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Mediocre Record, Staff Turnover, Nfl Exits Thrust Groh Tenure Toward Undeniable Crossroads

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

Virginia (6-5) vs. Minnesota (7-4), Dec. 30, noon, ESPN

By Doug Doughty
Roanoke (Va.) Times
December 22, 2005

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- When asked before the season if he felt that his football program was at a crossroads, fifth-year Virginia coach Al Groh said he never looked at seasons in those terms.

It's a good thing he doesn't, because a pessimist might think the Cavaliers are headed in the wrong direction. With its Music City Bowl matchup with Minnesota on the horizon, Virginia (6-5) no longer is capable of producing a fourth straight season with eight wins or more, and the Wahoos need a victory just to save a winning season.

One obscure statistic is particularly revealing. Only twice since 1986 has Virginia posted a losing record in conference games -- in 2001, when it had a 3-5 ACC mark in Groh's debut, and again when it was 3-5 this year.

This season started with high hopes, but there were reasons to believe that Virginia might struggle. In the second year of the unbalanced ACC schedule, UVa was the only team to meet the preseason top two picks in the Atlantic Division (Florida State, Boston College) and the Coastal Division (Virginia Tech, Miami).

Who would have thought that Virginia's only victory against that group would have come against then-unbeaten and fourth-ranked Florida State, 26-21? Coupled with a 33-28 upset of No. 2 FSU in 1995, those are the only two wins over top-five foes in UVa history.

The Cavaliers added a second victory over a Top 25 team, then-No. 24 Georgia Tech, on the Scott Stadium turf where Groh's teams have been eminently successful. But even Virginia's home excellence was called into question when Virginia Tech rushed for 333 yards in a 52-14 romp in Charlottesville. UVa's inability to stop the run against the Hokies threw up a red flag leading into the game against Minnesota, which ranks second in Division I-A in rushing offense and boasts the nation's No. 5 rusher in Laurence Maroney.

While Groh has placed a high priority on winning a bowl for the third time in four years, he admittedly has "a lot of balls in the air right now," most notably the revamping of his staff.

In a five-day span in early December, Groh lost both of his coordinators to Division I-A head coaching positions and assistant head coach Danny Rocco to Division I-AA Liberty. Offensive coordinator Ron Prince accepted the top job at Kansas State, and defensive coordinator Al Golden went to Temple.

Mark D'Onofrio, who coaches the UVa inside linebackers and coordinates the special teams, roomed with Golden at Penn State and was the best man at Golden's wedding. D'Onofrio will be going to Temple as the defensive coordinator, although he and Rocco agreed to return to Virginia during a recruiting dead period and assist in bowl preparations.

"You look at certain staffs and say, ‘They had a number of guys who went on to become head coaches,' and that took place over the course of three, four, five years," Groh said. "I felt (Prince, Golden and Rocco) had the potential to be head coaches when they came here, but I certainly didn't expect it to happen in a week's time."

Within days of the Golden announcement, Virginia learned that Pennsylvania linebacker Mark Herzlich, who had made an early commitment to the Cavaliers, would be taking an official visit to Boston College, where he subsequently committed. Other committed players also were starting to take second looks, but that has happened in years when there has been much less coaching turnover, too.

Virginia had 17 commitments by the start of December, added four more following a Dec. 2-4 recruiting weekend, then picked up a fifth that offset the loss of Herzlich.

More telling, perhaps, was the announcement that all-state defensive end John Graves of Richmond picked Virginia Tech over Virginia, long considered the favorite. Graves, at 6-4 and 245 pounds, was projected as an outside linebacker by the Cavaliers, who could not tell him who his new coach would be. UVa plays a 3-4 defense that is attractive to some recruits, but it posed questions for Graves, who may not have the ideal speed for an outside linebacker and would have needed considerably more bulk to play end for the Wahoos.

Some observers looked at the coaching losses as a chance for Groh to review his commitment to the 3-4, which Groh likes because it gives him a chance to get more of his best athletes on the field. That may have been the case when he had Darryl Blackstock on the outside, but when Blackstock made an early move to the NFL following the 2004 season, there were no Blackstocks to take his place.

Don't look for Groh to scrap the 3-4, particularly if ex-assistant Mike London returns in a prominent role. The Houston Texans made London an offer he could not refuse in 2004, but after one season as the defensive line coach in the Texans' 3-4 scheme, London could be looking for employment if boss Dom Capers is not retained.

Groh has said he wants to pick an offensive line coach before he makes a decision on an offensive coordinator. Names for the line position include ousted Georgia Southern head coach Mike Sewak (a UVa grad), as well as James Madison assistant Kurt Newsome, whose contacts in Virginia high schools are hard to beat.

Given the mixed success this season and his own mixed popularity, Groh would have to think twice about naming his son, Mike, as coordinator. (See Bobby and Jeff Bowden.) The younger Groh is the UVa quarterbacks coach and also is in his first season as its recruiting coordinator, while receivers coach John Garrett has much-valued NFL experience and fewer recruiting responsibilities.

In the end, players will make more of a difference than coaches, and that's where the 2006 picture is as fuzzy as ever. Quarterback Marques Hagans will complete his career after two 2,000-yard passing seasons as a starter, and none of his understudies has significant experience. In fact, Groh hasn't even committed to bringing back No. 2 QB Christian Olsen for a fifth season.

Inside linebacker Kai Parham was the Cavaliers' best defensive player this season and a worthy first-team All-ACC selection, but now comes word that he may make himself available for the NFL draft and pass up his final season of eligibility. The same could go for oft-injured Ahmad Brooks, a first-team All-ACC pick in 2004.

Brooks missed five full games this fall -- the first three while rehabbing from offseason knee surgery, the fourth after spraining an ankle, and the fifth from a back injury that caused him to walk off the practice field on the Wednesday before the regular-season finale at Miami.

"By and large, we've played the season without the Ahmad that we know," Groh said. "If we don't have him, it will be business as usual."

Groh was referring to the bowl, but the statement could have applied just as easily to Brooks' college career. The Cavaliers' football future holds many similar uncertainties.

MUSIC CITY BOWL AND BEYOND

Departing Players

Starters (10)

WR Ottowa Anderson, OC Brian Barthelmes, RT Brad Butler, LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson, QB Marques Hagans, PK Connor Hughes, RB Wali Lundy, LB Mark Miller, NT Kwakou Robinson, DE Brennan Schmidt 

Other Contributors

NT Ron Darden (medical), KO Kurt Smith, LB Bryan White

2006 Returning Starters

Offense (5)

Pos. Name Ht./Wt. 2006 Class
FB Jason Snelling 5-11/233 Sr.
WR Deyon Williams 6-3/185 Sr.
TE Jonathan Stupar 6-3/245 Jr.
LG Branden Albert 6-7/306 So.
RG Marshal Ausberry 6-5/309 Jr.

Defense (8)

DE Chris Long 6-4/278 Jr.
LB Ahmad Brooks? 6-4/259 Sr.
LB Kai Parham? 6-3/253 Sr.
LB Clint Sintim 6-3/242 So.
S Tony Franklin 5-10/180 Sr.
S Nate Lyles 6-0/197 Jr.
CB Chris Gorham 6-0/188 Jr.
CB Marcus Hamilton 5-11/187 Sr.

Special Teams (1)

P Chris Gould 6-1/216 Jr.

Other Tested Returnees

Offense

FB Kevin Bradley, WR Emmanuel Byers, WR Maurice Covington, OG Ian-Yates Cunningham, WR Theirrien Davis, RB Michael Johnson, OC Jordy Lipsey, WR Fontel Mines, OT Eugene Monroe, WR Kevin Ogletree, RB Cedric Peerman, TE John Phillips, OT Eddie Pinigis, OG Gordie Sammis, TE Tom Santi

Defense 

LB Antonio Appleby, S Ryan Best, CB Mike Brown, CB Philip Brown (possible), NT Keenan Carter, LB Aaron Clark, CB Chris Cook, LB Jon Copper, LB Jermaine Dias, S Byron Glaspy, S Jamaal Jackson, DE Vince Redd 

Projected 2006 Strengths 

Here's a sentence Virginia fans probably thought they'd never see again: The Wahoos' defensive backfield -- yes, that haunted cavern of inadequate personnel, busted coverages and disappearing prep All-Americans in Charlottesville -- may be the most stable area of the program right now. Of course, given the recent headlines involving staff departures, graduating seniors, early NFL exits (possibly), career-ending injuries and other unpleasant matters, the spotlight on the secondary may be mainly the result of a lack of competition. Elsewhere, the offensive line theoretically could be a strength in 2006 if some talented youngsters (Albert, Lipsey, Monroe, etc.) continue to progress quickly, and the linebacker corps could be awesome if Parham and Brooks (if healthy) postpone their professional aspirations. Until the dust settles, though, it'll be very difficult to evaluate this team. 

Projected 2006 Questions 

Where to begin? How will Al Groh handle what must be one of the biggest one-year overhauls (at least four departures from his nine-man staff) under a retained head coach in the history of ACC football? How will the team deal with the transitions to new coordinators on both sides of the ball? With players such as Ferguson and Lundy (and possibly Brooks and Parham) on their way out the door, where is this program's next generation of productive prep All-Americans? To whom will the Cavaliers turn at the most important position on the field, considering the group of completely inexperienced quarterbacks on hand? Are the Wahoos closer to being in the top four in this conference, or closer to the bottom four?

Chart By: Editor David Glenn