CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — After posting an uninspiring 4-8 record last season, Virginia’s Mike London shook things up and made changes in his program.
For starters, he hired some high-profile assistant coaches.
London brought in former Boston College and North Carolina State head coach Tom O’Brien as associate head coach, and former Colorado State head coach Steve Fairchild as offensive coordinator.
Also joining the staff was Jon Tenuta, the new defensive coordinator, and Larry Lewis, the former head coach at Idaho State, who is now the special teams coach.
The Cavaliers, picked to finish near the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference this season, are hoping an influx of new faces on the coaching staff will translate into more success.
But things won’t be easy.
To open the season, Virginia hosts BYU Saturday (1:30 p.m. MDT, ESPNU) at Scott Stadium. The following week, the Cavaliers entertain No. 3 Oregon.
“I think any opening game or any opportunity to gauge yourself and use a barometer is always important, and obviously these two that are coming in are — they're some of the best teams in the country,” London said. “One is in the top 5, top 10. The other one has perennially been a bowl team. They're as good as they get.”
The Cavaliers’ daunting early schedule is something that is getting a lot of attention in Charlottesville, but they say they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Guys want to create a dream season,” Virginia junior safety Anthony Harris told the (Charlottesville) Daily Progress. “In order to do that, you have to create a dream schedule. Guys are very excited. We obviously believe in our talents. We believe we can play with the best. This gives us an opportunity right here to see where we can measure up.”
Games against BYU and Oregon have motivated the Cavaliers during the offseason.
“Everything gets ramped up, spring practice, how they train during the summer, how we practiced during August camp,” London said. “Everything gets turned up. Having two great teams coming to Charlottesville, Scott Stadium, is a challenge, but I think it’s a challenge the players have embraced and are looking forward to meeting.”
The Cavaliers are looking forward to the attention these two games will bring to the program.
“It’ll be a broader audience,” said senior guard Luke Bowanko. “They’ll be watching to see what BYU’s going to do and hopefully by the end of the game they’ll be like, ‘Wow, those kids from Virginia can play ball.’ It’s great having the spotlight on you. It helps you motivate yourself. Obviously, BYU’s the first opponent, and we’re only worried about them right now. But they pose a lot of specific things that they do that’s going to be difficult to handle. We’re ready for the challenge.”
Meanwhile, BYU is preparing for plenty of unknowns due to the massive changes on Virginia’s coaching staff.
Coach Bronco Mendenhall said his team has geared its preparation toward the new coaches.
“Steve Fairchild is the offensive coordinator, and he was the head coach at Colorado State so there is some familiarity there,” Mendenhall said. “They also have a really mobile quarterback so there might be elements of what we do offensively mixed in. It’s hard to say, just like any season-opener.”
The Virginia offense is led by sophomore quarterback David Watford, who redshirted last season and hasn’t taken a snap in a game since 2011.
“David has to make sure he gets our players lined up correctly and calls the plays that coach Fairchild sends in,” London said. “And then the ability that he's gained over the last couple years, some of that is that innate ability to know when to pull the ball and run, to know when to slide shuffle to avoid a sack. I think David is at that point of his career where he's been around enough to do those things. We're not going to ask him to do more than what he's capable of doing. Obviously he's a gifted and talented young man, but if he does what's being asked of him to do in distributing the ball and using his legs and his arm and his brain, then I think that's going to be critical to our success. Everyone is excited to see how David is going to play because it will be very important, and particularly with this experienced defense. It'll be an early test. We'll see.”
Defensively, Virginia returns eight starters. Cornerback Demetrious Nicholson has 25 career starts under his belt.
“They have a lot of game experience,” said BYU quarterback Taysom Hill. “That is definitely their strength, is their experience. Their D-line has played pretty good. The secondary’s quick and they make plays on balls. They’re a sound defense.”
Hill expects Virginia to be aggressive under Tenuta, the new defensive coordinator.
“They like to bring blitzes on both sides,” he said. “They like to apply pressure, and that’s what we’re anticipating.”