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Groh, New Coordinator, Rookie Linebackers Under Microscope

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

  By Dave Johnson, Newport News (Va.) Daily Press
April 21, 2003 CHARLOTTESVILLE — By the end of last season, Virginia's offense was a smooth-running operation. Or close to it, anyway.

The Cavaliers scored 48 points in victories over Maryland and West Virginia, both nationally ranked teams, by mixing the pass with the run and adding an occasional bit of imagination. Quarterback Matt Schaub went from being booed to winning ACC player of the year honors. True freshman tailback Wali Lundy had 239 all-purpose yards in the Continental Tire Bowl.

But on Jan. 21, Virginia lost offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Coach Al Groh saw it coming; Musgrave began his coaching career in the NFL and made no secret about wanting to return.

But instead of going outside the program and hiring someone with play-calling experience, Groh elevated 33-year-old line coach Ron Prince. Never mind that Prince, who before joining Groh's staff in 2001 had never coached at the Division I-A level, will be a first-time coordinator. Prince, Groh insisted, has the right mind for the job.

“There's a friend of mine, he's one of the more esteemed line coaches in the NFL,” Groh said. “He's told me on a number of occasions, ëLook, if the protection's 22, I don't care if we're throwing 22-Top or Y-Cross. I don't care what we're doing after we say 22.' That's all he wants to know. Ron, from the very start, has been all eyes and ears.

“When we had defensive discussions about a front or a coverage, he took notes because he saw himself as being more than a line coach some day. He's always been interested in all facets. He's been the most significant person in the most important part of the passing game. Consistently efficient passing games always start with the protection. He's taken a pretty big-picture view of this from the start.”

That in mind, Groh expected — and got — a smooth transition this spring. He still hasn't made up his mind who will call plays in the fall and might not until August. One scenario has Groh himself handling that job, though that's hardly definitive.

“I don't think it's a big issue,” Groh said. “I think execution's a lot more important that play-calling. A lot more important. I mean, that screen pass Wali Lundy ran in (against West Virginia) didn't have much to do with brilliant play-calling. That was about player execution. That's why the big emphasis is on getting talented players. That's why the big emphasis is on training and developing talent. That's more important than drawing up plays.”

Schaub, who completed 69 percent of his passes for 2,976 yards and 28 touchdowns last season, appreciated keeping everything familiar.

“I knew things wouldn't change for us as far as our terminology and style of play,” Schaub said. “Maybe minor alterations here and there, but I was comfortable with (Prince) and how we were going to play as a team. In that respect, not much is changing for me personally. And for our young guys who were just learning the college system last year and getting a feel for that, it's good to know we weren't going to change a lot for their sake as well.”

Said right guard Elton Brown of Prince: “He was sort of like the coordinator last year, anyway.”

As for Prince's thoughts on all this, everyone will just have to guess. Like Bill Parcells, one of his mentors, Groh has a “one-voice” policy, meaning only he speaks for the program. Assistants are prohibited from being interviewed by the press, save for a one-week window in August.

While Prince's promotion was an interesting angle this spring, Groh was far more interested in, say, the center position. This fall, he expects to have excellent depth with Kevin Bailey, Zac Yarbrough and Jordy Lipsey.

But Bailey was limited to only non-contact work this spring after undergoing two knee surgeries. Yarbrough, who started from the third game on last season, developed a sports hernia and was even more limited than Bailey. Lipsey hasn't been able to practice because, well, there was that little matter of him still being in high school. So most of the snapping this spring was done by walk-ons.

Another interesting sidebar was athletic sophomore Marques Hagans. As a redshirt freshman, he nearly single-handedly won the opener against Colorado State at quarterback. That earned him a start the following week at Florida State. But as Schaub emerged, Hagans spent most of his time returning punts. This spring, Hagans worked at receiver.

“He's got ball skills, and I think he showed with all his punt work last year that he's got good hands,” Groh said of Hagans. “He's got excellent hand-to-eye coordination, he's got elusiveness. He's got a lot of those requisite abilities. We've just got to get him some turns.”

On defense, the two most-watched players this spring were a pair of freshman inside linebackers: Kai Parham and Ahmad Brooks. Slowed by a back injury, Parham redshirted last year. Brooks, the 2001 USA Today defensive player of the year, enrolled mid-year after spending a semester at Hargrave Military Academy. Brooks was the hit of Virginia's spring game, showing his speed and power. Defenders were not allowed to hit Schaub, and that turned out to be a good thing. On one play, Brooks shed two blockers and was facemask-to-facemask with the quarterback.

“I'd probably still be lying out there,” Schaub said.

Unlike his previous two springs in Charlottesville, Groh had few question marks or positions up for grabs. Not that there weren't concerns. Both safeties are gone. Replacing top tackler Angelo Crowell and leading receiver Billy McMullen won't be easy. And there were things the average fan might not notice.

“Last year, our team finished last in the ACC in total offense,” Groh said. “Now, that may surprise a lot of people. We finished second-to-last in total defense. Having analyzed how those two circumstances usually correlate somewhat to where a team finishes in the standings, it's really quite astonishing the team finished second in the most-important (statistic) — wins and losses. So, obviously, there's a lot of areas in both offense and defense where we can show considerable improvement.”

Last year's second-place tie in the conference standings — a bit better than eighth, as was the preseason projection — has fans buzzing during the offseason. Virginia probably will be picked among the top three this time, and with FSU less spectacular now, who knows? Either way, the Cavs had a different mindset this spring.

“Things are a lot more positive around here,” Schaub said. “The excitement level is so high. We had a great bit of success last season, and everybody wants to have more of it. The taste is still in their mouth, and they want to go out and improve even more this year. Hopefully, we'll win the conference and go from there. The offseason has definitely been different than it has any other year I've been here.”