- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2011

CHARLOTTESVILLE | The opening of spring practice last month provided a rush to Virginia senior safety Rodney McLeod.

He was back on the field with his teammates, finally given the chance to begin moving past a 4-8 season.

More importantly, the second spring under coach Mike London began at a substantially faster pace than the first one.

“The first practice we had for this spring practice was like day five of last year,” McLeod said. “The coaches saw it and we saw it, and we just felt it as a team and we’re going to continue to get better.”

The excitement of London’s hire and debut has dissipated as it does for all new coaches, replaced by the reality Virginia faces as the final week of spring practice winds down and it looks toward a Sept. 3 opener against William and Mary.

The Cavaliers are coming off three straight losing seasons for the first time since 1980-82, haven’t settled on a starting quarterback to replace Marc Verica, and are only in the beginning phase of enjoying the payoff of London’s in-state recruiting push since his arrival in December 2009.

But in place of the new-coach euphoria are familiarity and stability, elements the Cavaliers believe have made the last month more productive than a year earlier.

“We’re light years ahead of where we were last spring,” said senior safety Dom Joseph, who returned an interception for a touchdown in Saturday’s spring game. “It’s definitely rewarding and impressive to see the fact [defensive coordinator Jim] Reid and coach London are putting pressure on us and we’re installing every day. I feel as a team we’re grasping everything well.”

“Light years” was also a measure of distance London offered to describe the Cavaliers’ progress, and the defense’s performance during the spring game offered some support. Virginia forced twice as many turnovers (six) as offensive scoring drives it allowed (three), and there were only three possessions of more than 25 yards during the 40-minute scrimmage.

Joseph said some basics - understanding the system, communicating better, knowing precisely where to be on a given play and making sharper calls - are reasons a unit ranked in the bottom quarter of the ACC in total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense in 2010 should be better in the fall.

A fair assessment would also point out Virginia is without its top four receivers this spring, tilting the advantage to the defense. It also cycled through four inexperienced quarterbacks Saturday, with sophomore Michael Rocco (17-for-32, 152 yards, two touchdowns and one interception) working with the first-team offense for a half.

Rocco, as well as sophomore Ross Metheny and redshirt freshman Michael Strauss, are entering their second season in offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s system. Only David Watford, a true freshman who enrolled early out of Hampton High School, is absorbing everything for the first time.

“The first year, when you’re first installing the offense, there’s so much to learn,” Lazor said. “In essence, the guys are learning a whole new language and a whole new way of doing things. In the second year, you still reteach some of those things, but you can do it really fast and move on to more advanced levels. We should be more advanced this year when we hit the first game.”

That should go for both sides of the ball. Virginia still has its share of uncertainties, and its November collapse after a surprising 4-4 start echoed the tail end of the Al Groh era.

Yet with London wrapping up his second spring, the Cavaliers believe an increase in familiarity can lead to improved results later in the year.

“Last year, people were adjusting,” McLeod said. “They didn’t know how things would go with a new scheme. That’s no excuse for how the season went. I feel like this year, people are comfortable in the system they’re in and just learning from these coaches. I think there’s a lot of hope for this year.”

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