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Cavaliers aiming to take more shots downfield

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Virginia's receivers enter each huddle waiting to hear a high number.

Under the play-calling system employed by coach Mike London, each receiver runs a numbered route, with 7, 8 and 9 representing the long ball.

"It definitely gets you psyched," receiver Tim Smith said. "You try to make the most of it. If you have to lay out, lay out. You don't want a 60-yard sprint to go to waste."

Big plays are something London has promised since arriving in Charlottesville, but in his third year as U.Va.'s coach, he may finally have the personnel to make it happen.

Through two games, the Cavaliers have 10 pass plays that have gone for 20 or more yards. In the past two seasons, they've averaged three a game.

A major factor is personnel. Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell were brought in to stretch the offense last year, but a frustrating season included several dropped passes.

"I had growing pains as a freshman, but was able to get my feet wet," said Jennings, now a sophomore. "I started out slow, but towards the end of the year, I was feeling more comfortable. Once spring ball came around, I was feeling more confident in myself."

London wants to develop the long ball to trim U.Va.'s reliance on 15-play scoring drives, replacing those with a quick-strike ability.

He also sees it as a way to open things for the running game. Defenses like to bring eight players near the line of scrimmage to stop the Wahoos' running backs, something a strong pass game can deter.

Tight end Jake McGee has contributed three big plays, showing production can come from that position as well. London said he has another weapon in freshman Adrian Gamble, a receiver used sparingly so far.

"There are a number of guys that can stretch the field," the coach said. "We're going to continue to keep trying to find the matchup, make the throws, get them downfield, and then allow those guys to be playmakers. So that's something positive we're looking at in the offense."

For the receivers, it's an opportunity that comes around sparingly, and comes with pressure.

McGee said it's tougher to make a 40-yard sprint to catch a pass than it is to make the same run in punt coverage.

"In a punt, say things go bad and I get blocked or fall down or whatever, there's guys out there to make the tackle," he said. "But if the pass is coming to me and I fall or get covered, it's more noticeable."

While drops are still an occasional issue, Jennings and McGee have shown that the passing game has made strides in the last year.

Tougher opponents loom, but cornerback Demetrious Nicholson believes the long ball is here to stay, having practiced against Jennings and Terrell all offseason.

"I remember saying earlier in the summer that I was looking forward to those guys having a breakout year," Nicholson said. "They look more comfortable, and they're showing it out on the field."

In the process, they're giving Virginia a dimension that has been lacking.

Read more about the Cavaliers at TimesDispatch.com

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