October 4, 2004 CHARLOTTESVILLE Virginia can only hope that Chris Canty's legacy does not become larger, now that his playing career is over, than it was prior to his Sept. 25 knee injury.
Canty twice made second-team All-ACC and no higher, but to most observers, he was the Cavaliers' best defensive player during their 4-0 start.
Lightly recruited out of Charlotte (N.C.) Latin School, Canty gradually had emerged as a possible first-round draft pick over the past five years. A 225-pound high school player who was listed at 6-7 and 295 pounds this fall, he was a prototypical defensive end in coach Al Groh's 3-4 scheme. He already had recorded his seventh tackle for loss in 2004 when he was injured late in the Cavaliers' 31-10 victory over visiting Syracuse.
In all likelihood, Canty was almost done for the day when he was injured with 7:31 remaining against the Orange. Although Virginia did not give out a diagnosis either before or after an MRI examination, Groh said two days later that Canty would undergo knee surgery and that his UVa career was over.
Canty told teammates that he did not have a torn anterior cruciate ligament, leaving many to wonder if he had a dislocated kneecap, based on the twisted angle at which his left knee was hanging as he left the field. It was the last in a series of injuries that also included a broken leg in the spring of 2002 and a dislocated elbow that kept him out of the 2002 Continental Tire Bowl.
Canty, already a UVa graduate, was left to wonder if he had made the correct decision in not passing up his final season of eligibility. Although Groh said Canty would be ready for the start of the 2005 NFL summer camps, the chances of Canty being a first-round pick were greatly reduced by his injury. On the other hand, he probably would have been no higher than a third- or fourth-round pick if he had come out following the 2003 season.
Of more pressing interest is the Cavaliers' future without Canty at the right defensive end spot. His place in the starting lineup was taken by Kwakou Robinson, a 6-4, 327-pounder from Brooklyn, N.Y. Robinson was rated the No. 36 prospect in the country by SuperPrep in the Class of 2002, but unlike Canty his athleticism has proven to be unremarkable for a player of his size and strength.
Robinson's ranking coming out of high school certainly was much higher than that of Canty, who might not have been the No. 36 prospect in North Carolina as a prep senior. Canty didn't even sign with Virginia on national letter of intent day in 2000 because, at the time, he did not have an offer from the Cavaliers. He recently spoke of his motivation in playing a UNC program that didn't feel he could play major college football, but the Tar Heels were far from alone in their evaluation. Until UVa came along, Canty's only Division I-A scholarship offer also a late one was from Boston College.
When Canty's spring-time injury caused him to miss the start of the 2002 season, Robinson, then a true freshman, started the first five games. His playing time fell off from that point, and, while he played in every game last season, he averaged fewer than 15 plays per game. That's close to what he had played in three blowouts to start this season.
"It's like people always say, ëYou're only one play away,'" said Robinson, who in the eyes of many would have benefited from a redshirt year at some point. "If I get thrown in the fire, I feel I'm ready."
Next Up: Robinson, Johnson, Long
Robinson had been the No. 1 backup to both starting defensive ends, Canty and Brennan Schmidt. When the entire second unit was in the game, Robinson and 6-3, 275-pound redshirt freshman Chris Johnson took the snaps. Groh recently characterized Robinson as more of a power player and Johnson as a quicker player. Canty, on the other hand, was a quick player with power.
When asked to rate Robinson's maturity and knowledge of the defense, Groh responded "adequate," which was not interpreted by the media as much of a compliment. Indeed, if there is a player on the defensive line who approaches Canty's combination of skills, it might be Chris Long, a 6-4, 265-pound true freshman who is the son of NFL Hall of Famer and Fox Sports broadcaster Howie Long.
Chris Long did not play against Syracuse, the first game in which he had not participated, but he now becomes one of the first four defensive ends. Redshirt freshman Allen Billyk (6-4, 267) is another player who could get more of a look. He was a preseason SuperPrep All-American before his senior year in high school, although he ended up being rated a less scintillating three-star prospect on signing day in 2003.
Groh said he did not anticipate moving any players to the defensive line, which would rule out redshirt freshman Vince Redd, a 6-7, 265-pound outside linebacker who resembles Canty physically. According to Groh, part of the slack will have to be assumed by players at other positions on the defense.
Canty had been credited with only one sack in the first four games, but he had spent plenty of time in opposing backfields and was one of the Cavaliers' best three pass-rushers, along with outside linebacker Darryl Blackstock and inside linebacker Ahmad Brooks. The remaining six players on UVa's defense also are capable of getting to the quarterback, including nose tackle Andrew Hoffman, a fifth-year senior who has established himself as an All-ACC candidate this fall.
True Ranking Likely Coming Soon
There was a little time for an adjustment period at the start of the post-Canty era. UVa was a solid favorite over Clemson, which kicked off the next phase of the Wahoos' schedule with an Oct. 7 trip to Scott Stadium for a Thursday night ESPN game. Then it's four road games in the last six for the Cavaliers, with one of the home games against mighty Miami.
Early October losses suffered by Ohio State, West Virginia and Tennessee created room for Virginia in the top 10, but Groh admitted that he still didn't know how the Cavaliers stacked up. At a time when they were ranked 12th, Groh, who doesn't have a vote this year, said they belonged somewhere between No. 12 and No. 30.
Of course, the Wahoos can't afford any more catastrophic injuries, not that anybody could. However, there are some positions running back, maybe the offensive line where they have much more depth than others. Weeks go by without anybody mentioning sophomore offensive lineman Ian-Yates Cunningham, a starter at guard over the second half of last season who hasn't played yet in 2004 because of his recovery from a serious back injury.
When wide receiver Deyon Williams aggravated an injury in practice on the Thursday before the Syracuse game, an absence of depth caused Groh to move senior running back Alvin Pearman to wideout. Pearman had 63 receptions last year as a junior, so it was an obvious move, but one that Groh had resisted in the preseason.
Groh said he expected Pearman to return to running back, where he shares time with junior Wali Lundy and sophomore Michael Johnson, but there is no shortage of areas in which Pearman, second in the ACC in all-purpose yardage, has been able to contribute.