Yarbrough: Center of attention
By John Shifflett / Daily Progress staff writer
August 22, 2004
The Virginia Cavaliers are expected to boast one of the top offensive lines in the ACC this season. Loaded with size and experience, the colossal unit already boasts a laundry list of accolades, including one preseason All-American, and also returns all of its starters from last season.
In the center of that 1,500 pounds of blocking power is three-year starter Zac Yarbrough.
Yarbrough, a 6-foot-4, 276-pound senior doesn’t command the headlines but quietly makes sure the quarterback gets the football and that the Cavalier backfield is free of opposing defenders.
And he does his job well.
In 23 career starts at Virginia, the Winter Park, Fla., native has not allowed a sack. The team has enjoyed great success with Yarbrough at center, posting 16 victories, including two bowl game championships.
Though often unheralded, Yarbrough plays a pivotal role in the Cavaliers’ offensive machine. Every play starts with him. He is the one who must remember the snap count on every down of every Virginia offensive series, oftentimes in front of thousands of screaming fans. In shotgun formations, he must blindly snap the ball back to the quarterback, then protect the middle of the pocket.
“I am in the middle of everything so I am the one who makes all the calls and have to echo it down the line,” said Yarbrough, who is a candidate for the Rimington Award, given to the nation’s top center. “I think [the center position] is pretty valuable, but the other guys [on the offensive line] have to do the same thing I do.”
The 2004 season will be the first in which Yarbrough is not expected to share the starting center duties. For the past two seasons, Yarbrough shared time at the position with Kevin Bailey.
In 2002, Yarbrough, then a sophomore who handled long-snapping duties, moved to center during the second game of the season when Bailey suffered a season-ending injury at Florida State. Yarbrough started the final 12 games of the season.
During the 2003 campaign, Yarbrough started the first six games of the season, but was replaced by Bailey, ironically, before the Florida State game. Bailey started the following two games against Troy State and N.C. State. Yarbrough replaced Bailey early in the Cavaliers’ loss to the Wolfpack and finished the remainder of the season as Virginia’s center. Bailey, who played at various spots on the line for the remainder of the season, graduated, leaving Yarbrough as the team’s number one center.
“Kevin was a great athlete. Us rotating, [it was about] whatever it took to win.” Yarbrough said. “But this year is going to be a lot more fun. I really can go out there and play.”
This year, Yarbrough will have to adjust to a new signal caller. For the past two seasons, Yarbrough has snapped the ball to Matt Schaub. With Schaub gone to the NFL, the man who will now line up behind Yarbrough will be junior Marques Hagans.
The differences between the two quarterbacks are vast, from size to speed to sheer athletic ability, but Yarbrough said the transition to Hagans has been a smooth one.
“We are having good communication up front with the quarterback,” Yarbrough said. “Spring [practice] really paid off a lot for us [in terms of] getting used to having Marques back there rather than Matt. He is a different type of athlete but he can get it done no matter what.”
Yarbrough will be part of an experienced offensive line that has three members with at least 20 collegiate starts. That list includes D’Brickashaw Ferguson, a 6-5, 295-pound junior who has started 27 consecutive games at left tackle and Elton Brown, a 6-6, 338-pound guard who is a preseason All-American and Outland Trophy candidate. Over its time together, the unit has formed great chemistry.
“We are good friends on and off the field and I think that really pays off a lot when we hit the field,” said Yarbrough, whose father Jim was named to the University of Florida’s All-Century team as an offensive lineman. “Now some of us are going into our third year starting and the rest of the guys are in their second [year]. With the chemistry … we really don’t have to make calls anymore, we know what everybody is going to do.”
As much as he would like to keep his no-sack streak in tact, Yarbrough and his fellow lineman are more excited about their top objective, clearing paths for the Cavalier running backs.
“Our main goal is really to run the ball,” Yarbrough said. “That is what we are looking forward to.”
Johnson's ready for live action
By Kris Wright / Daily Progress staff writer
August 22, 2004
It has been a long time.
Since Saturday, Nov. 24, 2002, to be exact. 636 days. And counting.
“It’s been a long time, you know what I’m saying. Not including the spring game, it was …,” Virginia defensive end Chris Johnson said, pausing to remember.
“Yeah, Stone Bridge my senior year … man, it’s been a long time. I’m very excited to get back out there and play.”
Indeed, Johnson has waited to get back on the football field for live action. After all, he has not played in a real game since that Charlottesville High School playoff game, redshirting as a freshman at UVa to improve his strength and technique.
Now it’s time for Johnson to get back on the field and get back to hitting people who are wearing something other than orange and blue. Chances are, that time is coming soon - most likely Sept. 4 in Philadelphia, sometime in the early afternoon. The Cavaliers open the season at noon against the Temple Owls.
Johnson, a reserve defensive end, should get some playing time on the defensive line and possibly special teams. He has been taking a multitude of snaps with the second-team defense during training camp.
For the former CHS standout, he’s just ready to help his team.
“I’m ready to contribute. I’m not asking for the whole load or anything, but I’m doing what I can to be ready to contribute and make us better as a team,” Johnson said.
If Johnson’s high school career is any indication of what he can contribute, help he will. He led the Black Knights to a 10-1 record his senior year and won the Jefferson District and Central Virginia Defensive Player of the Year awards. Johnson had more than 10 sacks and the CHS defense allowed just 82 points.
Still, those accomplishments are 636 days in the rearview mirror. So what has Johnson done to get prepared for his first official season of major Division I football?
For one, he’s bulked up with muscle, not just weight. Johnson is listed at 6-foot-3, 275 pounds and he says he’s about 20 pounds heavier than when he enrolled at Virginia in 2003.
“I’ve improved my technique and my mental toughness. In high school, just about anything you try works and in college it’s not like that so you have to work on your technique and the mental toughness to beat your opponent,” Johnson said. “You have to be able to find out his weakness and maybe compensate for something you’re not doing as well.”
While Johnson is no longer adjusting to college life like many freshmen around the country, he is still learning the ins and outs of a new position.
After playing tackle in high school, the redshirt freshman will play defensive end in Virginia’s 3-4 scheme. Johnson said that the alignment is somewhat similar to the 5-2 CHS often used in high school, but the “responsibilities and reads are different.” He also said the new slot isn’t too different because “we have the outside linebackers line up outside of us a lot.”
Fellow defensive lineman and team captain Brennan Schmidt said that Johnson has been strong thus far.
“He’s looking really good. He’s really a great competitor and he’s mentally tough and he doesn’t ever give up,” Schmidt said. “Whatever obstacle he’s facing, I know he’ll overcome it. He’s going to be good.”
Johnson has already overcome one obstacle: the redshirt wait. Now, he’s ready to take that first snap as a Charlottesville native on the Cavaliers’ football team. When he does, he’ll be the first player from CHS to play for the Cavaliers in nearly 10 years.
Johnson, whose father graduated from Virginia, does not see that as added pressure, but as an opportunity. Much like the entire UVa program, he sees this as a new era for local products.
“I really don’t feel any extra pressure [being from here]. But I’ve heard a lot about some people from Charlottesville who didn’t make it here before or whatever so I feel like we’re starting something new here to show that local guys can make it,” Johnson said. “Chris Long and Devonta [Brown] and Bryan Lescanec, we’re all here now and I think we can show that you can grow up here and you can play football at UVa and make it.”
Johnson on a new mission at Virginia
Sean Johnson, who spent two years on a Mormon mission, is back at UVa trying to be the punter.
By Doug Doughty
The Roanoke Times
CHARLOTTESVILLE - It almost goes without saying that punter Sean Johnson has become the first player to return to Virginia's football team after spending two years on a Mormon mission.
In order to return from a Mormon mission, you'd have to go on a Mormon mission. As far as anybody can tell, no UVa athlete has ever done that. It certainly was not on Johnson's mind when he arrived at Charlottesville in the fall of 2000.
"I wasn't going to go," said Johnson, the first-team All-Group AAA punter as a senior at Langley High School in 1999. "It was something that I continually thought about and decided that it was something that I needed to do for me."
After second-team All-ACC selection Mike Abrams completed his eligibility, Virginia would not have had a punter in the 2001 spring game if Johnson had not provided his services. But Johnson already knew he was leaving for two years.
"When I left, I kind of figured, that was it," Johnson said. "I had given up my shot. I didn't expect them to sit around and twiddle their thumbs until I got back."
After all, the Cavaliers had signed Tom Hagan, Johnson's successor as the All-Group AAA punter.
Head coach Al Groh hailed Hagan as UVa's No.1 punter before he stepped foot on campus, and Hagan took all but one punt over the 2002 and 2003 seasons.
When Hagan's distance fell off during an injury-plagued 2003 season, Groh was unable to give reporters any information about Johnson other than to say that special teams coach Corwin Brown had been keeping up with him.
"When we're on the mission, we're not allowed to call," Johnson said. "We're allowed to call home twice a year. Besides that, it's just letters and e-mails. I had permission to call Coach Brown and talk to him a little bit. They have pretty strict rules regarding everything."
Neither Johnson nor any of the missionaries had a say in where they are sent. He could have been sent to the Himalayas. Instead, he was dispatched to Las Vegas.
"I had Coach Brown send me a couple of footballs," Johnson said. "We had one day off a week, when I'd be able to kick."
Johnson had made the decision to return to the team, with no real plans to win the starting job, when he learned in mid-March that Hagan had decided to concentrate on baseball and would be leaving football.
"I was looking forward to the opportunity," Johnson said, "but there's always competition"
After newcomer Kurt Korte and 2003 back-up Noah Greenbaum split time in the spring, Johnson joined a cast of preseason candidates that included signee Chris Gould and walk-on Bryan Lescanec.
"It looks like the punt, pass and kick competition out there," Groh said early in camp. "After practice, it looked like we ought to be giving out balloons and Happy Meals, there's so many of them."
Groh said this week that he expects either Johnson or Korte, a transfer from William and Mary, would win the job.
Johnson is a protege of Northern Virginia kicking guru and one-time Virginia Tech punter Bill Renner, the head coach at Langley before moving to West Springfield. Johnson attended Renner's camp this summer.
"I think he's going to pick right up where he left off," Renner said Friday. "He's got the leg strength and the mechanics and probably the other thing that separates him is his demeanor. He's just extremely even-keeled in terms of striking the ball, which is paramount."
Johnson, who turned 22 in April, has three years of college football eligibility remaining.
"I'll be pretty old by the time I get out of college," Johnson said. "Kicking is something that's fun and I enjoy it and I love being here, but the last two years have been the best years of my life. I've learned the most. I grew the most. It's helped me realize how lucky I am and how fortunate I am, and helped me to be a lot more grateful. "
Schaub draws raves vs. Vikings
By MATT WINKELJOHN
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 08/22/04
Falcons coach Jim Mora wouldn't say after Atlanta's 27-24 comeback win over Minnesota Friday night that rookie Matt Schaub has supplanted 13-year veteran Ty Detmer as the backup quarterback.
But after Schaub completed 16 of 19 passes for 205 yards and three touchdowns against the Vikings to continue his strong summer showing, that move appears to be a formality. Timing is the only question.
Schaub's control was impossible to miss. And although he threw two interceptions a week earlier at Baltimore, it wasn't because he made mistakes. Mora said both decisions were correct; Schaub simply threw inaccurate passes in the rain.
That wasn't a problem Friday in the Georgia Dome.
"You know, two of his incompletions were throwaways," Mora said Saturday after watching tape of the game. "He really was poised. But then again he's been doing this in practice. It's what he does."
Count running back Warrick Dunn among the impressed. "I think he's going to be phenomenal," Dunn said. "When you look at a guy play like that, you have to say we got a steal [in the draft]."
Mora also said that two of starter Michael Vick's four incompletions (in nine attempts) were throwaways.
Richmond Times-Dispatch Aug 22, 2004
TOO CLOSE TO CALL: Virginia's starting quarterback is junior Marques Hagans. The battle for the No. 2 spot continues between redshirt freshman Kevin McCabe and sophomore Christian Olsen, and it's a good one.
In training camp this month, U.Va. coach Al Groh said yesterday, "Olsen has thrown one more pass than McCabe has, and Olsen's completion percentage is .6 percent higher than McCabe's. So, in terms of accuracy and so forth, obviously each one of them is essentially the same.
"On that basis, it's hard to separate them. We hope they can separate themselves. It may be errors as much as positives that end up separating them."
Virginia opens the season Sept. 4 at Temple. Asked about his deadline for naming Hagans' backup, Groh said, "I guess we could go as late as when we get on the bus [to go to the stadium in Philadelphia]."
Sophomore Anthony Martinez, a Patrick Henry High graduate, is U.Va.'s No. 4 quarterback. Missing a few practices early in training camp has put Martinez "a little behind," Groh said, "but he's doing a good job of catching up."
WAIT AND SEE: Ian-Yates Cunningham, who started Virginia's final five games as a true freshman last year, hasn't ruled out playing this season. The 6-3, 296-pound offensive guard had surgery in May to repair a disk in his back, and doctors said he'd probably be sidelined four or five months.
Cunningham said Thursday that he's ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation but wasn't sure when he'd be cleared for contact. Redshirting is an option.
"You're always going to want to get back and play," said Cunningham, who's been cleared to lift weights. "You're going to have to look at what's good for the team and what's good for you, as far as with your health. I have the utmost respect for Coach Groh and what he wants to do here, especially with me. So when we hit that, we'll see what we decide to do."
NEWFOUND MATURITY: Freshman cornerback Philip Brown spent the 2003-04 school year at Hargrave Military Academy, and the experience seems to have benefited a young man who didn't leave Hampton's Phoebus High with a sterling reputation.
"There's a greater calmness in Philip than there was [before his year at Hargrave]," Groh said. "Not less intensity in playing and not less ambition, but he's more settled with himself and more trusting of his environment."
Brown's ambition is clear. "I'm hungry to get a starting spot," he said.
Sophomore Tony Franklin has locked up one of the first-team cornerback slots. Brown and sophomore Marcus Hamilton are battling for the other.
U.Va.'s starting corners last season included Hampton High product Almondo "Muffin" Curry, who wore jersey No. 22. That number now belongs to Brown.
"I think Muffin told them to give me the number," Brown said. "He knew I'd represent it well."
LAST LINE OF DEFENSE: Virginia's starters at safety are seniors Marquis Weeks and Jermaine Hardy, and their backups are sophomores Robbie Catterton and Lance Evans. Also working at that position are three true freshmen - Nate Lyles, Jamaal Jackson and Bud Davis - and Groh said at least one of them is likely to play this season.
"They're doing nicely," Groh said. "They all show what we anticipated they'd have. It's clear they have speed, and all three of them have found themselves in situations where they can demonstrate they've got real good toughness."
Of the three, Jackson is the most physically imposing. The graduate of Chesapeake's Deep Creek High stands 6-3 and weighs about 205 pounds.
- Jeff White