Cavs' Billyk given new life
Grad student, tackle returns for 5th season
By Jay Jenkins / email@example.com | 978-7250
August 30, 2007
Allen Billyk was not blind to the situation.
During his career at Virginia, the nose tackle watched the size of his incoming class dwindle in numbers.
Some completed their eligibility. Others transferred, willingly or otherwise. A handful just disappeared off the football radar all together.
Regardless, Billyk often contemplated what 2007 would bring. Receiving an invitation back to Virginia for a fifth season as a graduate student was ideal, but not a given.
Landing on the training camp roster of an NFL team was not a realistic option coming off an injury-riddled, 23-tackle season.
“I would have been done,” Billyk predicted. “I would have been at a desk crunching numbers.”
Billyk was invited back - as a starter. The senior is slated to make his 11th career start on Saturday at Wyoming (2 p.m.) in the season opener for both teams.
“I have already graduated, so I could have been a loose end clipped off, but there was that level of confidence there when they asked me to come back,” the New Castle, Pa., native said. “Knowing that we had young guys on this team that could have stepped up, I am really thankful.
“Now, I have a year to eat meals at JPJ and a year to prove myself.”
Losing the limp
Staying healthy would certainly help his case. Last year, Billyk suffered a pair of high-ankle sprains, the first of which occurred during training camp.
“They just never go away,” he said. “Every week, I was just re-aggravating it. Once the original one was getting better I sprained the other one. I was kind of hobbling around.”
Billyk was essentially taking one for the team, and it showed in his production. He recorded only nine tackles in the Cavaliers’ eight ACC games.
“I think he struggled with his game last year more than any of the other players in the lineup because of the issues cited,” said Virginia coach Al Groh. “He really gutted it out throughout the season.”
Billyk also played and continues to play with what could be classified as a bone spur in his hip.
“It is a little sore at times,” Billyk said. “But it is not like an injury that would hold you out of something.”
A nose for contact
If the injuries were not enough, Billyk draws the task of playing a position that boasts a dreadful job description in a 3-4 base defense.
“Playing nose is different,” Billyk chuckled. “It is one of those things that you don’t understand until you get in there. I know I didn’t understand it.”
While it is hard to find a nose tackle in a crowded scrum around the middle of an offensive line, Billyk is typically the one at the bottom of the pile, a result created from players on both teams.
“You have a center and a guard on you a lot of the time,” Billyk explained, “and then you have running plays where our linebackers will come up and hit the back of you.
“You might hear me say, ‘Come on [Jon] Copper. Watch out.’ But I guess that is all part of it and something you have to take with the job.”
Billyk is unsure how teams will attack him this season. Will he see double-teams or will teams alter their attacks to focus on defensive ends Jeffrey Fitzgerald and Chris Long?
“I would be happy to take on one guy every play, but we will see,” he said. “Every team has a different scheme for how they are going to deal with Chris or how they are going to scheme their runs for a stacked defense.
“We have a rare defense, too. It is not like they are playing a 4-3 team that has a really good defensive end. They are playing a 3-4 team, and most teams probably play only one 3-4 team a year.”
A brand new man
Groh recently singled out Billyk for his performance in training camp, calling him the most improved player on the defensive side of the ball.
“Now that he has some continuity in practice and preparation and whatnot, he has done a real nice job for us,” Groh said.
Billyk bashfully admitted that he has seen the improvements in his own game.
“I feel like I have matured a lot,” he admitted. “I am certainly better prepared.”
More importantly, he is not the weakest link.
“Last year, it was as if the mentality was, ‘You can play and not hurt us too bad,’” Billyk said. “I want to be a guy that is not considered like that, but a guy that can make plays and contribute to accomplishing goals.”
One of those goals involves creating 36 sacks, even if he is not the lineman on the delivering end.
“It is a give-and-take relationship,” Billyk said. “I will gladly take on a double-team if [Fitzgerald and Long] are going to go get that sack.”
Virginia: Chris Long is driven to succeed
The roar of the crowd following a sack is the 'best noise in the world' to this Cavalier.
BY MELINDA WALDROP | 247-4634
As Chris Long takes his stance across the line from his intended target, his mind is racing.
He's making reads on the offense's formation and noting how the blocker assigned to stop him is lined up. He's listening to his linebackers call out defensive plays and trying to pick up the quarterback's snap count.
"But it's once the ball is snapped that you stop thinking and you start reacting," said Long, Virginia's senior defensive end. "... If you're thinking as you're pursuing a quarterback or a ball carrier, you're usually wrong. It should be all instinctive by that time."
Long's instincts have proven to be pretty good. Last season, he had 57 tackles and 4½ sacks for the Cavaliers. He also made 9½ tackles for loss, for 43 yards.
"He's working to gain an advantage constantly," U.Va. coach Al Groh said. " ... Chris has got a great drive to succeed. He has tremendous ambition for success and a terrific work ethic to match that ambition."
Sometimes, despite the reads and the reactions, a quarterback slips through Long's grasp.
"Sometimes you just fly in there so out of control, and you want to make a play so bad, you just slip off or whatever," Long said. "But that's part of the mentality of a D-lineman.
You know you're gonna get (to a quarterback) 10 times a game, (and) you might not get but four or five shots a game. You've gotta make as many of them count as possible. You know you're gonna miss some. You just gotta get back up and come back."
And when you do wrap up a QB and slam him to the ground?
"The moment right after that, it's the best noise in the world, to hear 60,000 people (cheering) -- and you caused that," Long said. "It's exciting. I think it's the best feeling in football. ... You don't know when you're gonna get your next pressure, or your next good pass rush, or your next opportunity to really fly off the ball and come get after it. So at that point, it's really almost a feeling of relief, but you're not really relieved until you're getting up off the ground."
What about the other man picking himself up off the turf?
Does the quarterback make any noises before or after he lands?
"If he does, I can't hear him," Long said. "I'm so caught up in the moment."
Long's favorite such moment came last year in U.Va.'s 14-7 victory against N.C. State in Charlottesville, when he corralled Wolfpack quarterback Daniel Evans from a defensive formation called base front.
"It was a sack that might not catch people's eye, but you have to work harder out of base front. I had to beat a double team on that play," Long said. "It was really gratifying to just really work hard and do my part on the defense with that sack."
That feeling fuels the relentless motor that makes Long, who played 715 snaps last year, loath to miss even one play.
"He's just out there working hard, 24-7," said Cavaliers sophomore defensive end Jeffrey Fitzgerald, who had 64 tackles in 2006. "I try to get that mentality and feed off him, and it boosts my game up. He's gonna give 100 percent at whatever he does. He's a good guy to follow after."
Long had a pretty decent role model himself.
His father, Howie Long, made eight Pro Bowl appearances in 13 NFL seasons with the Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders.
Howie Long's 84 career sacks and ability to disrupt opponents' offensive game plans earned him induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.
"I have a wealth of knowledge at my disposal with my pops, and also the coaches here," Chris Long said. "I believe I've been blessed. It is a curse sometimes because people, their expectations get high. But if you're a competitor, you're gonna meet those expectations, because you don't want to disappoint."
Groh, who coached the New York Jets in 2000, said Long can play at the next level.
But Long's focus is squarely on the present.
"I've got 80 of my brothers in uniform," Long said. "We all have an obligation to each other right now."
UVa's Hall embraces new roles
VHSL QB legend Vic Hall will see extensive time on defense, special teams.
By Doug Doughty
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- There may come a time when Vic Hall is not immediately recognized as the all-time Virginia High School League passing and total-offense record-holder.
"A lot of people still know me as a quarterback," said Hall at the University of Virginia's preseason media day.
"Moving to cornerback, alone, is a big challenge. Overshadowing what I did at quarterback, that's not going to be easy."
Hall passed for a state-record 8,731 yards and 104 touchdowns in his career at Gretna High School but hasn't been a quarterback since the fall of 2005, when cousin Chris Cook suffered a broken leg at Boston College and Hall moved to defense to provide depth at cornerback.
UVa was able to save a redshirt year for Hall that season before he made his collegiate debut in 2006. He played in all 12 Virginia games, mostly on special teams.
Hall will play prominently on special teams Saturday at Wyoming, but he also will make his first start at cornerback. He replaces Marcus Hamilton, the only senior on a UVa defense that ranked 17th in Division I-A last season. Hall and junior Mike Brown competed for the starting position until Brown tore an ACL this summer during an informal, seven-on-seven workout.
Not only was Brown the more experienced of Hamilton's two would-be successors, but he was also the Cavaliers' principal punt-return specialist.
"I knew I had to step up," Hall said.
Hall already holds for field goals and extra points. Last year, he was the outside "gunner" on punt coverage, as well as the "squatter," the member of the punt-return team responsible for obstructing the other team's gunner.
Hall said he never returned kicks at Gretna, but former Hawks coach Rob Senseney begs to differ.
"We had our 'good hands' team out there once," said Senseney, now the head coach at William Fleming. "Vic was the deep guy and the other team decided to kick away. He took it back about 40 or 50 yards."
When asked about his background as a defensive player, Hall said that it was limited to about 10 plays.
"Ten plays a game?" Hall was asked.
"No, in my career," he retorted.
Senseney said, "That's about right, but what he didn't tell you was, he probably intercepted four passes."
As late as last season, there were calls for Hall to return to quarterback.
Those calls invariably would resume if the Cavaliers' designated quarterbacks can't move the offense.
Nobody is going to be hearing those calls from Hall, whose height (5-foot-9) is less of a drawback at corner than at quarterback.
"The only people who have ever talked about it are people other than Vic," UVa coach Al Groh said Tuesday, "and that is why he is such a great kid and such a great team member. There is no personal agenda with him; there is no ego."
If Hall has any regrets, Senseney said he thinks he would have heard.
"I don't know if 'regret' is the word," Senseney said.
"Before he ever went to college, we talked and I made it abundantly clear. I said, 'Don't expect just to step in and take over. It's going to be a challenge.' Do I think he can play quarterback at that level? I don't think there's a question in my mind."
In fact, Hall might be able to showcase his old quarterback skills in his role as holder.
The Cavaliers worked on fake kicks during a special teams session at one of their open practices but Groh concedes that such trick plays "have a short shelf life."
Aside from offense, the only time Hall won't be on the field is when the Cavaliers return kickoffs. And, why not?
"Probably his union rep would tell him we'd overworked him," Groh said.
Cavs aim for two steps forward
By ED MILLER, The Virginian-Pilot
© August 30, 2007
Now it can be told: Coach Al Groh says he had a sinking feeling about last year's Virginia football team.
Long before the season began, Groh feared it would be a long season. Not that he said anything at the time.
"I had a foreboding of it," Groh said. "But for me to come out and say, 'OK, this is what I think it's going to be,' all that does is paint a low level of expectations for the players."
Groh doesn't give "State of the Program" speeches. Ask him where the program stands and he will invariably say he's concentrating on the next season or the next game.
But there's little doubt U.Va. took a step back last year, falling to 5-7 and missing a bowl for the first time since 2002. The question is whether last year's step back could result in two steps forward.
There's reason for measured optimism. The Cavaliers return 17 starters, the most in the ACC. The defense returns virtually intact. And the offense has to play better... doesn't it?
Virginia couldn't have performed much worse last year, ranking 113th of 119 I-A teams in total offense. That's what happens when you break in a new quarterback and offensive line and lose your leading receiver in the preseason.
The Cavaliers are hoping the hard choices Groh made last year - going with redshirt freshman Jameel Sewell at quarterback, redshirting almost the entire freshman class - will pay off in 2007.
Sewell's hard-won experience should make him better. So should off-season surgery on his broken wrist. And the infusion of last year's redshirt class should give Virginia depth it lacked a year ago, when players like defensive end Chris Long and linebackers Jon Copper and Antonio Appleby rarely came out of the game.
With an occasional breather, Virginia's defense could improve on last year's No. 17 ranking. Though the offense lacks proven playmakers, there's more raw talent and depth, and the line returns intact.
Not surprisingly, Groh isn't making any predictions. But there's a different tone is his voice this year.
"The worst thing a coach can do is fool himself," Groh said. "But (players) seem to be conducting everything they're doing with a much greater level of confidence in themselves."
From the top down.
Sewell Takes the Reins
A Year After Going From Backup to Starter, Virginia's Sophomore Quarterback Knows 'a Lot More Is Expected of Me'
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 30, 2007; Page E01
A year ago, with two quarterbacks listed above him on the Virginia depth chart, Jameel Sewell had so much to think about: how much he needed to improve, how to run a college offense, how to command a huddle.
But early this preseason, clarity came much easier to Sewell. When asked what he wanted to improve on most, he squinted in the sun, sweat still pooling on his forehead from a practice, unscrewed a drink cap and answered: "Winning."
"A lot more is expected of me," says quarterback Jameel Sewell, who did not throw a touchdown pass in Virginia's final five games last season. "A lot more's expected." (Andrew Shurtleff - AP)
He had nothing more to add, not even after he swallowed his Gatorade. He didn't need to, either.
For Sewell, it really may be that simple this season. He doesn't have to worry about internal competition; the quarterback job is his, despite freshman Peter Lalich's impressive summer. He doesn't have to worry about making sure his voice is loud enough in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage; he mastered that in the middle of last season. He doesn't have to worry about his throwing-wrist injury, at least not too much; he rehabbed ahead of schedule and only needs to ice it now.
"It's like Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship" on Sunday, offensive coordinator Mike Groh said. "He pretty much knows he's going to win, so he just has to go out there and play well. I would think it's very similar for Jameel right now. You just go about your business and work on perfecting your craft."
Sewell has emerged as a leader of the Cavaliers' offense, charged with reinvigorating a team that finished 113th in the country in total offense last year. Through intermittent struggles last year, Sewell displayed glimpses of the natural ability that landed him at Virginia and gave coaches reason to believe he can turn around the offense.
Sewell delivered Virginia's longest run of the season, a 36-yard scramble for a touchdown against Maryland, then rushed for two touchdowns in a season-salvaging victory over Miami. He set freshman school records in completions, yards and passing touchdowns. His 200 rushing yards were second on the team.
But Sewell also knows there is room to improve. He did not throw a touchdown pass in Virginia's final five games. He threw more interceptions (six) than touchdowns (five).
"A lot more is expected of me," Sewell said. "A lot more's expected."
Sewell has shown the ability to deliver on those expectations since he arrived from Hermitage High in Richmond. He signed to play at Virginia after Vic Hall committed to play quarterback, placing himself in competition with one of the greatest high school quarterbacks in the state's history.
"A lot of people were wondering why both signed," said Patrick Kane, Sewell's coach at Hermitage. "I had no doubt that Jameel would be competing. I don't think Vic Hall was a positive or negative. [Sewell] has extreme confidence in his abilities, I don't think who else was being recruited made any impact."
When coaches needed to move a quarterback to cornerback midway through Sewell's freshman season, they chose Hall. Last year, when Christian Olsen and Kevin McCabe proved ineffective, Sewell was thrust into the starting lineup.
His skills were still raw, but there was no doubting his athleticism. He can kick and punt a football nearly well enough to do so in college. He can throw marginally well with his right hand, Groh said. He amazed Kane with how he always put the right touch on a ball, whether it was a laser or a loft.
He played basketball in high school and played like "an enforcer," Kane said, clearing space in the lane. Kane kept him in on Hermitage's goal line defense as a linebacker.
"Just watching the natural talent that he had, he was extremely gifted," Groh said. "He's got all the tools."
He's pairing those skills with more leadership, where he made his largest strides last year. He spoke softly with eyes wide in his first start at Georgia Tech, but as the year wore on, he became more comfortable.
"There was no doubt he was in control of the huddle," Kane said. "He'd snap somebody straight if it needed to be done."
"I don't think anything has changed," senior defensive end Chris Long said. "From Day One, I would follow him anywhere, as a leader and a quarterback. When you get here, sometimes you don't understand that you lead by example as well. His personality is one that commands respect. It helps a lot to have a quarterback that understands he leads by example and is a vocal leader."
He understands how to lead now, having done so for nine games. It is one less thing to worry about for Sewell. All he has to do now, he knows, is win.