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Virginia: Talented Team Will Need Help From Quarterbacks, Secondary

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

  By Dave Johnson
Newport News (Va.) Daily Press

April 26, 2004 SPRING 2004 OVERVIEW CHARLOTTESVILLE ó In redirecting a program that had grown stagnant entering Y2K, Al Groh used every method at his disposal ó including flashing that Super Bowl ring of his on recruiting visits ó to change its perception and potential. Mission accomplished: The Cavaliers have won 17 games over the past two seasons, and Wahoo Nation is hungry for more.

Going into Grohís fourth season, Virginiaís talent level is at its highest since at least 1998, when the Cavs won nine games and reached No. 7 in the national polls. Among the 17 starters returning: a proven runner, three high-quality linebackers, a placekicker who was nearly perfect and maybe the best tight end in college football.

ìThe last three years weíve done a lot to set the foundation from which we can expect to move forward,î Groh said. ìI think itís time to think in terms of moving forward with a lot of things ó recruiting, our play on the field, our facilities, our

Even with a new-and-improved ACC adding Miami and Virginia Tech this season, the Cavaliers look ready to take another step toward becoming a championship-caliber program. That is, if some key holes ó and one in particular ó can be adequately filled.

Groh has called the quarterback position the most important in all of sports, more important than a pitcher in baseball, a goalkeeper in soccer, a point guard in basketball. In setting just about every school passing record imaginable, Matt Schaub was the unquestioned leader and focal point of the Virginia offense over the past two seasons. But like Philip Rivers at N.C. State, Schaub has moved on, and his job is up for grabs.

Though spring drills ended April 17 without a starter officially being declared, junior Marques Hagans remains the clear frontrunner.

The only other quarterback in camp who has taken a single snap in a college game is sophomore Anthony Martinez, who started at South Carolina last year after Schaub separated his shoulder. It didnít go well; Martinez completed 10 of 20 passes for 54 yards and got only mop-up duty the rest of the year. Christian Olsen, a transfer from Notre Dame, shows promise but hasnít played in a game since his senior year of high school in 2001. The fourth candidate is redshirt freshman Kevin McCabe.

ìMarques is the only one who really has extensive playing time,î Groh said. ìHeís had two positive games as a quarterback. He knows what itís like to get to the stadium. Plus, heís demonstrated to everybody else that heís a playmaker. Heís got a confidence level, and you would expect that those around him have a confidence level in him.

ìChristian is a good student of the game, and I think heís got a pretty good confidence about himself. Anthonyís got a very strong arm. Kevin is at the same stage that all those guys were before.î

It seems unthinkable now, but after a strong relief performance in the 2002 season opener, Hagans briefly took Schaubís job. The key word there is ìbriefly.î As Schaub emerged as the ACCís player of the year, Hagans was used mostly at wide receiver and punt returner.

ìIím learning how to be a quarterback. Thatís pretty much the point Iím at now,î said Hagans, who threw for three touchdowns last year in a start at Western Michigan. ìIím just going out, trying to get better every day. But it does feel good to be a quarterback again.î

Groh hasnít offered updates on the race, and coaches issued no depth chart at any point of spring practice. But Hagans got most of the work in the spring and appears to be a solid No. 1 going into the fall.

ìHeís looked real good to me in practice,î sophomore tailback Michael Johnson said. ìIn terms of the rest of the quarterbacks, heís looked really good. Not to say the others havenít looked good, but you can see a difference between them and Marques.î

Hagans didnít distinguish himself during the spring game on April 17, completing only seven of 15 attempts with two interceptions. Olsen, Martinez and McCabe also struggled. Grohís one-word description of the quarterback play that day: ìErratic.î

With that in mind, and with a strong group of backs returning, donít expect the same offensive philosophy Virginia showed in 2002 and 2003. The Cavaliers threw on 51 percent of their offensive plays last season, and Schaub averaged nearly 40 passes and 287 yards a game after returning from his injury. Nobodyís suggesting that the Cavs will turn into Air Force overnight, but Groh knows where his strengths lie.

Rising junior Wali Lundy has rushed for 1,755 yards in two seasons as Virginiaís starting tailback. He has accounted for 26 touchdowns ó 16 rushing, eight receiving and two passing. Senior Alvin Pearman has a career rushing average of 4.4 yards per carry. He also has 109 receptions, with 63, the most ever by a UVa running back, coming last season.

The wild card could be Johnson, probably the teamís fastest player. Too small to consistently run inside, Johnson redshirted in 2003 and concentrated on getting stronger. He carries about 200 pounds now, yet his breakaway speed doesnít appear to have suffered.

ìIf anything,î Hagans said, ìhe looks faster to me.î

ìThey all bring something to the table ó not necessarily different, but obviously each guy brings something in his own right,î Groh said. ìIt looks like weíre going to be pretty strong there, and weíve done some things with the scheme to accommodate that.î

Virginia returns all five starters to the offensive line, led by 338-pound guard Elton Brown, winner of the ACCís Jacobs Blocking Trophy in 2003, and tackle DíBrickashaw Ferguson. Then thereís junior tight end Heath Miller, who in two seasons has 103 receptions. His 15 career touchdowns already are the most ever by an ACC tight end.

Of course, Virginia can pretty much count on three points whenever it gets inside the 35-yard line. Connor Hughes missed only two of his 25 field goal attempts last season and was the nationís second most accurate kicker. Three of his makes were from at least 50 yards, including a game-winner against Wake Forest.

In their 3-4 defensive set, the Cavs return six of their front seven. Few teams in the country have more talent at linebacker. Junior Darryl Blackstock has 16 career sacks and has developed into more than just a pass-rushing specialist. Sophomores Ahmad Brooks (a team-high 117 tackles) and Kai Parham (89) are so good they might not be around much longer.

The concern is in the secondary, which Groh described as ìa critical issue.î Virginia lost one starting safety to graduation; the other, senior Jermaine Hardy, missed spring practice after undergoing offseason knee surgery. Marquis Weeks was switched over from tailback and could end up starting. The Cavs have speed but little experience at cornerback, where sophomores Tony Franklin and Marcus Hamilton are the starters.

ìI think collectively, it will be the most athletic group that weíve had,î Groh said. ìLetís say that of the previous three seasons, each secondary was a relay team, and they were all running the 4-by-100. I would say that this yearís secondary would be the favorite to win the race. Whether theyíll be a better secondary or not, weíll have to see.î