CHARLOTTESVILLE — Al Groh's demise as Virginia's football coach coincided with a startling decline in the Cavaliers' running game. His successor realizes any hope of success in 2010 hinges on an upgrade.
"It's very important that we be able to run the ball and establish a physical presence out on the field," Mike London said Wednesday at Virginia's preseason media gathering. "Everyone knows that by running the ball you control the clock. At the end of the game you have to be able to run the ball."
At first blush, the answer is a resounding no.
Virginia's top returning tailback, Torrey Mack, gained all of 73 yards in 2009. The offensive line? Austin Pasztor is a credible guard, and Oday Aboushi and Morgan Moses are promising tackles, but don't expect the second coming of Elton Brown or D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Not this season at least.
So how can the Cavaliers improve a running attack that in the last five seasons ranked 112th, 108th, 79th, 100th and 63rd nationally?
"The feedback I had gotten coming here was that we would be talented at that position," offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said of the tailbacks. "So far that's proven to be true from what I've seen — without having played a game. Sometimes it's hard to evaluate … running backs when you're playing touch football in essence (during spring practice)."
Evaluating and projecting are darn near impossible when one acclaimed tailback, Dominique Wallace, missed the spring with a foot injury and two others, Keith Payne and Raynard Horne, are in summer school fighting to remain academically eligible.
Then there's incoming rookie Kevin Parks, the leading rusher in North Carolina high school history. Not to mention Perry Jones, a 5-foot-8 sophomore whom London calls, pound-for-pound, the team's strongest player.
If all are available, London can go small with Parks, also 5-8, and Jones, big and bruising with the 6-3 Payne, or traditional with Mack, Horne and Wallace.
"We'll see what type of back we have," London said. "But what's going to be consistent is the type of running plays."
Those are the no-frills, power-based, I-formation plays that marked London's two seasons as Richmond's head coach, the first of which ended with a national championship.
The Spiders' balance under London was uncanny. Richmond averaged 185.1 yards passing and 174.3 rushing, and in each season rode a 1,000-yard tailback — Josh Vaughan in 2008, Justin Forte in '09.
Similar production for Virginia, reeling from three losing seasons in the last four years, would make life much easier for quarterback Marc Verica, who as a starter in 2008 threw 16 interceptions and eight touchdown passes.
"You need balance to win in this league," Verica said. "This isn't the kind of league where you can just go out there and chuck it around 50 times and expect to win every game. The defenses in this league are pretty good."
"The teams that have won in this league, they've laid the blueprint for success, and that blueprint usually consists of a very physical running game, a very physical defense and good special teams. I think that's what we're trying to work toward."
"I think we're going to have a good defense. The challenge right now, I think, is to be physical at the line and move people so we can run the ball and have that balance. I think our guys are working hard to do that. It's going to take a lot of commitment to it in camp to refine that."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime. Sign up for text alerts by texting "BIGSPORTS" to 71593.
Absent a credible rushing attack, Virginia has no chance of a winning season