Cavaliers Have the Pieces to Make a Run
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 6, 2007; Page E04
Two weeks ago, Al Groh paused for a moment as he considered the question: Was he concerned about the lack of experienced quarterbacks in his program? Then the Virginia coach shrugged and smiled.
"We have more than we had last year," Groh said. "So that's an improvement, right?"
Indeed, in Jameel Sewell, the Cavaliers have a quarterback they can count on, one more than last year. Lackluster play from a handful of inexperienced quarterbacks torpedoed Virginia's season, leading to a 2-5 start. But once Sewell took over and a young defense jelled, Virginia turned its season around and threatened to make a bowl game.
Though Sewell is still recovering from offseason wrist surgery, his ascension last season and a defense that returns nine starters, including the entire front seven, have given the Cavaliers reason to believe they can leap back not only into the bowl picture, but into conference contention. As preseason practice begins today, Virginia possesses an optimism lacking in Charlottesville at this time a year ago.
"I'm never lacking confidence in our team," defensive end Chris Long said. "To tell you the truth, I look at every season like we could win a championship. That's the goal. I'm certainly not going to set my standards lower than anybody else."
At this point last season, Virginia had "as many questions as answers," Groh said. Replacing more than half the defense, Groh believes the Cavaliers may have turned a 3-9 season into a 5-7 season. He feels that team, given its talent and experience, accomplished as much as any team at Virginia in his six seasons there.
The defense keyed the turnaround and offers the best reason for hope. Defensive ends Jeffrey Fitzgerald and Long give Virginia the ACC's best 1-2 combination. One year ago, Virginia needed to replace three linebackers. Now, all four return.
Even with an untested cast of mostly freshmen and sophomores, the defense allowed an average of 12.8 points over the final five games. It throttled Miami in a 17-7 victory so thoroughly that Hurricanes guard Derrick Morse considers the Cavaliers one of the ACC's top three teams.
"A lot of them were just sticking their toe in the water last year," Groh said. "I can clearly see there are players who are much more familiar, who are much more confident in how to do their jobs. We needed a little time to see how they were going to perform. Now we have a much better picture of it, and they themselves have a much better picture of it."
Most important may be Sewell. After his surgery, he participated in the summer offseason program. He injured his wrist when he stuck out his hand to brace for a fall. "The look on his face was like, 'Wow, this is still good,' " Groh said. Still, "it's going to probably take being in the game to determine," how much the surgery will affect Sewell.
The injury also could alter how the Cavaliers use him. Sewell rushed for four touchdowns last season, including a 36-yarder that stood as the longest run of Virginia's season. But since Sewell is the Cavaliers' quarterback of both the present and the future, Groh wants to endanger him as little as possible with called running plays.
"It's a skill that he has, and you have to take advantage of all the skills a player has," Groh said. "You have to balance that, obviously, with he's our key guy right now. You don't want to overexpose him to unnecessary hits."
The largest challenge facing Sewell will be his lack of experienced receivers. Junior Kevin Ogletree became one of the best wide receivers in the ACC last season, catching 52 passes for 582 yards.
The promise the Sewell-Ogletree combination offered was shredded in the spring when Ogletree tore his anterior cruciate ligament in practice. With the graduation of Fontel Mines and the loss of Emmanuel Byers, the most experienced wideout remaining is Maurice Covington, who has caught seven passes in his career.
"Somebody's going to have to step up," tight end Tom Santi said. "Somebody is going to have to pick up the slack. You certainly can't change your playbook or anything like that. We've got young guys coming, and they're going to have a chance to play."
ACC Preview: Virginia
Long By Greg Barnes
Posted Aug 2, 2007
Head coach Al Groh enters his seventh season at Virginia with 19 returning starters and needs to go bowling this postseason or else risk facing the hot seat.
2007 ACC Media Preseason Poll – 4th in the Coastal Division
Inside Carolina’s Vote – 4th in the Coastal Division
2006 record (5-7, 4-4 ACC)
Groh knew heading into the ’06 season that his Cavaliers were in for an uphill challenge. After all, UVa was returning only six starters, with youth and inexperience throughout the two-deep. Those difficulties were displayed early, with a home loss to Western Michigan (17-10) and a narrow 13-12 victory against Wyoming in OT, with the Cavs needing a Mustangs’ missed extra point to escape in Charlottesville. Groh and his staff are hoping that those growing pains will translate into wins this fall, as the squad returns 19 starters and a solid defensive unit. It is imperative that the Cavs produce this season, as Groh has drawn recent criticism over his coaching ability (7-9 in the ACC since ’05, 3 straight losses to VT) and his in-state recruiting prowess (only six top-20 VA prospects signed in ’05 & ’06). The former New York Jets head coach has been strong at home during his career at UVa, posting a 29-9 record. That trend should pay dividends in ’07, with several important conference games in Scott Stadium.
Offense: Mike Groh enters his second season as OC, and needs dramatic improvement from his squad if the Cavaliers are to return to the postseason. The ’06 offense scored only 15.1 ppg (110th nationally) and averaged only 257.2 ypg in total offense (113th nationally). RS Sophomore QB Jameel Sewell [pictured, right] (57.9% comp, 1,342 yds, 5 tds, 6 ints) replaced veterans Chris Olsen and Kevin McCabe after three games and struggled early, but gradually improved throughout the season. UVa fans are hoping Sewell’s wrist injury is fully healed before the first game on Sept 1. Senior tight ends Tom Santi (29 rec, 253 yds, 1 td) and Jonathan Stupar (15 rec, 112 yds) will give Sewell some big targets, but this offense needs playmakers at WR and RB to emerge. The offensive line returns all five starters, including senior C Jordy Lipsey and junior T Eugene Monroe.
Defense: DC Mike London’s second edition of the Cavs' defense should be able to build on last year’s impressive showing with 10 returning starters. The ’06 group ranked top-25 nationally in both scoring defense (17.8 ppg) and total defense (289.5 ypg). Seniors DE Chris Long (57 tkl, 8 tfl, 4 sacks) and NT Allen Billyk (23 tkl, 1 sack) hold down the line in UVa’s 3-4 scheme, and juniors Jon Copper (81 tkl, 5 tfl, 4 sacks) and Antonio Appleby (68 tkl, 2 tfl) anchor the LB corps. Juniors CB Chris Cook (58 tkl, 5 pbu) and FS Bryon Glaspy (56 tkl, 3 pbu) will help solidify the secondary of a unit that could challenge Virginia Tech for the top defense in the conference.
Special Teams: This should be a solid unit for Groh in ’07, with almost the entire squad back from last season. Senior Chris Gould will resume the placekicking duties (11-19 in ’06, long of 48 yds), and senior Ryan Wiegand (42.4 avg.) will fully man the punting responsibilities after sharing the job with Gould last fall. Juniors Mike Brown (9.6 ypr on punts) and Cedric Peerman (27.3 ypr on kickoffs) are both back in the return game. UVa’s punt return defense was solid in ’06, allowing only 6.4 ypr (21st nationally), but the kickoff return coverage (22.6 ypr) needs to improve, ranking 102nd nationally.
Schedule: UVa’s slate is not intimidating at first glance, but when you look closer, you will find that most of the Cavs' swing games are on the road – Wyoming, UNC, Maryland & NCSU. Winning two or three of those games is imperative for a successful season. Virginia will most likely win home contests against Duke and UConn and an away game versus Middle Tenn. St., but face tough tests against Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh in Scott Stadium..
Top Newcomer: LB J’Courtney Williams. The Christchurch, Va. native will be able to earn quality snaps in UVa’s 3-4 scheme without being forced into playing time by necessity. The Cavs' defense has been well-represented in recent years at the LB spot, and Williams should continue that lineage.
Key Game: At North Carolina on Sept. 15. UVa has not fared well on the road under Groh, posting only a 10-23 record. The Cavs lost 7-5 to the Tar Heels in ’05, and will be favored heading into Chapel Hill this fall. A victory here would give Virginia a 2-0 start in the ACC, and would put them in good position to return to a bowl game.
Groh on the ‘06 rebuilding campaign: "One of the important things for any program is to get good performance from your young players. Young players should play, need to play for teams to give you maximum performance. What we had last year was a circumstance of a lot of young players playing at the same time. If you take any one of them, was it a worthwhile year to play? Yeah, it was for a number of them. To do it simultaneously standing side-by-side made it difficult for them to play with cohesion and coordination."
Santi on the key to this season: “We just have to come out and execute. The schemes will be in place, and the fire will be there, but we’ve just got to come out and play well."
Word from the Beat: “At one point last year, Virginia coach Al Groh said his program was playing the 2006 season with the 2007 team. Cavalier fans remain hopeful the sequel provides an enhanced ending. The talent should be in place – the entire offensive line returns and key components of an underrated defense are back. The challenges for Groh and company include finding a pass-catching playmaker and keeping quarterback Jameel Sewell and his surgically-repaired wrist on the field. With a ton of swing games upcoming, Virginia should have a feel for how its season will unfold after a road date at North Carolina in the third week of the season.” -- Jay Jenkins, The Daily Progress
S. 1 at Wyoming
S. 8 Duke
S. 15 at UNC
S. 22 Georgia Tech
S. 29 Pittsburgh
O. 6 at Middle Tenn. St.
O. 13 Connecticut
O. 20 at Maryland
O. 27 at NCSU
N. 3 Wake Forest
N. 10 at Miami
N. 17 bye
N. 24 Virginia Tech
Seven questions for U.Va. football in '07
Coach Al Groh
By ED MILLER, The Virginian-Pilot
© August 6, 2007
The buildup to the 2007 football season began early at Virginia - about halfway through 2006.
It was then that coach Al Groh said the Cavaliers were playing the '06 season with the '07 team, a reference to Virginia's youth and inexperience.
Groh succeeded in tamping down expectations for a team that finished 5-7, equaling the fewest wins of any season in his six-year tenure, and the Cavs failed to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2002.
The flip side, of course, is that he raised expectations for '07.
The Cavaliers begin preseason camp today with a team that has fewer untested parts and far less uncertainty than it did this time last year. Like every team, though, there are questions that only putting on the pads can answer.
"It's a season that the staff and the players have looked forward to with significant anticipation," Groh said.
Here are seven questions for '07 that will begin to be answered today:
1. How is quarterback Jameel Sewell's wrist?
Sewell had surgery on his throwing wrist during the offseason and sat out much of spring practice. The lefthander has been a full participant in post-spring conditioning, including 7-on-7 passing drills.
"He is positive about where he is," Groh said. "We are positive about where he is."
2. Who's backing up Sewell?
Neither junior Scott Deke nor redshirt freshman Marc Verica was particularly impressive in the spring, so don't be surprised to see touted freshman Peter Lalich work his way into the mix.
Lalich was regarded as one of the top pro-style quarterbacks in the nation last year, and he has been on campus all summer, studying the playbook.
"I think we'll just have to see how a number of things go at that situation," Groh said.
3. With leading receiver Kevin Ogletree likely lost for the season with a knee injury, who becomes the go-to guy at wideout?
This race is wide open. Junior Maurice Covington is a big target (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) who caught six passes last year. Junior transfer Cary Koch caught 23 passes at Tulane in 2005 and redshirt freshman Chris Dalton has speed to burn.
"We had some guys who looked exciting in 7-on-7," tight end Tom Santi said. "But that's just 7-on-7."
4. Has the defense developed any depth?
It would seem so. Some of the members of last year's freshman class, which was almost entirely redshirted, could be ready to move into backup roles on a defense that featured several iron men last year. Even with players like defensive end Chris Long and linebackers Jon Copper and Antonio Appleby rarely leaving the field, the defense ranked 17th in the nation. Ten starters return.
"We like the aspect that they don't have to be an iron-man defense," Groh said. "But by the same token, they played pretty well doing that."
5. What's the status of running back Keith Payne?
Payne, who at 6-3 and 245 pounds has created a buzz among fans without playing a down, was suspended from the team for academic reasons after spring drills. Groh said last month that the redshirt freshman was doing well in summer school but stopped short of saying he would be reinstated.
"We want to make sure he's got all of his personal circumstances in place (so) that those things that were an issue with him don't reoccur and that he can be successful," Groh said.
6. Will the kicking game be better?
The Cavaliers certainly hope so. Longtime kicker Connor Hughes was virtually automatic. His replacement, Chris Gould, who handled both punting and kicking for much of last season, wasn't nearly as accurate. Ryan Weigand took over as punter in the last month of the season and showed promise. True freshman Chris Hinkebein is highly regarded and could get a shot if Gould doesn't come around.
7. Is Groh on the hot seat after last year's 5-7 record?
In the eyes of some fans, certainly, but it appears the administration is taking a wait-and-see approach.
Groh is signed through the 2010 season. Virginia opted in December not to exercise an annual option to extend his contract a year. If Groh were to be let go after this season, the buyout would cost Virginia about $5.1 million, an amount equal to his base salary of $1.7 million for each of the three years remaining on his contract.
For his part, Groh said he's not feeling any heat - beyond the pressure he puts on himself before every season.
"Each of them has felt the same to me going into the season," he said. "There's just an urgency to try to win games."
It's 'football 24-7' for Cavs
Virginia opens fall practice period with today's closed session
By Jay Jenkins / firstname.lastname@example.org | 978-7250
August 6, 2007
Ian-Yates Cunningham has a hard time remembering what it was like.
When the offensive lineman reported for his first training camp at Virginia in 2003, the experience was essentially a “blur.”
Now a fifth-year senior and with his starting spot secure, Cunningham can joke about it. The scores of true freshmen that reported to the McCue Center on Sunday for the first time are not as lucky. Those newcomers will officially start their college careers today at 6:30 p.m. during the first practice, a closed session.
“It is kind of one of those things where you are thrown into the fire,” Cunningham said Sunday. “It is eat, breathe and live football 24-7.
“You sleep, you wake up and you do the same thing over and over again.”
It can be an eye-opening experience for an
18-year-old rookie that is no longer able to dominate practice sessions.
“It is hard to make training camp easy,” Cunningham added. “It’s supposed to be a grind. It is supposed to be tough. It is supposed to be hard. You just have to try and embrace training and the atmosphere.
“For a first year … you kind of have to figure out, ‘OK, this is what I am about. This is who I am.’ You kind of figure out what type of player you are in training camp.”
The typical preseason camp routine, however, will be altered temporarily. Scores of players are completing summer school courses.
“Some of the people still have class, which goes all the way until Thursday, but after next Thursday it is strictly football for a month,” said Cunningham, who is pegged as the starting right guard. “That is when we can concentrate fully and it’s the time in which we are going to develop some things as a unit, as a team.
“This is the time of year where we get to bring all that hard work that we did in the offseason lifting weights and running onto the field.”
The Cavaliers enter camp with an ACC-best 19 returning starters - 10 are on back on defense and nine return on offense. Given that experience, Virginia enters camp with a newfound sense of confidence.
“Last year, we had some uncertainties,” Cunningham said, “but this year we have pretty much everybody back, we know what we are capable of and we know what we are capable of as a team. I think this is going to be a lot of fun.”
Virginia was listed as the favorite in the season opener at Wyoming by the Las Vegas bookmakers earlier this week.
The line, which opened with the Cavaliers favored by 3.5 points, has grown in some place to 4.5.
Wyoming coach Joe Glenn was recently asked about that total by a fan during an open forum.
“If we’re three-point underdogs, load up on the Pokes,” Glenn playfully said, as reported by the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune. “No, I didn’t say that.”
While supplies are limited, a number of season tickets remain available through the Virginia Ticket Office for the upcoming season.
As of Friday, Virginia had sold over 39,000 season ticket packages. While the home contest with Virginia Tech has sold out, single-game tickets remain available for the other five home games.
The ticket office has also created a 3-game ticket package that includes the contests with Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Wake Forest. The package costs $119.
Calm: Quiet on signing day good news for Cavs
By Bill Cole
National signing day passed without incident at Virginia, just as Coach Al Groh wanted.
The Cavaliers had few shortcomings in their 2007 recruiting class, and no one questioned the direction of the effort, sure signs of progress to Groh.
Virginia signed 24 players, including a quarterback who could start for most of his career. Hitting its home state hard, Virginia had 16 commitments by last Sept. 1 and suffered only a few defections.
Academic shortcomings dogged the 2006 recruiting class, and eight recruits didn’t meet school standards for enrollment. Groh said he expects no academic casualties this year.
SuperPrep magazine ranked Virginia’s class - which includes four SuperPrep All-Americas - No. 4 in the ACC. Some recruiting analysts believe that the class could be Groh’s second best, behind only the 2002 class.
“I’d have to take a real studied approach to say whether it’s first, second or third, but it’s certainly up there,” Groh said. “It’s got so many of the qualities we like.
“It’s got the athletic ability, and it’s got versatility. I would say this about a lot of the players. It’s got a high level of competitive toughness about it. It’s very solid academically. All of those things add up.”
One of the first players to commit was Peter Lalich, a 6-5 quarterback from Springfield, Va. Some recruiting analysts compare him to Matt Schaub, one of the most efficient and prolific quarterbacks in Virginia history who finished his career in 2003.
Lalich was ranked as the No. 2 senior in Virginia by SuperPrep and is one of the All-Americas. Allowed to call his own plays, he passed for 3,134 yards and 33 touchdowns last season and was intercepted just seven times, with five interceptions coming in one game. In another game, he passed for 356 yards and eight touchdowns.
Lalich did not become a fulltime starter at quarterback until the 2005 season and before then sometimes lined up at receiver. As a junior, he passed for 2,671 yards and 22 touchdowns, with 12 interceptions.
Virginia was the first school to offer Lalich a scholarship, and Groh’s decision trumped later offers from Michigan, Miami, UCLA, Oklahoma, N.C. State and Maryland.
“He’s got tremendous focus,” Groh said. “He’s got a commitment to being a quarterback. He lives towards being a quarterback 24 hours a day.
“He’s kind of got a Tom Brady-Peyton Manning attitude towards being a quarterback. I’m excited about Peter coming on our team, not just the passing abilities he has but the leadership and football attitude that he’ll bring both to this class and to this program for a long time.”
Lalich is one of 13 high-school players from Virginia in the class. Last year, Groh signed only four in-state players. Virginia landed eight of its state’s top 31 players in SuperPrep’s rankings, including three of the top 10, and fought Virginia Tech to a near draw on home turf.
J’Courtney Williams (6-4, 215) could play at least two positions on defense. Some recruiters think he’s best at linebacker, but Groh believes that he could be a strong safety similar to Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Groh considered this year’s success a team effort led by assistant Bob Price, who became Virginia’s recruiting coordinator last summer. Groh recalled a big recruiting weekend Virginia had in late January - 18 players visited, and all 18 committed.
“It almost wasn’t a recruiting weekend; it was almost like rookie minicamp, other than we didn’t have football going on,” Groh said. “There was a lot of interaction, not only between them but their upperclass teammates. We’re kind of six months ahead of schedule as far as that kind of coming together.”
Fells-Danzer, Orshoski likely to redshirt in 2007
By: Steve Franklin
PINEHURST N.C. - If you bought University of Virginia season football tickets hoping to catch a glimpse of local products Terence Fells-Danzer and Curt Orshoski donning the orange and blue of the Cavaliers, you might want to check out UVA's refund policy.
In 2006, nose tackle Nick Collins was the only true freshman to see the field for the Cavaliers, allowing Coach Groh to redshirt 20 other true freshman and salvage a year of eligibility for each.
On Monday, Groh said he's likely to follow a similar pattern with this year's incoming class.
"I really like the results we are seeing from the guys that red-shirted last year and we'll likely follow that routine again this year," Groh said. "I'm a firm believer in player development. The longer we have a player in our system, the longer they will have to develop.
"Players who haven't played at this level don't know what it's really like to play college football, so it's nice to give them a year to transition," Groh added. "A player can be the most highly-recruited player in the nation coming out of high school, but until he's here on the practice field, he doesn't know what it's like to play college football."
While Groh admits that he likes to red-shirt his younger players, he did leave open the option that a few of his freshman could see the field in 2007.
"If it will help us win I won't hesitate to use them," Groh said. "But I won't use up their red-shirt year just so they can play special teams."
Fells-Danzer, one of the nation's top linebacker recruits arrived at the Charlottesville campus on July 11 for the final semester of summer classes and has started working out with the Cavalier teammates.
All-American candidate Chris Long, the Cavaliers' defensive captain and son of Hall-of-Famer Howie Long, said that he's impressed by the incoming freshman class and that one of the guys who has really caught his eye is Fells-Danzer.
"I'm excited about this year's recruiting class," Long said. "There's a few guys that have really stood out. Nick Jenkins, J'Courtney Williams, and Terence Fells-Danzer have all looked good and are advancing every day.
"Fells-Danzer is still young and has to develop, but he's very athletic," Lond said. "He's got the tools to succeed, he just needs time to develop."
Is Groh on the hotseat?
Posted by accnation on July 31st, 2007
2007 ACC Nation Football Preview
Column by Chris Graham
I thought for a moment that Al Groh was going to reach out and throttle me.
I had just asked the often-bearish Virginia coach if he felt the pressure from fans and members of the media who have had him supposedly on the coaching hot seat since the beginning of last season.
I was sitting at the interview table in the chair next to Groh’s - maybe three, four feet away.
He was looking me in the eye when I asked the question. He then turned and faced straightaway as he gathered his thoughts - and the silence, which seemed to go on forever, but listening to the audio again, was perhaps four or five seconds, was deafening.
“Even though I’ve been doing this for 14 years, I guess I could best answer that based on this being the 14th year that I’ve been the head coach, every season and every game that I’ve ever been the coach of the team of, I’ve felt an urgency to figure out a way to get more points than the other guys,” Groh said in our interview at the 2007 ACC Football Kickoff in Pinehurst, N.C., last week.
And so it will be for Groh, who returned to his alma mater in 2001 talking about taking the Virginia program - which had to that point enjoyed a good bit of success under his predecessor, George Welsh - to the next level.
I was at the press conference where Groh was introduced to the media as the new UVa. coach - and I remember how he invoked the words national championship to describe his goals for the Virginia football program.
In his seventh season now, Groh has not seen anything near that level of success - going 42-33 overall and just 25-23 in the ACC.
Another broadcaster at the Football Kickoff confronted Groh with those numbers as a preface to another question - eliciting an interesting response from the coach.
“I didn’t know that - because I haven’t taken the time to add it up,” Groh said, before getting to the substance of the followup question, which was asked to get Groh to muse out loud on what more he wanted to do to get the UVa. program back on track after last year’s lackluster 5-7 finish.
“What more do we want to do? We want to win 13 in a year. I think that’s the objective every year,” Groh said.
When the broadcaster pressed on to get Groh to talk about his run at Virginia to date, Groh asserted that he looks back at past records only “as a means to make things better in the future.”
“I don’t see that it serves any purpose - what happened in 2002, I don’t think, has any bearing on what happens in 2007. What happened in the third week of the season doesn’t have any bearing on what happens the fourth week of the season. They’re all individual entities - whether it’s individual games or individual seasons. They’ve got to be put together differently,” Groh said.
It seems that the message is getting through to his players. Star defensive end Chris Long was asked a similar question at the Kickoff, and the intense Long made it clear that he doesn’t think the spotlight should be on Groh and his staff as much as it should be on himself and his teammates.
“As far as coaches go, we’re the ones who have to make the plays,” Long said. “I’ve never seen an assistant coach make a tackle, fumble, throw an interception. We have to execute.
“We’re a family, and we’re going to stand by each other and have the success this year that we all want to have very badly,” Long said.