Virginia's football team needs some magic for opener with USC
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“This isn’t Shangri-La,” Coach Al Groh says of the issues affecting Virginia’s football team.
The Cavaliers won five games last season by two points or fewer but they prepare for the Trojans in search of an identity after losing key players for a variety of reasons.
By David Wharton, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
August 25, 2008
There was something magical about Virginia's football team last
season, scoring one close victory after another, sneaking into the top 20 like
pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
But magic can be elusive. Just ask the Cavaliers' coach.
"This isn't Shangri-La," Al Groh said. "Things happen in life."
The star defensive end turns pro. The starting quarterback goes on academic suspension. A young linebacker runs afoul of the law.
The Virginia team that faces third-ranked USC in the season opener Saturday must replace 14 starters and find an identity. In other words, the Cavaliers need to conjure some new tricks.
Could they have picked a tougher start?
Asked that question at a recent media day, Groh offered two words in response: "Clearly not."
His team's transformation began with the exit of All-American defensive end Chris Long, a first-round NFL draft pick who had anchored a highly ranked defense in 2007.
"Obviously, it's not going to be easy replacing him," linebacker Clint Sintim said. "Or even possible to replace him."
Other key seniors and veterans departed with Long, including two tight ends who combined for 76 catches, the interior offensive line, the punter and the kicker.
But those losses were predictable. The off-season brought unforeseen setbacks.
Several players ran into classroom problems, including quarterback Jameel Sewell, who was suspended for a year. So the Cavaliers found themselves with a quarterback competition, choosing between three backups.
Even worse, the leading candidate is among a handful of Virginia players who have run afoul of the law. Last month, sophomore Peter Lalich was arrested for underage possession of alcohol.
His case was continued until next summer and will be dropped if he stays out of trouble. Linebacker J'Courtney Williams was not as fortunate, leaving the team after being charged with credit card theft.
More recently, allegations have surfaced that the new defensive coordinator and Groh's good friend, Bob Pruett, violated NCAA rules during a previous stint as Marshall's head coach.
Pruett has denied any wrongdoing and Groh dismisses the tumult surrounding his team as "only significant to people who want to stir it up."
Besides, the Cavaliers have enough to deal with on the field.
Lalich, who appeared in eight games as a backup last season, is competing with the less-experienced Scott Deke and Marc Verica. Groh describes all three as traditional pocket passers, a change from the elusive Sewell, which could require a shift in Virginia's offensive scheme.
The coach has a history of waiting until the last moment to announce his starter -- as in when his offense takes the field in the opener. His quarterbacks aren't giving away any secrets.
"Until any of us have done anything in a game worthwhile to be talking about, I think it's in our best interest to stick to ourselves and keep working to do what's best for our team," Deke told reporters.
With so many holes to fill, a poll of Atlantic Coast Conference media predicted Virginia to finish fifth in the conference's Coastal Division. Cue the standard underdog response.
"We read the expectations," tight end John Phillips said. "And that's motivation."
The Cavaliers have been here before, picked to finish in the middle of the pack in 2007. Instead, they were 9-4, winning an NCAA-record five games by two points or fewer and earning a New Year's Day invitation to the Gator Bowl, where they came within two seconds of defeating Texas Tech.
If nothing else, Virginia returns with a veteran coach who has quietly led the program to five bowl games in seven years and might have something up his sleeve.
"Coach Groh has been around a long time," USC Coach Pete Carroll said. "He's been in the [Bill] Parcells, [Bill] Belichick style of play. . . . I know we've battled him in the NFL for years at different times and they've turned out really good teams."
Virginia features a trio of seasoned linebackers, a strong receiving corps and proven running backs in Cedric Peerman and the speedy Mikell Simpson.
Groh has employed various tricks in preparing them for the opener, not the least of which was blasting the USC fight song over loudspeakers during spring practice. "I may be able to hum it," Sintim deadpanned.
The Cavaliers understand the challenge they face Saturday as 19.5-point underdogs.
"We're playing a team that has earned the right to be in a league of their own," Groh said of USC. "They clearly are the class of college football."
At the same time, the coach has reminded his players about last fall, the close victories, looking to recapture something intangible.
"You don't have to be better than somebody the rest of the year, you've just got to be better on one day, one Saturday," Phillips said. "You've just got to find a way to win that one day."
Like pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
Healthy Clark eyes starting job
Rockbridge County graduate Aaron Clark of UVa had a tonsillectomy in the offseason.
By Doug Doughty
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Among the shoulder and knee operations that football players undergo in the offseason, a tonsillectomy would not constitute a common surgical procedure.
However, it's made a major difference for outside linebacker Aaron Clark in his bid to win a starting job at Virginia.
"I don't know whether people remember, but the past few years, I would be just dog-sick for the first couple days of camp," said Clark, a 2005 Rockbridge County High School graduate.
"It was just some virus that I was getting, so the doctor said it would be a good idea to have my tonsils out. As soon as I had a chance, I got them cut and I haven't gotten sick once."
Among other things, the annual training camp virus would make it difficult for Clark to keep his weight up.
"I can come out here and just push it every day because I know my body can handle it," Clark said. "Just the overall health factor is just a big deal for me."
Clark is splitting time with junior Denzel Burrell at the outside linebacker position vacated by 2007 senior Jermaine Dias.
"We're flopping reps every day," Clark said. "We're just working hard, trying to make it hard for the coaches [to make a decision]."
Of Virginia's two outside linebackers in 2007, Clint Sintim, who returns, did the bulk of the pass rushing. Based on the two Saturday practices open to fans and the media, UVa will come at the quarterback from more angles this season.
"We all really focused on trying to change our bodies, so we could all be similar on the field and not have to worry about who was going to do what specific job," said Clark, who backed up Sintim last year.
Clark credited strength coach Matt Balis for conditioning the linebackers so they could be faster, strong and more explosive.
"I came back from tonsil surgery this winter and started out with a pretty clean slate," Clark said. "I had lost weight after the tonsil surgery and he just transformed me. I lost 2 or 3 percent body fat and added 21 pounds of muscle.
"He's been an amazing attribute to this team."
Clark, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound senior, played in all 13 games last year but got on the field for only 119 plays. Never redshirted, he has played 251 plays in his career.
This is his last chance to leave a mark.
"You think about it every day," said Clark, a letterman for the first time in 2007. "This really is my last chance to do something to prove myself. It's an extra motivating factor, but you try not to dwell on it.
"It's crazy to think about. This is my 14th straight season of playing football. I started when I was 7. It's hard to think about life without football, but you've got to go on."
Clark's signature moment may have come at the Orange Bowl, when he wreaked havoc late in the Cavaliers' 48-0 romp over Miami. Clark had a career-high four tackles and his first career sack.
"The first time you go out and play some real ball, it makes you feel great to be able to make some plays," he said, "but you've got to come out every play, every day, every practice, every game like you haven't done anything."
Cavs’ Phillips set to break out
By Jay Jenkins
Published: August 24, 2008
John Phillips reached down and pulled on the orange and blue silicone bracelet on his wrist and offered a chuckle.
The gel bracelet — and the two words on it — serves as a constant reminder of the patience Virginia’s tight end displayed during the first three years of his career.
It reads: Saturday Solider.
“Football is all about Saturday,” Phillips said. “Anything can happen between the white lines.”
The bracelet was given as a gift to every player on the team by former tight end Tom Santi.
For three years, Phillips lived in the shadows of Santi and fellow tight end Jon Stupar. In fact, Phillips entered 2007 with catches in just three games and against just two opponents (Duke and Miami).
Three games into last season’s schedule, the spotty trend continued as Phillips went without a reception, still biding his time as the offense’s third tight end. Slowly, Phillips made his mark, hauling in 17 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns.
Santi (Indianapolis Colts) and Stupar (New England Patriots) flew the coop for the world of professional football, leaving Phillips at the top of the pecking order at tight end as Saturday’s season opener against No. 3 Southern California inches closer.
Phillips, a 6-foot-6 target, is not attempting to make up for lost time.
“You can’t look at it that way,” Phillips said.
Instead, he looks at his time with Santi and Stupar as a blessing.
“It was an honor to play alongside those two guys. They taught me a lot about the game, how you play it and how important the position can be in our offense.”
Last year, Santi and Stupar combined for 76 receptions, five touchdowns and almost 800 yards receiving.
With three new faces on the Cavaliers’ offensive line, a common belief was that the coaching staff would need Phillips and perhaps sophomore tight end Joe Torchia to remain home as a blocker against blitz-happy defenses.
“I haven’t seen anybody catch the ball as well as John does when it is near him,” said Virginia offensive coordinator Mike Groh. “We tend to get him out a lot. He is too big of a threat.”
Phillips has the skills, Groh said, to become the sixth tight end from Virginia to be selected in the NFL Draft since 2001. The third-year coordinator raved about how Phillips presents mismatches that even former All-American Heath Miller was unable to enjoy during his illustrious 144-catch career as a Cavalier.
“[Phillips] can really go up and get it at a different level than Heath,” Groh said. “John is just longer than Heath was, if that makes sense to you guys.
“I am not saying he’s better than Heath Miller, all I am saying is that he is just longer — longer arms and taller body and you can throw it up higher to him, places where defenders have a hard time covering.”
Phillips, a senior, said professional football can wait. He still wants to refine his game at the college level.
“Everybody can improve every day,” he said. “The main thing is to go out and find one thing that you want to improve on that day and by the end of the day, hopefully, you can be better than when you started.
“I just try to work hard every day. I work as hard as I can and listen to the coaching staff. The coaching staff guides you and molds you the way that you should be molded.”