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Experienced Cavs Look To Rebound From Down Season

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




By Jeff White
Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch

August 30, 2007

CHARLOTTESVILLE — If Virginia stumbles for the second straight year, and the masses choose to avoid Scott Stadium on game days, Al Groh may find himself looking for work at season's end. But don't count on that happening.

The surgically repaired left wrist of left-handed QB Jameel Sewell must hold up, and the offensive line must stay reasonably healthy. But if UVa can catch some breaks, this could rank among the better teams Groh has had at his alma mater.

The 2006 season increased the heat on Groh, who's 42-33 at Virginia. The Cavaliers finished 5-7, their first losing record since 2001, Groh's first season. Groh admitted recently that he went into the 2006 season with a sense of foreboding. He knew his team had no experience at quarterback, an unproven kicker, an overhauled offensive line, significant holes to fill on defense and three assistants who were new to the program. Moreover, his top receiver had suffered a serious injury during training camp. The result was a season that offered further proof of the widening gap between rivals Virginia Tech and Virginia.

"To have a down season where you don't feel like you win as many games as you should, and you play poorly, is very disappointing," tight end Tom Santi said. "But at the same time, that can be a growing experience, a learning experience for younger players."

Inexperience won't be an excuse this season. Even with standout wide receiver Kevin Ogletree sidelined by a knee injury, UVa has eight starters back on offense, including Sewell, its best playmaker, and 10 starters return from one of the ACC's top defenses.

The schedule isn't overly challenging, and talent should not be an issue, either. Groh's veterans include numerous players who figure to be drawing NFL paybacks in a couple of years: Santi, defensive end Chris Long, offensive guard Branden Albert, offensive tackle Eugene Monroe, cornerback Chris Cook and linebacker Antonio Appleby.

"When you don't have enough talent, you worry," Long said, "but we have enough talent to get the job done."

The Cavaliers also have motivation.

"When you're 5-7, if you're not a little upset with yourself, there's something wrong," Long said.

Plenty went wrong with UVa's offense in its first season under coordinator Mike Groh, the former Virginia quarterback and son of the head coach. The Grohs tried Christian Olsen and then Kevin McCabe before settling on a promising redshirt freshman — Sewell — at QB.

Playing all season with a broken bone in his left wrist, Sewell still managed to pass for 1,342 yards and rush for 200. He dazzled at times, but Sewell threw more interceptions (six) than touchdown passes (five). The line improved as the season progressed but still allowed 35 sacks.

"We had an inexperienced quarterback with an inexperienced offensive line," Al Groh said. "We've had one or the other before, but not both at the same time."

Out of 119 teams in Division I-A last season, UVa ranked 113th in total offense (257.2 yards per game). The Cavaliers finished 110th in scoring offense, averaging 15.1 points per game.

Expect considerably more production this season. The starting line returns intact, led by juniors Monroe (left tackle) and Albert (left guard). Also back is perhaps the nation's best set of tight ends: seniors Santi and Jonathan Stupar and junior John Phillips. At tailback, juniors Cedric Peerman and Andrew Pearman and redshirt freshman Keith Payne are capable replacements for Jason Snelling, who rushed for 772 yards last year.

The biggest question mark remains the passing game. The Cavaliers ranked 11th among ACC teams in passing offense last season, and that was with Ogletree (52 catches for 582 yards).

With Ogletree out after reconstructive knee surgery, junior Maurice Covington (11 career catches) has the most receptions as a Cavalier of any wideout. Cary Koch has 24 career receptions, but 23 came when he played for Tulane. New receivers coach Wayne Lineburg's other options include redshirt freshman Chris Dalton, sophomore Mikell Simpson (who also plays tailback), true freshman Dontrelle Inman and walk-on Staton Jobe.

That doesn't concern the Cavaliers' No. 1 quarterback.

"Last year they were saying how the receivers weren't doing as well," Sewell said. "It wasn't the receivers, and it wasn't the tight ends. Honestly, it was me. If I can't get them the ball, they can't make a play without the ball in their hands."

Like most disciples of Bill Parcells, Al Groh favors the 3-4 defense. Heading into last season, questions lingered about that scheme's effectiveness at the college level, but first-year coordinator Mike London's defense answered them emphatically. Virginia ranked 17th nationally in total defense and 22nd in scoring defense. The only 2006 starter not back is cornerback Marcus Hamilton, who was second- team All-ACC last year.

"It's not like we're bragging or anything, because there's not much to brag about with 5-7, but we did a lot of good things last year, and I think we'll be a lot better," said senior Jermaine Dias, who returns at outside linebacker.

After redshirting in 2005, defensive end Jeffrey Fitzgerald was a first-team freshman All-American. He started every game and led the Wahoos with six sacks. Fitzgerald had six other tackles for loss, as well as two interceptions, and he's not even considered UVa's best at his position. That would be Long, who was second-team All-ACC in 2006 and has become, in Groh's words, the team's "standard-bearer and the standard-enforcer."

Senior Allen Billyk and Nate Collins — who was the only true freshman Groh used last year — will split time at nose tackle. Rounding out the front seven are outside linebackers Dias and Clint Sintim and inside linebackers Appleby and Jon Copper, the team's leading tackler in 2006.

At cornerback, sophomore Vic Hall will start alongside his cousin Cook, and the Cavs look solid there. For London's defense to join the nation's elite, however, it needs better play from starting safeties Byron Glaspy and Nate Lyles and back-ups Jamaal Jackson and Brandon Woods, all of whom have struggled in coverage. Between them, Lyles and Glaspy had only one interception and six pass breakups last season.

In Peerman (27.3-yard average), UVa has a top-shelf kickoff returner. But the inconsistency of Chris Gould and Ryan Weigand, now seniors, hurt Virginia's special teams in 2006. Gould kicked off, punted and handled extra points and field goals for the first half of the season. Perhaps overwhelmed by all that responsibility, he didn't come close to meeting the standard set by his predecessor, All-ACC kicker Connor Hughes. Gould made only 11 of 19 field-goal attempts. Weigand took over most of the punting duties midway through the season. His average of 42.4 yards was the best by a UVa punter in six years, but Weigand shanked too many kicks for his coaches' liking.

Under Groh, the Cavaliers are 10-23 in road games, a dismal record that makes the trips to Wyoming, North Carolina, Middle Tennessee, Maryland, N.C. State and Miami especially significant. If Virginia can win at least three of those games, it should be able to move on from the disappointment of 2006.

If not? Groh's critics might get their wish.

VIRGINIA INISIDER: UPDATES/ANALYSIS

  • Guests at Virginia's Meet the Team Day included an NFL Hall of Famer, Howie Long, and a prospective Hall of Famer, Darrell Green.

Long's son Chris is a senior defensive end who literally is the face of the program as evidenced by a wide-angle facial shot on the cover of UVa's media guide. Green's son, Jared, is a freshman wide receiver for the Cavaliers, who, at 6-foot-2, dwarfs his father.

Jared Green was a late bloomer who was the final member of UVa's 24-player recruiting class to receive a scholarship offer. He comes from the same program, Oakton High School in Vienna, that produced much touted redshirt freshman running back Keith Payne.

  • The players haven't had many running backs with the size of Payne, listed at 6-3 and 234 pounds in the media guide but possibly closer to 245.

His availability was placed into question when head coach Al Groh announced June 27 that Payne had been suspended from all team activities while he concentrated on academics and remaining eligible.

"Keith is not holding up his end of the deal despite significant direction and effort from many people," Groh said in a statement.

Results from Virginia's third summer-school session apparently were favorable for Payne, who was cleared academically and returned to practice Aug. 10.

  • Andrew Pearman, who was moved from wide receiver to running back on the eve of preseason practice, is hoping to make up for lost time after playing in only four games during his first three years of college.

Pearman originally committed to Virginia before his senior year at Providence High School in Charlotte, N.C., only to change his mind after his recruiter, UVa running backs coach Kevin Ross, joined his father's staff at Army.

Pearman signed with Hawaii, where he was redshirted in 2004, only to transfer to Virginia. After sitting out the 2005 season as a transfer, Pearman started two of the first four games in 2006, but he suffered a knee injury that required surgery following the fourth game.

Citing personal reasons, Pearman dropped out of school and returned to Charlotte, choosing to re-enroll at Virginia during the summer. He has two seasons of eligibility remaining.

  • An offseason knee injury resulted in surgery for Mike Brown, who was entering his third season as one of the top candidates to start at the cornerback spot opposite Chris Cook. Brown had not previously been redshirted.

Brown's injury has focused the spotlight on sophomore Vic Hall, an ex-quarterback who broke many of the state records for passing and total offense in his career at Gretna High School.

Hall played sparingly last year as a redshirt freshman, but his duties this season could include starting cornerback, holder for field goals and extra points, punt returner and outside "gunner" on punt coverage. If he isn't returning punts, he may be responsible for keeping the other team's "gunner" from getting downfield.

When UVa's quarterbacks struggled early in the 2006 season, fans clamored to see more of Hall. Although some Cavaliers would like to see him get a shot at quarterback, the coaches only worry that they have him doing enough already.

     Hall was the object of a scare at midsummer, when Internet reports suggested that he had been shot at an altercation outside the Biltmore, a popular nightspot in UVa's "corner" district. Hall wasn't shot but he did require stitches after being struck with a solid object, possibly a bottle.

"There were some guys loitering on the street, and their agenda was to create a disturbance," Groh said. "Vic was jumped from behind, sucker-punched and kicked when he was down. That's when the individuals ran off. Vic was a fully innocent victim."

Said Hall: "Wrong place, wrong time."

  • Even before last season, Groh was telling people that the departure of record-setting place-kicker Connor Hughes would be felt almost as deeply as the loss of 2005 starting quarterback Marques Hagans.

After Hughes had gone 21-of-24 on field goals during an All-ACC season in 2005, the Cavaliers were only 12-of-21 last year, with Chris Gould going 11-of-19.

Gould started the season as UVa's kicker for field goals and extra points, the punter and the kickoff specialist. By the end of the season, he had yielded some punting duties to Ryan Weigand, who averaged 35.7 yards on 24 punts. Gould continued to punt when UVa was inside midfield, and he had a school-record 29 punts downed inside the 20.

None of Gould's field-goal misses led directly to UVa losses.

However, a lack of confidence prompted the Cavaliers not to try a field goal that would have been helpful in a 28-26 loss to Maryland that came down to a missed two-point attempt.

Virginia signed a kicker, Chris Hinkebein from Charlotte, N.C., but the Cavaliers are looking for Gould to deliver as a senior. He is the younger brother of Chicago Bears' place-kicker Robbie Gould.

  • A pair of walk-ons, Cary Koch and Staton Jobe, entered the preseason listed 1-2 at the wide-receiver slot once reserved for Kevin Ogletree, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the spring. Ogletree, who had a redshirt year at his disposal, had a team-high 52 receptions for the Cavaliers in 2006.

Koch began his career at Tulane, where he had 23 receptions as a freshman during the Green Wave's Hurricane Katrina-plagued 2005 season. He transferred to Virginia and was granted instant eligibility because Tulane dropped his major, but he was limited to one reception for four yards in 2006.

Jobe had 44 receptions for 1,003 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2005 as a senior at Westlake High School in Dallas, where he was the team most valuable player on a squad that had three Division I signees. Westlake is Drew Brees' alma mater.

  • Prospects are starting to cite uncertainty over Groh's job status as a consideration in their recruiting decisions. The last of 12 players to commit to Virginia was Washington, D.C., football and basketball standout Cam Johnson on July 9.

All of UVa's recruits are from out of state, which has been a cause for concern among some fans. The Cavaliers' numbers situation is such that they anticipate signing only 18 players, so they're not in a position to sign in-state players simply as a public-relations move.

The Big Picture

Virginia went to four straight bowls from 2003-06, winning three and dropping the fourth on a controversial play that probably should have been overturned. Granted, they were all second-tier bowls, but when the Cavaliers failed to get a bowl bid because they finished with a losing record, the 2006 season definitely represented a step backward. Coach Al Groh still has four years remaining on a contract that would require a hefty buyout, but another 5-7 season could cause fans to call for his head, particularly if it includes an unimpressive performance in the finale against Virginia Tech in Charlottesville.

The PooP

UVa not only ranked 114th nationally in total offense last year, but its 257.2 yards per game were a program low since 1977. No. 1 quarterback Jameel Sewell later underwent wrist surgery, and top receiver Kevin Ogletree underwent reconstructive knee surgery. Ogletree most likely will be redshirted, but Sewell didn't miss any practice time in August. Sewell is the Cavs' top returning rusher, but junior tailback Cedric Peerman ran track last winter and has worked with new strength coach Matt Balis to improve his flexibility.

Done For Me Lately

Year ACC Overall Postseason
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)
2006 4-4 (3C) 5-7 None

ACC: 46-34 (.575)
Overall: 71-51 (.582)

Building Blocks

The front seven on defense returns intact and boasts a likely first-round pick in senior Chris Long, as well as fellow end Jeffrey Fitzgerald, a unanimous freshman All-American. Star linebacker Clint Sintim underwent offseason shoulder surgery that left him hoping for a break-out year this fall. UVa's four linebackers all started 12 games last year, and only Jermaine Dias (18 career starts) is a senior. The defense's yield of 289.5 yards per game, under first-year coordinator Mike London, was its lowest since 1979.

Coming On Strong

One reason UVa got off to a slow start and had trouble running the ball last season was the performance of a young line that returned only two starters, guards Branden Albert and Ian-Yates Cunningham. Now all five starters return, including tackle Eugene Monroe, rated the nation's No. 1 prospect by SuperPrep in 2004. Monroe played sparingly in 2005, then dislocated his kneecap in the spring of 2006. He was so ineffective early in the season that he briefly lost his job, but his November performance was cause for renewed optimism.

Cause For Concern?

The only new coach is Wayne Lineburg, the former offensive coordinator at I-AA Richmond, who succeeded John Garrett as wide receivers coach. While Garrett joined the Dallas Cowboys and inherited Terrell Owens, Lineburg was challenged to find a second dependable UVa wide receiver even before Ogletree was hurt. The X factor is a group of tight ends led by preseason All-ACC choice Tom Santi, but Lineburg might have to dip into a signee pool that includes one-time South Carolina player of the year Dontrelle Inman.

The Whole Truth

"Long before I got to camp, I had a foreboding of (last year's 5-7 season). For me to come out and say, ‘OK, here's what I think,' all that does is paint a low level of expectations for the players, (but) the worst thing a coach can do is fool himself."

– Virginia coach Al Groh

Chart By: The UVa Insider