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Key Players' Progress Could Help Wahoos Reverse Close Calls

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

August 27, 2005

The Big Picture
Virginia Insider: Updates / Analysis

CHARLOTTESVILLE — When the ACC media picked Virginia to finish third in the conference's Coastal Division this fall, it came as no surprise for a couple of reasons.

The Cavaliers have been bumping against the league's ceiling for the last three seasons, but they haven't been able to break through, mainly because of shortcomings against the elite teams. They went 0-3 versus Virginia Tech, Miami and Florida State last year, although they had legitimate chances against the Hokies and the Hurricanes.

"There were just three or four plays during the course of last season when if we had made a better play, we would have been playing in New Orleans," Virginia coach Al Groh said recently. "But we just didn't knock the ball down, or we just didn't catch the ball."

It was that close.

Still, that lack of success in showdown games didn't do much for the Cavaliers' confidence in such situations heading into the 2005 season. They somehow must get by defending champion Tech and Miami to advance to Jacksonville's championship game. In addition, they still have to deal with FSU's presence on the schedule.

Making the task even more challenging is the fact that seven starters from last year's team were drafted by the NFL, and a few more were taken as free agents. But Groh believes that solid recruiting will help fill those voids in Virginia's quest to finish at the top.

"That probably becomes most daunting if there's not quality young players to follow them," Groh said. "Would we like to have some of those former players back in the lineup this year? Sure we would. But you know guys are going to go, and life has to go on without them. You had better get the new guys ready. Anything less and it's like the dog baying at the moon. We're enthusiastic about some of these guys coming in and starting a new cycle."

All that really matters to Groh going into this new phase of ACC competition is winning the Coastal Division. It doesn't matter to him if his team goes 9-2 or 6-5, as long as it wins the division, because that's what puts a team in the ACC championship and only one game away from one of the biggest bowls in the country. That's why his energies are directed toward building a team that can be competitive against his divisional foes.

Groh has a lot of experience with that line of thinking, from his days with the Bill Parcells-led New York Giants. The Giants were built to win the rough-and-tumble NFC East, just as Groh's New England and New York Jets teams were designed to rule their divisions.

Many at Virginia believe the team can win the Coastal Division this year, but only if a few things occur. Senior quarterback Marques Hagans must take a giant step forward in his development. The Cavaliers' secondary must avoid the breakdowns and blown assignments that have come at critical times in the past two campaigns. Finally, a young defensive line has to grow up in a hurry.

It would be unfair to place a question mark next to Hagans. As a first-year starter in 2004, he passed for 2,024 yards (12th-best in school history), completed 62.8 percent of his passes, and rushed for 394 yards, the most by a UVa quarterback since Shawn Moore in 1989.

For all of the good things he has done, and Groh is quick to point out that Virginia wouldn't have won some of its games last season without Hagans behind center, the QB was forced to shoulder the blame when the team did lose. Most of his shortcomings seemed to be in obvious passing situations, when he either missed a read, couldn't find an open man, or had to deal with a blitz or a defender who had beaten protection, which forced Hagans to create with his playmaking ability.

Sometimes Hagans' ad-libs were reminiscent of former Georgia Tech QB Joe Hamilton. Other times, he looked like a guy playing the position for the first time.

Yes, there were brilliant runs, such as the 59-yarder for a touchdown against Syracuse, along with two more magical 40-plus plays that exhibited great escapability. There also were scrambles that resulted in big-play completions to All-American tight end Heath Miller.

More often, though, the busted plays led to forced incompletions, a few interceptions or sacks that ended important drives prematurely.

"The easy way to sum it up was that Coach Groh told me I had fast eyes," Hagans said. "So maybe I'd get off a pattern too fast, before it got a chance to open up or the whole play got a chance to develop. Now I find myself being more composed and more comfortable in the pocket, because I know every route and I can gave those routes an extra second or two, or an extra step to come open, or I can see the route coming open before it does come open."

In the offseason, Groh put together a tape of how comfortable and in control New England quarterback Tom Brady is in the pocket while progressing through his reads. Hagans said he has used that as a model for what he is attempting to accomplish, and it has given him more confidence.

Groh has equated Hagans' situation to the maturation process experienced by two of last year's top ACC quarterbacks. Virginia Tech's Bryan Randall was the league's offensive MVP in 2004, and Miami's Brock Berlin finished second-team at the position.

"Look at the Miami and Virginia Tech game last December, when they played for the ACC regular-season championship," Groh said. "They had two of the three most veteran quarterbacks in the league going into last season, and both were somewhat maligned by their fans heading into the season."

If Hagans can take that step forward, then Virginia could be a serious contender for the ACC title. The rest of the offense is solid, with a huge, veteran line featuring All-America candidate D'Brickashaw Ferguson at left tackle and fellow senior Brian Barthelmes at left guard.

Senior tailback Wali Lundy has a chance to shatter Virginia's all-time scoring marks, as he already has accumulated 41 TDs in 38 games. He returns as the fifth-leading active rusher in the country (2,619 career yards). Jason Snelling is as versatile a fullback as there is in the league, while UVa will replace Miller with talented playmakers Jon Stupar and Tom Santi. There isn't a great deal of proven experience at the wide receiver spots, but Groh said he saw significant progress in August.

Defensive coordinator Al Golden remembers getting tons of negative e-mails from frustrated fans after Virginia finished 118th in the nation in total defense after his first year on the job in 2001. The Wahoo Nation had little faith in Groh's 3-4 scheme, used by few college or pro teams back then.

But Groh and Golden believed in the defense and steadily infused talent via recruiting to elevate performance and results. Last season, the Cavaliers finished 18th nationally in total defense and 17th in scoring defense.

Blessed with talented linebackers such as juniors Ahmad Brooks, who as a sophomore was among the three finalists for the Butkus Award, and Kai Parham, the Cavs have plenty of good candidates to fill the other two outside spots.

It is the secondary that commands the most attention, perhaps one reason Groh switched Golden's responsibilities from inside linebackers to defensive backs for this season. In every Virginia loss over the past two seasons, there were breakdowns, blown assignments or poor coverage by the secondary.

Golden brings intensity and new motivation to a young but talented group of safeties, along with a couple of veteran corners in Tony Franklin and Marcus Hamilton. UVa received unexpected immediate help in August from two true freshman cornerbacks, Mike Brown and Chris Cook. They added playable depth and perhaps some versatility, in that their availability may allow a player or two to interchange between safety and corner.

Certainly, there is more speed and athletic ability in the secondary than in any other of Groh's previous four years at UVa. The program hasn't boasted a first-team, All-ACC defensive back since 1998 in Anthony Poindexter, now an assistant coach for the Wahoos.

The 3-4 scheme starts with a hard-to-budge nose tackle, and a trio of wide-bodies (Keenan Carter, Kwakou Robinson, Ron Darden) battled for that spot in camp. They all have the size but lack the experience to rule the middle of the field, which causes some concern.

At the rush end spot, sophomore Chris Long made rapid development in the offseason. The son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Howie Long, Chris has a knack for the big play, something Virginia desperately needs to make its defense go. Senior Brennan Schmidt, perhaps the heart and soul of the defense, anchors the other side. He goes into the season with 39 consecutive starts under his belt.

One aspect of the special teams is in very good hands, with kicker Connor Hughes a contender for the Groza Award. On the other hand, poor punting has been a handicap toward Virginia's desire to control field position for the last two years.

Things deteriorated so badly last season that an irritated Groh burned Chris Gould's planned redshirt year just to bring him in for the eighth game. Gould delivered, but he originally was recruited to become Hughes' successor. This spring, the Cavs stumbled upon transfer Ryan Weigand, who averaged 40 yards in junior college, giving the Hoos a couple of options for 2005.

The focus this fall will be on beating Miami and Virginia Tech, teams the Cavs had strong shots against last year, losing 31-21 to the Hurricanes and 24-10 to the Hokies.

If Virginia can elevate the development and performance in the three sore spots from a year ago, it could be the Year of the Cavalier. Otherwise, 2005 may closely resemble 2004.

The Big Picture

Virginia has won eight or more games in three consecutive seasons, and its 25 victories over that span match the program's all-time three-year high. Yet with the lofty ratings accorded Al Groh's recruiting classes and the number of UVa players who were drafted this spring, more is expected from the coach as he enters his fifth campaign. Sports Illustrated recently listed Virginia with the most favorable schedule in the ACC, although nobody at UVa agreed. The Cavaliers have road games with Syracuse, Maryland, Boston College, North Carolina and Miami. The October schedule: at Maryland, at BC, Florida State, at UNC. Clearly, a large leap won't be easy.

The PooP
When ex-New England Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis was named the head coach at Notre Dame, speculation in the Boston Globe and elsewhere had him hiring Virginia assistant Al Golden as his defensive coordinator. It could have been part of a larger exodus that included Heath Miller and Darryl Blackstock, prior to the end of their eligibility, but Golden stayed and added the defensive backs to his coordinator duties. Golden previously coached the inside linebackers, now headed by Mark D'Onofrio, whose New Jersey recruiting contacts would have been missed if he had followed one-time Penn State roommate Golden out of Charlottesville.

Done For Me Lately
Year ACC Overall Postseason

1995 7-1 (1) 9-4 Peach Bowl (W)

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)

ACC: 51-29 (.638)
Overall: 75-48 (.610)

Building Blocks
In Miller, the Cavaliers boasted the winner of the Mackey Award as the nation's premier tight end, but Virginia has had few problems attracting top prospects at that position. After redshirting in 2003, Jon Stupar played in only two games last year before requiring foot surgery. He underwent a heart procedure in the winter but got virtually all of the work in the spring, as Tom Santi recovered from surgery. Stupar was rated the No. 2 tight end in the country as a prep senior, Santi was named UVa's most outstanding first-year player last year, and Groh said 6-6, 240-pound recruit John Phillips also will play this fall.

Coming On Strong
Virginia fans were surprised at the end of the 2004 season to learn that third-year offensive tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson was being projected as a top-10 pick (at least) if he made himself available for the NFL draft. Ferguson didn't give any thought to coming out, so he heads up a veteran line that also includes right tackle Brad Butler (26 consecutive starts) and fifth-year left guard Brian Barthelmes (27 starts). Center Ian-Yates Cunningham, redshirted last season after back surgery, was good enough to start at guard as a true freshman in 2003. On top of that, newcomer Eugene Monroe (6-6, 330) was rated the No. 1 prospect in the country by SuperPrep last season.

Cause For Concern?
In 2004, Virginia did not get an interception or a caused fumble from either of its starting safeties, seniors Marquis Weeks and Jermaine Hardy. This season, the Cavaliers won't be nearly as experienced. Sophomore Nate Lyles sewed up one of the vacant spots this spring, but the other starting job likely will lack a high-impact player.

The Whole Truth
"Four years, we've been working so hard. It's time for us to achieve something. Winning 25 games, that's an achievement, but we're looking for championships."

-- Virginia tailback Wali Lundy



Coach Al Groh offered little insight in August on the availability of Butkus Award finalist Ahmad Brooks, who underwent offseason surgery to regenerate bone growth in one of his knees, but don't be surprised if Brooks makes his 2005 debut on Sept. 17 at Syracuse. The Cavaliers open the season Sept. 3 at home, when they entertain 32-point underdog Western Michigan, but they will be idle on Sept. 10. Brooks was cleared medically for the start of preseason practice, but he worked out under the direction of trainers for the first three weeks and did not participate in team drills.

In December, there was considerable speculation about the possible early departure of Brooks for the NFL, but linebacker Darryl Blackstock left every impression that he was staying. Instead, Blackstock left and Brooks, the son of ex-NFL defensive lineman Perry Brooks, stayed. Groh's comments at the time indicated that he was less than thrilled with Blackstock's decision, but Blackstock had a child to support, and his academic standing was uncertain.

The only offseason addition to the staff was former Wake Forest linebacker Levern Belin, who replaced Mike London as the defensive line coach, but that wasn't the only change. London also served as the Wahoos' recruiting coordinator, a job since filled by quarterbacks coach Mike Groh, Al's son. Defensive coordinator Al Golden, who previously had responsibility for the inside linebackers, now oversees the defensive backs. Former secondary coach Bob Price takes over the tight ends, while ex-tight ends coach Mark D'Onofrio will coach the inside linebackers. D'Onofrio also will handle the special teams.

Of the five UVa players declared ineligible before the start of preseason drills, only cornerback Philip Brown earned a letter in 2004. Brown, rated the No. 2 prep prospect in Virginia in 2002-03, had academic issues in high school and spent a year at Hargrave Military Academy before arriving in Charlottesville. He started three games in 2004 but played mostly in situations requiring an extra corner, a role that could be filled by promising true freshman Mike Brown.

In 2004, Virginia benefited from the return of wideout Michael McGrew, who would not have been available if he had not broken his leg during 2003 preseason practice. This year, the Cavaliers hope to get a similar boost from Ottowa Anderson, who had 62 career receptions before he was placed on academic suspension last summer. That also was when Anderson got into a fight with his girlfriend, and both were charged with assault. Charges eventually were dropped.

Virginia's punting was so shaky in 2004 that the Cavaliers took a redshirt off freshman Chris Gould in Week 10. Gould averaged 38.6 yards, with seven of his 18 punts downed inside the 20-yard line, but that didn't prevent the Cavs from adding a junior college punter, Ryan Weigand, with instant eligibility. If Weigand wins the job, Gould could redshirt. Gould is seen as the heir to senior Connor Hughes on placements.

Missing from the Cavaliers' preseason two-deep was defensive end Chris Johnson, who started the last four games of 2004 as a redshirt freshman. Moving ahead of him was fellow Charlottesville product Chris Long, who missed time with mononucleosis and did not play in the MPC Computers Bowl but had a terrific spring.

"He has an immense amount of talent," co-captain Brennan Schmidt said of Long, the oldest son of NFL Hall of Famer Howie Long, "that he's just now tapping into."