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After Crazy Offseason, Groh Seeking Next Generation Of Stars

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Jerry Ratcliffe
Charlottesville (Va.) Daily Progress

August 30, 2006

CHARLOTTESVILLE - After experiencing one of the most traumatic seven-month spans of any team in the country, let alone the ACC, Virginia collected itself nicely heading into coach Al Groh's sixth season.

When the Cavaliers lost four coaches after their last regular-season game (three became head coaches: Ron Prince at Kansas State, Al Golden at Temple and Danny Rocco at Liberty), the team bounced back quickly. Coaching short-handed, the Wahoos pulled off a dramatic, come-from-behind 34-31 upset of Minnesota in the Music City Bowl.

For the most part, Groh filled the vacancies with veteran assistants. There's Mike London, whom he lured away from the NFL to become his defensive coordinator; offensive line coach Dave Borbely, who had worked at Notre Dame, Colorado and Stanford; defensive backfield coach Steve Bernstein, who brought 37 years of experience to the cause; and former All-Big Ten Iowa linebacker Bob Diaco as linebackers coach and special teams coordinator.

In the meantime, Groh promoted his son Mike, a former UVa quarterback, to offensive coordinator. That caused a split reaction in Hooville, similar to the Bobby Bowden/Jeff Bowden saga in Tallahassee.

Clearly, the Cavaliers have to replace reliable producers such as mobile quarterback Marcus Hagans, running back Wali Lundy, who became the ACC's all-time touchdowns leader, kicker Connor Hughes, the school's all-time scorer, All-American left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and many more.

Further stinging the progress of the program was the early and ill-advised exit by All-ACC second-team linebacker Kai Parham, who was not drafted, and Groh's decision to boot three players - all projected starters - off the team prior to spring practice for violations of team rules.

Troubled but talented linebacker Ahmad Brooks, later taken by Cincinnati in the NFL's supplemental draft, was the eyebrow-raiser. Defensive end Vince Redd transferred to Grambling. Veteran safety Tony Franklin was allowed back onto the team at the start of August camp.

If that wasn't enough, a couple of players who missed last season because of academics were not given back their roster spots and transferred. Then eight incoming freshmen were denied admission because of academic shortcomings, causing yet another controversy. A couple walk-ons also were given the boot because of off-the-field issues, as Groh continued to clean up his program.

No wonder the team sought out a unifying slogan in the offseason to reunite the survivors.

Strength coach Evan Marcus came up with the perfect idea when he introduced the Average Joe concept. Each Cavalier was given a standard, dark blue, collared work shirt with the name "Joe" stitched over the left breast pocket, like the ones worn by old-style gas station attendants. The idea was that everyone was the same, no prima donnas, no stars.

Groh, a big believer in chemistry, loved the idea. So did his team, which carried the theme into training camp.

"We're just a bunch of average Joes," Groh said. "We just come out every day to grind it out."

If Virginia, coming off a 7-5 campaign (3-5 ACC, fifth in Coastal Division), is to have success this season, then the Cavaliers truly will have to grind out victories with a team lacking star power. Because the program experienced heavy losses to the NFL after the past two seasons, the only All-ACC performer returning is second-team cornerback Marcus Hamilton, who led the league in interceptions.

"Now that doesn't mean there's not some talented players here to replace those guys," Groh said. "After all, who knew anything about Lundy or Ferguson or Hughes when they first came in?"

Groh said there are players on the roster that fans don't know much about but have the potential to be good. Those youngsters are going to have to grow up quickly, as did their predecessors.

"The offensive line doesn't have a senior in the group, the defense has only one senior on the whole roster," Groh said. "So, which ones of the younger players steps up in front of their peers and takes a leadership role?"

Some of those battles are raging on the offensive line, a spot of true concern in the spring, when some of the experienced players sat out with injuries or to catch up academically in order to remain eligible.

Both starting guards are back, Marshal Ausberry on the right side and Brandon Albert, who surprised everyone by starting on the left side as a true freshman. They'll be surrounded by newcomers, but competition has created some interesting developments.

Redshirt freshman Will Barker, beefed up from 6-7, 265 to 300 pounds, came on strong in training camp and beat out Eddie Pinigis for the starting job at right tackle. (Pinigis then transferred to Liberty in a huff.) Meanwhile, Ian-Yates Cunningham, a former guard, was dead even for the starting center spot with Jordy Lipsey, who for the first time in the junior's career has been able to keep weight on his frame, having gone from 268 to 282 pounds.

Big Eugene Monroe came into the program last year as the heir apparent to Ferguson at left tackle, but Monroe suffered a setback in the spring with a dislocated kneecap that required surgery. Monroe has been slowed by the injury and isn't far ahead of Zak Stair, who came on like gangbusters in the spring.

But the biggest question mark on the offense, or really on the entire team, is at quarterback. Fifth-year senior Christian Olsen, a one-time Notre Dame backup, won the starting job in the spring and is expected to keep it at least through UVa's challenging opener at Pittsburgh.

"This team has had four years of quarterback-driven play by two of the better quarterbacks who have ever played at Virginia," said Groh, referring to Matt Schaub, who rewrote the Cavaliers' passing records, and Hagans, who used his feet as much as his arms to win games. "But in the spring, Christian surpassed what I expected."

Olsen was voted one of the team's co-captains at the end of spring practice, something Groh said probably wouldn't have been the case had the vote been taken at the beginning of the spring. That's how much Olsen won over his teammates, not only by field performance, but by leadership.

"That's a good starting point for him, but it has to be confirmed by performance," Groh said. "The only performance that's going to mean anything is what happens in the early games."

Olsen, who has been an understudy to both Schaub and Hagans, more resembles Schaub's dropback style. Olsen has played only mop-up duty in the past, but he believes he is ready for the challenge.

"The big question mark on the team is obviously myself," Olsen said. "I just want to prove the doubters wrong."

A coach's son, Olsen understands the dynamics of the job and realizes what he must do in order to move the offense.

"It takes a long time to learn this offense, as intricate as it is," Olsen said. "It's been tough sitting around for three years, but it definitely has been to my advantage to sit back and be able to watch things from the sidelines."

While UVa's offense remains the same, there will be philosophical changes and a few wrinkles featured to suit Olsen's strengths.

For instance, whereas Hagans was more apt to tuck the ball and scramble for yardage when protection broke down, Olsen's strength is dumping the ball off to his checkdown receivers and allowing them to make something happen.

Also, with a deep receiving corps, including playmaking tight ends and running backs who can catch, this version of the offense truly will thrive on the West Coast philosophy of short passes turned into long gains.

Because the Cavaliers boast three tight ends who actually catch the ball, both Grohs plan to take advantage of the situation. Two-tight end sets (UVa actually can use all three if it adds one as a blocking back) put tremendous pressure on opposing defenses.

During Groh's five years at UVa, his tight ends collectively have hauled in 295 passes. The second-most during that span by another ACC team is 200, followed by 197 by the next-closest, then the figure drops below 150. UVa's offense will have a number of new formations and plays this season. Expect many of those to take advantage of its array of tight ends.

Overall, most expect UVa's offense to be much as it was in the Music City Bowl, which was more wide-open and unpredictable.

Defensively, the chief concern is the line, where only rush end Chris Long returns. He was practically unblockable in the bowl game and appears to be on the verge of greatness as a pass rusher.

A group of linebackers, led by outside man Clint Sintim, who Groh believes could become the best he's coached at UVa, will be tested early. The heart of the 3-4 is nose tackle and the linebacker corps, where some of the younger players must step up, as Groh mentioned.

Meanwhile, the secondary is probably its deepest at UVa in probably a decade, boosted by Hamilton at corner. He's the only senior on that side of the ball, but with the return of Franklin and some talented younger players, the Cavaliers may be capable of playing more aggressively in attacking the passer.

Often overlooked by fans, Groh will break in a new kicker and punter, which likely will have a large impact one way or the other this season.

The Cavs' non-conference schedule isn't the most aggressive in the world, although the opener at Pitt could be huge. Otherwise, the Cavs host Wyoming and Western Michigan, while playing at East Carolina. Obviously, the toughest segment of the schedule is the final month, when the Wahoos face a Murderer's Row of Florida State (away), Miami (home) and Virginia Tech (away).

"In order to make a run at the end," Groh said, "this team is going to have to mature quickly."

Talk about stepping up.


  • Things turned acrimonious at Virginia after junior offensive tackle Eddie Pinigis walked into Al Groh's office on Aug. 19 and said he was leaving the program. That came one day after the coaches had posted a depth chart that listed 6-7, 306-pound redshirt freshman Will Barker ahead of Pinigis at right tackle.

Pinigis started three games during the 2005 season and was listed No. 1 on the team's preseason depth chart. Within days, he enrolled at Liberty, a Division I-AA program in Lynchburg, Va., where former UVa assistant Danny Rocco is the new head coach.

Pinigis' mother charged that Groh had never liked Pinigis and that the departure of UVa offensive coordinator Ron Prince "was the end of Eddie." Prince is the new head coach at Kansas State. Amy Pinigis also said that current UVa coaches had cried when they called her son and asked him to reconsider.

Groh said subsequently that sophomore Zak "One-A-Day" Stair had progressed to the point where he would have been the third tackle even if Pinigis had stayed. Stair had been wearing the No. 1 in practice because, when warned about his penchant for penalties, he told Groh he was incurring "only" one a day. The coach quickly started using the phrase as Stair's new nickname.

  • For years, reporters were under the impression that 6-3, 260-pound Jordy Lipsey was too light to play on the offensive line in college. Lipsey has bulked up to 280 pounds and has claimed the starting job as a redshirt junior, but Groh said his biggest problem all along was poor snapping.

Lipsey was rated the No. 1 center in the country as a senior at Lake Brantley High in Florida but has never lettered with the Cavaliers. He had been competing with Ian-Yates Cunningham, who's now alternating with Marshal Ausberry at guard.

  • Another surprise was the prolonged training-camp battle between Chris Gould and walk-on Noah Greenbaum for the starting placekicker job. Gould, brother of Chicago Bears kicker Robbie Gould, has been UVa's punter since the 2004 season. He was going to relinquish those duties to juco transfer Ryan Weigand, but all that was known with certainty entering the opener was that Gould would handle kickoffs.

  • Groh said that junior Kevin McCabe likely would serve as the Cavaliers' No. 2 quarterback behind Christian Olsen at Pittsburgh in UVa's opener, but that the backup job was basically a "coin flip" between McCabe and strong-armed redshirt freshman Jameel Sewell. By far the most mobile of the team's quarterbacks, Sewell missed practice time after sustaining a cut that required 18 stitches in a bicycle mishap.

  • Wide receiver Deyon Williams, who underwent surgery on Aug. 10 for a broken foot, said he hopes to return in time for Virginia's trip to Georgia Tech for a Thursday night game (Sept. 21), but he also has thought about the possibility that he might not play at all this season. Williams, who had 58 receptions last year and scored seven TDs, has a redshirt year at his disposal.

  • Of the eight 2006 Virginia signees who did not enroll, three are at Hargrave Military Academy, one is at Fork Union Military Academy, one is at North Carolina Central, one is at home, and two are eligible to play Division I-A ball this year. Linebacker George Johnson is at Rutgers, and defensive lineman Gavin Smith is at N.C. State.

Nose tackle Asa Chapman (Fork Union) probably will need to go to junior college before he ever plays for the Cavaliers. The three players at Hargrave -- linebacker Almondo Sewell, safety Ras-I Dowling and offensive lineman Billy Cuffee -- said they remain committed to UVa.

Dowling and Cuffee, in particular, hope to get the required standardized test scores in the fall and would like to enroll at Virginia at mid-year, but UVa traditionally does not offer that option. That could become a sticking point.


Al Groh said in the spring that his team faced "a significant rebuilding job," then spent part of the preseason trying to amend that statement. Fact is, the Cavaliers experienced significant losses and will be hard-pressed to make a fifth consecutive bowl appearance, although the schedule might cooperate - at least until a November from hell, when Virginia visits Florida State, entertains Miami, then ends up at Virginia Tech. An impressive 2007 recruiting class already is in place, so the Cavs appear to be in decent shape for the long term, but a sub-.500 record would have to be viewed as a step backward.

The PooP If things go sour, especially on offense, Groh is certain to catch heat for promoting his son Mike from quarterbacks coach to coordinator. UVa lost four assistants following the 2005 season, and while that exodus raised a red flag for some observers, most of them went on to better positions. Defensive coordinator Al Golden and offensive coordinator Ron Prince accepted Division I-A head jobs at Temple and Kansas State, respectively. Golden's departure created a spot for Mike London, a respected former UVa recruiting coordinator who spent the 2005 season as the Houston Texans' defensive line coach.

Done For Me Lately Year ACC Overall Postseason
1996 5-3 (4) 7-5 Carquest Bowl (L)
1997 5-3 (3) 7-4 None
1998 6-2 (3) 9-3 Peach Bowl (L)
1999 5-3 (2) 7-5 MicronPC Bowl (L)
2000 5-3 (4) 6-6 Oahu Bowl (L)
2001 3-5 (7) 5-7 None
2002 6-2 (2) 9-5 Continental Tire (W)
2003 4-4 (4) 8-5 Continental Tire (W)
2004 5-3 (3) 8-4 MPC Bowl (L)
2005 3-5 (5C) 7-5 Music City Bowl (W)

ACC: 47-33 (.588)
Overall: 73-49 (.598)

Building Blocks The running ability of two-year starting quarterback Marques Hagans meant that the Cavaliers got away from the West Coast offense installed by Al Groh and his original coordinator, Bill Musgrave. Whereas Hagans would run when the protection broke down, successor Chris Olsen is more likely to dump the ball to his backs and tight ends. Nobody has a more impressive stable of tight ends than UVa, whose Tom Santi had five receptions for 128 yards in the Music City Bowl. Santi, Jon Stupar and John Phillips combined for 45 catches last fall.

Coming On Strong Groh said that his current group of defensive backs, eight of whom started at least one game in 2005, is the deepest and most experienced he has had at Virginia. Neither of the safeties participated in spring practice, but Nate Lyles has come back from a scary neck injury that ended his season in the ninth week, and Tony Franklin (arrested for marijuana possession in December) was reinstated at the start of August practice. Cornerback Marcus Hamilton led the ACC in interceptions last year with six, including a game-saving pick at the end of the Music City Bowl, and has eight in his last 15 games. Prep passing phenom Vic Hall could have an impact on defense as a redshirt freshman.

Cause For Concern? On offense, there are significant questions at quarterback, tailback (is anybody great?), fullback, wide receiver and along the line. On defense, there are significant questions on the line (excluding awesome end Chris Long) and at linebacker. On special teams, the Cavaliers will be breaking in a new kicker and probably a new punter. Some of those - maybe even many of those - will turn out well, but that's an awful lot of questions.

The Whole Truth "First of all, if I used the term 'rebuilding' once, it was the only time I used it. I never use the term 'rebuilding.' The way I think of it is, every year you've got to put the team back together. Rebuilding? That word is either something you never do or something that you always do. It's not a once-in-a-while thing."

- Virginia coach Al Groh Chart By: UVa Insider