Virginia (7-5) vs. Pittsburgh (8-4)
Dec. 27, 11 a.m., ESPN
Uncertain Quarterback Situation Looms Over 2004, But Groh's Program Holds Reasons For Optimism December 15, 2003
CHARLOTTESVILLE More than once heading into the 2003 football campaign, Virginia coach Al Groh conceded that the ACC might not see the Cavaliers' best team for another year or two. At the same time, he admitted during and after the regular season that UVa needed to find a successor to quarterback Matt Schaub. (Schaub) carried his team as much as any player in the country, Groh said. We won a lot of games we couldn't have won without him.
Without an adequate replacement for Schaub, the Cavaliers could resemble the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, who had unremarkable journeyman Trent Dilfer at the controls. There could be worse comparisons, considering that the Dilfer-led Ravens won the Super Bowl, but the point is not lost. If Virginia can get decent quarterback play in 2004 a Schaub-type season would be a bonus the Cavaliers have reason to anticipate the most experienced, deepest and most talented team of the Groh era.
Quarterback remains an issue, but not as big an issue as it was before Sept. 13, when Groh dusted off sophomore Marques Hagans, who passed for three touchdowns and accounted for 230 yards of total offense in a 59-16 victory at Western Michigan. By that time, UVa already had obtained the services of former SuperPrep All-American Chris Olsen, a transfer from Notre Dame, so Groh knew he had a future alternative to redshirt freshman Anthony Martinez, who was alarmingly ineffective in a 31-7 loss at South Carolina.
The Cavaliers had another SuperPrep All-American, freshman Kevin McCabe, who was being redshirted, but Groh decided on the spot that Hagans would practice at quarterback for the remainder of the season and, presumably, compete for the starting job in the spring. That didn't prevent Hagans from catching 20 passes this fall, although his practice time at receiver was limited.
After spending more than a decade in the NFL, Groh may have envisioned a pro-style quarterback in the mold of Schaub, a 6-5, 242-pounder. Hagans, listed at 5-10 and 207 pounds, has a body type more often associated with an option quarterback, but his arm strength would surprise many people.
Moreover, Hagans can make people miss, in the tradition of two other Hampton-bred quarterbacks, Ronald Curry (before his Achilles injury) and Michael Vick. That's not to say the Cavaliers think they have another Vick on their hands, but Virginia was one of the few teams in the country whose backup quarterback also was its punt returner. Groh may have learned a lesson after a 27-17 loss at Maryland, where a dropped pass was the only ball Hagans touched all night. Nine days later, he had 12 touches in a 29-17 win over Georgia Tech, including a 53-yard punt return that gave UVa a huge boost going into the half.
If Groh can settle on a quarterback and keep those distractions to a minimum, he can turn his attention to other serious concerns.
Most of Virginia's problems this season resulted from big plays Groh traced to the secondary, which was left vulnerable by a serious injury to sophomore safety Willie Davis in the second week. Long after the outcome against South Carolina had been decided, a helmet-to-helmet hit left Davis with nerve damage that eventually resulted in a trip to the Mayo Clinic to restore full function in one of his arms. From all accounts, surgery went well, and Groh has not ruled out the possibility of Davis playing for the Cavaliers again, but nobody should count on it.
When Davis went down, the Cavaliers turned to fourth-year junior Jay Dorsey. Dorsey had been ahead of Davis on the depth chart after spring practice, but Davis is one of the fastest players on the team as well as a hard hitter, and the Cavaliers never made up for his loss. Eventually, senior cornerback Jamaine Winborne moved to safety and played well. That helped in the short term but left another unanswered question for 2004.
Redshirt freshman Tony Franklin, who started the last four games of the regular season at cornerback, suddenly becomes the second-most experienced member of the secondary. He's behind only safety Jermaine Hardy, who has been a full-time starter for just one year. Another redshirt freshman, Marcus Hamilton, received ample playing time when UVa was in its nickel package but needs to become a more confident player.
Unlike Groh's first two Virginia teams, this one made sparing use of its true freshmen. The only rookie to start was offensive lineman Ian-Yates Cunningham, who took over for Brian Barthelmes at left guard midway through the season. Down the road, UVa should benefit from the opportunity to redshirt players such as Jordy Lipsey, who was rated the No. 1 center nationally in the 2003 recruiting class.
What's more, Davis was just one of four possible impact players who either were redshirted this fall or can appeal for an extra year of eligibility for hardship reasons. The others were wide receiver Michael McGrew, who suffered a broken leg in the preseason; fullback Jason Snelling, sidelined by migraines, and running back Michael Johnson.
Johnson, considered the fastest player on the team, was rated the No. 3 running back in the country by SuperPrep in the same preseason magazine in which Maurice Clarett was No. 7. After playing sparingly in 2002, when he was hampered by a high ankle sprain, Johnson was redshirted in an effort to put more space between him and fellow tailbacks Wali Lundy and Alvin Pearman.
Groh has spoken longingly of a time when Johnson can get 200 carries in a season. That probably won't come next year, although there has been talk of using Pearman as a slot back in the same formations in which Hagans was featured. Pearman had 57 receptions this season, including a UVa-record 16 catches against Florida State.
UVa finished at the bottom of the ACC in rushing, but that should change in 2004, particularly with a new starting quarterback. An 89-yard day against Virginia Tech put Lundy over the 800-yard rushing mark for the second year in a row, and his 13 touchdowns nine rushing, four receiving were most in the ACC going into the bowls.
Tight end Heath Miller, named first-team All-ACC after catching 66 passes, goes into his junior year as an All-American candidate. Of the Cavaliers' five second-team All-ACC choices, only Schaub is out of eligibility. The others were Lundy, offensive guard Elton Brown, defensive tackle Chris Canty and placekicker Connor Hughes. In a more accurate gauge of his ability and production, Brown also won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy, given to the ACC's best blocker based on a vote of the league's defensive coordinators.
While expectations may have been unreasonable for the 2003 Virginia team, given some of the circumstances surrounding its everything-broke-right 9-5 season in 2002, there is plenty of reason for optimism in 2004.