CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Virginia running back Taquan Mizzell admits when the Cavaliers’ coaches call for the first team offense to take the field at practice, he sometimes forgets that means him.
The junior and former four- or five-star recruit spent his first two seasons at Virginia on the third team, getting limited opportunities behind Kevin Parks and Khalek Shepherd. In two seasons, the player nicknamed “Smoke” has carried to ball 109 times for 464 yards and three touchdowns and caught 68 passes for 435 yards and a TD.
Knowing his opportunity is at hand this season made Mizzell’s offseason more intense.
“I know coming into summer I couldn’t just do what was expected. I had to go beyond that,” he said. “My coach told me I had to be in the best shape of my life and to take the time to do the workout that was presented to me.”
Mizzell’s offseason regimen also included more film study, trying to make himself more of a north and south runner and as complete a player in other areas as possible. The difference in his preparation is noticeable, coach Mike London said.
“His learning has improved dramatically,” London said. “We all know that he’s a very skillful player. There’s different ways that you can use his skill-set, but learning the game and how to be a running back in all phases, whether it’s protection, downhill running, route running, just different things. He’s improved in that tremendously.”
Mizzell has rarely shown the type of explosiveness that might be expected of a recruit so highly regarded. His longest run from scrimmage has covered 36 yards, his longest reception covered 54 and his best kick return covered 39.
London expects this to be the year when Mizzell’s big-play ability goes on display.
“You look for big plays, big production, but you look for sound play and the type of mature play from a player of his skill and ability,” he said. “It’s his time now. It’s his time having been here for a while to show those type of skills. We’ve seen it, and he continues to show it. I expect this year to be a very productive year for him.”
The Cavaliers, who open the season at No. 13 UCLA on Sept. 5, also plan to get back to their preferred style of offense, relying on power running behind a seasoned offensive line, offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild said.
“I think we undersold ourselves in the run game, got a little finessey” last year, Fairchild said.
The Cavaliers were thin on the offensive line last year, and Fairchild said this is the first time in his three years at Virginia that he’s got two complete lines to rotate during practice.
They also have a new starting quarterback in Matt Johns, who has been praised effusively by London, Fairchild and others for the leadership he showed throughout the summer, and for the trust he’s engendered in teammates.
Encouraging Mizzell to silence his critics has been a focus, Johns said.
“I just tell him, ‘Go show them.’ That’s what he’s here for, and I think he’s excited about it,” Johns said.
“There’s just a look in his eye, every play, like he’s locked in. He’s just taking every play personal.”