By Dave Johnson,
Newport News (Va.) Daily Press
August 20, 2002
CHARLOTTESVILLE - Who knows what did the trick? Maybe it was Al Groh's charm and gift of gab. Maybe it was that Super Bowl ring, which is roughly the size of a toaster oven, he wears. Maybe it was the switch to Nike or the new stripe on the helmets. Hey, you can never tell with high school kids.
On the heels of Virginia's worst season in 15 years, and with Virginia Tech widening the gap in state supremacy, Groh assembled what at least on paper was the program's best-ever recruiting class. Most analysts rated it among the 10 best groups in the nation, though not all who signed - most notably, linebacker Ahmad Brooks, a potential 2002 starter - made it academically.
As the Cavaliers look to straighten their path following a 5-7 finish in 2001, the incoming freshmen will have a significant role. Of the 72 scholarship players on Virginia's roster, 22 were, as Groh likes to put it, "riding a yellow bus to school" a few months ago. As many as a dozen figure to play this season, and don't expect Groh to waste a precious year of eligibility by sending a kid out three or four times a game to rush the punter.
If coaching in the NFL for 13 seasons taught Groh anything, it's that the best players play - regardless of reputation, salary or experience. But he also knows that true freshmen are, for the most part, 18-year-old kids who have yet to do squat. And relying on rookies at any level, well, let's just call it a risky proposition at best.
"You know how all these coaches have titles - coordinator of this, coordinator of that?" Groh asked. "I'm probably going to have somebody designated to walk around and tap (me) on the shoulder and say, 'Hey, calm down, it was your idea.'"
But seriously ...
"Any time a player steps up a level, there's always a strong possibility that he underestimates the increased level of training necessary to compete," Groh said. "No matter how hard a college player has trained, sometimes you see him underestimate how much it takes to function at a high level day after day in an NFL camp. I think we face the same circumstances here. We want to make sure a large number of them we hope to get into the lineup don't underestimate that too much.
"I understand the reality of who we're dealing with, and I think it's all on a relative scale. When a first- or second-round draft choice would come onto the team, when a guy's picked that early, it's because he's supposed to bring something to the team that wasn't already there. So you want to get him in the game, and you want to let him know you have confidence to play him. By the same token, you have to bring him along so he's ready to go. I've been around some of those guys who are ready right away, and some where it wasn't until the 12th or 13th game (when) they were ready."
The truth is, the Cavaliers can't afford to wait that long. It's not like Virginia has guys like Billy McMullen and Angelo Crowell at every position.
"They all seem like they're going to be good in the future, but the veterans on this team have to get them to realize the sense of urgency," senior safety Shernard Newby said. "They can't wait two or three years. They can't say, 'OK, I can make some mistakes because I'm a first-year player.' It's going to be on-the-job training. We can't slow our pace down because they haven't necessarily grasped the concept. This is my last season."
Though the loss of Brooks cost the Cavaliers an immediate-impact linebacker, Darryl Blackstock isn't a guy they'll have to "settle" for. Blackstock, who originally signed with Virginia a year earlier but didn't qualify, had 22 quarterback sacks last fall at nearby Fork Union Military Academy. Another touted linebacker, Parade All-American Kai Parham of Virginia Beach, came to camp still recovering from a stress fracture in his back but is expected to see plenty of snaps if he recovers in time. Other true freshmen who could contribute early on defense include linemen D.J. Bell, Braden Campbell and Kwakou Robinson, and defensive backs Marcus Hamilton and Stefan Orange.
Groh didn't have enough running backs last year. This year, he might have too many. The incoming class includes three SuperPrep All-Americans: Michael Johnson, Wali Lundy and Tony Franklin. Johnson is among the fastest players Virginia has ever had, a sprinter who ran the 100-meter dash in 10.47 seconds last spring. Franklin and Lundy were both 2,000-yard backs as seniors.
One true freshman is guaranteed to start in the Cavaliers' opener against Colorado State on Aug. 22: punter Tom Hagan. Groh confirmed that last spring, even before Hagan's graduation night at Cave Spring High in Roanoke.
"We have a very, very talented young class coming in," Groh said. "A lot of very good players. They're talented and they're hungry, and we need the injection of their ability onto our roster. As hyped as this group was, I think the talent level is every bit as good as it was supposed to be."
Counting eight 2001 signees who redshirted last season, the roster will include 30 first-year players. As many as 12 could be on the two-deep chart for the opener, which makes you wonder how the Cavaliers will handle a schedule that is not only demanding - nine opponents, including their first three, played in bowl games last year - but also extended. Virginia is one of a handful of teams playing 13 regular-season games. If they go to a bowl, their season could last as long as 19 weeks.
"A lot of our future is in the development of these players," Groh said. "They're going to learn by playing in the games, and this gives us one more opportunity for them to play. That doesn't mean some of them are going to play 75 plays in that game, but it begins the process where some of them may be ready to play more plays sooner.
"Do I have to teach Billy McMullen what this competition is like? Absolutely not. Angelo Crowell? Certainly not. But there are a lot of players who are bringing talent to this team who can help us win once we get that talent ready to play. And they have to be exposed to what college football is all about."
Though the rookies are getting most of the attention, Virginia is led by two proven veterans. McMullen, a 6-4 wideout, had 83 catches and 12 touchdowns as a junior. Crowell, an inside linebacker, had 144 stops and missed only 10 plays from scrimmage in 2001.
Groh also hopes quarterback Matt Schaub will look more like a veteran now that the starting job is his. In splitting time with Bryson Spinner last fall, Schaub completed 58 percent of his passes but was 1-5 in his six starts. Spinner left the team in December, and Schaub is the Cavaliers' only QB who has taken a snap in a college game.
"There were some plays (from last year) I'd like to have back, but that's how this game goes," Schaub said. "You have to be able to learn from it and bounce back."
Michael McGrew (31 receptions for 302 and two TDs) emerged as a dependable receiver last season and could benefit from McMullen drawing double coverage. Groh hopes converted tight end Kase Luzar can assume Tyree Foreman's role at fullback.
Virginia, which had the ACC's rushing champion four times from 1995-2000, had the third-worst ground attack in the conference last season. Alvin Pearman had a decent true freshman season, with 654 yards rushing and receiving, but he wasn't ready to be an every-down back. With sophomore Marquis Weeks, who had a solid spring, and the three true freshmen behind him, he won't have to be this fall.
Blocking, on the other hand, may be a serious problem. The offensive line improved some late last year, after Groh moved Kevin Bailey from left tackle to center and started Elton Brown, a true freshman, at right guard. Bailey already is an All-ACC candidate, and many expect Brown to become one this season. The concern rests elsewhere. Everywhere else, actually, on the first and second teams.
Because of questionable recruiting in the final years of the George Welsh era, Bailey and Brown are the Cavaliers' only proven linemen. Senior Mike Mullins, the starter at right tackle, rarely played until starting the final four games of 2001. The projected starters on the left side - sophomore Mark Farrington at guard and redshirt freshman Brian Barthelmes at tackle - haven't played a down from scrimmage. The second-teamers include true freshman D'Brickashaw Ferguson and two others, redshirt junior Ben Carber and redshirt sophomore Joe Holt, with no game experience.
Virginia gave up 28 points and 431 total yards a game in 2001, but there's reason to expect those numbers to improve. For one thing, the Cavs will be bigger up front. End Chris Canty added 25 pounds over the offseason and now goes an imposing 6-7, 290. Groh has so many bodies at linebacker that he comfortably moved Melvin Massey to nose tackle. The secondary returns six players with starting experience, including an excellent three-man rotation - seniors Jerton Evans, Chris Williams and Newby - at safety.
After finishing no worse than fourth in the ACC standings since 1986, the Cavaliers slipped to seventh last year and aren't expected to do much better this season. At the league's annual football kickoff, the media picked Virginia eighth, which would be its worst final spot since 1970. Groh understands that, and one gets the feeling he would have done his ballot the same. But forget youth and low expectations. Groh wants to win now.
"Do I think this team is going to be as powerful as it's going to be in the future?" he asked. "Probably not. But does that mean I have accepted the excuse that because we have a lot of young players on the team that we can chalk things off to that? No, I don't accept that as an excuse.
"Based on last year's results, everybody in the organization, including the head coach, feels the urgency to step it up. There is a sense of urgency to get things done."