This was anything but the monotonous, tedious set of spring practices that ultimately becomes stale for those involved.
Instead, the past month has served as a restoration of Virginia’s football program and provided optimism about what this fall could be.
“Coming off of how the season ended, it just gave everybody a different perspective on what we get to do every single day,” second-year UVa coach Tony Elliott said Thursday, “and a different perspective on life.”
Said Hoos offensive coordinator Des Kitchings: “It’s these players and the attitude that they came back with after our break, and the competitive spirit they brought with them. It’s probably been some of the most fun I’ve had in 18 years of coaching.”
On Saturday, the Cavaliers take the field for their annual Blue-White Spring Game at Scott Stadium to give their fans a glimpse of what they’ve been up to since reconvening for practice in mid-March for the first time since the horrific November shooting on Grounds that took the lives of former Hoos Lavel Davis Jr., D’Sean Perry and Devin Chandler.
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UVa will honor the legacies of those three with an end zone painted ‘UVASTRONG’ along with their names and the numbers they wore.
“With players, there’s just a flip in the gratitude to be out here,” sixth-year senior tight end Grant Misch said. “And when we’re more thankful, we’re more excited to be out here.”
The showcase on Saturday will be as game-like as possible, according to Elliott. The Cavaliers are splitting their roster evenly, and linebackers coach Clint Sintim will coach the White team and defensive tackles coach Kevin Downing will lead the Blue side.
Progress has been made offensively, defensively and collectively throughout the 14 sessions leading into the scrimmage, said Elliott, whose UVa squad is working to improve upon the 3-7 record it posted in his first season at the helm last fall.
The Cavaliers have incorporated six transfers, including former Monmouth quarterback Tony Muskett, ex-Clemson running back Kobe Pace and former Northwestern wide receiver Malik Washington, who’ve fit in well with the veteran core of the roster.
Muskett said he’s gotten to know fifth-year senior running back Mike Hollins better over the last month. Hollins miraculously returned to participate in practice after being wounded during the shooting.
“We’re all in the locker room and I’m right next to Mike Hollins,” Muskett said, “so after what he’s been through, he’s a huge inspiration to me daily. And all the guys here, they just have a great energy and I mean that honestly, they come in every day whether it’s for a lift or are out on the field and it’s fun to be around them.”
Elliott said the togetherness of his players is the biggest change from this past fall.
“You have to be intentional in becoming a team,” he said. “You have to spend time together, and you’re starting to see guys that may not normally hang out together, you’re starting to see them interact more, which gives me an indication that they’re becoming closer teammates. And at the end of the day when times get tough, that’s really what you rely on.”
Kitchings said this spring, players have spent their free time hanging around the football offices to talk with their coaches and learn more, which is a major change from last year.
For his offense, this spring marked the start of the evaluation of the quarterback battle between Muskett and junior Jay Woolfolk. No decision has been made yet because Woolfolk divided his time between practices and his relief pitching responsibilities for the baseball team. He won’t play in the spring game because baseball is scheduled to host Pittsburgh later in the day.
It also was a critical opportunity to begin fixing the offensive line issues the Cavaliers had last year when their 3.4 sacks allowed per game were the second most in the ACC. With new O-Line coach Terry Heffernan involved, Elliott said the front is better. Heffernan, like Kitchings, has an NFL background.
“He’s able to really take what Des wants to do with that concept and go articulate it in a way to the offensive line so they can get it,” Elliott said, “because he’s been in a wide-zone system where he’s been at the NFL level. So, the details that you need to be able to execute at a high level are some natural cohesion, because of the experiences that those guys share.”
On defense, coordinator John Rudzinski’s entire group of assistants returned, allowing the unit to continue building on the strides made last year.
“Last year, was learning [the defense],” sophomore linebacker Stevie Bracey said. “This year, it’s been more about getting better and sharpening up what we put in last spring, during fall camp and throughout the season. So, I see a change in our defense and we were pretty decent last year, and I think we’re going to be better this year.”
One of the defense’s top objectives was to figure out how to replace standouts like linebacker Nick Jackson as well as cornerbacks Anthony Johnson and Fentrell Cypress from last season’s defense. Johnson is off to the NFL and Jackson and Cypress opted to transfer.
Rudzinski said the Hoos have enough talent at linebacker, and they’ve slid safety Lex Long to deepen the position.
“And there’s another Jackson. His name is James,” Rudzinski said about junior linebacker James Jackson, “and he’s a young man here that’s from the state of Virginia that dreamed of coming to the University of Virginia. ... And he’s displayed all those leadership skills that you’d imagine of an inside linebacker. And I’ll tell you what, he’s really done a nice job.”
Kickoff is slated for 2 p.m.