From now until the season starts I will be previewing the prospects from Big-12, ACC and Big East teams for the upcoming season. My colleague at NFL Draft Monsters Justin Higdon (follow him on Twitter @afc2nfc) will be covering the SEC, Pac-12 and Big-10 and you will be able to read those posts on NFL Draft Monsters. Check them all out to get ready for the 2013 NFL Draft by identifying the prospects you need to learn about!
Today I am previewing the Virginia Cavaliers. The Cavaliers made it to a bowl game last season but lost to Auburn 43-24. This year the Cavaliers are hoping to build on their 8-5 season in 2011, and Head Coach Mike London seems to be doing a good job. He took his 4-8 team in 2010 and helped mold it into an 8 win team just a year later, and now in 2012 they have a shot at a similar win total. They return their starting quarterback from a year ago in Michael Rocco and he has fresh competition at quarterback now that Alabama transfer Phillip Sims has been added to the fold. Rocco has the hold on the starting job for now, but Sims is a superior talent because of his athleticism and arm strength. Rocco won the job because of his command of the offense, but as Sims catches up to him in that regard it will be hard for London to keep a player with Sims’ talent off the field in my opinion. The competition in the 2013 spring should be a very good one, but for now Rocco will be the quarterback. The Cavaliers return two talented running backs in Perry Jones and Kevin Parks, and their offensive line returns three starters that I believe have NFL futures. The Cavaliers don’t have much experience at wide receiver, but returning receiving leader Tim Smith is poised for a break-out season, as is Darius Jennings, a true sophomore wide receiver with plenty of speed. The Cavaliers should have a pretty reliable offense this year, particularly if Rocco continues to improve and some of his relative unknown receiving options step up.
Strangely, the question marks surround the defense more than the offense. The defensive line has some talent headlined by captain Will Hill and defensive end Bill Schautz, and captains Steve Greer and LaRoy Reynolds anchor the linebackers. I wonder how much of a pass rush this defensive line will generate, and that makes me even more concerned about the Cavaliers’ secondary. They are starting a lot of inexperienced players, and return only one starter to that unit. They have potential, but their lack of in-game experience is likely going to rear its ugly head in the form of big plays this season, and that is going to hurt the Cavaliers in their quest to win an ACC Championship. I think UVA will go to a bowl game again, but I don’t think they will be able to unseat Virginia Tech for a trip to the ACC title game. With that, take a look at Virginia’s prospects to keep an eye on:
Michael Rocco, QB*- Rocco is a 6’3”, 225 pound junior who enters this season with 13 career starts that all came as a sophomore. He looked like the obvious choice to be the starting QB, but then Phillip Sims transferred to Virginia from Alabama after losing the starting job to AJ McCarron again. Rocco isn’t a great athlete but he was solid as a starter last year, passing for 2,671 yards (60.7% completion), 13 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He doesn’t have as strong of an arm as Sims does, though he probably has above average arm strength if I had to approximate, but it’s not ideal. I want to see him improve as a decision maker this year, which could very well happen given how often he is praised for his football IQ and intangibles. He’s tough and he’s an effective leader even if he isn’t a big “rah-rah” guy, and that could be what helps him keep his job more than anything else. It will be interesting to see how he does this season, because keeping a hold on his starting job will require improving on the field and some mental toughness off of it. Sims isn’t going to go away, and he will be nipping at his heels all season in all likelihood. Rocco should be named the starter even if he isn’t as physically gifted because he knows the offense so well and Sims is still playing catch-up in that regard.
Phillip Sims, QB**- Sims is the talented but often overlooked quarterback that is likely to back Rocco up this season. Sims was AJ McCarron’s back-up at Alabama and could never overtake him to win the job, and transferred to Virginia hoping to unseat Rocco and start here. That seems unlikely even though he gained a medical hardship waiver enabling him to play right away. That meant he was in a stiff competition for playing time with the entrenched starting quarterback without having a firm grasp of the offense. Sims doesn’t have the playbook mastered yet, and even though it is similar to the offense he ran at Alabama it will take him time to master the terminology that Rocco is already fluent in. Sims likely won’t unseat Rocco for the starting job now, but down the line once they are both more comfortable Sims could have a chance to do so. Sims is listed at 6’2”, 217 pounds and I believe he is only a redshirt sophomore. That means that even if Rocco holds him off until he graduates Sims should have a season to start as a senior unless Rocco leaves early or he manages to overtake him before he graduates. It should be an intriguing developing story because Sims has a lot of natural talent, he’s just not as advanced as Rocco is in the mental aspect of the game, particularly as it pertains to UVA’s offense.
Perry Jones, RB- Jones is returning for his senior year with the Cavaliers having started 24 games in his career. He’s listed at 5’8”, 185 pounds but is pretty filled out considering his small frame. He is everywhere on Virginia’s offense, rushing 184 times for 915 yards and 5 touchdowns (5.0 ypc) and catching 38 passes for 506 yards and 3 touchdowns as a junior. Jones may be a smaller back but he runs hard and with authority, doesn’t back down from contact, and has plenty of shiftiness and quickness as a runner. He doesn’t have gamebreaking straight line speed, and he may not have the frame to take a consistent pounding as a feature back at the next level, but his ability to run the ball effectively as well as catch the ball out of the backfield should result in him being drafted in the 5th-6th round range if not higher next April.
Kevin Parks, RB**- Parks may only be a sophomore but he’s got plenty of upside and will likely be the feature back after Jones graduates. He’s a shorter back like Jones as he is listed at 5’8”, but he weighs just shy of 200 pounds, and is listed at 195. That’s a lot of muscle to pack onto that short frame, and he almost reminds me of Doug Martin in that respect (aka, the Muscle Hampster). Predictably Parks runs hard, can’t be taken down by arm tackles, has some burst to hit the hole and has good leg drive. He isn’t on Jones’ level as a receiver out of the backfield, catching just 11 passes for 82 yards and 1 touchdown as a freshman, but I would be surprised if he didn’t improve in that regard. He’s got a lot of ability and despite playing second fiddle to Jones last year he rushed for 709 yards and 9 touchdowns (4.7 ypc). He may not be the starter yet, but he’s going to get plenty of touches this year and will almost certainly be the go-to guy at running back in 2013.
Tim Smith, WR*- Smith is the top returning receiver coming back for the Cavaliers and is primed and ready for a break-out season if he can stay healthy. He lost the 2010 season to injury when he had to have reconstructive ankle surgery, and despite not being 100% last season from being “nicked up” he was far and away the best deep threat the Cavaliers had on their roster. He caught 33 balls for 565 yards and 3 touchdowns, averaging 17.1 yards per reception. He’s listed at 6’0”, 185 pounds and has plenty of speed to threaten teams vertically and has a 4.4 speed in the 40 yard dash. His sophomore season was just the beginning of his production and he is ready to make even more big plays this season. He has assumed a significant leadership role with the wide receivers because he is the most experienced of the entire lot, and has been pushing and motivating them all to get better. He is committed to improving and his goal is to get 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns this season even though only two Virginia receivers have eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving since 1990. He was actually high school teammates with Phillip Sims which provides an interesting dynamic for the quarterback competition that I imagine will be ongoing. Smith works hard, watches a lot of film and has become a leader all of which I love to hear. Now he just has to stay healthy and he should break out this season.
Darius Jennings, WR**- Jennings is a 5’11”, 165 pound receiver who is entering his true sophomore season but he has explosive speed much like Smith does. He had 20 receptions for 238 yards and 1 touchdown as a sophomore, but his biggest game came against Miami when he caught two screen passes but turned them into 78 combined yards and his only touchdown of the season. He’s dangerous in the open field and was utilized as the team’s primary kick returner last year, totaling a 20 yard average on his 30 runbacks. He seems poised to step up as well, and has reportedly been learning a lot from the leader of the receivers Tim Smith. He isn’t very big like Smith and he has plenty of speed and burst, so look out for them to turn a lot of short receptions into big gains thanks to their ability to generate yards after the catch.
Colter Phillips, TE- Phillips has 26 career starts but despite that he has never been much of a receiving threat, and he only had 3 receptions for 15 yards as a junior. He looked like he was ready to step up as a sophomore though, as he caught 18 receptions for 155 yards and 3 touchdowns. It remains to be seen how much of a role he will play in the passing attack this season, but hopefully he will be more involved. He is listed at 6’6”, 245 pounds and has the athletic ability and hands to be a productive tight end, he just needs to stay on the field.
Oday Aboushi, OT- Aboushi is the top draft prospect on Virginia’s roster right now and he has a legitimate shot at being a 1st round pick if he continues to improve as a senior. He enters his senior season with 25 career starts (20 coming at left tackle) and has prototypical left tackle size at 6’6”, 310 pounds and has the athleticism to stick at the position in the NFL. He is a hard worker and continues to improve, but he isn’t a very good run blocker at this point. That won’t deter teams from drafting him if he shows he can be a quality starting left tackle at the next level, but if teams are wishy washy about him sticking there or moving back to right tackle then his less impressive run blocking will drag his overall grade down. It will be interesting to see how he does as a senior because he is one of the top senior offensive tackles in the country.
Morgan Moses, OT*- Moses is a mountain of a man who enters his junior season with 20 career starts including 19 at Right Tackle (the other at right guard). He seems like a prototypical right tackle in the NFL to me, and is listed at 6’6”, 335 pounds and after reportedly weighing 350 pounds last season. He has surprisingly good feet and I think he can stay on the outside at the next level based on what I’ve seen so far. I’m not quite convinced he can be a left tackle in the NFL though. However, after Aboushi graduates if Moses doesn’t declare early he will likely slide over to left tackle as a senior like he did while Aboushi missed spring practice this season. Moses is very talented and has a lot of potential and is a potential 1st round pick in his own right, and forms one of the best offensive tackle combos in the entire country.
Luke Bowanko, OG*- Bowanko is returning for his second full season as a starter after starting all 13 games at right guard as a sophomore. He’s listed at 6’6”, 295 pounds and figures to get even bigger as he continues to fill out his frame. Bowanko has impressive speed and movement skills for an offensive lineman and reportedly ran a 4.8 40 yard dash when he was a junior in high school. Not only is he skilled on the football field but he works hard in the classroom and chose Virginia largely because of academics. He seems like a great kid and he’s an easy guy to root for, and I’m excited to see how he plays this year. This offensive line returns three starters and all three have NFL futures. Bowanko might be under the radar right now, but he won’t stay that way for long.
Bill Schautz, DE- Schautz is a high effort defensive end who has some injury question marks. He broke his leg in two places last season against Florida State and spent the entire offseason rehabbing to try to come back for the season. He is supposedly 100% now, and that is a tribute to his impressive work ethic and determination. He’s a senior now and if he can stay healthy for the entire season he could easily surpass his last season totals of 28 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks and 2 pass break-ups. He’s got a great motor and always plays with great intensity, and has reportedly taken the top recruit in the state of Virginia, Eli Harold, under his wing. The two are roommates and if Harold, who has been timed at 4.46 in the 40 yard dash, begins to emulate Schautz’ work ethic and motor the sky will be the limit for him. There’s no word on whether Harold will play this season or not, but even if he doesn’t the lessons he will learn from Schautz will be valuable. He’s a key cog on the Cavaliers defense and while he might not be more than a late rounder or undrafted free agent at this point his leadership and work ethic will prove valuable if he does get a shot at the NFL.
Will Hill, DT- Hill is returning for his senior year with the Cavaliers and the defensive tackle has been named a team captain for the 2012 season. He is listed at 6’4”, 280 pounds and despite only having 1 career start he returns as a starting defensive tackle and a leader at that. Last season he had 36 tackles, 6 TFL, 1 sack, 2 pass break-ups and 1 forced fumble. I think he is ready to surpass all of those totals as a senior. He’s a bit undersized and could stand to add some more weight to fill out his frame, but he’s flying way under the radar since he has so little starting and playing experience beyond last season. He’s flashed some hand usage thus far in his career, but if he can continue to improve his hand usage and get more violent to shed blocks quicker and more decisively he would make more impact plays. He’s got a good motor and work ethic, so I think he’s capable of those improvements. If he can step up it would really help Virginia’s defense as a whole, both in run defense and in pass defense.
Steve Greer, MLB- Greer might be the top prospect on Virginia’s defense. He is listed at 6’2”, 225 pounds and he led the team in tackles last season with 103 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 sacks and 4 pass break-ups. He has 24 career starts as he started as a freshman and as a junior, but lost his starting job as a sophomore despite playing in every game. He’s going to be the starter in the middle again this year, and figures to be one of the leaders of the defense along with Will Hill and Bill Schautz and was named a team captain for the 2012 season. He’s a tough player that doesn’t have great range though, and even though he’s a good tackler he is relatively unproven in coverage. He has some work to do to get drafted, but he’s got the attitude and work ethic to make a NFL roster even if he doesn’t get drafted.
LaRoy Reynolds, OLB- Reynolds was the second leading tackler on the Cavaliers last season with 88 tackles, 8 TFL and 1 pass break-up as a junior. He’s listed at 6’2”, 230 pounds and has been named a captain for the 2012 season. He’s not quite as fundamentally sound as Greer is as a tackler, but he has more explosiveness as a hitter and is no stranger to aggressive take-downs. He’s a little more physically imposing despite their similar measurables, but he tackles high more than I would like which can lead to missed tackles if it isn’t corrected. He contributes on special teams as well which should help him make a NFL roster even if he doesn’t get drafted.
Demetrious Nicholson, CB**- Nicholson started 13 games last year as a true freshman and is the only returning starter in the secondary for the Cavaliers which is going to be a serious concern for their defense this season. The pressure is squarely on the front 7 to make things as easy as possible for the secondary as they start not one, not two, not three but FOUR sophomores including three true sophomores in their defensive backfield. Nicholson is easily the most proven commodity having started last season as a true freshman as he earned 2nd team freshman All-American honors as he totaled 60 tackles, 2 TFL, 8 pass deflections and 2 interceptions. He is the only defender returning with an interception in 2011 and is going to be under intense pressure. Even if he steps up and plays well teams will just avoid him and challenge the other unproven members of the Cavalier secondary. Nicholson is listed at 5’11” but only weighs 165 pounds, so durability may be a concern for him until he can fill out his frame, but he has plenty of talent.