Welcome Guest. Login/Signup.
ACC Sports Journal Logo

Program Still Maturing Amidst Talk Of Awards, Championships

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

By Dave Johnson,
Newport News (Va.) Daily Press

August 25, 2003 CHARLOTTESVILLE — Matt Schaub has faced killer pass rushes in his day, but not even Virginia Tech or Florida State brings the intensity of this crowd. It was Meet the Fans Day at Scott Stadium, and the horde took about six seconds to zero in on the unassuming 22-year-old Virginia is pushing for the Heisman Trophy. Schaub obliged by signing his name on whatever didn't move, along with a few things that did, and shook more hands than Howard Dean on the stump. Grown men elbowed children out of the way for better positioning. Women squealed “Matt!!” with such zeal that you wondered who had dropped by. Matt Damon? Matt Lauer? Sure, everybody loves you now. Yet it stands to reason that some of his newfound admirers also were guilty of booing him in last season's opener and praising Virginia coach Al Groh for his call to demote him a week later. But in the three months that followed, in something straight from a Disney screenplay, Schaub transformed himself from a mistake waiting to happen into the ACC player of the year. He had not only the best season in school history but one of the best in conference history. Which makes one wonder: What can he do for an encore? Groh pondered that question one day while meeting with reporters in Scott Stadium's stands. “If Matt exceeds what he did last year,” Groh said, “not only will he probably win the Heisman, but they'll change the name of this place.” For Schaub to improve on last season's numbers, he must pass for more than 2,976 yards and 28 touchdowns. He'll need to throw fewer than seven interceptions while completing better than 68.9 percent of his passes. And his efficiency rating will have to be higher than 147.46, which was sixth in the nation in 2002. Amazing, isn't it? Not to those who know and surround him. While the outside world was writing him off following a shaky performance in a season-opening loss to Colorado State, his teammates were wondering when that calm, steady leader they saw all preseason would return. “He had a great spring, and everybody was expecting big things from him because of how hard he had worked,” fullback Kase Luzar said. “Then the first game … well, it's something he wants to forget. I felt bad for him because I watched him all spring and all summer, and this wasn't the same guy. But I'm glad he got the chance to play the way he can. That first game, as we found out, wasn't any indication of the player he is. It wasn't surprising to anybody. We'd seen him do it in practice, picking the defense apart and making the right throws. He just hadn't done it in front of 60,000 people.” He has now. In front of 108,698 at Penn State, he hit on 30 of 38 passes. Another 56,212 watched him throw for five touchdowns against Akron. And 58,358 saw him complete 23 of 27 attempts as Virginia beat Maryland to clinch a share of second place in the conference. With N.C. State's Philip Rivers receiving more preseason hype, fans outside the region might be surprised to learn it's Schaub who's the returning first-team All-ACC quarterback and player of the year. “Matt is a returning conference player of the year,” Groh said. “You have very few of those every year in college football. That makes Matt a (Heisman) candidate. It's like winning a primary in politics.” Last month, Virginia's media relations office launched Schaub4Heisman.com. Want to check his stats, read his biography, ask him questions or see semi-embarrassing baby pictures? They're only a mouse click away. He is featured on the cover of Virginia's media guide, wearing a tuxedo, with the words “Heisman Trophy Candidate” above his name. UVa also has produced a flyer that, among other things, compares Schaub's numbers last fall to those of 2002 Heisman winner Carson Palmer. “It's been fun … it was fun,” Schaub said. “But now it's time to play.” Fair enough. But while Schaub faces off-the-chart expectations this season, so does the team he leads. Virginia is being projected no lower than fourth in the ACC this year and, given Florida State's vulnerability, should have as good a shot as anyone of winning the title. The Cavs were ranked (18th) in the preseason Associated Press poll for the first time since 1998. Why all the optimism? Because Schaub isn't the only proven performer coming back. Groh has 19 starters returning — nine on offense, eight on defense and both specialists. Those 14 true freshmen who played in 2002 — tailback Wali Lundy, left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, linebacker Darryl Blackstock, et al. — are now sophomores. Some of the 2002 signees who didn't play last fall, including linebacker Kai Parham, also are expected to have big impacts this season. And coming in is another touted rookie class that includes linebacker Ahmad Brooks, USA Today's national high school defensive player of the year in 2001. “Size- and speed-wise,” Groh said, referring to his young linebackers in particular, “they're finally starting to look like what they're supposed to look like. … This is starting to look like an NFL group — 6-4, 240 and above and can run. That's going to be a pretty imposing-looking group.” Still, there are several concerns. Michael McGrew's season-ending broken leg on Aug. 12 left Virginia with only one wide receiver who has more than 11 career receptions. Groh is comfortable with junior Ottowa Anderson and senior Ryan Sawyer; Anderson has 29 catches in two seasons, and Sawyer caught four balls in the Continental Tire Bowl. But there are only untested youngsters behind them. During spring drills, Groh moved two players over from other positions: Marques Hagans, Schaub's backup in 2002, and Art Thomas, a reserve cornerback. Hagans has big-play abilities, as he demonstrated in the Tire Bowl by throwing a touchdown pass — he lined up at wideout and took a lateral — and returning a punt 69 yards for another score. Thomas, Groh said, is the first “size-speed guy we've had there.” Whether or not somebody develops, everyone knows Schaub will spread the ball around. Lundy was Virginia's second-leading receiver last season, with 58 catches. Tight end Heath Miller was third with 33, nine of which resulted in touchdowns. Fullback Jason Snelling had another 31 despite not playing much during the first month of the season. “We have a lot of veteran guys coming back, a lot of guys who have caught passes for us, whether they be receivers, running backs or tight ends,” Schaub said. “We have a lot of guys who can make plays for us, and we're getting a feel for them in the system. Some of them are guys who haven't played the position that much, and we're working hard to get a rapport.” The offensive line returns five players who started a combined 47 games last season, including Ferguson at left tackle and agile 330-pounder Elton Brown at right guard. But three true freshmen — Ian-Yates Cunningham, Gordie Sammis and Eddie Pinigis — are listed on the two-deep, and that's usually bad news. Complicating problems in the preseason was the fact that Kevin Bailey (knee) and Mark Farrington (leg), two veterans expected to contribute this fall, watched most drills from the sidelines as they continued their recovery from serious injuries. “You can take a lot of very good offensive linemen and put them at left tackle, and they'll have a bad day if the quarterback they're trying to protect is right-handed. Ferguson is quick enough to defend against that blind-side rusher,” Groh said. “ (Brown) is playing very well. If he continues to work hard, he'll be playing on Sundays. After that, we have a lot of question marks. We need some people to come through for us.” The starting defensive line averages 278 pounds per man, a tad light in a 3-4 scheme. The secondary lost both starting safeties, and each corner spot has a freshman at backup. Though the kicking game improved in the final month of 2002, it's far from a strong point. Then there's this: Last year's success aside, the Cavaliers were last in the ACC in total offense (357.1 yards per game) and next-to-last in total defense (424.6). Virginia was out-gained in six of its nine victories, including that 48-22 thrashing of West Virginia in the Tire Bowl. The Cavs lived dangerously a lot, winning in successive weeks four games in which they either trailed or were tied going into the fourth quarter. “It's up to us to determine whether we were just a one-year wonder or whether we're going to be one of the real strong teams in the country,” Groh said. “And that's only established on a three-, four- or five-year basis. We've got a lot of work to do to have four, five seasons of nine, 10 wins. … To do that, there can't be any missteps.” Expectations rarely are this high in Charlottesville for a sport other than lacrosse. Florida State is clearly beatable, and UVa defeated both Maryland and N.C. State last season. So is a conference championship all that crazy to predict? The Sporting News doesn't believe so; the magazine picked Virginia first in the conference and 10th nationally. But lest anyone get ahead of themselves, Groh has this sobering story from his days in the NFL. “In 1992, the New England Patriots were 1-15,” said Groh, the Pats' defensive coordinator from 1993-96. “In '93, Bill Parcells was the head coach and the record improved to 5-11. The quality of play improved more than that, but not enough record-wise for anybody to believe this team would be a contender. In '94, the team went 10-6 and made the playoffs, and that caught everybody's attention. “Guess who they were the next year? Everybody's hot young team. Hot young quarterback in Drew Bledsoe, a lot of rookies who had come in and changed the makeup of the team. Everybody told them how good they were. They started listening to the press, they started listening to the fans. The only people they didn't listen to were the coaches. Guess what that team finished? Six-and-10.” A year later, of course, the Patriots went to Super Bowl as the AFC champion. Though he set a national title as the program's goal on Jan. 6, 2001, the day he was introduced as Virginia's head coach, Groh has a more modest focus in mind for this season. “We're not trying to get medals and trophies and watches,” Groh said. “We're trying get the attention of the team on what it takes to be hard to beat. However many wins that can create, then at least we've been at our best.”