Watch out for UVA's offense. If they can iron out some issues this spring, the Hoos will shine in 2012. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
It's been an interesting history between Penn State, and the Nittany Lions' second opponent on the 2012 schedule: The University of Virginia Cavaliers. My freshman season saw the last time these two teams met, a 35-14 victory for Zack Mills and the home team. But both programs look very different than they did 10 years ago (holy crap, TEN YEARS?!?!), with new coaching staffs and bright futures on the horizon. Today we continue our "Spring Snapshot" series, taking a quick look at all 12 regular season opponents, as they stand right now heading into the spring practice season.
Where they call home: Charlottesville, VA
Endless running begins/ends: March 19/April 14
If they suck, this guy gets fired: Mike London
UVA was kind of wallowing in mediocrity under Al Groh. He had a few good seasons, but could never break into the upper echelon of a very winnable ACC. He got the boot before the 2010 season, making way for his old defensive coordinator and Richmond head coach Mike London. London won a national championship with the Spiders, and was a natural fit for Virginia. So far, he's impressed, taking the Cavaliers to a bowl game and putting together some very impressive early recruiting classes. I've been warning everyone for more than two years now that London would make a big impact on the eastern football landscape. It's looking like that's indeed the case.
More specifics below the fold...What they return...
Quarterback Michael Rocco really came on at the end of last season, including a nice bowl performance in a losing effort against Auburn. The rising junior signal caller threw for 2,671 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. Rocco completed just over 60 percent of his passes in 2011. This season, he won't have to worry about any immediate competition, as London said Rocco is the main guy after splitting time with rising sophomore David Watford last season.
Cornerback Demetrious Nicholson played immediately as a true freshman last year. He was named a freshman all-American, and returns this year with a ton of experience for a guy so young. Nicholson was forced into the fire last year, even more so when given the fact that most offenses threw away from his star counterpart on the other side of the field, Chase Minnifield, and toward the frosh.
What they lost...
Minnifield will be the biggest single loss for the team. He was a two-time All-ACC First Team selection, and a rock on defense. At least the Cavaliers defense has gotten a taste of life after Minnifield. He sat out the bowl game with an injury. But he's not the only significant hole the Hoos will have to fill this spring.
All-American guard Austin Pasztor will graduate to the NFL in a few weeks. Replacing star offensive linemen is probably the toughest job to do during any off-season, so don't look past this as a potential issue.
The biggest chunk taken out of the team this off-season will be the special teams. Both kickers--K Robert Randoph and P Jimmy Howell--are gone. The kicking and coverage games were big problems last season, likely costing UVA at least one win over the final few games. Losing both kickers in a single year will hurt any team. Virginia might be looking at a real emergency if no progress can be made this spring.
Bill Lazor inherited an offense that was nothing short of pathetic. The 2009 UVA offense capped off a four-year run in the bottom 100 (118th nationally that year), so there was pretty much nowhere to go but up. And it did, as Lazor brought the offense up from the depths. In 2010, it ranked 37th nationally in total offense. Last year, it was 49th. With some decent improvement from the returning starters, this unit could be pretty impressive.
The defense will get some bad commentary heading into the spring, following a bad performance against Auburn in the bowl game. But with its two best players missing from that starting lineup, one has to think it's a fixable problem this year. Considering all the true and redshirt freshmen who have played and started games the last two seasons, the defense should have more depth than most you'll find.
See you tomorrow for Spring Snapshot 2012: Navy MIdshipmen.