former high-school teammate of Sims, told the Charlottesville (Va.) Daily Progress.

In the absence of Sims and Rocco, redshirt sophomore David Watford was named the Cavaliers' starter on August 12.

"I feel a lot more confident in myself and a different level of confidence in the offense really and just my knowledge of the game," Watford said.

Watford spent the 2011 season sharing reps with Rocco at quarterback until about midseason, when Rocco took over sole control of the position and led the Cavs on a winning streak that ended with the team coming a victory away from winning its first-ever Coastal Division title and making its first appearance in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game. Watford took his redshirt last season and has impressed in fall camp with redshirt freshman Greyson Lambert his primary competition.

Watford was 30 of 74 as a freshman, with three touchdowns and four interceptions.

The new schemes are quite different. Fairchild is installing a run-heavy offensive approach that should also revive the physicality and attitude Virginia was lacking last season on offense. Meanwhile, aggression is the buzzword when describing Tenuta's defense, which brings pressure from a variety of directions via stunts and zone blitzes. A former defensive back at Virginia, Tenuta's defense at N.C. State last season ranked seventh nationally in tackles for loss and 27th in sacks -- both areas where the Cavs underperformed last season.

London brought in an impressive recruiting class, headlined by the first five-star prospect signed during his tenure. Rivals ranked that class 28th nationally, albeit eighth in the ACC.

Virginia posted a losing record in two of London's first three seasons in Charlottesville, and media members don't appear optimistic that that trend will change. Virginia has been picked to finish sixth in the ACC's Coastal Division, finishing ahead of only Duke.

SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Virginia's early schedule is stout. The Cavaliers open with back-to-back home games against BYU and Oregon, part of a stretch of three consecutive at Scott Stadium that includes VMI, before traveling to Pittsburgh to welcome the Panthers to the ACC. Upending either BYU or Oregon -- or, in a dream situation, both -- would do wonders in the Cavs' goal to return to their winning ways and qualify for a bowl. "We feel like this is an opportunity game," LB Daquan Romero told reporters in Charlottesville. "Nobody expects us to win the first two games of the season, but we're not bowing to anybody. It's a big opener for us and for our fans. We feel like we have to win because coming off a 4-8 season, you don't want to lose your first game. We're going out there with a chip on our shoulder."

KEYS TO SUCCESS: Virginia got away from its identity last season. The running game, which was a force during its successful 2011 campaign, evaporated, and the Cavalier defense gave up 35-plus points on five occasions. The best way to cure both ills? Move the football on the ground. Running the ball is the key to Fairchild's offensive scheme, and RB Keith Parks has the skill set to accomplish what Virginia wants on the ground.

AREAS OF CONCERN: Making big plays was altogether impossible for Virginia's defense last season. The Cavaliers ranked 98th nationally in sacks and 111th in turnover margin, forcing just 12 miscues. Enter Tenuta, whose N.C. State defense last season had four individual players who each finished with more sacks than Virginia's entire team, which had 17 as a group. That has to improve. In terms of personnel, defensive tackle is the biggest worry. Behind likely starters Brent Urban and David Dean, no one else on the entire roster has taken a live snap as a defensive tackle.

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.
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