After finishing 2-10 and going winless in the conference in 2013, it can really only go up from here for Mike London and the Cavaliers, who hope that a few not-so-bad recruiting classes might finally yield some results.
And while one perception may be that the program is essentially starting from zero, it certainly doesn't hurt that the defense pretty much returns it's entire starting secondary, including one of the nation's top safeties in senior Anthony Harris, along with CB Demetrious Nicholson and S Brandon Phelps.
And though many elements on offense are far from solidified, the conferences leading returning rusher in senior RB Kevin Parks looks to continue where he left off in 2013 when he finished second in the ACC in all-purpose yards.
S Anthony Harris (6'1 | 190 | 4.57 | #8)
A Sports Illustrated All-American as a junior, Harris enters his final year as a preseason Walter Camp Player of the Year Watch List member on the heels of a nation-leading eight-interception campaign in 2013.
At 6-foot-1, Harris has a lean, wiry frame with long arms and nice proportion throughout. He makes good breaks on the ball with a strong first step despite his long-striding run style, and has quick hips and a 2nd gear to recover over the top when plays go vertical. He possesses exceptional ball skills, body control and soft hands to be a constant turnover threat, and provides instincts and physicality to play the run in the box.
He will get tied up in space at times, particularly when asked to stop and change direction in the open field, as he tends to waste some motion and struggles to generate any suddenness moving laterally.
Harris' natural coverage ability and knack for making game-changing plays, along with the versatility to man up on the outside or play from the box make him the prototypical safety prospect for today's NFL. With only one year of prolific production (1 INT before 2013) though, if Harris is to draw the first-round consideration that his talent indicates he could, he'll need to prove that his junior year was no fluke by picking up where he left off and continuing to make big plays on the ball as a senior.
RB Kevin Parks (5'8 | 205 | 4.53 | #25)
Parks enters his senior season as a Doak Walker Award Watch List member after earning All-ACC second-team honors as a junior with 1,031 yards, 11 rushing TDs while finishing second on the team with 38 receptions. He's also Virginia's No. 8 all-time leading rusher with 2,474 career yards.
Though possessing a smaller frame, Parks runs with exceptional vision and anticipation, and utilizes low position, toughness and good balance to bounce off defenders and extend plays. He has exceptional break-down and make-you-miss ability in the open field, demonstrating suddenness from a stop and out of cuts, and gets up to full speed quickly with a strong first step. As a receiver, Parks displays good route running, soft hands and nice burst upfield after the grab.
Lack of ideal size and home run speed are the biggest knocks on Parks, but if he can continue demonstrating versatility and durability, he could certainly be worthy of consideration in the mid-to-late rounds next spring.
Other Virginia prospects to watch in 2014:
CB Demetrious Nicholson (5'10 | 185 | 4.48 | #1)
Before suffering a season-ending injury against Ball State (fifth game) last year, Nicholson had played 96 percent of Virginia's defensive plays since the first defensive snap of 2011 when he started at corner as a true freshman. As a sophomore in 2012, Nicholson led the ACC (tie) with 15 passes defensed, and finished fourth on the team that year with 56 tackles, starting all 12 games. Nicholson's quickness and natural cover skills could earn him a spot on an NFL roster as a nickel option, if he's able to fully rebound from the injury and put up a strong senior campaign.
S Brandon Phelps (6'0 | 185 | 4.49 | #21)
Has started 22 of his last 24 games at Virginia, with starts at both safety and corner in that time. Phelps' versatility and special teams experience could give him a shot at competing for a roster spot at the next level, but he'll need to be a bigger factor in terms of making plays on the ball as a senior (0 career INTs).