November 2, 2009

Road Map to Relevancy, Part II

For part I, bang it here.

A few weeks ago, I started the "Road Map to Relevancy," which illustrates a plan that I think will bring Virginia Football back from the abyss. In Part I, we touched on the importance of hiring the right head coach to replace Al Groh, and then luring the fans back into the stadium by allowing an atmosphere of optimism to permeate the program via open use of the media to promote the new product.

Part II continues with...

Step #3 -- Schedule cupcakes.

For a listing and listless program, no amount of offseason promotion matters without wins to back it up. Forward momentum can easily be short-circuited with losses. So you do what you need to do to schedule wins. In 2010, we are already locked into a road game against USC and a home game against Richmond, neither of which classify as "should-win" games. Our ACC schedule is home against UNC, Maryland, Miami, and Florida State, and on the road against Boston College, Georgia Tech, Duke, and Virginia Tech, in some order. This is not an easy ACC schedule, not at all... which is why it is absolutely imperative that we find two creampuffs for the last two out-of-conference (OOC) spots. We need to schedule cupcakes; we need to schedule WINS.

This becomes even more important in 2011, when the honeymoon phase is over with the new coach and the fans begin to expect serious results on the field. The '11 schedule includes home games against Southern Miss and William & Mary and an away game against Indiana. Manageable. The ACC schedule is home: NC State, GT, VT, and Duke, and away: Maryland, FSU, UNC, and Miami. That last OOC game needs to be an "easy" home win, as the '11 season needs to culminate with a winning record and a bowl game appearance.

The point is, once you drop into the dregs of college football, only wins matter. We need to be willing to sacrifice the pride associated with playing a tough OOC schedule in order to schedule cupcakes and rack up easy wins to inflate the win/loss record. "Fake it 'til you make it," is sort of the mantra to live by in this regard. The difference between 7-5 and a bowl game and 6-6 or 5-7 and no postseason is immense, and if you can generate easy wins when you're a team in transition, you bloody well do it. Virginia Tech used this philosophy to climb to their current peak of national relevance. Now they are starting to schedule some decent OOC competition, and are systemically shucking their "weak schedule" reputation. The Hokies got fat by feasting on cupcakes, why shouldn't we?

Step #4 -- Make the quarterback position a priority!

It doesn't take a football genius to understand that the best college football teams are usually the ones with the best quarterbacks. It doesn't take a UVA football historian to recall that our most successful teams usually featured our most successful quarterbacks. Don Majkowski, Shawn Moore, Matt Blundin, Mike Groh, Aaron Brooks, Matt Schaub -- pretty much every era of Virginia football success corresponds with the playing career of a good quarterback.

So how do you generate good quarterback play? First of all, you recruit the position, and you recruit it HARD. Throw your best recruiters at the best QB prospects. If you can't land elite prospects, then land a lot of prospects -- throw numbers against the wall, and see what sticks. Instead of recruiting one or two QBs in each recruiting class, crank it up to three or four. Explore the JUCO ranks. Perhaps most importantly, spend the money it takes to hire a great quarterbacks coach, and don't bog that person down with any other responsibilities. Just find a talented coach and have them focus all of their energy and attention on developing whatever talent we can find at the quarterback position.

Step #5 -- Recruit the state.

Most of the state of Virginia's top football talent leaves the state to play for traditional football powerhouses -- Percy Harvin went to Florida, Phillip Sims is going to Alabama, etc. At this point, most of the elite players that decide to stay in state end up going to Virginia Tech. The step UVA must take is to open the door to any/all sub-elite football players from the state of Virginia who qualify academically and project to be FBS-level talents. If this means not recruiting a better player from out of state, so be it. We need to fill our roster with kids from the state of Virginia, and we need to do it ASAP. Two reasons: 1) it will be infinitely easier to recruit the elite player from in-state if their non-elite buddies from high school are already playing football at our school and 2) the Virginia/Virginia Tech rivalry just means so much more to players who grew up in the state of Virginia. That in-state edge is what I believe has given VT the advantage over us this decade -- their players from Virginia want to beat UVA much more than our New Jersey players want to beat Virginia Tech. Their guys will run through walls to beat us, whereas our guys mostly see the rivalry as "just another game." See my point?

Recruiting lesser players from the state also would endear our new coaching staff to the high school coaches in the state. If UVA is Sammy Linebacker's only FBS offer other than Marshall and Tulane, then Sammy will come to UVA and Sammy's high school coach will appreciate the fact that UVA came through with that offer and that opportunity to play football in the ACC. So when George Superstar Running Back becomes a high school junior/senior at that same school, his high school coach will be more likely to nudge George in UVA's direction. George will have his buddy Sammy already in place in Charlottesville and loving life as a Wahoo, and he'll have his coach singing the praises of the college coaching staff that believed in Sammy's talent all along, when no other power conference team (including Virginia Tech) did. It's win-win-win, and it's a critical step in strengthening our recruiting base in the long run while simultaneously weakening our biggest rival's recruiting ability. It builds pipelines from Virginia's best high school programs to the UVA football roster, and that can never be a bad thing, even if the overall talent level at UVA dips slightly in the short term.

The trick is to keep the program afloat with lesser talent on the roster while we wait to cultivate these improved in-state recruiting pipelines. It's a dangerous tightrope act, to be sure. But it does bring us to...

Step #6 -- Establish a system.

I often find myself using Wake Forest as the model of how to build a strong football program from the ground up. When Jim Grobe was hired as Wake's head coach, one of the first things he did was install the misdirection system on offense. That system enabled Wake to compete with teams that had more available talent on the field. It allowed Wake Forest to win games with lesser talent, and to recruit players that other schools maybe didn't want because they lacked the "traditional" baseline skill sets for players at their position. Wake's misdirection system played perfectly for them, and now they are one of the most solid and consistent teams in the ACC. Virginia needs to do the same thing -- establish a cohesive system, and stick to it. Put together a plan, and never deviate from it. It might be the nohuddleshotgunspread (an unmitigated disaster in 2009, but potentially a success in the future?), or whatever. As long as it is a unique system that opponents must specifically prepare for, then it will be a success.

A good system not only allows us to compete with less talent, it also will help us develop an identity. Look at what Paul Johnson's flexbone has done in just a season and a half at Georgia Tech. If we start doing something unique and start winning games for it, then we will be noticed, and the attention will be positive. There is no place for indecision and wishy-washy schemes in college football. If you try to me multiple and flexible in all things, then you end up just being mush. This isn't the NFL. Al Groh taught me that much.

Step #7 -- Redshirt EVERYONE!

This one is simple: a player's fifth year in the system is more valuable than his first year in the system. Patience is a virtue and instant gratification MUST be delayed if we want to build a program with sustainable success. This is another thing that Grobe did at Wake, and they reaped the rewards with an ACC championship season in 2006 on the backs of a ton of 5th-year seniors.

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