University Of Virginia 2009 Football Preview

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University Of Virginia 2009 Football Preview
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Now that spring practice is underway for the football team, it’s time for my annual predictions of Virginia’s chances of success on the gridiron this fall.  As always, I write as a fan, and not as an objective journalist.  I will analyze each position unit, looking at which players have left the team and who will most likely be in the starting lineup (with the help of a nifty depth chart from http://fromoldvirginia.blogspot.com/2008/09/depth-chart-by-class.html).  This will give UVA football fans something to do while shirking their duties at work as they are waiting for news from spring practice.

 

One variable that makes this analysis tough is no one knows where Vic Hall is going to play.  He came to Virginia as one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the history of high school football in the entire country.  He was known as an accurate passer, an elusive runner, and an outstanding leader.  What more could you want in a college QB?  But his 5'9" height was a problem.  So before his second season, he moved to cornerback.  The reasons given at the time were:

  • He wanted to see the field early and cornerback was a thin unit where’d he’d be able to do that.
  • If he wanted to play in the NFL some day, this was his most likely position.

 

Early in his career, Vic wasn’t very good at cornerback and was the target of opposing offenses.  Last year he was solid, but I haven’t heard anyone saying that he has NFL talent at the position.  Groh has occasionally made some slotting decisions that make one scratch one’s head, but this one takes the cake. 

I side with many fans who have always thought that Hall should have been on the offensive side of the ball and should have been given more of a chance at QB.  When you look at his stats from high school—he didn’t even play defense. The fact that our QB position has given us so much turmoil and inconsistency over the last three years, I can’t see how the switch to defense could be justified.  Of course, the coaches though Jameel Sewell was the QB of the future and didn’t know he’d flunk out of school.  Hall is a similar height to Marques Hagans, who was a fine QB for
Virginia four years ago but has put on weight since he stepped on campus, so he should be durable enough. 

 

To the fans’ delight, Hall was given a chance to play QB in the last game of this past season.  It was a gutsy move by Groh, and Vic showed off some impressive running ability but didn’t throw much.  So here’s the question we’ve all been wondering for the last few months: Will Vic be on offense or defense for his last year? 

A recent article quoted Groh as saying that Vic will be given a shot at QB in spring practice.  I don’t know if he’ll have a shot as a full-time QB or just a change-of-pace QB.  If he doesn’t win the QB position, I don’t know if he’ll go back to cornerback or will get time on the offense as a running back or receiver.  If I were the coach, I would give him a shot at full-time QB.  In light of all this, my position unit analysis will put Hall at QB rather than defensive back.

 

Another variable is the fact that if you look at the current roster, including who is leaving the team and the incoming freshman, there are more players than Virginia has room for, if you take into consideration the 85-scholarship limit.  So there’s bound to be some attrition between now and September, as there always is, which could invalidate some of my analysis.  It wouldn’t surprise me to find out about some of that attrition during spring practice. For example, Mark Ambrose has recently left the team because of recurring shoulder problems.

 

So without further qualifiers, here is the analysis by position unit:

 

Quarterback

 

Jameel Sewell, Marc Verica, and Vic Hall are going into spring practice in a three-way competition for the QB spot.  There is some chance red-shirt freshman Riko Smalls will enter the fray, but I am guessing he’ll have to wait another year to really get a shot.  Sewell was the starter for two years and showed promise, though suffered accuracy problems, before being suspended for a year due to academics.  Verica was thrust into the starting role this past season and struggled at first.  In the middle of the season, he played quite well and looked like he could be the second coming of Matt Schaub. 

In the last third of the season, he seemed to regress and threw more interceptions than humanly possible, which resulted in Hall playing QB for much of the last game of the season.  None of us knows how the competition will shake out, but if I had to guess, I think Sewell and Hall will end up sharing the QB duties.  They can both run with the ball, which adds considerable firepower to the new spread option offense we’ll be running.  When Hall isn’t the QB, he could be given another role on offense, or he could play part-time on defense (e.g. on the nickel package).  I think Groh hates interceptions too much to give Verica another shot when he’s got two other options at QB.

 

Players we lose

 

Scott Deke (career backup)

 

Predicted two-deep and production

 

QB: Jameel Sewell, Vic Hall

 

I predict an improvement in production at the QB position compared to last year.  I am not saying it will be stellar, but it was lousy enough last year that it can only get better, especially with a seasoned offensive coordinator taking over for one that wasn’t ready for the job.

 

Running back

 

We have a lot of somewhat-talented players at RB. Who will step up and grab the starting position?  It’s hard to predict.  You would have to think that Mikell Simpson has the inside track, given the fact that he started half of 2007 and was the first RB off the bench last year.  He seemed to be a star in the making in 2007 but regressed this past year.  I have no idea what happened to him.  I’ve heard some good things about juniors Keith Payne and Raynard Horne, sophomore Max Milien. But the player that seems to be getting the most impressive reviews from practice is Torrey Mack, who will be a redshirt freshman.  Plus we have Rawshawn Jackson, who is solid at fullback.  I will go out on a limb and predict that Simpson and Mack start the season splitting the carries.

 

Players we lose

 

Cedric Peerman

 

Predicted two-deep and production

 

RB: Mikell Simpson, Torrey Mack

 

I predict an improvement in production at the RB position compared to last year.  Granted, Peerman was a very good runner and important as the team’s motivational and spiritual leader.  However, I am basing my prediction on the fact that most of the running production is due to the offensive line, and I expect the line to be much improved next year.

 

Receiver

 

This will be an interesting position to watch.  We lost our three top wide-outs, and we are switching to a spread offense that heavily uses four-receiver sets.  There will be plenty of playing time to be had.  I was really hoping that Kevin Ogletree would come back for his senior season, but I wish him the best in the NFL.  If he had come back, he could have been one of the greatest receivers in UVA history.  I am very excited to see Tim Smith play this year.  He might even start by the end of the year.  Groh has said that he thinks Jared Green is a star in the making and that he also likes Javaris Brown, who will be a red-shirt freshman.  I have high hopes for Inman, who was impressive enough to play as a true freshman, but hasn’t yet developed as much as I was expecting.

Inman and Staton Jobe both saw their production drop quite a bit last year, compared with the previous season.  Kris Burd looked solid this past season as a redshirt freshman.  I have heard speculation that Max Milien might switch from running back to receiver, since there’s a log jam at RB, so I’ll list him as a receiver.  I’ve wondered to myself if Simpson might be given some time at receiver.  Earlier in his career, it was said we might use him like Percy Harvin,
Florida’s receiver/running back hybrid.

 

I will include tight ends here as well.  This is going to be a tricky area.  We’ll have six players currently listed as TE on next year’s roster, if there are no changes.  Groh loves recruiting lots of tall, rangy, athletic players who could play multiple positions.

UVA has had more passes caught by TE than any other team in college football, during Groh’s tenure.  The problem is the new spread offense doesn’t really use TE much at all.  So what will happen to all the TE on the roster?  My guess is that some will be kept as TE since we will use them on occasion, and some could be asked to switch to OL, receiver, or DE.  Reportedly Andrew Devlin has switched to DE and Mark Ambrose has left the team.  Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine for where each one will end up.  I am also guessing that Groh won’t remove all vestiges of a pro-style offense from the play calling, since he spent most of his career coaching in the NFL.

 

Players we lose

 

Kevin Ogletree

Maurice Covington (it’s too bad that Covington had his redshirt burned for a few snaps near the end of his first year when Groh wasn’t happy with the play of the older receivers)

John Phillips (it’s too bad that Phillips didn’t get a red-shirt year—I correctly predicted he would win all-ACC this past year, his first as a starter—I would love to have him back)

 

Predicted two-deep and production

 

WR: Dontrelle Inman, Javaris Brown

WR: Jared Green, Tim Smith

WR: Staton Jobe, Max Milien

WR: Kris Burd

TE: Joe Torchia

 

I think that the overall talent of our receivers will not be as high as it was last year, since we are losing three experienced wide-outs, one of whom has NFL talent, plus an All-ACC TE.  However, I predict the production of our receivers will go up because we are switching to Gregg Brandon’s spread offense.  And I am excited about some of the young talent that we have.

 

Offensive Line

 

We are losing our best OL, Eugene Monroe, who is predicted to be a top-five pick in the NFL draft.  But the other four starting OL will be returning.  There will be a competition for Monroe’s spot at left tackle, and if incoming tackle Morgan Moses qualifies academically, rather than having to prep for a year, it would be interesting to see if he’s in contention for the spot.  OL is a position, more than any other, where players usually benefit from a couple of seasons watching, learning and growing, but Groh has played several other talented guys in their true freshman year (Brandon Albert, Austin Pasztor, and Eugene Monroe).  I am hoping for a big senior year out of Will Barker, because so far he hasn’t lived up to my hopes for someone who won a starting position as a red-shirt freshman.

 

Players we lose

 

Eugene Monroe

Zak Stair (career backup, though he started occasionally when filling in for others)

Patrick Slebonick (career backup, not being invited back for fifth season)

 

Predicted two-deep and production

 

LT: Landon Bradley, Matt Mihalik

LG: Austin Pasztor, Billy Cuffee

C: Jack Shields, Anthony Mihota

RG: B.J. Cabbell, Isaac Cain

RT: Will Barker, Lamar Milstead

Even though we lost Monroe, I’m hoping for big improvement overall in this unit.  Three of the OL this past year were first-year starters, and it showed.  OL is a position unit where all the players need to learn to play in synch more than most other units.  There’s a lot of subtle communication and coordination that occurs when several players have been together for multiple years.

 

Defensive Line

 

This unit has nowhere to go but up.  This is not because they were terrible last year—though they had taken a big step down from the previous year after losing Jeffrey Fitzgerald and Chris Long—but because two of the players on the line have the potential to be studs and were starting as redshirt freshman last year: Nick Jenkins and Matt Conrath. 

John-Kevin Dolce isn’t on the two-deep below, though I expect he’ll continue to play in the nickel package like last season.  Unlike many positions where the starter plays almost every snap, I expect Jenkins and Nate Collins to continue splitting the snaps at nose tackle.

 

Players we lose

 

Alex Field (it’s too bad that Field had his redshirt burned for a few snaps his first year)

Jason Fuller (career backup, not being invited back for fifth season)

 

Predicted two-deep and production

 

DE: Matt Conrath, Kevin Crawford

NT: Nick Jenkins, Nate Collins

DE: Zane Parr, Andrew Devlin

 

Even though we are losing Field and thus will have a new starter on one side, I predict a big step up for this unit as Conrath and Jenkins mature.

 

Linebackers

 

Of all the position units on the team, this is the one that will be hardest hit.  We are losing three good players out of four linebackers—two of whom have started for three years and one who has started for four years.  John Copper has been Virginia’s leading tackler for three years in a row.  Clint Sintim is a quarterback’s worst nightmare (beside Chris Long) and will be taken on the first day of the NFL draft.  One question is whether Cam Johnson, who played as a backup last year as a true freshman and looks like a future star, will be able to win a starting spot over two senior outside linebackers who both started for part of last year: Denzell Burrell and Aaron Clark. 

Things are even murkier at inside linebacker, where there are quite a few guys that could win the spots.  Darren Childs should have the inside track on one spot, as he filled in admirably when Appleby was hurt for two games.  Jared Detrick will be a junior and started playing as a true freshman because Groh said he had superior talent.  I don’t think he’ll win a starting spot, which makes me wonder if he would benefit from a mid-career redshirt so that he would still have two years as a starter left, unless the coaches have realized that he doesn’t have the talent to be a starter.  Terrence Fells-Danzer had a lot of hype coming out of high school, so we’ll see if the light starts to come on for him (it hasn’t yet, from what I’ve heard).  Aaron Taliaferro will reportedly get a chance to switch from the outside to inside.

 

Players we lose

 

Clint Sintim

Jon Copper

Antonio Appleby

 

Predicted two-deep and production

 

OLB: Denzel Burrell, Cam Johnson

ILB: Darren Childs, Terence Fells-Danzer

ILB: Steve Greer, Darnell Carter

OLB: Aaron Clark, Aaron Taliaferro or Jared Detrick

 

I think there will be a serious decline in the production of this unit.  It’s impossible to replace three long-term starters with new guys without seeing a drop-off.  Let’s hope that the improvement in the secondary and defensive line will take up the slack.

 

Secondary

 

This could be Virginia’s most talented secondary under Groh.  Groh has never had studs in the secondary like he has at most other positions—even if just sporadically.  The safety spot in particular seems to be a liability every year.  I have read that Brandon Woods will be invited back for a fifth season, which surprised me given our scholarship crunch and the fact that he didn’t look too impressive last year  This must mean the coaches don’t have must confidence in the other backups at safety.  We’ll have two young talented players at cornerback—Ras-I Dowling and Chase Minnifield—and a third, Rodney McLeod, will be switching to safety. 

 

Chris Cook was a talented cornerback, before he was suspended for a year and will return for his senior season.  With Corey Mosely taking over one of the safety positions this past season as a redshirt freshman, this unit is very solid. 

On a side note, it’s interesting to me that Groh often puts taller defensive backs at cornerback and shorter ones at safety.  I tend to think that the opposite should be true, that cornerbacks would be the smaller, quicker of the two positions.  Dowling and Cook are both 6'2" while Mosely and McLeod are both 5'10".

 

Players we lose

 

Byron Glaspy (former walk-on who earned a starting spot but could never seem to put it together in my opinion)

Vic Hall (I know he’s here another year, but I’m predicting he plays mostly on offense)

 

Predicted two-deep and production

 

CB: Ras I Dowling, Mike Parker

S: Rodney McLeod, Matt Leemhuis

S: Corey Mosely, Brandon Woods

CB: Chris Cook, Chase Minifield

 

I think this unit will be much more productive than last year.  We didn’t lose many key players, and our young, talented guys have another year of experience.

 

Kickers

 

This is another unit that has nowhere to go but up.  Jimmy Howell played punter as a true freshman this past season and did OK, so I’m expecting him to improve his range and consistency this year.  The field goal kicking was pretty bad last year, as two walk-onsYannick Reyering and Robert Randolph—battled for the position and neither one impressed.  I suppose they will continue to battle it out, with another walk-on— true freshman Drew Jarrett—added to the mix. I still have hope that Chris Hinkebein, who is handling Virginia’s kick-off duties but not field goals, can learn the accuracy needed to win the position.

 

Players we lose

 

None

 

Predicted two-deep and production

 

Punter: Jimmy Howell

Kick offs: Chris Hinkebein

Field goals: Yannick Reyering or Robert Randolph or Drew Jarrett or Chris Hinkebein (how’s that for some certainty?)

 

There’s no question in my mind that the kicking unit will be better than last year.  The big question is whether an accurate field goal kicker will emerge?  Groh has had some talented kickers, which makes a big difference when the game is on the line.

 

Overall Prediction

 

I think Virginia will much better than last year.  Maybe I am being overly optimistic, but I am especially excited about the new offensive coordinator, Gregg Brandon.  I know that the spread offense isn’t a magic bullet for success—just ask Michigan.  However, many of the teams that have used it in recent years have proven it to be very successful.  There are no other teams in the ACC that use a similar offense, so it will be a challenge for defenses to prepare for every week.

During Groh’s tenure, we’ve never had an experienced, proven guru at OC.  The defense has been pretty stout the last few years, but the offense has been dismal. One of the main factors contributing to the Groh’s teams under-performing is the constant turnover among the assistant coaches.  That being said—five of the nine assistants are new for next season—I’m quite excited about the current coaches and hope they stay a while. 

 

Another main factor in Groh’s teams underachieving has been the attrition of key players.  This was especially painful last spring, when Virginia lost many starters to various issues, and it continued in the fall when Peter Lalich, the starting QB, was kicked off the team.  I think the fact that there has been very little attrition so far in the off-season is a harbinger of success in 2009.

 

So looking back at the position unit analysis, I’ve predicted a higher level of production for every unit except for the linebackers—though the receiving corps will also be taking a big hit.  So I think we can expect a winning season in 2009.  Hope springs eternal.

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