Press Conference: Mike London
COACH LONDON: You always go into the game and you try to see what teams do best. And as your game plan, what you try to do is stop what they do best.
The last couple of games teams had a good rushing offense and a particular back, and that was the offense we had to deal with. Duke is more of a passing team. They pass to set up the run.
Part of the strategy in game planning them will be to try to do some things coverage-wise to help us. They are ranked high in the passing category. When you ook at the yards per catch, it’s not as high. You see a lot of short throws and crossing routes and things like that, which means there’s not a lot of opportunities to get to the quarterback.
You still have to game plan in terms of the types of routes—what you want the quarterback to see pre-snap read and those types of things. Every game is different in what you have to stop—what you go in and try and stop.
Obviously one of the things we’ve been pretty good at is stopping the run and that will continue to be a main focus. Also I know we’ll have to look at what they do passing-wise and address it.
QUESTION: How would you evaluate Demetrious Nicholson’s performance thus far?
COACH LONDON: I think Tra’ has done quite well. He’s a guy that’s taken 50-plus snaps in the last few games here and started every game. If you look at it, the teams between 60, 80 snaps a game. He’s been in there. He’s had pass breakups. He’s had tackles, interceptions.
Part of the game plan for any team—if you have a young player, corner or whatever it might be—you might try to go after them.
I know they got behind Trey once, but there were two outstanding plays on balls thrown in the end zone where he got his hand on the football and knocked it out of the guy’s hand. That’s a very good play.
To me, Trey’s a candidate for the Freshman All-ACC team. I don’t know how you rank them. For a young man that’s played, started every game, has played against some of the best competition in the league to date, and has been productive for us…that’s an accomplishment for him. He’s truly doing what we thought he would do and he can only get better.
QUESTION: What makes Coach Cutcliffe’s passing game so difficult to defend?
COACH LONDON: What he’s been known to really do is make quarterbacks successful and find ways to attack coverages, find ways to teach quarterbacks what they’re looking for per defensive look.
He does a great job of creating situations or throws—formations or run plays off play-action pass fakes—that complement each other.
You can see why they can move the ball against a lot of people, but he’s been doing that system for a while.
You look at some of the quarterbacks under his tutelage, and it’s quite an impressive list. Sea Renfree—he’s doing a nice job himself. It seems like he’s been there forever. He’s running their offense, the style of offense that they like, and that’s been productive for them.
QUESTION: It seems like Virginia has played well against Miami in the past; Duke has played well against Virginia. Is there a rhyme or reason to why certain teams do better in certain matchups?
COACH LONDON: That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer to that. I know that Duke beat us last year at their place. Our focus and concentration is trying to find a way to beat them at our place.
I can’t speak to the two previous years. I don’t know what that record was when I was here before, but you have to respect all teams. And you can’t go into any game not respecting a team because of record or because of you think you have better personnel.
You’ve got to play the game. You’ve got to play the game like it’s meant to be played. You can’t take anyone lightly. We can’t afford to do anything like that. To us, this is a very important game because it’s one of the last two home games. It’s a conference opponent. It’s a chance to further any postseason opportunity that might be presented to us.
QUESTION: How much have the past two weeks helped in reinforcing what you’re teaching and doing here as part of building a program?
COACH LONDON: The expectations we have—that I have for them in the classroom, in the community—are ones they have to fulfill or else. Particularly in a classroom—or else they’re not going to play. They’re not going to travel.
Hopefully that message has been loud and clear. What they do in the community in terms of their behavior and how they act has been pretty good so far.
The development of the player—when you talk about the strength coach, the coaching, going into the second season, guys getting better from the technical standpoint—that’s a large part of it. I always go back to LaRoy Reynolds learning safety. The year before, learning safety things then last year, making him a linebacker. He’s efficient physically in terms of the skills of a linebacker and his knowledge of the position.
You get a chance to coach them up—go through the season, another spring practice, winter conditioning, summer—and he comes back, he’s playing, and he plays like a linebacker should play.
The benefit of that has been a lot of these guys hearing the same terminology over and over again and getting better. A lot of that has to do with the development of them as players—now they’re getting in games where hopefully you’re stronger, because you’re faster. Because you may be a little more athletic than you were before, hopefully things are coming to fruition this season because guys are stronger and faster and they can make that play when it counts.
There’s still some plays being made against us, and that happens in every game. For the most part, we’re starting to see some maturity, some strength, some speed, some athleticism. We just have to keep recruiting for that, keep coaching to it, and keep demanding those things I talked to you about.
QUESTION: Do you remember any conversation about Perry Jones possibly slipping to the FCS level?
COACH LONDON: I remember when I was leaving here, turning on Perry’s highlight tape, and it was unbelievable.
He was running ball, throwing the ball, returning the ball, kicking punts. I joked that he was the guy—after somebody kicked the ball off—run on the field, get the tee, go back to the sideline, go back into the game. He did everything for his high school. I remember the next question was, ‘Well, how tall is he?’ That was the next question.
Fortunately for Virginia, I don’t remember how he committed, how that came about, and who recruited him. He would have been one of those Walter Payton Award-type candidates in FCS football because of all those things. He can return punts and kicks. Obviously for us, he’s probably our most valuable player. Like I said, he’s just a tremendous athlete that was dynamic on tape. I do remember him.
I remember when we left Richmond trying to maybe get on him, but I think he had already committed.
QUESTION: Would you say the same about LaRoy Reynolds?
COACH LONDON: They’re two good players. LaRoy has continued to be a work in progress and has gotten better. Like Perry, he’s an outstanding young man, too.
He’s a better person than a player. I know you probably hear that all the time. But with him, it’s true. On Sundays we would come into the office during the summer, and he’d be out on the field by himself running.
He’d grab a couple other guys with him. That’s just the stuff he does. He is not looking for the bright lights. ‘Coach, what do you want me to do?’ Then he gets it done.
In practice, he’ll be the scout team punt returner or kickoff returner because he wants to give a good look—just things that he does like that make you marvel at him.
QUESTION: The team has only given up eight sacks in nine games. What can you say about the offensive line’s performance thus far?
COACH LONDON: I think it speaks to the ability of Morgan Moses, Oday Aboushi, Austin Pasztor, and Luke Bowanko. But I think it also speaks to what I’ve always said: that our passing game is based on windows—not throwing to a guy waiting until he’s getting open. It’s based on coverage, based on throwing through windows.
When the receiver can make a cut based on a coverage with his back, his head is to the quarterback. The quarterback knows he’s going to run to that spot, then by the time the receiver comes around the ball’s there. There’s a lot to that as opposed to the receiver running a route and getting open. The quarterback tends to hold it just a little bit longer and then has to get rid of it.
I think you’re more accessible to quarterback hits and sacks because of that. I think partly our lack of sacks is because offensively, guys like Kris Burd and Timmy Smith, understand the offense. They run the routes—they run to the holes, the seams, the spots. The quarterback is throwing it before they come out of their break, so there’s less opportunity for a sack and the ball is getting out on rhythm. I think that’s a big part of it.
QUESTION: What has made Michael Rocco so good against the blitz? Does he call the play in moments like that?
COACH LONDON: He doesn’t change the plays. I think someone asked last night about his ability to audible, and he’s allowed to do that based on the down, the distance call, the personnel group that’s going in.
His knowledge of the offense and the pre-snap read and his knowledge of post-snap read—the mechanics of dropping back, taking a quick look, looking at the secondary, the rotation of the safeties—he’s done a good job doing those type of things.
When you do that and the passing game part of it with throwing through the windows—that knowledge has put him in the position where he can command the offense. He’s not always flashy but he’s getting the job done so far. That’s probably the biggest asset that he has going for him right now. He can command the offense and keep it moving.
QUESTION: What have you seen from the freshmen redshirts who aren’t playing yet?
COACH LONDON: There are quite a few redshirting that aren’t playing, and I’ve seen some development. It goes back to we’re talking about with like Jake McGee, who was our special teams player of the game. On the first kickoff, the kickoff return, he had a tremendous block.
He’s been down there a lot making plays. His talent level and skill level, and because of the need, meant we had to play him. He’s doing everything we’ve asked him to do.
He’ll get better because he’ll get bigger and stronger. There are some guys who just weren’t quite ready in the early part. We just put them on the shelf early. If we don’t play a guy early, then I don’t want to mess around in the third, fourth game of the year and play him.
There are some that are like that. Jay Whitmire, Ross Burbank—there are two linemen I can go on. Vince Croce, and Marco Jones—they’re getting bigger and stronger. They’re giving the offensive and defensive teams problems in practice.
They’re going to be better players because they’re going to know the system. They’re going to get stronger. They’re good students. They’re good, young men. The prospect of them being able to help with depth and contribute next year, when they do play, is very positive for us.
QUESTION: It appears that Aaron Taliaferro is playing better now than he did the first three years. Is he doing anything differently now than he did previously?
COACH LONDON: Aaron has been a guy who’s always tried to find a home in the defense. In the 3-4, he was a Mike or Jack inside linebacker. Then he moved to the outside linebacker spot, and maybe he didn’t fit the scheme that was required of him in that.
Then in comes the 4-3 defense, and he has an opportunity to play off the line in space, using the knowledge of his linebacker skills. You use that, and you put it together with playing a Sam, which is to the strong side, and the Will, which is the opposite.
He could play both those linebacker positions, and he can play the Mike because he’s been playing linebacker for a while. It was an easier transition for him with this new defense.
There was a time when he and Ausar Walcott basically split reps, split time. They’re challenging each other for playing time. AT, along with Matt Conrath and Rodney McLeod, were our defensive players of the game.
He did play well. He continues to play well, and and hopefully he’ll continue to play well for however many games we have left.
QUESTION: How much freedom does the defense have to audible?
COACH LONDON: Steve Greer makes the calls, gets them lined up. Rodney McLeod is the one that handles the coverages back there. There are certain things that we do based on formations that we’ll call, and because Rodney is so versed and so experienced in seeing those types of looks, he’ll handle the coverage part of it.
He does a pretty nice job. He and Steve communicate well with each other during the course of the game through hand signals, gestures, voice, looks, whatever it is.
Your safety and your linebacker who call the plays have to be on the same page because if you’re blitzing, then you’ve got coverage issues. If you’re run-stunning, then you’ve got gap issues.
The communication between the two of them has been really good. Steve has benefited from a veteran safety like Rodney and vice versa.
QUESTION: Now that the team is bowl eligible, how do you prevent the guys from looking at the big picture instead of going game-by-game like before?
COACH LONDON: The fifth year guys on our team are the only guys that have experienced a bowl opportunity. Everyone else has never experienced that.
There’s no complacency in where we sit because there’s not enough guys on this team that have experienced that on a year in, year out basis. What they see in front of them is six wins makes you bowl eligible, but seven wins probably makes you guaranteed. Eight wins gives you an opportunity to do something else. Nine wins—I think they’re looking at it.
We’re not just satisfied because we became bowl eligible. With the remaining games, you can improve your situation. The seniors can attest you can improve your situation. The majority of the team is really focused on this particular game—chin up—because it’s the most important game. They know the ramifications of a successful season depends on how we play the next three games and we start with this one against Duke.
QUESTION: The team is still eligible to win an ACC championship. Have you mentioned that at all to the team?
COACH LONDON: I think they know that. I think they know that in order to do that, you have to win all the way up to the last one. We take care of what we have to do. Then the other teams will play other games and other teams, and it will decide their own fate.
We need to understand we control our own fate, that’s for sure. But as I said, this is a game against a team that has beaten us three years in a row.
They beat us last year. Tough, tough loss down there towards the end of the game. We’re focused on the Blue Devils.
QUESTION: What is your opinion of the wide receivers’ performance thus far this year?
COACH LONDON: I think last year each of them caught over 50 footballs, which was pretty good when you look at wide receivers on the same team. That’s a pretty good number.
Tim Smith got hurt. Chris Snyder has been hobbled a little bit. What helped us was a healthy Tim Smith. Everybody can see that he’s fast. He can catch the ball. He can run.
What helped us is that last year, Kris Burd was kind of the go-to guy. Now this year there’s two go-to guys. Kris and Tim. It’s unfortunate what happened to Matt Snyder. Someone’s role had to pick up in the wide receiver position, and you could argue Darius Jennings has and a couple other names.
Both of them have improved their knowledge of the passing game. It’s not to the extent that LaRoy Reynolds has improved because he’s coming from a different position. But it’s both of them understanding the passing game, and they do a great job as they’re running their routes. They see coverages—what the corner and safety are doing which dictates the kind of route they run.
It’s not your old run up to the tree, take a left, run a square in, square out. When they’re running routes, they’re running routes based on corners and safety alignments; and the quarterback is on the same page and he’s throwing the ball to those spots.
They’ve gotten better at doing that and maybe the answer of the quarterback having gotten better, too, probably plays into a large part of it also.
QUESTION: How much of the defense’s surge can be attributed to the play of the backfield?
COACH LONDON: I think it’s the mentality that Coach Reid and defensive coaches. Obviously I’d like the team to have to adopt the mentality of the head coach—about being a physical guy, playing with emotion and passion.
I know that Coach Reid and the defensive staff have instilled that aggressiveness, that kind of approach to how you play a game, how you compete against your opponent. You fear no one, but you respect them. That shows, and it shows when you have demonstrated performance playing against good teams like Georgia Tech, Miami. When you do those type of things, it shows that you’re capable of playing really good defense.
When you have a chance to win some games—everybody talks about how winning breeds success, and success is fed off of winning. That’s what’s going on right now. We’ve got a long way to go here. But I think our total defense is maybe in the top-25 in the country right now.
That came from a lot of hard work and a lot of evaluating where we need to be from a strength position, from schemes, from who is playing a position.
I’m very pleased defensively with how they’re playing and how we basically went from—I don’t know where we all were last year—to where they are now. We’re just playing good, solid hard, aggressive team defense.
QUESTION: What can you tell us about Duke’s defense?
COACH LONDON: They’re a little unique in that they’re a 4-2-5 defense. They use four down lineman, two inside backers and then an umbrella of safeties—three safeties and two corners—giving them an opportunity to roll coverages, bring guys three or four off an edge which sometimes dictates a blitz or pressure.
They do a pretty good job. The best player on their defense is Matt Daniels. He’s a tremendous, outstanding player. You see him making all kinds of plays against everybody they play.
He’s kind of the quarterback of the defense—a very emotional guy, but very, very rugged. I listen to all the TV versions of teams that played, and to a tee, every coach that talks about their personnel has talked about him and being the guy for them. He plays like it.
QUESTION: Did you beat Duke when you were coaching at Richmond?
COACH LONDON: The first game, yes. We went down there and beat them.
QUESTION: Is the demeanor on a bus ride home different from a 3 a.m. plane ride after a win?
COACH LONDON: When you win, they’re all the same. They’re all talkative, noisy, even on the 3:00 a.m. flights. Guys are back there talking. You’re watching TV, they’re doing their homework, whatever it is. Whether you’re flying or driving back, when you win, it’s a great atmosphere.
QUESTION: How much do you emphasize with this guys that they have lost to Duke three games in a row?
COACH LONDON: It’s written about, it’s talked about, and so they understand that. The third years have been here during those games, and so they know it’s 0 for 3 right now.
It was the same issue that we had with Maryland and knowing the November deal. It’s there, it’s out there, and we understand it.
The only thing you can do is play the game on Saturday. And as I said, our motivation is to put ourselves in a better position, with another opportunity to win a game. Also because we lost to them at their place last year and they’re coming to our place.
QUESTION: What is your opinion of Duke’s two wide receivers?
COACH LONDON: I’ll tell you, they are pretty good. They are very good players. One of the things that they do best is the short passing game. They catch the ball on the run and they get yards after the catch. They do things like that. I would imagine that with their style of offense—where you throw the ball based on coverages, based on where defenders are not—they’re well versed on that as well.
I forgot one of them was a track guy. When they catch it, they can run with it. And that’s been a large part of their success.
So defensively, knowing where they are, that’s going to be important for us, because they’re definitely two playmakers.
QUESTION: You have their high school quarterback. Does that help?
COACH LONDON: Yeah, I don’t know how many deep, deep secrets he knows other than maybe favorite color and movie star, something like that. I don’t know how much he knows football-wise.