Press Conference: Mike London

Virginia football coach Mike London talks with the media on Monday. UVa. (3-4, 0-3 ACC) hosts Miami (5-2, 3-1 ACC) on Saturday at noon.

Is there any common theme in the big plays against you over the last couple of weeks?

I think the plays that were set up for them were plays we got knocked off our feet. There were a minimum number of missed tackles. They did a good job of executing their speed sweep, so to speak, and getting their people on the ground. They hit a couple creases and went.

Obviously, you don’t want to get hurt by long runs, especially long passes. The first half they did a nice job of executing what they wanted to do, which was getting on the perimeter. They got us down with blocks, got us on the ground. Second half we ran the same defenses and they came at it. We did a better job of staying on our feet.

It was a different kind of offense – sort of a wildcat/option type of offense. We just got acclimated to it later on, and the guys actually played pretty well the second half.

To what do you attribute the poor attendance last week and all season and what can you do to improve it?

I don’t know about the particulars about the attendance policy. Obviously, one thing that can affect it is being competitive and winning games. And that’s my job. I leave the attendance, what we do, how they do to those that handle that part of the operation.

Hopefully this game against Miami, which is a TV game against a very good and national ranked team will a lot of the Cavalier faithful out to Scott Stadium to cheer us on.

With Landon Bradley back on the depth chart, is it safe to assume he’s going to start at one of those spots on Saturday?

It all depends on how Landon practices this week. He’s ready to go. We will see how effective he is, whether he stays on the left side or the right side. Morgan [Moses] is ready to go whether it’s right tackle or right guard. We are by committee right now with guys getting back to where they need to be.

We’ll see tomorrow, which is our first day in pads this week, to see what side is better for Landon in terms of his hand. Insert Morgan where need be. But either way, hopefully Landon plays so Morgan can play and get a rotation going with guards a little bit with BJ [Cabbell] and [Austin] Pasztor. I think we’ll end up being in a better situation by substituting guys that can go in because now Morgan has prepared himself, got himself ready to play.

It seems that Miami goes as Jacory Harris goes?

No doubt he is a tall, lean, athletic quarterback that actually would rather stay in the pocket and throw the ball down field to his skill players rather than take off and run. I know Coach Whipple was the head coach at UMass when my son played there. I know a little bit about him, Jim Reid knows him from different places, played against him. I know he wants the quarterbacks to have success in distributing the ball.

You’re right, when he’s on, he’s on. Just hopefully he’ll be off on this Saturday.

How much does it help your guys to not only win but also kind of play better in the second half and what kind of difference do you see in their demeanor?

When you have a chance to win a game, it raises your morale. It gives you confidence. It does a lot of things for your psyche.

Regardless of the opponent, to have an opportunity to win for this group this year speaks volumes. We’re trying to do things, put it together, so we can have more successes on the field.

We didn’t particularly play great in the first half, but played well enough. Then in the second half, did a really good job on both sides of the ball. Special teams aspects really stepped up for us.

Anytime you win, that helps boost your confidence. We’re looking for some series of successes. Found it off the field in the classroom and now we’re trying to find it on the field to turn the program around in the direction we want.

We’ll take the win. Now we got to go to work and work even harder for this group that’s come in because they’re, again, very athletic. Coach Shannon has got them going where I think he wants his guys and program to go.

Coach Reid said the other night about trying to simplify things. Do you have to be careful about that and not make it too complicated?

Well, I think you do, particularly with the volume of coverages you can play. There’s a coverage that can address every formation. If they’re only doing two formations a game, rather than have a coverage for that and a check that should they do something out of that coverage. The list starts to grow as they do this, do that, do that. If you pick a few core coverages, core fronts that you play, you’re used to adapting to whatever they do formation wise, shifts, whatever it may be, you may not always be in the most advantageous position, but at least everyone will know what their job is as it fits to the defense.

I think that was part of it, in particular because they were part wildcat, part option, tended to settle down, play the coverages and fronts that we know how to play best. That’s what we did in the second half, which proved beneficial.

Sometimes when you scheme, you’re looking at teams, you like to do things, this will work, this will work, when they go in this formation. They have pencils and are allowed to move and just to what you’re doing. We just go back to our base, core fundamental defenses and coverages and let the guys play.

After the game you talked about the red zone improvement, third-down improvements. Did you see everything you wanted to see? What do you want to improve this week going into Miami?

Well, one of the goals, as we talked about the week before, chances when you get down in the red zone to score, the third down percentage, I think we were 7-for-14, which is 50%, which is excellent, then 2-of-2 on fourth down. Obviously, one was a pass and one was Jimmy Howell passing on the big fake punt there. But that’s always important.

The third down situation is important. But I think going into this game with Miami, it’s going to be important that we make first downs, stay on the field, because they do a great job running the ball, not keeping the defense on the field a long time because they have two dynamic backs, offensive line is big. They’re a very accomplished offense.

If we can get first downs, second and five, second and four is not bad. We just don’t want a second and 10, third and 10, because it plays into what they do. I think they’re fourth in the country in sacks, first in the country in tackles for losses. Those first down opportunities for us are going to be important.

You talked in training camp about working with Cam Johnson to make sure he’s getting after it on every single play. How has the progression been with him in that regard?

Cam has had a good year in terms of learning how to rush, how to pass push, how to be disruptive. He plays a lot because he’s one of your playmakers. I think there’s more Cam can give and I’m going to ask more of him because he’s going to have to play more and give more as we go down the stretch. Big-time players make big plays in big games. He’s going to have to be one of those guys as we go down the stretch. He does a very nice job versus the run. When you’re training those guys versus the run, third and ten, you have to muster all the strength you can have and do it consistently. When he can do that consistently, we’ll talk about him being something special.

But right now he’s learning how to put his hands to the ground and do those things. Like everyone else the second half of the season, looking for him to raise his level, all of us to raise our level.

You were on the staff when Terence Fells-Danzer was recruited. Didn’t really do anything for three years. Why did things not work for him at linebacker and why are things working for him now?

That’s a good question. I don’t know. The 3-4 system, with the Mike and Jack with a guard over top of you, maybe in the final analysis he wasn’t suited to take on a guard and two-gap, do the things that a 3-4 linebacker has to do.

I think, like a lot of these guys, with a little change of the scheme, him going to the other side of the ball, because we’re trying to introduce the fullback back into the offense, he was one of the first to approach me and say, ‘Coach, I’d like the opportunity to get on the field and play in some respect.’ Fullback was a position, as a tight end, that we didn’t have around here.

He took the role, embraced it, and it just went from there. Coach Faragalli did a good job of coaching him and teaching him. He can run, as we all saw. He can catch coming out of the backfield. He’s 220 plus pounds, so he can block. That’s a fullback when you draw one up. Plus he has special teams value. He has a new lease on life, caught his first touchdown pass, and returns a kick. Now he claims he’s faster than anybody else on the team, so there’s an issue there (laughter).

He had some success this game. Those are the type of things that when a player has a little bit of success play-by-play, game-by-game, hopefully it becomes contagious to other players. That’s what we got to do, we got to try to put a stream together of successful plays which lead to successful games which leads to winning games which leads to turning things around. Terence is one of those guys that have got new life.

You knew that Walcott and Reynolds were going to face a steep learning curve. Seven games in, has that move been even more challenging than you thought it would be?

No, there’s a learning curve still. But they’re getting better at it because of the accumulated amount of reps they’re getting – basically on-the-job training. They’re going against other offenses, first team offenses, schemes of the game, angles of the blockers, seeing the holes of the runners, getting in the passing lanes of the quarterback. All those things that linebackers do close up, they got to react faster. You’re back in the back end – you can see things happen in front of you. Plus we added more weight on them.

They’re going to be really good linebackers. They’re going to be really good linebackers once they keep having an opportunity to work with Coach Brown and Coach Reid.

But right now, I think actually LaRoy is leading our team in tackles and he’s a sophomore. And Ausar is not too far from that.

When they get better, we’ll also be a better team. They’re going to get better here quickly as we go along because every game has been an opportunity for them to step up, make plays and get better.

What types of things do you do for Landon to make sure his hand is not an issue?

You cast it up, wrap it up, say, Do whatever you can do to play and be effective. Obviously you can’t grasp a jersey or you can’t use your hands as effective as you want to, so you’ll have to adapt in some other kind of ways to get the job done.

But his competitive nature in and of itself is something. He’s one of our best players. Now we’ll see whether one of your best players at 90 percent is better than a guy that’s not injured at 100 percent. That’s what we’ll see. That’s what practice is for. Whether he plays on the left side or right side, we’ll see how that works out, too.

You said on Saturday there were limited numbers of missed tackles, but the guys weren’t getting off blocks. Isn’t that just as troublesome as if they were missing tackles?

I think what I said was that we were getting cut and they were knocking us to the ground, which is indicative sometimes of option teams where the lead blocker comes out and chops your leg, then you get down on the ground. As soon as you pop back up because of the speed of the runner, he’s by you.

It’s hard to simulate that during practice because that’s a block at your ankles, your knees, you can lose players in that regard. As thin as we are, to live chop block or live cut block in practice and lose a player to me wasn’t worth it. We try to simulate it as much as you can with bags, with the blockers going down at thigh level so you have to use your hand.

Then the speed of the game, they’re actually coming out and cutting and rolling and things like that, you’re now you’re seeing the game speed. I think it just took a while to adjust to moving your feet, getting your hands out, if you have to jump over the block, whatever it is. We were running the same defenses. They were running the same plays. I think we did a much better job. The first half, 209 yards rushing, the second half was 81 yards rushing against the same type of defense. But I think we figured the speed of the game up. It wasn’t as much missed tackles. We had guys on the ground that were responsible for setting the edge, then for overlapping and making the play, we had both of them on the ground on two occasions for sure.

We got to be ready because receivers are allowed to block down field below the waist. You got to be ready. With any style of offense, you have to be ready to use your hands and escape. We’ll do a better job of that I’m sure next time.

Beginning of the season you wouldn’t say tangible numbers as what would be a success for the season. With nothing but ACC games left from here on out, how important to get in the win column for an ACC game?

It’s important now. As you start going along, first it was to play well and get a couple wins. We beat the teams I guess we were supposed to beat. And then the next thing was – you haven’t beat a FBS opponent. We did that. That’s another success. Now we are in another series of trying to put some successes together. The rest of the games are conference games.

With all that being set, the goal is to play well and to win some conference games. This next game up is the next game on the conference schedule. Happens to be a very good Miami team. But the goal hasn’t changed about trying to play well and trying to win, particularly when it’s a home game again.

On that note, what concerns you most about Miami?

Let’s see, where can I start on that one (laughter)?

Their skill positions are dynamic with their receivers. They have two outstanding running backs that are big and can get after you. Then the quarterback – I mean, the quarterback is a guy that distributes the ball to their playmakers.

On the other side, defensively, when you lead the country in tackles for losses, that means you have guys up front penetrating, coming off the edge, doing some things to create that second-and-longs, third-and-longs, which we don’t need. I think they’re fourth in the country in sacks because they have guys that can rush, 300 plus pounders, and they push the pocket pretty well.

It’s a team that presents challenges on all three aspects. They have one guy that does all kicking chores, kicks field goals, kickoffs, does a pretty good job at doing that. The skill they have at covering and returning, they’re good.

So all aspects of what they do, when they’re on, they play pretty well. We’ve definitely got to play our best game. Can’t start slow. Can’t get in those second-and-long situations. We got to stay out of those things because this is the type of team that thrives on that. We have to be creative in moving the ball around, doing things up front to stop the run, just play as many people as we can. They got some big guys up front, low graders, that just keep going and going. And they play with a lot of heart and resolve. We’re going to need luck and good bounces. We’re going to need a lot of things in our favor to help us.

But our guys are anxious and ready to play this game. I think other than maybe last year’s game, I think in the past Virginia has at least played Miami pretty decent. I don’t know because of that, why that’s the case. But I was there when we were down there in the Orange Bowl. I was a coordinator at that time. We shut them out down there.

You know, we have to rely on a lot of things. Ultimately, all of us have to play well and we have to coach well.

How would you assess how the program, the whole thing you’re trying to put in, has taken so far?

I would assess it as we’re a work in progress and we continue to improve in a lot of areas. There are so many things – again I can go back to where we started, guys — I had to let some guys go. Some guys had to leave the program because they weren’t doing the things that I thought they needed to do in the classroom, in the community. It’s unfortunate. But then it turns into a depth problem. You look to see, ‘Who is the next man up?’ Who can run down on kickoffs?

This year, in terms of setting the tone, we had three guys that were either late for class or missed class. They didn’t start. One of them didn’t play. I just believe in setting the tone, sending the message of what expectations are, accountability, what responsibility is.

This year academically we’ve done well. Recruiting-wise, we’re doing well. A lot of players are still interested in us. A lot of players are actually talking about coming to Virginia because of what they see, what they hear, what they feel when they come on Grounds and they sit and talk with the coaches and players that are in the program.

Turning it around on the field, that’s another part of it. It’s frustrating, I know. At the same time how you take care of it is to recruit players. You continue to try to develop the players that you have in your system and you keep it positive, keep it energetic, passionate. You keep telling guys what they can do instead of harping on what they can’t do. That’s part of it.

I think if you talk to any of our players, they’d probably tell you the same thing. That’s how you try to get things going. We’ve done a lot of things with recruiting, with coaches, addressing facility issues. We’re going to continue to keep talking about those things.

It’s a work in progress. But I believe that we’re a better team than we were when we first started out and we’ll be a better team because other players will join us. The players that we have that are going to stay are going to understand what it’s going to take to be on this football team. What they do on the field, in the classroom and the community.

I assume you haven’t chosen a number two quarterback or have you made a decision there?

No, the third quarterback in the game, what I meant was basically that, the third quarterback in the game gave it to the fourth string tailback. We had a whole new offensive line up there, another tight end. Gave him an opportunity to run a play. It would have been different if we max protected, tried to throw the ball deep. Wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination trying to embarrass anybody or anything like that. I’ll make sure that I call coach and tell him there’s nothing intended on that last play.

The fact that Rocco went in first…

No. Had we had opportunities later after he was in to get Ross in there to give him some reps, we would have done so. Just didn’t work out that way.

You haven’t said a whole lot about Austin. We haven’t asked a lot about him. For an offensive lineman, that’s a good thing, not committing penalties. What kind of year has he had?

Very solid. Every game he grades out with a winning percentage. Big guy. Does his job. Doesn’t say a whole lot. Loves football. Quietly just kind of being a mainstay, an anchor right there. You’re right, he deserves a lot of credit. Sometimes in the O-line position, you’re overlooked at or you look at it and say, guys are giving up too many sacks. Austin has been doing a nice job playing the left guard position.

What does Coach Mattes and you want to do with the line play to Austin’s strengths, using his physicality?

He does that. But we do some pulling, too. We ask the guards to get out on the edge and create things. Imagine a big old guy like that coming out and blocking a guy. He’s willing to throw his body and do all those things.

He’s doing a nice job playing guard and the things we’re asking him to do. He grades out really well. He is only going to get better.

I know you can’t give special teams guys one-on-one coaching, but what do you do to make sure they keep improving?

Keep doing what you’re doing during practice. Chris has done a nice job. In fact, in practice the other day, he kicked a 50-yard field goal. He’s yet to kick one in the game. Put him in there a couple times to do that. Didn’t work out. He tells me over there when he’s practicing the guys he kicked a 65-yarder. But no one has made sure. Don’t have that on tape or anything.

But when you can kick the ball off and get touchbacks, they automatically start the ball off on the 20. They got to go 80 yards. On the other hand, when you try to return the kicks, you try to get at least to the 30 or beyond the 30. So in terms of field position, he has done a nice job of field position with a strong leg. He’s helped us tremendously in that regard.

There’s been a lot of talk with you about tackling and technique, all that stuff. There’s been a ton of talk nationally as well. Where do you think that comes from?

That’s a good question. I think football is such an inherent physical game, obviously you never want to teach to lead with your head down because that’s dangerous, it’s careless. You always want to try to teach with your head up, your neck up, your neck bowed to support the strength of your shoulders, go chest to chest more than anything else, then wrap-up with your arms.

I think sometimes because a runner is running, he’s getting ready to make a move, as you’re going to go tackle, the runner lowers his head, you’re trying to prepare yourself for a blow that sometimes you lead with your head, part of your face up, there’s a collision there. You look at almost any tackle, you see the helmets are very much part of the tackling. That’s why you play with helmets because if you didn’t, you’d have issues.

But I think now that concussions, even from Little League on, have become such a safety issue now that you answer it with how you teach, the techniques you teach. You answer it with the type of technology and equipment that’s available. You answer it through training and things like that.

It’s the age and culture we live in now. That’s one way to explain it without being too long-winded.

When you watch film, do you watch for that kind of stuff at all? Does anybody watching the film pay attention to somebody who may be getting into a habit of doing something that could end up with somebody hurt?

Yeah, all the time. Even after practice we watch tape. Even when you’re watching tape as a team, if you see a guy leading with his head, I’ve heard Coach Reid stop the film and say, Never put your head down in this situation, don’t lead with your head, correct the guys. It’s an ongoing opportunity to teach, to educate them, because heaven forbid something happens. It’s happened nationally to a couple people already. You just don’t want to be in that situation. We’re always constantly harping on doing the right thing and keeping your head up, wrapping with your arm, more chest to chest, with arms.

Conversely, when you’re looking for other teams, are you looking for defenders who have that habit? Are you warning guys?

You pay attention to it by the flags that are thrown. I think helmet-to-helmet contact right now has been very recognizable not only in the ACC but also nationally with the emphasis of it – because it’s about player safety. Helmet-to-helmet are player safety issues. In fact, we had one with our guy that upon further review hit him with his shoulder. It’s more of an emphasis now. If you see a guy leading with their head, it seems to be habitual, I have an opportunity before the game to instruct the referee about certain things – look out for this. They’re put on alert. I do know that all referees look at the game film. Their supervisors look at the game film, see if there’s any person or technique or anything out there that’s also close to blurring the line or crossing over the line.

I do know there’s a heavy emphasis on making sure the welfare of the player’s safety becomes paramount now.

I saw Paul Freedman get a TD. Talk about the job that him and Colter have done.

Paul has done a nice job. Caught his first touchdown pass. He wanted to make sure that everybody knew. When Colter caught his first touchdown pass, he did nothing celebratory. So Paul wanted to make sure he had ups. He chest bumped Kris Burd or somebody and pointed out that he got up there pretty high. He just wanted to show people that he would celebrate with his teammates, not by himself. When that opportunity came, he was going to make the most of it.

Paul has done a nice job blocking, now catching the pass. He actually split two defenders on the way to the end zone staying on his feet. In practice we used to joke with him all the time that he would catch the ball and the turf monster would get him. This time he split two would-be tacklers, did a nice job. That’s another young player that played that now is getting to the point of getting some games behind him – unfortunate for Joe [Torchia], but fortunate for Paul.

While we’re talking about the tight ends, I saw Coach Wachenheim got [Jeremiah] Mathis on a real series in the first quarter himself. Is he more than just emergency help?

Jeremiah is a full-fledged tight end right now. There are a couple things he had to learn before we could just put him into the game. He’ll play more at tight end. He provides the catch passing ability because he’s very athletic. He played the position in high school. We’ll start seeing more of him because he’s learning the offense more. He didn’t have the benefit of the spring practice. He had the benefit of getting ready in a two-week span.

We’ll continue to improve his learning curve and see more of him.

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