Q. Obviously there were multiple instances the other day where you had defenders in place and they were out‑battled for the ball or out‑jumped or whatever. Would you agree with that, and how can you correct that?
COACH LONDON: You saw a couple instances where the ball was up in the air, and you have to go up and compete for the ball, knock it down or contest the receiver. There were a couple times that their guy out‑competed us for the ball. One of the most critical issues was the 3rd and 22, and when they converted on that. Our coaches teach go at the highest point and knock the ball down. We didn’t do a good job of doing that and contesting those throws because it did come back and hurt us in ways that you look back and see what cost you the game.
Q. Adding to that, it’s Rijo Walker OR Brandon Phelps this week on the depth chart. Is it going to be a battle at free safety?
COACH LONDON: The same way when we looked at the receivers a couple games ago about the who and the what and making sure the competition is there to give us a chance. We are going to do the same thing in the back end of the secondary. Tim Harris will play more. Rijo Walker will play more, and Anthony Harris has been doing a really nice job of kind of being the guy there that’s back there for us, with Demetrious Nicholson, whether he’s in or he’s out, those are issues we’ll have to deal with as the week goes on. But we want to make sure we put guys in the position, and to have opportunities to go in, and compete and play and help us.
Q. Anthony Boone made kind of a surprise return for Duke this past week. What’s the difference with him there as opposed to not having him there?
COACH LONDON: He’s an excellent player that runs. Coach Cutcliffe’s scheme: Run, run, play action pass, or pass and then run the ball with his legs. He knows the offense. He executes it well. Last week I know he was kind of, I guess, listening to them, last‑minute or game‑day decision on that, and he was very efficient. He played extremely well, and he is one of the guys that they rely on to make things happen for them offensively.
He’s a good player, a very good player that runs their scheme and their system well.
Q. I noticed you have Brent Urban OR Donte Wilkins listed at defensive tackle. Does that mean his injury is not too serious, and I guess what’s his status this week in general terms?
COACH LONDON: Well, in general terms that’s why the OR is there. If he’s ready to go, then he’ll go. If not, we’ll have to go the other route.
But we don’t practice today. We’ll go tomorrow and then we’ll see how things progress. But Thursday is normally when we turn in the ACC injury report as far as probable, doubtful and all those things.
Q. A season‑ending injury is ‑‑
COACH LONDON: Yeah, this is not season‑ending.
Q. Taquan Mizzell came in with a lot of hype and fanfare coming out of high school. I know you had some big thoughts for him in the preseason. I know he was nicked up a little bit. How come he hasn’t had such a big impact as you guys thought you could have had out of him earlier?
COACH LONDON: Taquan, “Smoke” as we call him, is an excellent player. He did have those issues with coming in with the injury, ankle injury, early on, the first three games, and then came back the Ball State game and this game. But he’s a player, again, that has skills, dynamic skills – which we want to find ways to get incorporated into the offense.
The big thing is the offense is improving as we move along, as we’ve gone along, and we just have to continue to find ways for him to use those skills because he is a very, very good player.
Q. I noticed looking at your wide receiving corps; all three guys atop the depth chart are 6’3″ and over 200 pounds. Are you looking for blocking, the ability to ball at the highest point type of things?
COACH LONDON: It goes back to when we decided to make the changes, it was basically because of catching and some of those run after catch or run or blocking downfield issues, and I think that as we’ve gone on that Kyle [Dockins] and Keeon [Johnson] have done a really nice job of perimeter blocking. You want your runners to get to the perimeter, to the second level, and I believe that part of that is their ability to do those things. Now, you want also receivers that can go stretch the field and go the distance. You want guys that can go up and get the ball.
But right now probably our receivers are kind of like, by committee, in that a lot of them do different things better than others, and in finding out what our identity is at that position right now, we see bigger skill set guys doing some of the things that we’re asking them to do. We’ll continue to keep looking at them, finding out what they can do to help us. But I’d say those two guys are doing a nice job thus far.
Q. Staying on Keeon Johnson, he seems to have made the most of his opportunities as a receiver since you took his redshirt off. Would you like to get the ball to him more?
COACH LONDON: If the reads dictate that. When you look at kind of our ‑‑ the pattern of who’s catching the balls, obviously Jake McGee is definitely catching the ball. I think he’s as good a pass catching tight end as there is out there, some of the catches that he’s made, and you see a lot of the catches distributed amongst several of the receivers, the guys that are playing. As Keeon continues to get better, obviously he can become one of those focal targets because as was just said, he’s about a 6’3″ plus guy, got an outstanding vertical leap, and he makes those type of catches in practice. That part of his game will catch up, as well. What he’s doing now, he’s providing opportunities for the team to be productive, whether he’s blocking, running routes and obviously getting the ball to him.
Q. The reception on the last drive, was that kind of what you’ve been looking for from Darius [Jennings]? He hasn’t been making too many big plays in the receiving game.
COACH LONDON: Again, it goes back to the distribution of the ball that was going to Jake and to other guys, but obviously that’s one of the things that Darius can do because he’s got vertical speed. If you see when you watch him return the last couple kickoffs, he’s had some pretty good kickoff returns going vertical. It was good to see Darius make a catch like that because that’s what he can be. Again, as we said before, man, he was one of the guys that recognized, that as far as drops and things go, the receiving corps had to step up. He was the first one to step up and acknowledge that, and he has taken his role and embraced his leadership role and said, listen, we all have to be accountable for production or lack thereof, and he’s done some things in games now that have stepped up his game.
Q. It seems like you’ve gotten some improvement in the running game the last couple weeks. Can you address where that is now and how important that is from here to the finish?
COACH LONDON: Very important as far as establishing a running game that can obviously open up the passing lanes for you, and I think part of the running game for us, Kevin Parks has done a nice job of being a hard, tough, physical runner. I think the other part is the ability of David [Watford], also, to be able to use his legs, as well. When you’re running those read plays or those pistol plays, the ability of the quarterback to run to attack the perimeter is something teams have to be aware, and then that sets up the play action passes.
Conner Davis being in there helped. Luke Bowanko being at center helped. Eric Smith continues to improve. Morgan Moses probably had one of his better games, grading‑out‑wise. It’s good to see that those guys, the mix of offensive linemen, what we’re doing, getting David involved in the running game, as well, those are the type of things that are helping us improve as an offense, and we want to continue to keep working on those things so we can get better at that.
Q. Midway point of the season you’ve implemented three new systems this year. Where do you see where you’re at with those offense, defense, special teams, and what things can improve on in those areas in the six games you have left?
COACH LONDON: Well, the biggest thing is to see improvement as we’re going forward and it’s going on. We do see the number of young players that are involved in this, and it’s part of the experience of playing the game and being out there and getting that action for their development.
As I said, offensively there’s an improvement that you see, what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, and it’s taken a while to find those pieces to get it going.
Defensively we’re at the point where we’re an aggressive style defense, those balls that are thrown down the field, contesting those type of throws, those things are important because it reduces the passing yardage. We’ve been fairly decent in total defense, but there’s always room for improvement in that regards.
Special teams, there’s been better play in special teams, particularly with the return game, with our punt return game. And so I see a process of us continuing to get better as we move forward. These guys that are learning how to block in the systems that we’re asking them to do are getting better at it, and that’s the progress that we’re looking for, because we’re going to need that going down the stretch, particularly the rest of these teams that we’re playing, they’re very good teams that we’re playing down the stretch here.
Q. I believe we’ve got Jay Whitmire coming in here today. Could you talk a little bit about his development and whether he’s been a better guard than he was tackle?
COACH LONDON: Well, when he walks in here you look at him and Jay is a physical specimen. He was a tight end T.C. Williams High School under Coach Dennis Randolph, also played offensive tackle, as well, very athletic. Jay is a big guy that can cover you up, and you’d have to ask him whether or not the right tackle or the move into guard is something that he likes or enjoys. He probably will give you the answer that whatever helps the team, he’s willing to do.
And Jay is a first‑year starter and getting better, getting bigger, if you can say that, and I believe that he’s got a bright future ahead of him as far as an offensive lineman here at Virginia. Virginia, as you know, has produced some really good offensive linemen, and I think Jay is one of those guys that because he’s had the benefit of playing right tackle, having to block pass rushers and now he’s inside, that he’s getting kind of a knowledge of how to be an offensive lineman, and I think in the end it’s going to be a benefit to him.
Q. As a follow‑up on special teams, regarding Alec Vozenilek, he’s been punting extremely well. Can you update us on where Ian Frye is and if he does come back is that his job automatically, or because of the way Alec has been kicking do you keep him in that position?
COACH LONDON: Alec is healthy and he’s kicking. Ian is still showing up on the injury report, and until that changes then Alec is the guy that’s handling the place‑kicking chores and the punting.
Q. With your red zone offense, do you work on that more in practice this week, or how do you improve there?
COACH LONDON: The big thing when you get down there, as I said before, is scoring touchdowns is important. This game, we’re down in the red zone area six teams and we got points, but four of them were field goals and two of them were touchdowns. Maryland had three touchdowns and two field goals, obviously there’s a difference in scoring right there.
You always want to get down there. One, the priority is to get points. Just like the 3rd and 22 on defense, the goal‑line situation down there, not being able to get it in, that was an issue. That also came back and cost us. Improving in scoring touchdowns when you get down inside that red zone, that low red zone area, is a point of emphasis and will always be a point of emphasis.
Q. It seems as if your linebackers have tackled pretty well, but there’s some open field tackles you missed the other day. How about the tackling of the secondary, and does that have to improve?
COACH LONDON: I believe the overall tackling has to improve for everyone. In football games you’re going to have missed tackling, but it’s those missed tackles after catches, those missed tackles after initial stops at the line of scrimmage where a runner continuously continues to run. Those are the things, those yards after catches and first contact are those critical things. And I believe what you saw a couple catches that turned into yards after catch. When you have those opportunities you’ve got to get the guy down on the ground.
I know, again, a point of emphasis, well taken. Tim Harris having a chance to play more, a result of competition at that corner position. Rijo Walker having a chance to play more, it was as a result of competition at that safety position. Safeties have to be great tacklers, so we’ll make sure that we put the right people in the game to make that happen.
Q. This game last year I think was Phillip’s [Sims] first start, and I think fans kind of looked at it as this exciting thing about he’s going to be a guy kind of leading the way or whatever, and then he kind of flipped and flopped. Through six games this year you’ve stayed with David and you’ve seen progress. You talked in the preseason about having that one quarterback and stability and how that can help a team. How has that helped David, that he hasn’t had anybody over his shoulder so far?
COACH LONDON: I think the consistency of having a guy and saying that you’re the guy is important. Obviously doing a better coaching job of having a situation with a quarterback that you want to say that, listen, you don’t have to look over your shoulder, you’re the guy, and you go out there and you handle it and you do it and you’re surrounded by your coaches and players, teammates. And I believe that that’s what’s occurring with David right now is that there’s a certain maturation process that you have, getting acclimated to what’s being called upon as far as the system, not having to feel like he’s got to look over his shoulder when a bad throw or something like that is done, and just believing. As I said, a couple games before, I believe in David. I believe in what we’re asking him to do. He’s getting better at it, and this was his best college football game to date, and I believe he’s got better games ahead of him.
Q. You mentioned you see this team improving from week to week. How frustrating has it been not being able to turn that into wins, and do you agree with ‑‑ Tom O’Brien talked to us last week and said this team needs to learn how to win. Do you agree with that? How would you sort of describe this team’s, I guess, just maturity in terms of turning this improvement into victories?
COACH LONDON: I mean, the obvious goal is to win, and whether you’ve got older guys, younger guys, whatever it is, the psychology of the results of winning, winning begets winning, and when it’s tough and you’re losing close games and you’re losing games, you have to deal with the psychology of young players when that occurs.
It is important that we play well because the biggest thing you look for right now is the improvement in what we’re doing. I believe that in the improvement of what we’re doing, we talked about red zone, we talked about contesting balls that are up in the air, that you get better at those things, that it will reflect on the outcome of a game.
And obviously in looking at this game, the red zone part of it, that 3rd and 22, and there were a couple other catches that Maryland’s receivers did a nice job. They outperformed us in going to get the ball. But if you keep harping on those things that are parts of the game that are important parts of the game and they have success at it, I believe that winning comes with that, the attitudes come with that. When you have younger guys that don’t experience that part of winning early on, then you just got to keep ‑‑ you’ve got to stay with them. You’ve got to stay with them and you’ve got to keep harping on it, and I believe things will turn.
I believe in the progress that we’ve seen here offensively. I believe that defensively with the moves and guys that will be put in position or given the opportunity to compete that they will get better. And so that’s the whole process that’s involved here is just you’d like to put your finger on one thing. There’s probably more than one thing, but the one thing that always remains constant has got to be that effort and not giving up on these players.
Q. You continue to use the word improvement. Could you just list off the things you think you guys have improved on in the last two or three games?
COACH LONDON: Done a better job in running the football for sure, and that has been helped by having our offensive line moved around, but having a guy like Conner Davis back. We’ve thrown the ball better in having guys like whether it’s Jake McGee or a plethora of wide receivers catching the ball. So we’ve done that better.
The quarterback has made better decisions. This past game there was no turnovers. The offensive line again blocked, and there were no sacks.
This game there were five penalties, the game before there were 13 penalties, so that disciplined part about, not that we were undisciplined the game before, but the focus on those things, again, that can cause you to lose was based on the fact that we can’t have those type of things, and the players listened and learned. Lesson learned.
Got in the red zone and we scored, the six opportunities were there, but as we mentioned before, having a chance to score those touchdowns becomes critical, at least on one of those drives, in particular the 3rd and goal. You’ve got to have that. You’ve got to punch that in. Whether we need to put an extra tackle in or big fullback in the backfield, whatever it is, we have to score touchdowns in that situation.
Those are some of the signs of the improvement that I see going on with this team, and then now moving forward as we go into the latter part of the season with some excellent teams that are left to be played, we’ll also be a measuring stick or benchmark to see where we are and how far we’ve come and how much farther we need to go.
Q. Donte Wilkins is another player that’s going to be in here. Can you update us on where he started off and where he is now and the process that got him to where he is?
COACH LONDON: Donte will be a very good football player when he’s done here playing. He ended up ‑‑ he started out as a backup on the defensive line and worked his way in that position because he’s dynamic, he’s got great get‑off. Like all young players, particularly on the line, the biggest disparity is the physical strength part. That will come as long as he gets with Evan Marcus. But I think he’s got a great first step, and he’s got want‑to and desire.
Now the way that he’ll gain experience, also, is to gain game plan experience by putting him in the game, and I would look for Donte’s opportunities to play more as an inside guy to increase, as well.
Q. Coming home against Duke, I know all games are considered big games, but is this one of particular importance, just trying to get things turned in the right direction?
COACH LONDON: Sure. This is the next game. This is the next game after a tough loss this past Saturday. The game is over. We look at it, we recognize it, we make the corrections, and we look forward to the next opponent.
Duke is 4‑2 right now. Their quarterback that was out is back. He’s a very good player. They’re playing with a lot of confidence. And so for us, playing well and putting that progress to a point where it starts to seep over on the positive side. There’s no moral victories on a loss like we just went through, but the progress that seeps over into the positive side, seeing more of what was happening but making that 3rd and long play, getting down to the goal line and getting the ball in the end zone, making those catches or those open‑field tackles, those are the things we want to continue to keep moving forward. There will be good things and bad things that happen in a game, but you want the progress of what you need to work on to be better.
And the next opportunity for that is against this Duke team.
Q. You’ve been a defensive line coach. How difficult is it to do what Jake Snyder did the other day and go into tackle and back throughout a game and play both positions well?
COACH LONDON: You know, Jake is a veteran player. I don’t mean this out of disrespect, but when Chris Long was here and I coached Chris, Chris was an inside outside player. Because he was an older player he could handle those things. Jake’s level of understanding and knowledge is like that. He understands the position, the inside and outside part of playing a defensive end and tackle. You may see more of that.
And I think his experience in calling out, recognizing line splits, recognizing formations and calling out plays before they’re even run, those are the type of things that a Jake Snyder does for us. Hat goes off to him and being able to do that, but it’s not like it’s not been done before, but it kind of shows you how much of a valued player he is to this defense, because he can do things like that.
Q. Eli came in here last week and was talking about the late hit on the quarterback or whatever they called it. This game he got another one of those plays. We didn’t really have a very good feed up in the press box. Was it similar to the last play, or was this a total lack of control or whatever?
COACH LONDON: Let’s just say that, again, the rules are intended to protect the quarterbacks at all costs, that when in doubt they’re going to throw flags. So that makes what we do ‑‑ makes what defensive rushers do when they engage a quarterback, they have to be very conscious of where their hands are, where the quarterback is, where the defensive player’s head is and things like that. And when quarterbacks are running and they’re ducking and they’re moving, then sometimes things happen where the contact may occur, and it may, in fact, be a foul because you’re hitting above the neck. It’s important that we keep using these moments like that that happen in a game as teachable moments. I mean, you see it all in college football about quarterbacks that are in the pocket and they’re scrambling around and defenders that are rushing them.
It wasn’t with the crown of his head. It wasn’t leading with his forehead. It was basically contact above the shoulder, the neck area, and that’s something that, again, with the ability of a quarterback to move and crouch and defenders running that sometimes puts you in a tough situation, but again, the protection of the quarterback is the main emphasis.
Q. You weren’t angry with him?
COACH LONDON: I wasn’t happy with the fact that he got a penalty, because again, it extended a drive. But you have to continue to keep coaching that technique and understand that don’t launch, don’t use the crown of your head, because that’s something that definitely will get called and it puts you in a situation of being possibly ejected with that. But I keep coaching and teaching the proper technique. He had another sack and he had one where he knocked the ball out of the quarterback’s hand and recovered the ball. So you don’t want to get players hesitant on attacking the quarterback, but you always have to make them aware of the fact that they are going to be protected, and when you make any contact above the neck area that you may be held accountable for that if the referees see you.
Q. Duke hasn’t had a whole lot of success in ACC play recently, but won four out of five in the series with UVa. Is there anything particular about that in terms of how the team matches up or anything like that?
COACH LONDON: Not particularly. This is coach‑speak, but every year you have a new team. You have a new team that has their own ideas of how they want to play a particular game and new systems and everything else. They’ve been doing this, what Coach Cutcliffe has been doing for a while. We’ve got three new coordinators in that now have to adjust to what we do and the style that they play. Our focus is just to do what we need to do to start our own tradition or start our own win streak, and the way you start that is by ‑‑ you guys have asked me here before about the things we need to do. Do those things better, and then the outcome will be better.
Q. You talked earlier about David’s maturation process. Specifically the last drive, how satisfying was it that he put you in position to win the game, and do you sense that could be a big moment for him going forward, that in a pressure moment he did pretty much everything you needed him to do in that situation?
COACH LONDON: I believe that the last drive as you saw it unfold was ‑‑ there were different things that happened that you look at, and you shake your head like he’s getting better. The throw, the couple throws that he made to Swanson and to McGee, the one downfield to Darius Jennings was over the outstretched hands of a defender. Even the touchdown where he scrambled and went to his left and was going to run the ball in the end zone and then he stopped because he had a presence and an awareness that Jake was coming across – stopped and threw the ball to him. That’s an awareness thing – sometimes young quarterbacks get tunnel vision and they just see one thing, and they go. David has been working on those type of things.
Even in the very end, trying to center the ball or get the ball in the left upright, the play that was run, it lost us a yard but he wanted to get the ball to where Alec has been able to kick in practice, those type of awareness things speak to the maturation of a quarterback. And I believe that David will continue to get better at making those decisions, at running the game and managing the game that a coach would want you to run if he was out there with you.
Again, he’s improved, and we’re looking for him to have his best game this week.
Q. I just want to make sure I understood something you said last night. You’re talking about the play calling on the 2nd and 3rd downs on that drive, and you said ball security was an issue. Did you have to factor in the possibility of like an interception there if you get a little bit more daring with a pass there?
COACH LONDON: You’re referring at the end, the drive down at the end?
COACH LONDON: Not only that, that also we needed a field goal to win the game, not a touchdown. After we ran one play, then they started to use their time‑outs, and so we got into the field goal range and we felt pretty good about where Alec could kick, so it wasn’t ‑‑ someone characterized it being conservative with the play calling, it was more just, again, trying to put ‑‑ trying to place the ball where we needed to place it because we felt like about where the distance was. It wasn’t conservative versus progressive or anything like that. It was just we felt pretty good about where the ball was.
Q. You weren’t worried about an interception?
COACH LONDON: We didn’t want to make throws ‑‑ we want to make safe throws, but we weren’t worried about interception and those type things because we had the ball in an area where our field goal ‑‑ we felt pretty good about our field goal kicker.
Q. When Coach Tenuta was hired, he came in with an aggressive reputation, tackles, sacks for loss, turnovers. Obviously those three numbers are way up three six games as opposed to last year. Are you pleased with that nature and how your defense has adapted to his more aggressive play calling?
COACH LONDON: One of the things we wanted to do was to make sure those numbers went up, that you have that style, that approach to it, and we’ll continue to keep doing that. Nothing is going to change with the fact that we want to be as aggressive as we can. I’m looking statistically, and I think we’ve done really well 3rd down, by getting teams into 3rd down. Eli is in the top group of the ACC players with sacks, tackles for losses. One of the big things we talked about is making the plays on the ball because the ball comes out quick, and if they are going to max protect and throw the ball downfield, then we’ve got to make plays on the ball down there.
There’s some things I’m quite sure John and the defensive coaches definitely want to improve upon, but there are some things that you see there has been improvement in their play. And as I said, the best way to keep those things moving forward is showing that there’s improvement in the next game you’re getting ready to play, and the next one is this Saturday.
Q. Jamison Crowder as a returner?
COACH LONDON: He does everything. You look, he’s in the top three or four or five categories of everything he’s asked to do for Duke, and he’s an excellent player. He’s got great ball skills. Talking about run after catch, make guys miss, he’s done really an excellent job for them, and he’s definitely a very good player for them.