January 15, 2008
CHARLOTTESVILLE A late start to the conference basketball schedule served to keep the focus on football for nearly two weeks after Virginia's 31-28 Gator Bowl loss to Texas Tech.
Little more than 24 hours had elapsed before junior offensive guard Branden Albert revealed that he would be placing his name in consideration for the NFL draft.
No one was surprised by Albert's decision, given his age (23) and the fact that he had not requested information from an NFL advisory committee. Early projections have Albert being selected in the first three rounds of the draft, and a two-game stint at tackle only helped his marketability.
The Cavaliers already stood to lose two senior offensive linemen center Jordy Lipsey and right guard Ian-Yates Cunningham so they face a massive rebuilding job on the o-line with the added loss of Albert, a 6-7, 310-pounder who was one of their two first-team All-ACC selections.
Albert's only regret was that he could not have gone out in more memorable fashion. With the Cavs looking at the second 10-win season in school history, they lost a 14-point lead in the final four minutes at Jacksonville, where Texas Tech scored the tying touchdown after backup quarterback Peter Lalich was sacked at the four-yard line.
It was a false start by Albert that put UVa in position to pass on second-and-15 from its 17. Then, when Albert released early on a screen pass, it was his man who got to Lalich. Albert knew by game time that he was turning pro but said it would have been "selfish," under the circumstances, to go public then.
Virginia was left to wonder what other players with remaining eligibility might not return in 2008. Maybe the greatest fear was that Division I-AA Richmond might come after UVa defensive coordinator Mike London, a Spiders alum, for its vacant head coaching position.
The Cavaliers dodged a bullet in 2007, when London removed his name from consideration at Old Dominion, which is resuming football and will play at the Division I-AA level. UVa bumped London's salary to $240,000 and added a year to his contract in the event that things did not go well for Al Groh in 2007.
Money may not be an object with Richmond, whose Dave Clawson resigned after four years to become the offensive coordinator at Tennessee. At 47, London may not feel he can wait to take the coordinator route to a I-A head coaching position, though he would have some support as an eventual Groh successor.
London is well-liked by players, administrators, supporters and the media, but where his departure would hurt most is in recruiting. London was the lead recruiter on eight of the first 16 prospects to commit to the Cavaliers this year and may be UVa's only hope in the Hampton-Newport News area, where Groh has alienated several of the most prominent coaches.
In the days leading up to the bowl game, e-mail speculation was rampant that UVa would lose a host of players to academics, but the only bowl-game casualty was cornerback Chris Cook. A junior, Cook may be UVa's best defensive back, but the secondary did not embarrass itself in the bowl.
The Cavaliers traveled to Jacksonville without tailback Mikell Simpson, who subsequently was able to rejoin the team after attending to an academic matter. Simpson carried 20 times for 170 yards, including a 96-yard touchdown run, but academics could dog him going into the 2008 season.
Virginia got nearly 600 yards apiece from Simpson, never a factor in the running game until the eighth game, and Cedric Peerman, lost for the season in week six, but both loom as question marks for 2008. Peerman underwent surgery for a mid-foot or Lisfranc condition that has been the scourge of the NFL.
UVa has a host of running backs, including one-time state player of the year Keith Payne, but Payne was so upset by his inactivity in the Gator Bowl that he approached his former Oakton High coach, Joe Thompson, for counsel. It was Payne, remember, who was suspended from team activities during the summer for his inattention to academics.
Another running back, Andrew Pearman, got in a fight with another player at the Gator Bowl and was sent home. Pearman, who would be a fifth-year senior, scored two touchdowns at Middle Tennessee and had a big role in UVa's 23-21 victory, but he had little impact after that.
LEITAO NOT PLEASED WITH TEAM
In an odd scheduling quirk, the Virginia basketball team did not play from Jan. 3 until Jan. 13 and thus had 10 days to mull over its 108-70 loss at Xavier, where the Cavaliers gave up 100 points for the first time under third-year coach Dave Leitao.
When they returned to Charlottesville, the players had to make their own dressing arrangements, after Leitao threw them out of their plush locker room at their 14-month home, the John Paul Jones Arena.
Leitao was disgusted by the performance at Xavier, and there were fears that the situation would become worse before it got better, considering that Virginia's conference opener was scheduled for Duke, where the Cavaliers seldom have been competitive over the years.
Virginia has been dogged by illness and injury throughout the season, and on the day before Leitao spoke to the media on Jan. 10, only 11 of 17 players had been in uniform at practice.
Leitao took that occasion to reveal that freshman point guard Sammy Zeglinski would be undergoing a second ankle operation that would cause him to miss the remainder of the season. Because he played in only eight games, Zeglinski should have no problem getting an extra season on a hardship appeal.
That could pay dividends down the road, because Sean Singletary was going to get the bulk of the playing time at point guard in his final season anyway. The Cavaliers occasionally have moved Singletary off the ball, and there were times when he and Zeglinski, a fellow Penn Charter alumnus, were on the court at the same time.
When Singletary departs after this season, Zeglinski will be the purest point guard on the UVa roster. By his fifth year, in 2011-12, Zeglinski should be the Cavs' established on-court leader. He didn't have a chance to show much this season, but even with the sprained ankle, he seemed to have good athleticism. That might have been the biggest question about him coming out of high school.
In his absence, sophomore Calvin Baker, a welcome surprise after transferring from William & Mary, will swing to point guard when UVa wants to rest Singletary. It's an arrangement Leitao used in 2007-08 with J.R. Reynolds and Singletary, and Baker actually may be better-suited to run the offense than Reynolds was at any point in his career.