April 4, 2006
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Recent developments with the Virginia football team left many UVa fans with a growing sense of uneasiness heading toward the 2006 season.
As if the departures of four assistant coaches didn't cause enough concern, Virginia now is looking at the loss of at least four defensive players who had eligibility remaining at the end of the 2005 season.
That became apparent in the minutes leading up to a March 28 news conference, when UVa distributed a spring roster that did not include the names of linebacker Ahmad Brooks, defensive back Tony Franklin and defensive end Vince Redd.
That same day, it was learned that freshman defensive back Mike Brown faced felony charges for breaking and entering, as a result of a March 3 fight outside a UVa fraternity house.
Virginia already was trying to deal with the loss of first-team All-ACC linebacker Kai Parham, who revealed in January that he would pass up his final season of college eligibility in order to apply for the NFL draft.
Brooks and Parham were the centerpieces of a 2002 Virginia freshman class that generally was regarded among the top 10 in the country. Brooks was a first-team All-ACC selection in 2004, as well as a finalist (one of three) for the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation's top linebacker.
Brooks was projected by some analysts as a high first-round pick in the 2005 NFL draft when it appeared that he might come out, but in something of a surprise he elected to return to college. His career has been on the skids ever since, starting with a knee operation that required an unusually long rehabilitation period.
It was found that a cyst had formed behind one of Brooks' kneecaps and restricted blood flow, resulting in bone degeneration. Once the cyst was removed, blood flow could resume, but Brooks was not able to join the team until the fourth week of the season, at which point he suffered a sprained ankle.
That kept Brooks out of one more game, and eventually he developed back problems that kept him from playing in the final two contests. However, there might have been more involved than the back issue. On the Wednesday night before the regular-season finale, Brooks took an unannounced leave from the practice field.
Brooks was having problems and may not have been able to play at Miami anyway, but his failure to go through normal channels caused Groh to decide that night that Brooks would not travel to the Orange Bowl. In early December, it also was announced that Brooks and Franklin would not be going to the Music City Bowl.
By then, Franklin and three other players -- Redd, defensive lineman Kwakou Robinson and wide receiver Ottowa Anderson -- had missed one game, a Nov. 12 visit from Georgia Tech, for violating team policy. Franklin, a co-captain, subsequently was arrested Dec. 4 for misdemeanor possession of marijuana.
Virginia went on to defeat Minnesota 34-31 in the Music City Bowl. There were generally good feelings about the program, Parham's announcement notwithstanding, when it was announced shortly before a Jan. 15 deadline that Brooks would be returning to the Cavaliers for his final season of eligibility.
"I came to Virginia to earn my degree and help Virginia become a great team," Brooks said. "I still have a lot of unfinished business to meet my goals. When I do walk into an NFL locker room, I want to do it with my degree.
"I am looking forward to getting my game in top shape and helping my teammates win an ACC championship. It will all be a lot of work, and I am ready to get started. I appreciate all the support I have received from the advisors, coaches and teammates."
Brooks' comments came from a UVa news release that did not quote Groh, but reporters who talked to Groh during the recruiting season found him to be upbeat about Brooks' return.
WITH BROOKS, DRAMA NEVER ENDED
That didn't last long. By mid-February, a Rivals.com website devoted to Virginia athletics was reporting that Brooks had been dismissed from the team.
Groh and athletic director Craig Littlepage both replied by saying that Brooks remained a member of the program. In an aside, following the March 28 news conference, Groh gave reporters every reason to believe that the decision had not been made until shortly before the start of spring practice on March 29.
To this day, Virginia has not given a specific reason for Brooks' departure. Unlike Franklin and Redd, he was not among the group of players suspended before the Georgia Tech game. Unlike Franklin, he had not been arrested, at least not lately. In 2003, Brooks was arrested for marijuana possession, prior to his first season at UVa.
Brooks pleaded no contest and was placed in a program for first-time offenders that resulted in the arrest being removed from his record after a one-year probation. The Franklin case had a similar judgment on Feb. 21, but you don't have to talk to too many people to find somebody who thinks the Cavaliers have a marijuana problem.
The UVa drug policy is written in such a way that it is fairly easy for a violator to be re-instated after a first or second positive drug test. Basically, parents and coaches are notified, and the athlete can return to competition as soon as he or she has tested negative. Only after a third positive test is the violator considered to have a drug problem.
That could have been the case here, but nobody's ever going to say that for the record. However, if the dismissals of Brooks, Redd and Franklin serve to scare past and would-be future teammates into thinking twice before breaking team policy, then it has had at least one positive effect.
There had been a feeling for some time that there was one set of rules for Brooks and another set for his teammates, and the late beginning to his 2005 season served as a major distraction. While knee rehabilitation frequently was cited for the delay of his debut, it was widely known that he returned for the fall at close to 280 pounds and woefully out of shape.
While it was feared that Franklin's absence would have a crippling effect on a team that already had lost fellow starting safety Nate Lyles to a neck injury, the Cavaliers were able to get by with walk-on Byron Glaspy and journeyman Jamaal Jackson as their safeties in the bowl game.
Now it looks as if Lyles could be returning to action following surgery, which combined with Glaspy's rapid improvement could make the Cavaliers stronger at safety than they were last year. The secondary, led by ACC interception leader Marcus Hamilton at cornerback, should be one of the team's strengths.
The Wahoos would have been pleased to go with the linebacker tandem of Parham and Antonio Appleby that started the bowl, but now the leadership role falls to Appleby, who was a true freshman in 2005. The loss of Brooks will hurt, but so will the departure of Redd, a former linebacker whose performance against Minnesota was the best of his career.
Moreover, the Cavaliers' problems don't end with the defense. On the other side of the ball, UVa must replace playmaker Marques Hagans at quarterback, as well as 60 percent of a line headed by tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, a certain first-round NFL draft pick.
Throw in the departure of first-team All-ACC placekicker Connor Hughes, and it's no wonder that Groh has been using a word seldom heard from his mouth in the past: