CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia — The word that might have been spoken most during Virginia's offseason and training camp workouts: Finish.
The Cavaliers were tied or leading three times in the fourth quarter last season in games they wound up losing, turning what could have been a winning season that ended in a bowl game into a 5-7 finish. It was their third consecutive losing season and there is a sense of urgency to turn the program around.
If not, coach Mike London's sixth season could be his last in Charlottesville.
"We've had many issues over the years but this is one issue that I feel has not been attacked: finishing," senior defensive tackle and co-captain David Dean said. "I believe this year, it has to change. We continue to reiterate this message: Finish in the weight room, finish in practice, finish in runs, whatever the case may be, and not just finishing to finish, but finishing with the energy you brought into the workout, and with the same focus."
London, with a 23-38 overall record and eight wins in 32 Atlantic Coast Conference games, will once again lead his team against one of the most difficult schedules in the country. He likes the determination the Cavaliers have displayed through the summer and early fall practice.
"We all have a chip on our shoulders, the sense of urgency to get the season underway and play, play games and perform. We have an older group," London said, noting there are 16 players in their final season. "That's a group that wants to perform well. They want to embrace the challenges. ... Our mindset is a can-do mindset."
For the third consecutive season, Virginia will debut a new starting quarterback in its opener.
Matt Johns started three games last season when Greyson Lambert was injured, and when Johns won the job in the spring, Lambert transferred, leaving Johns as the only quarterback on the roster with significant game experience.
Johns will operate behind Virginia's deepest offensive line in several seasons, but will be without transfer wide receiver T.J. Thorpe for much of the season. The former North Carolina player, expected to be a playmaker, broke his right clavicle in mid-August scrimmage and will miss 10 weeks.
Some other things to watch with the Cavaliers this season:
WHERE THERE'S SMOKE: Junior running back Taquan "Smoke" Mizzell arrived three years ago as a five-star recruit with a nice nickname, and finally should get a chance to show what he can do as the featured back. Mizzell's hold on the top spot is not yet certain, however, as former walk-on Daniel Hamm has also won the praise of the coaching staff. Transfer Albert Reid from Maryland's downhill running style is what the coaches are looking to see.
QUARTERBACK: Keeping Johns healthy has to be a top priority with transfer Connor Brewer and redshirt freshman Corwin Cutler vying for the backup job. The Cavaliers are Brewer's third college team — he started at Texas and then transferred to Arizona. Cutler announced his intention to transfer after last season, but changed his mind when Lambert left for Georgia. Neither Brewer nor Cutler has thrown a pass in a college football game.
FILLING THE GAPS: After leading tackler Quin Blanding, the next five leading stoppers on last season's defense — and players who accounted for 27 of Virginia's 34 sacks — have moved on. Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta expects Micah Kiser to become a leader at linebacker and to call signals, but the sophomore had just 15 tackles last season, and fellow new linebacker Zach Bradshaw, a junior, had just seven. Their performances will be critical in a defense that funnels plays in their direction.
THE GAUNTLET: Once again, the Cavaliers are faced with trying to make major inroads against a very ambitious slate. They open at UCLA and will host Notre Dame and Boise State, all before the calendar turns to October.
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