Trying to get a read on the ’09 Cavs
Barack Obama rode the change we need to the White House. Al Groh will have to see some change indeed to keep his job.
“I don’t know if there’s a number of games he has to win. It’s hard to say that on the front end, because a lot depends on how the season unfolds,” said Jeff White, formerly of The Times-Dispatch, now the new news editor at VirginiaSports.com, establishing the conventional wisdom for University of Virginia football heading into the 2009 season.
Groh’s staff underwent perhaps the most turnover in I-A football in the offseason. Gone are offensive coordinator Mike Groh and defensive coordinator Bob Pruett, replaced by former Bowling Green head coach and noted offensive guru Gregg Brandon and another Groh, Al, who will take over as defensive coordinator, a role that White said he had unofficially held for years anyhow even when Pruett and Mike London were wearing the headsets.
The defense should be OK, for the most part, though Groh has to figure out how to replace the production of departed linebackers Clint Sintim, Jon Copper and Antonio Appleby. A defensive line returning ends Nate Collins and Matt Conrath and maybe the best secondary for a UVa. team since the mid-1990s with Ras-I Dowling and Chris Cook should make things easier for the ‘backers.
It’s the offense where the attention will be in training camp and the first few weeks of the ’09 season. White thinks Vic Hall has the inside track to being named the starting quarterback – that’s Vic Hall, the three-year cornerback who at 5-9 was supposed to be too small to play quarterback in the ACC after a stellar high-school career at Group AA Gretna and who has thrown only one pass in his college career. Former starter Jameel Sewell is back after sitting out 2008 on academic suspension, and ’08 starter Marc Verica is in the mix for snaps after ending his first season at the helm of the Cavs’ offensive ship in Mike Groh’s doghouse.
More uncertainty comes with the new approach being brought in with Brandon’s spread-offense philosophy that worked well for him at Bowling Green, annually one of the top teams in yards per game and scoring in his time there. Mike Groh tried to install a similar spread offense in 2008 after getting an up-close look at what the spread can do in Virginia’s Gator Bowl loss to Texas Tech at the end of the 2007 season, but had to abandon it after four games either because it wasn’t working or because “we had some circumstances occur personnel-wise on our team that kind of had us get sidetracked for a while that we weren’t able to follow through with that,” as Al Groh explained at the recent ACC Football Kickoff.
It’s hard to establish an early line on how the offense is going to take to the spread in 2009 because it’s still so fresh and new to everybody wearing orange and blue not named Gregg Brandon.
“The spring was our first time working with the offense. It’s new, it’s kind of challenging, but once you get over those obstacles and get a feel for it, it comes naturally. There’s a lot of carryover from the old offense in some aspects, so that makes it easier. But it’s new, and it’s exciting,” senior offensive lineman Will Barker said.
“Obviously with a new system being brought in, there’s a lot of adjustments that have to be made, a lot of guys doing a lot of different things than what they’re used to, not just at quarterback, but at other positions. From a quarterback’s perspective, reading defenses is going to be the same. That’s never going to change. Spreading the offense out just gives you more options,” quarterback Vic Hall said.
That Mike Groh was not able to break the top 100 nationally in total offense in his three years coordinating the offense for his dad is a key reason Virginia has recorded losing seasons two of the last three years. The Cavaliers were dead-last in the ACC in 2008 in scoring offense, total offense and rushing offense, so there’s really nowhere to go but up in that sense.
The question of questions heading into the fall is – will the normally ultraconservative Groh give Brandon the free rein that he needs to get the ball moving up and down the field, or will he rein the spread in to win the field-position and attrition battles that he seems to prefer to engage in?
“Gregg Brandon will probably have as much autonomy as any Al Groh assistant ever has at Virginia,” White said. “He’s got a proven track record. If you look back at the coordinators on either side of the ball, they’ve been relatively young or inexperienced assistants, and I think because of that Al Groh maybe worked more closely with them and maybe had a bigger role in the operation than with somebody who has the experience Gregg Brandon does.”
Groh may have no choice. With the pending retirement of University of Virginia president John Casteen, seen as Groh’s protector in the big office up on Carr’s Hill, 2009 could be Groh’s last chance to get things turned around in Virginia football.
“This is year nine, and two of the last three seasons the team has had losing records. And if you just look around college football, if a coach has three losing seasons in four years, then that coach is probably in trouble, and I don’t think Virginia is going to be any different than any other place,” White said.
With a home game against TCU in Week 2 and road games at Southern Miss and UNC in Weeks 3 and 4, we could know by the end of the first weekend in October what the future may hold.
Players to watch
– Vic Hall, senior, quarterback. Has one career start, rushing for 109 yards and a touchdown in UVa.’s 17-14 loss at Virginia Tech in the 2008 season finale.
– Ras-I Dowling, junior, cornerback. Earned All-ACC honors in 2008 after leading the Cavaliers with three interceptions and 11 pass breakups.
2009 season schedule
Sept. 5 William & Mary
Sept. 12 TCU
Sept. 19 at Southern Miss
Oct. 3 at North Carolina
Oct. 10 Indiana
Oct. 17 at Maryland
Oct. 24 Georgia Tech
Oct. 31 Duke
Nov. 7 at Miami
Nov. 14 Boston College
Nov. 21 at Clemson
Nov. 28 Virginia Tech
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