UVa begins desperate final stretch with suspensions

CHARLOTTESVILLE — After taking the off week to do some in-house scouting in the midst of a dreadful season, Virginia coach Mike London announced Monday a few changes in his starting lineup — one of which he'd prefer not had to make.

U.Va. starting linebacker Henry Coley, backup tight end Jeremiah Mathis and backup fullback LoVante' Battle, a Phoebus High graduate, have all been indefinitely suspended from the team for unspecified violations of team rules. With Coley out for Saturday's game at North Carolina State (5-3 overall, 2-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), Phoebus graduate Daquan Romero will get his first career start.

"(Romero) has done a nice job, when he's been in the game, of performing," said London, who added Coley, Mathis and Battle will have opportunities to re-join the team if they fulfill requirements. "Now, here's an opportunity for him to step up and either solidify that spot by performance, or create a spot where, again, it's open for competition."

In addition Romero's ascension to a starting role, Eli Harold also will get his first career start at defensive end. Though he hasn't started yet, Harold has been productive coming off the bench. He's second on the team among non-starters in tackles (23), and he's tied for second among all players in tackles for loss (five), including 1 1/2 sacks.

Harold came to U.Va. (2-6, 0-4) in August after being considered by many recruiting analysts as one of the nation's top 15 defensive-end prospects. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound true freshman from Ocean Lakes High in Virginia Beach had a lot to learn as an undersized college defensive end.

"I didn't really learn the defensive scheme until the last few days of (preseason)," said Harold earlier this season. "Coach would always get on me, because when I'd get in I'd kind of mess things up, but I took the leadership of (U.Va. defensive ends) Billy Schautz and Jake Snyder and those guys. They really took my hand and brought me in and taught me the ins and outs of the defense."

Romero will take over for Coley at strong-side linebacker, where Coley is fourth on the team in tackles with 40. Romero is third among non-starters with 19 tackles.

Neither of the defensive starting lineup changes will cause as much of a fuss as U.Va.'s starting quarterback switch from Michael Rocco to Phillip Sims did before the Oct. 6 loss at Duke, but the defensive changes could inject new life into a defense that has struggled to create turnovers or put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

U.Va. is last in the nation in takeaways with four, and tied for 116th in the nation out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision programs with just seven sacks.

On the offensive side, Sims has struggled to get comfortable in the starting role. Since taking it over, he's completed 56 of 109 passes (51.4 percent) for 660 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions. During the off week, a big point of emphasis for Sims was working on his timing with wide receivers.

"For a quarterback in the system that kind of relies on timing, obviously the timing of when the ball has to be thrown based on the breaks of the receiver is something that Phillip needs to continue to keep working on," London said. "I think that's been part of the issue is knowing when to throw the ball."

U.Va. heads into the back one-third of the season with one of the most daunting of challenges ahead of it. It needs to win all the rest of its games just to get bowl-eligible. The teams left on U.Va.'s schedule — at N.C. State, Miami, North Carolina and at Virginia Tech — are a combined 19-14.

Another loss would be U.Va.'s seventh in a row, which would equal its longest skid since it lost the last four games of the 2008 season and first three of the '09 season. U.Va. has just one win against a FBS program — a 17-16 victory Sept. 8 against Penn State — in more than 11 months.

"These are a series of one-game playoffs, or however you want to call it," London said. "These games are bowl games for us right now."

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