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ACC All Access: Evaluation of Virginia's football program isn't pretty heading into home stretch of season

After finishing last season with an 8-5 record and its first bowl appearance in four years, there was at least some semblance of a feeling that Virginia’s football program was trending up.

All those sentiments have vanished. A 2-6 start this season has brought panicked questions about the future of the program.

Just like they did in the three seasons prior to this one, fans have stayed away from Scott Stadium. U.Va. has averaged just 46,984 fans per home game this season – an average that isn’t likely to change as long as the Cavaliers continue to flounder.

With U.Va. in the midst of an off week prior to its Nov. 3 game at North Carolina State, here’s an evaluation of what has transpired to this point (it's not pretty):


If only U.Va. could overlook the turnovers (last in the nation in turnover margin with an average of minus-two per game; leading the ACC with 12 interceptions thrown and tied for second with eight fumbles lost), the poor pass protection (16 sacks surrendered, third-most in the ACC), the absence of point production (21.5 points per game, second-worst in the ACC and 96th in the nation) and the lack of efficiency throwing the ball (regardless of whose starting at quarterback), maybe there’d be room for optimism. Of course, when you rank close to or at the bottom of the barrel in the nation in a few key categories, the troubles are impossible to ignore. Since taking over the starting quarterback from Michael Rocco (eight interceptions in first five games), Phillip Sims has completed just 56 of 109 passes (51.4 percent) for 660 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions while being sacked eight times. U.Va. is still a respectable 33rd in the nation in passing offense (279.8 yards per game), but the Cavaliers have been forced to pass a lot in games while working on the short end of scores. Getting any kind of consistency at the wide receiver positions has been a chore, as Darius Jennings (leading receiver with 29 catches for 407 yards and a touchdown) has had up-and-down outings, and Dominique Terrell has been one of the bigger disappointments this season based on his number of drops. Running back Perry Jones was dangerous catching the ball out of the backfield last season, but U.Va. has had trouble freeing him up this season. He’s run for just 322 yards to go along with 28 catches for 258 yards. Kevin Parks is having a solid year, gaining 503 rushing yards to this point. Still, U.Va. is 91st in the nation in rushing offense (128.1 yards per game). It hit rock bottom in last weekend’s 16-10 loss to Wake Forest, posint just 48 rushing yards against a defense that’s giving up 184 rushing yards per game. Tight end Jake McGee and receiver E.J. Scott are emerging talents. At least U.Va. has found a way to generate some big plays (43 plays that have gone for 20-plus yards, third-most in the ACC). Scoring off those plays has been another story.

Grade: D


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It hasn’t been the kind of season defensive coordinator Jim Reid had hoped for in year three of U.Va.’s transition from the 3-4 to the 4-3 scheme, but at least the Cavaliers seem to be improving as the season progresses. U.Va. is a respectable 42nd in the nation in total defense (356.9 yards per game), but it’s 86th in scoring defense (30.9 points per game). Two of the biggest areas of concern heading into the season – getting effective pass rush and getting solid play from a young secondary – have indeed proven to be trouble spots at times. U.Va. is 115th in the nation in sacks (seven), and has picked off just one pass, which explains why the Cavaliers are second-to-last in the nation in takeaways (four; only Buffalo has fewer with three). No team in the conference has given up more touchdown passes (14) and intercepted so few passes. Only three ACC teams – Duke, Miami and Clemson – have surrendered more plays of 20-plus yards than U.Va.’s 36 such plays. Despite U.Va.’s issues, middle linebacker Steve Greer is having a solid season with 76 tackles, including 6 1/2 for tackles for loss and two sacks. Linebacker LaRoy Reynolds missed two games after having hand surgery, which partially explains why he has just 48 tackles. Freshman defensive end Eli Harold has shown a lot of promise with five tackles for loss (tied for second on the team), but he’s playing undersized as a backup at 225 pounds.  Cornerback Demetrious Nicholson doesn’t have an interception, and he has been tested in man coverage and failed a few times, but he’s second in the ACC in passes defended with 10. U.Va. has looked better the last two weeks on the defensive side, giving up minus-two rushing yards in a loss to Maryland and giving up just 213 yards total to Wake Forest, but Wake Forest and Maryland have the two least productive offenses in the ACC. More significant tests will come down the stretch at North Carolina State, against Miami, against North Carolina and at Virginia Tech.

Grade: C



Gaining advantageous field position to start drives, and trying to put opponents in a bind to start drives, has been a struggle for U.Va. all season. No team in the nation has given up more kickoff returns of 90-plus yards (two) than U.Va., including a 100-yard return for a touchdown by Maryland freshman Stefon Diggs in a game the Cavaliers lost 27-20. Deciding whether to kick the ball short and give the coverage team a chance to make a play, or kick it long to try to get a touchback has been a dilemma U.Va. has struggled with all season. U.Va. is also averaging just 20.6 yards per kickoff return. Other than Khalek Shepherd’s 72-yard return against Georgia Tech, plus his 59-yard return against Richmond, U.Va. hasn’t had a kickoff return of longer than 26 yards. Shepherd has been completely ineffective on punt returns, averaging just 3.5 yards per return. Drew Jarrett and Ian Frye have combined to make just 8 of 13 field goals. If there’s been any silver lining to the kicking game, it’s that punter Alec Vozenilek has been fairly dependable all season (42.7 yards per punt, second in the ACC).

Grade: F



Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has blamed himself from time-to-time for play-calling snafus. After the 42-17 loss at Duke, he criticized his inability to balance the running and passing attack. Given Rocco’s ineffectiveness early on, Lazor and coach Mike London might’ve been able to give Sims a little more opportunity to get acclimated if they’d made the decision to replace Rocco earlier, and if they’d given Sims more meaningful reps in the majority of the first five games. Of course, nothing could’ve prepared the coaching staff for the number of drops the offense has endured from Jennings and Terrell. Reid’s inability to get his defense to generate a dependable pass rush has taken a toll, as opposing quarterbacks have been able to stand in the pocket and work against U.Va.’s overwhelmed secondary. If there’s talk of any changes to the coaching staff in the offseason, one would have to think it would start with looking at alternatives to Anthony Poindexter at special teams coordinator, and possibly  an adjustment to some aspect of Reid’s staff (or Reid himself).

Grade: D


Grade: D


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