Virginia looking for more in 2012

Virginia linebacker Steve Greer said he hates to lose more than he likes to win.

Translation: Last year’s surprise appearance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl was nice, but it’s not enough. Greer is expecting more in 2012, and he’s not alone.

“You don’t want to stay the same or go backwards,” Greer said. “… Our goal is to win the ACC championship. Those expectations haven’t changed. We want to keep improving and move forward from last year.”

Surpassing the eight-win mark is going to be difficult to do, considering Virginia must replace seven starters on defense along with its punter, plackekicker, kickoff specialist, and most productive receiver from 2011. In addition, Virginia has one of the league’s most difficult nonconference schedules, with a home game against Penn State and a road trip to TCU. The Cavaliers’ unexpected contention for the Coastal Division title last year and first bowl appearance since 2007 earned Mike London the ACC’s Coach of the Year award, but with that success has only come increased expectations for 2012.

Virginia, though, has embraced them.

“We have the guys in place, the recruits in place to take this program to the next level,” said quarterback Michael Rocco. “I know I’m working as hard as I can to be the leader I need to be this offseason and I know other leaders on the team are, too. We’re expecting a lot out of this season and not looking to skip a beat.”

London said the extra bowl practices were invaluable, and that while on paper it might look as if Virginia has a lot of talent to replace, the staff’s recruiting efforts are finally starting to pay off.

“As crazy as it sounds, this will be the youngest we will have been, but talent-wise, I think we’re starting to improve with play on the field and guys who are coming back,” London said. “The main thrust of our team will be from the quarterback and running back positions, and our offensive line. … There’s a group of veterans that played in a lot of games and won games for us and their continued development will be crucial. I think people will be pleasantly surprised about some of these younger players who have gotten bigger, stronger, more athletic and have been in the system.”

Defensively, the best competition will be in the secondary, where three starters have to be replaced and true sophomore Demetrius Nicholson is suddenly the elder statesman of the group. The group will be filled with players who didn’t see a lot of meaningful snaps last year or redshirted. The defense also has to replace veteran leaders like defensive end Cam Johnson and cornerback Chase Minnifield.

“To me, this is going to be one of the biggest springs since I’ve been here, considering last year we lost a lot of good players and a lot of leaders on our defense,” Greer said. “This spring is going to be really important to mold the attitude of our defense and some guys are going to have to step up and become leaders.”

Whether or not Virginia can reload on defense will be the difference in the Cavaliers’ chances at returning to the postseason. Last year’s accomplishments put the program ahead of schedule. London’s challenge this year is to keep it there.