Virginia cites unity for new resolve, improvement
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — It started with cookouts over the summer, and trips to the movies.
Players at Virginia on opposite sides of the ball who almost never talked were purposely put together with the idea that the more unified they got as friends and teammates across the board, the more it would benefit the team.
So far, the Cavaliers (1-1) say it is paying off, and they view Saturday’s matchup with Atlantic Coast Conference newcomer No. 21 Louisville (2-0) as another chance to show they are different, and better.
“You’re as great as your weakest link,” defensive end Eli Harold said. “Without togetherness, you’re nothing.”
The unity was tested in the Cavaliers’ opener against No. 12 UCLA, when Virginia’s defense was holding the explosive Bruins in check and the offense committed three turnovers that all were returned for touchdowns.
Still, there was no finger-pointing on the sideline.
Senior linebacker Daquan Romero said everyone offered encouragement. When quarterback and co-captain Greyson Lambert was pulled from the game, he became a vocal cheerleader.
“I feel like you can see it, honestly,” Romero said. “Look at Greyson in the UCLA game when he came out and Matt Johns went in and scored a touchdown. I feel like Greyson was the first one to go out there to congratulate him.”
After trailing 21-3, the Cavaliers rallied to within 21-17 before losing 28-20.
New Louisville coach Bobby Petrino has been impressed.
“We have a good challenge on the road against a team that I think’s playing real well and looks very, very well-coached,” said Petrino, whose team has beaten Miami and Murray State, both at home.
Virginia’s players credit the work done during the summer, off the field as well as on, with making them unified.
“We just changed our mindset,” wide receiver Darius Jennings said, noting that the team held cookouts in the summer to build a sense of unity. “After the last game (in 2013), we just decided we’re going to come together as a group and we’re not going to let anything break us. I think it has helped us grow and mature as men, and as a team as well.”
Instead of position cliques, strangers became friends.
“We made sure that certain teammates that would never see in each other in the offseason ... had opportunities to actually get around other teammates that they wouldn’t normally be around,” linebacker Henry Coley, one of four team captains, said, to create a sense that they were all the same team.
“It definitely shows on the field,” Coley said.
The players credit coach Mike London with promoting the idea, and the seniors for pushing it.
“A lot of those guys have just taken ownership of this team from Day One,” redshirt freshman receiver Andre Levrone said. “And I can tell that they were disappointed with the way the season went last year and the past couple of seasons we’ve had here, and they didn’t want their senior year to go that way.”
Having followed a 2011 season that ended with an 8-5 record and a berth in the Chick-fil-A Bowl with 4-8 and 2-10 records in subsequent seasons, the seniors especially profess to feeling responsible for London’s precarious position. His job security likely hangs in the balance if the Cavaliers don’t show vast improvement this season.
“I’d be lying to you if I said that we didn’t hear that coach London is on the hot seat,” tailback Kevin Parks, another co-captain, said. “And at the end of the day, it’s us that’s playing the game. We’re the ones that went 2-10, not coach London.”
AP sports writer Gary B. Graves in Louisville contributed to this report.
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