Every successful team has one.
When the chips are down, he can step up and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
He is the one whose number people paint on their chests before the game, and the face that dominates the media guide and the local news shows.
He is the impact player, the difference maker, the true leader of a team.
The Virginia Cavalier football team was fortunate to have such a player for the last four years, with defensive lineman Chris Long.
Although the defensive line is not where most people look for franchise players, Long certainly made a tremendous and visible impact on the gridiron, and not just the mark he left while planting opposing quarterbacks into the turf of Scott Stadium.
His safety against Maryland helped jump start a roller coaster 2007 season where the Cavaliers won an NCAA-record five games by two points or less. It was deemed the play of the season by Virginia fans, and led the Cavaliers to its first January Bowl in the new century.
He helped put a name and a playing style to Virginia coach Al Groh’s signature 3-4 defense, and had the Cavaliers just one win away from tying a school record for most wins in a season.
How big an impact did Chris Long have? His jersey was retired before he even finished playing.
However, now the son of NFL Hall-of-Famer Howie Long has left for St. Louis and millions of dollars, while Virginia is simply left with a void the size of the Grand Canyon.
Still, college football season approaches and as many in Charlottesville begin to warm up their grills it is time to examine who will be the impact player of 2008?
Who will become the unquestioned leader of this team and handle the high-pressure situations to lead the Orange and Blue to victory?
Here are a few good candidates:
1. Cedric Peerman- The sometimes forgotten member of the Virginia Cavaliers, Peerman actually led the ACC in rushing before an injury against Middle Tennessee State left him sidelined for the rest of the regular season.
Peerman has had an up-and-down career at Virginia. In his debut game in 2005 against Western Michigan, he accounted for 179 all-purpose yards. However, in 2006, Peerman only ran for 153 yards the entire season. Peerman accounts the sophomore slump to a change in his running style.
In 2007, he swore to play naturally and instinctively, and it certainly worked. Peerman rushed for 620 yards in just six games, but still led his team in rushing for the entire season. He averaged nearly 100 yards per game, and now that he is back in good health he should be a welcome sight for heir apparent to the quarterback throne Pete Lalich.
Peerman has shown the ability to earn the hard yards and his experience will rush Virginia to some close game victories this season.
2. Mikell Simpson- Clearly Simpson has a flair for the dramatic. He started the season at the bottom of the running back depth chart, yet injuries and under-production led to an opportunity that he certainly did not waste.
Before a national Saturday night audience, the rising junior had the 52,000 fans in College Park, Md. searching their programs as he accounted for 271 all-purpose yards. He also had the city of Jacksonville jumping with a record 97-yard run against Texas Tech in the Gator Bowl.
Simpson is by far Virginia’s fastest option on offense, and he also has some of the best hands on the team as well. Simpson not only finished as the team’s second leading rusher, but he was also the team’s leading receiver with 43 receptions.
His versatility will prove critical in 2008, as Virginia will look toward his strength and speed to revive a West Coast offense that has been anemic since the departure of Houston Texan’s quarterback Matt Schaub.
3. Eugene Monroe- Okay, so the offensive lineman is probably the most under-appreciated position in football. Still, if Virginiahas have proven anything, it is their ability to create NFL-caliber linemen.
Last season, Branden Albert went in the first round to the Kansas City Chiefs. Before that it was D’Brickashaw Ferguson going to the Jets with the fourth pick of the Draft. Eugene Monroe appears to be the next candidate in line for a future Cavalier lineman in the pros.
The 315 lb. senior tackle has always found a way to distinguish himself from the crowd. Being one of 16 children, including 10 brothers, Monroe has had his fair share of backyard brawls, and it clearly shows on the gridiron.
Monroe will be critical this season as he tries to keep quarterback Pete Lalich upright and create lanes against defenses that will expect the run practically every down. Thankfully, Monroe has proven to be durable, missing only two games in three years at Virginia. The Cavaliers will need that kind of consistency as they look to shore up their line and pound the rock early and often in 2008.
4. Clint Sintim- Before Chris Long came around, Virginia defenses were known for their linebackers. Kai Parham and Ahmad Brooks used to strike fear in ACC quarterbacks, and senior Clint Sintim is clearly the next in line to lead the 2008 defensive unit.
Sintim had 77 tackles last season, second among returning Cavaliers. He particularly knows how to get to the quarterback, leading the team in quarterback hits with 17 while recording nine sacks.
Of course, it is easier to rack up those types of numbers with Long and Jeffrey Fitzgerald penetrating the offensive line for you. The onus will be on Sintim and his teammates to not only pressure the quarterback but also play pass coverages. Overall, the secondary of Virginia is still very young and inexperienced.
Nevertheless, Sintim has shown the raw talent to dominate games, and now has the experience to be a true leader and role model. Sintim is almost guaranteed a spot on the All-ACC team; one wonders if he also has a spot as Virginia’s impact player.
THE REST: Of course, the truth is that sometimes the impact player is completely under the radar around this time. Maybe the real leader will be someone working hard in the gym right this moment to have his name mentioned among these big names. Time will tell, but fortunately for the Cavaliers, the wait is almost over.
Tell me what you think Virginia fans! Let your voice be heard!