By Jay Jenkins
Charlottesville (Va.) Daily Progress
April 25, 2005 CHARLOTTESVILLE The story at Virginia this spring was not who was playing, but who was not. With more than a handful of players nursing injuries, UVa coach Al Groh had his hands tied in April. First-team All-ACC linebacker Ahmad Brooks, defensive end Brennan Schmidt, tight end Tom Santi, tailback Michael Johnson and kicker Connor Hughes all missed spring drills with injuries. Kai Parham, who is expected to start next to Brooks at inside linebacker, was limited in his work. So was offensive guard Brian Barthelmes, another starter. Despite the absences, Groh shrugged off the situation, even joking about it at times. "If we were playing USC on Saturday," Groh said, "it would be a little different." The trickiest part of the practice period actually was planning the 15 sessions and the format for the team's annual spring festival. "It's been fun to plan it," Groh said. "All practices take a lot of thought and a lot of planning, but this one has been particularly challenging." Groh also had the challenge of replacing the leadership a number of standouts provided during an 8-4 campaign in 2004. Heath Miller, Darryl Blackstock, Elton Brown, Chris Canty, Alvin Pearman and Andrew Hoffman all were chosen in this year's NFL draft. "That's one of the givens of college football, that (leadership) cycles through pretty fast," Groh said. "There are good players and good leaders who leave, but there's always another group that's ready to come up and replace them, and I think that we have a number of those guys in those circumstances. "We've talked in the past about (how) certain guys got to carry the flag for the team. Certain guys carried it in the past, and they may not be here to carry it again, but others already have jumped in and are in a hurry to carry it." Groh also made it known that he wanted to use this spring to improve the passing game. Virginia was the top rushing team in the ACC in 2004, and with tailback Wali Lundy set for his senior season that is likely to remain the focal point of the offense. But the Cavaliers' passing attack often was criticized for its sporadic effectiveness. "You have to be able to throw and catch the ball," Groh said, "in tight quarters and tight
circumstances." That criticism was answered in Virginia's spring game. Quarterback Marques Hagans played sparingly in the contest, but he went six-for-11 for 81 yards and led the offense to back-to-back touchdowns on his first two drives. While Hagans is set to start again this fall, whom he will throw the ball to is not. In the spring game, 10 different Cavaliers caught at least one pass. The touchdowns went to freshman tailback Cedric Peerman (on a screen from Kevin McCabe), wideout Fontel Mines, who made an acrobatic catch on a four-yard pass from Hagans, and wideout Theirrien Davis, on a three-yard toss from Christian Olsen. Virginia had five scholarship receivers in spring drills, and each made a case for playing time. Groh said he has a "pecking order" at wideout, but he did not disclose what the depth chart would be if the 2005 season was upon him. "In terms of playing time, if this were a horse race," Groh said, "we might be at the quarter pole right now." Davis, a converted defensive back, caught four passes for 66 yards. Emmanuel Byers, like Davis a rising sophomore, caught three passes for 46 yards. The other scholarship receivers Ron Morton, Deyon Williams and Mines combined to catch eight passes for 90 yards. "You never make the statement you want to make about your game," said Williams, the team's leading returning receiver (19 catches, 261 yards, one touchdown). "You've always got more to prove to the coaches and try not to go backwards. There's a lot more I can do to improve my game." Part of the reason Groh did not disclose the depth chart centered around the anticipated play of three incoming freshmen (Maurice Covington, Kevin Ogletree, Brandon Woods) and the probable return of Ottowa Anderson. A starter in 2003, Anderson missed last season but is expected back from an academic suspension this fall. Groh likely will let all eight players battle it out in August. "That's Coach Groh's philosophy. It doesn't matter what you did yesterday, it all depends on what you do today," Davis said. "We were just focusing on the now." Another area of focus for Groh and his coaching staff in the spring was the secondary. "There are two areas every year where you start all over again and make sure you get it the way you want," Groh said, "and that's the offensive line and the secondary." Groh said he was pleased with the progression of the latter unit, which includes a pair of returning starters in cornerbacks Tony Franklin and Marcus Hamilton. "It has been a very positive spring," Groh said. "I have been impressed with the individual and collective progress. I've seen growth at a lot of different spots." Groh will have to find two capable starters at safety. Jermaine Hardy and Marquis Weeks, the 2004 starters, both graduated. "We have two young safeties who I think will make a significant contribution, and we have two young corners who are ready to compete for playing time," Groh said. "We have two or three players coming in who I think will add to the overall athletic ability back there, so all of these guys are guys that will be back for multiple seasons. We're going to have a lot of continuity, and I expect we'll have a lot of competition for playing time at those spots." Last season, a pair of true freshmen, Nate Lyles and Jamaal Jackson, worked at the position with rising junior Lance Evans. All three players gained invaluable experience. "We needed Jamaal and Nate and Lance Evans to do some very important jobs for us last year, especially in the nickel defense and special teams," Groh said. "We wanted them to get their feet wet, and they all seem to be showing the positive carryover from that. All three of them have done their jobs this spring as far as progressing. They do not appear to be apprentice safeties, as if they would be freshmen coming in with no game experience." Another defensive player who made the most of the spring was rising sophomore end Chris Long, the son of NFL Hall of Fame tackle Howie Long. Chris Long had three solo sacks in the spring game and combined with linebacker Jon Copper for another. On one play early in the scrimmage, Long chased Hagans, one of the fastest players on the team, around the backfield. "It was pretty scary," Hagans said. "I'm glad I got out of there when I did. The kid was pretty good to begin with, but he's transformed himself into a whole different player." With two former starters (Canty, Hoffman) on the defensive line off to the NFL, Groh, whose team will open the 2005 season with Western Michigan on Sept. 3, knows he needs someone to step in and make plays in Virginia's 3-4 scheme. "(Long) is going to step into a prominent role," Groh said. "This past season, he was an emerging player, but it's all about performance for Chris, as well as a number of our younger players." Spring 2005 Overview
The PooP Everyone agrees that fifth-year coach Al Groh and his staff have jumpstarted the program (largely through superb recruiting) in a manner that enabled the Cavaliers to return to their previous standard after the rough seasons they suffered in the last year under George Welsh (6-6 in 2000) and the first under Groh (5-7). The team's records since 9-5, 8-5, 8-4 reinforced the image of Virginia football as a symbol of consistent success, but they did little to substantiate the claim that the Wahoos should be considered serious ACC title contenders. Only a 10-win season will change that.
Probable 2005 Starters
+ injured/missed spring drills
Coming On Strong While most football teams are absolutely desperate for quality blockers, and the position continues to confound college recruiters and NFL talent scouts alike, Virginia has the enormous (literally) advantage of three battle-tested seniors and several promising youngsters up front. Rock-solid returning starters: RB Wali Lundy (2003 starter), FB Jason Snelling, LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson, LG Brian Barthelmes, RT Brad Butler, PK Connor Hughes, DE Brennan Schmidt, LB Ahmad Brooks, LB Kai Parham. Also looking good: WR Theirrien Davis, P Chris Gould, DE Chris Long, S Nate Lyles.
Cause For Concern? Virginia's defense will be an odd combination of potential superstars (inside linebacker), reliable veterans (cornerback, end), first-time starters (outside linebacker, both safeties) and one potentially enormous hole (tackle). Making sense of that formula while developing the young talent in the program are the key assignments for respected coordinator Al Golden. Also: tight end, passing-game playmakers, depth along both lines, shifted coaches' responsibilities.
On The Sidelines The following players missed all or most of spring drills: WR Ottowa Anderson (suspended/academics), OL Marshal Ausberry (foot), OL D.J. Bell (academics), LB Ahmad Brooks (knee), CB Philip Brown (hamstring), DT Keenan Carter (shoulder), OL Ron Darden (medical/unspecified), PK Connor Hughes (mono), RB Michael Johnson (sports hernia), LB Vince Redd (academics), TE Tom Santi (shoulder), DE Brennan Schmidt (shoulder), LB Bryan White (back). OL Brian Barthelmes (wrist) and LB Kai Parham (shoulder) also missed many full-contact drills.
Spring Cleaning The following scholarship athletes left the program in the last 12 months with eligibility remaining: LB Darryl Blackstock (NFL draft), DE Braden Campbell (medical), DB Robbie Catterton (transfer/James Madison), LB Alex Hall (chose to graduate), DE Jon Kirchner, WR Shannon Lane, QB Anthony Martinez (baseball), TE Heath Miller (NFL draft), DE Matt Stone (chose to graduate).