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On-the-rise Team Aims To Ride Powerful Fronts Even Higher

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

By Jeff White, Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch

August 23, 2004

CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the past six months, the Virginia football program has been collecting commitments for 2005 at a blistering pace. Coveted prospects are lining up to be part of UVa's future. The Cavaliers' present looks promising, too, even if they are one of those unfortunate ACC teams that must play both Florida State and Miami this fall.

This is Al Groh's fourth season as coach at his alma mater, and rarely have expectations been higher at UVa. Fans have snapped up more than 38,000 season tickets, shattering the school record, and they're not the only ones high on the Cavaliers. Check the preseason polls, or ask Groh's players.

“I think we have enough talent to go for the gold this year,” said linebacker Darryl Blackstock, who has 16 career sacks and is one of a slew of All-ACC candidates on the UVa roster.

Virginia, picked to finish third in the ACC, returns seven starters on offense and eight on defense, as well as Connor Hughes, one of the nation's top kickers.

“I feel like our team's right there at the door, knocking. Now it's just time to walk right in,” said guard Elton Brown, who last year received the Jacobs Trophy, given annually to ACC defensive coordinators' choice as the league's best blocker.

Groh's record at Virginia is a modest 22-17, but he inherited a program that had declined noticeably in the final years of George Welsh's illustrious tenure as coach. Archrival Virginia Tech had established superiority over UVa on the field and in recruiting.

When he left the New York Jets for UVa after the 2000 season, Groh said, “I knew that there were certain jobs that needed to be done. … When those jobs were completed, the team would get better.”

First and foremost, Groh needed to add faster and more talented players.

“I don't think it's a fully stocked lake yet,” he said, “but I think the talent pool has increased significantly and is getting ready to do moreso.”

After finishing 5-7 in 2001, the Cavaliers went 9-5 and 8-5. Virginia won two of its final three games in 2001, three of its final four in ë02 and its final three last year. UVa won the inaugural Continental Tire Bowl in 2002 and repeated as its champion in ë03. The Wahoos tied for second in the ACC in ë02 and for fourth in ë03.

“We're a pretty good team,” Groh said, “but you're supposed to be good. You're not supposed to be bad. So what we've done now is we've gotten to where you're supposed to be. Now what we have to do is try to become a great team.”

If quarterback Matt Schaub were still at UVa, and not backing up Michael Vick in Atlanta, the Cavaliers might be viewed as legitimate threats to FSU and Miami. But for all its returning talent and experience, UVa doesn't have a QB who's shown he can beat the top ACC defenses.

That's the challenge facing Schaub's successor, Marques Hagans. A 5-10 junior with a strong right arm and dazzling scrambling ability, Hagans backed up Schaub in 2002 and ë03. He's played in big games, but mainly as a punt returner and wide receiver. Hagans ranked third in the ACC in punt returns last season and had 28 receptions for 262 yards.

In his one start at quarterback last season, Hagans sparkled. Known as “Biscuit,” he passed for 162 yards and three touchdowns and ran nine times for 68 yards in a rout of Western Michigan. Impressive numbers, but Schaub, the ACC player of the year as a junior, completed nearly 70 percent of his attempts and threw 46 TD passes in 2002 and ë03.

“Most teams in the NCAA have never had a quarterback who did that,” Groh said, “so to expect that we're suddenly going to have another one in the near future is, I think for myself, being a little overly optimistic.”

That said, Hagans' athleticism gives Virginia a weapon it didn't possess when Schaub was behind center, and the schedule unfolds well for a team breaking in a new quarterback. Of UVa's four games in September, three are at home, and Groh's team is likely to be 4-0 heading into its nationally televised Oct. 7 clash with Clemson at Scott Stadium. Moreover, Virginia expects to run the ball more effectively this season. If it succeeds, Hagans' adjustment should be that much easier.

In 2001, Virginia ranked last among ACC teams in rushing offense. The Cavaliers rose to seventh in ë02 but fell back to eighth last season. If UVa doesn't improve significantly in that category this year, it may never do so.

“No excuses any more,” Brown said.

Four starters return on the line: Brown at right guard, senior Zac Yarbrough at center and juniors D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Brad Butler at the tackles. The 6-5 Ferguson, who already has 27 career starts, is up to 290 pounds, about 40 more than he carried as a true freshman in 2002.

“I think we ought to be able to run the ball with more authority than we have at any time,” Groh said, “because of the development of the players (up front).”

It helps, too, that Virginia is loaded at tailback. Wali Lundy and Alvin Pearman have combined for 3,054 yards and 25 touchdowns rushing, and 1,682 yards and 15 TDs receiving, at Virginia. Lundy has had seven 100-yard rushing games in his career, the most of any active ACC running back, and Pearman had 63 catches last year. Michael Johnson, a former Parade All-American, is the team's fastest player and has the breakaway speed Lundy lacks.

Elsewhere, UVa may have the nation's premier set of tight ends in preseason All-American Heath Miller and Patrick Estes, a crushing blocker. Miller, the Cavaliers' lone representative on the all-conference first team last year, had 70 catches for 835 yards, both ACC single-season marks. His 15 career touchdown catches are the most ever by an ACC tight end.

Offensive coordinator Ron Prince also welcomes back three players who, for various reasons, redshirted last season: Johnson, senior wideout Michael McGrew and sophomore fullback Jason Snelling. Snelling was a revelation as a true freshman in 2002, catching 31 passes for 314 yards and four TDs.

Virginia's chief concern on offense, other than quarterback play, is its untested receiving corps. The loss of Ottowa Anderson to academic ineligibility left senior Michael McGrew, who missed last season with a broken leg, as the only UVa wideout who has started a college game. McGrew is a solid possession receiver, as is sophomore Fontel Mines. The Cavs' big-play wideout may be 6-3, 188-pound Deyon Williams, who appeared in 10 games as a true freshman last year and had eight catches for 122 yards and one TD.

“(Williams has) big-time talent,” Groh said.

Lundy was one of four Cavaliers to make the All-ACC second team in 2003, along with Brown, Hughes and defensive end Chris Canty, a repeat selection. The 6-7, 295-pound Canty heads a defense that shined in UVa's late-season victories over Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh, quieting stars P.J. Daniels, Kevin Jones and Larry Fitzgerald,

The Cavaliers allowed an average of 27.6 points in 2001, 24.9 in ë02 and 20.4 last year. Look for more improvement this season, barring a rash of injuries in the secondary, where there's more raw talent than experience. Groh spent most of his 13 years in the NFL as a defensive assistant, and it's undoubtedly pained him to watch his Virginia teams surrender yardage so easily at times, as in the Wahoos' 51-37 loss at N.C. State last fall.

“If you're going to be in the champion-
ship hunt,” Groh said, “you have to play good defense.”

Virginia's base scheme is a 3-4, and the line returns intact. On the ends, Canty and Brennan Schmidt flank nose tackle Andrew Hoffman for the third straight year. Canty led ACC linemen with 104 tackles last year, and Schmidt was second with 87.

His linebackers could hardly look better to defensive coordinator Al Golden. Few teams in Division I-A boast a trio as talented as Blackstock, a junior who plays on the outside, and Ahmad Brooks and Kai Parham, sophomores who start at the inside spots. Brooks led Virginia in tackles last year and was a first-team Freshman All-American, and Parham made the second team. Fifth-year senior Dennis Haley appears poised for a break-out year at the other outside spot.

UVa must replace cornerback Almondo Curry, who had an ACC-high six interceptions last year, and Jamaine Winborne, who split time at corner and safety. But Groh feels better about his secondary now than he did coming out of spring practice. Back then, Jermaine Hardy, the only returning starter at safety, was recovering from reconstructive knee surgery, and the man projected to start alongside him, Marquis Weeks, was only a few months removed from a career at tailback.

Hardy was cleared for contact before the start of training camp, and Weeks continues to prove a quick learner. The starting cornerbacks are promising sophomores Tony Franklin and Marcus Hamilton. Their understudies, though, are likely to be true freshmen, Philip Brown and Chris Gorham, and that's never an ideal situation.

Special teams should be one of Virginia's strengths. Weeks (27.5-yard average in 2003) and Franklin (25.8) rank among the ACC's premier kickoff returners, and Hughes, a junior, is a Lou Groza Award candidate. The former walk-on has converted 28 of 31 field goal attempts and is 56 of 57 on extra points. New special-teams coach Mark D'Onofrio's biggest challenge is finding a replacement for punter Tom Hagan, a two-year starter who struggled in 2003 and later gave up football to concentrate on baseball.

It's not unrealistic to think Virginia could be 7-1 and ranked in the Top 10 on Nov. 13, when Miami visits Scott Stadium for the first time. Should the Cavaliers win that game, some of their players' preseason statements won't seem so bold.

“I think Virginia is a championship-caliber team right now,” Canty said. “I think we are ready to show the conference and the rest of the college football world that we are just that.”

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