March 18, 2013
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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Snow fell on members of the UVa football team Monday morning when they emerged from the McCue Center for the first of 15 spring practices. But this was one battle Mother Nature would lose.
The Cavaliers crossed the practice field closest to the McCue Center and entered the stunning new structure in which they'll train on days when the weather poses problems for them: the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility.
"It's a great feeling," senior wide receiver Tim Smith said. "We're very grateful for the donors and everybody that put in money for us to get this facility. It definitely helped on the first day."
The Wahoos are heading into their fourth season under head coach Mike London. His team had gone through conditioning sessions in the indoor facility before the players left for spring break, but Monday marked the first practice there.
"This is big time," London said, marveling at his surroundings.
It seemed fitting that on the "first day of practice, with the snow falling, we didn't have to deal with the elements outside," London said. "We had to chance to come in and have a full practice, very spirited practice, and just enjoy this facility."
Newcomers to London's staff this year include offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, special teams coordinator Larry Lewis and associate head coach for offense Tom O'Brien. None had to make concessions to the weather.
In years past, unless lightning was in the area, the Wahoos would have stayed outside in bad weather, "scraping off the snow and all that," London said. "And sometimes you gotta play in elements like that. But for the first day of practice, when we're putting in all new systems -- offense, defense and special teams -- you want that focus and attention to what's going on. It was a big blessing that we had a chance to get in here, and all the guys had a chance to coach their schemes and their systems, and weather wasn't an issue."
Practice officially began at 8:30 a.m. Among those watching with interest from the sideline were athletics director Craig Littlepage and executive associate athletics director Jon Oliver.
"Today's a great example of a day that we need the facility," Oliver said. "Craig and I talked about this when I first got here [in 2001]. We talked about the things we needed to do over time, and we've been talking about an indoor facility for a long time. So it's really special to see that this thing is up and operational and the team's in here practicing, especially on a day where they need to be in here.
"This will help us be able to continue to develop kids, it will help us with recruiting, and it's the only thing that Mike really asked for in terms of additions to what we have here at the University of Virginia to help him build this program, so I'm excited."
The facility, of course, is named for the greatest football coach in UVa history, a man who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004. Enormous color graphics - many depicting great moments in the program's history - adorn the walls of the well-lighted, 80,000-square foot structure, which will cost about $14.7 million, including debt service, Oliver said. Private donations are paying for the project.
"This doesn't happen without some pretty special donors and a University administration that stood behind this project and allowed us to fast-track it to get it done in support of Mike's program," Oliver said. "That's really special to me, that a lot of people came together to help us get this thing done, and that's really important."
In addition to the football team, which practices in the morning most days, UVa's other field sports will be able to use the indoor facility.
"The good thing is, this thing can go from 6 in the morning till midnight if we need to," Oliver said. "So it'll be available for all of our sport programs that need to get in here and get some work done during inclement weather. The reason that's so important is their time schedules are limited on a daily basis, so if you can't get a practice in, it's not like they can make that up at a later date. So that's important for all of our programs."
In the event of thunderstorms, the football team no longer will have cram into the Cage, where "you can't run full speed and have a full-on practice," quarterback David Watford said. "It's just really good to have this now."
Watford, who as a true freshman in 2011 backed up starter Michael Rocco, redshirted last season. With Rocco now at the University of Richmond, Watford is competing with junior Phillip Sims and redshirt freshmen Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns for the starting job.
"He had the year to sit and just observe how a game is conducted," London said. "He was in on the calls and understood from the sideline the reads that need to be made, and he's chomping at the bit to compete for that quarterback position."
Watford said: "Wherever they tell me to go, I'm going."
A graduate of Hampton High, Watford "brings a lot to the table," senior offensive tackle Morgan Moses said after practice Monday. "He's a guy that can run the ball, that can definitely throw it, and he's humble ... You want a guy like that behind you as an offensive lineman, because he brings so much character to the team. He's just a great guy. Words can't really explain what type of guy he is."
On the pre-spring practice depth chart distributed Monday, Watford is listed No. 1 at QB, followed by Lambert, Sims and Johns, respectively. Don't read too much into that, London said.
"We haven't given anybody anything right now," London said. The players "all know everybody's competing for a job out here. And so the quarterback situation is no different than the DBs or the running backs."
The `Hoos are coming off a 4-8 season that was followed by a shakeup of London's staff. O'Brien and Tenuta were at NC State last season, Lewis was at Nevada, and Fairchild was with the NFL's San Diego Chargers. Wide receivers coach Marques Hagans was at UVa, but as a graduate assistant. He's now a full-time coach.
O'Brien, Lewis and Fairchild are former college head coaches.
"It was interesting," senior center Luke Bowanko said of the first practice under this coaching staff. "We've been around them for a little while. But everyone has their own style, so there's some new styles around here. It's going to take a while to get used to. It kind of raises the expectations and people are a little more eager to perform, so there was pretty good energy."
The setting might have had something to do with the energy level, too.
"All the details are in this building that you'd want: climate control, just so many different things," London said. "And to have an opportunity [such as this] -- walking out this morning knowing we were coming indoors, and you can enjoy a full practice with everything that you want to get in -- was awesome."