While paying close attention to the Cavaliers last season and throughout this offseason, it has become apparent that certain issues must be dealt with in order to have a successful 2005 campaign. This applies to every team in college football and is what makes the sport so exciting. Whether it be injuries, luck, philosophy or talent, the top teams separate themselves from the rest, and often in ways that don’t make sense on paper. Let’s take a look at five keys that could make or break Virginia’s season.
1) Staying healthy
Simply put, nothing can destroy this season as quickly as injuries. The Cavs have a number of very good players who must be on the field this year, and also a number of positions are dangerously thin and can’t afford any attrition. No one’s health is more crucial to the win-loss column that Marques Hagans’. Not only is he a top-notch player, but the depth behind him is very shaky.
Another vital player in both star quality and depth concerns is Ahmad Brooks . With increased emphasis on making plays on defense this year, no loss would hurt that side of the ball more than if Brooks can’t come back at full strength. His situation is weighing heavily on a lot of Wahoo fans’ minds and rightfully so. There are many players who could step up and make plays, but he is a guarantee to wreak havoc on offenses.
Virginia saw how much it hurts to lose a team leader and star player with Chris Canty’s injury last year. The frustrating thing about it is that it cannot be controlled – you can’t practice not getting rolled on by someone or not twisting your knee. The only thing that can be done is for the guys in backup roles to work harder than ever in case of an unfortunate event, so that there is as little dropoff as possible. There will be injuries. The question is who, when and how well the next in line is prepared.
2) Find ways to change the game
It’s no mystery that the Cavs came up short last year when it came to making the big play at the big moment. Virginia was short on turnovers created and hardly made any long plays, especially through the air. That fact really hurt this team, because those kinds of plays turn the momentum of the game in one single moment and is demoralizing for the other team. Too often early in the season, the ‘Hoos relied on the power running game to pound the ball down the opponent’s throat and break its will. When they ran into good opponents, that strategy just wasn’t effective. Without the big-play ability to turn the game their way, the pivotal games could not be won.
This year things must be different. The players with the ability to make plays need to be put in position to make them and then they must come through. The wide receivers will be counted on to make a drastic improvement in this area, and so must the secondary. A plethora of return men also have the athletic ability to change a game with a return, but they have to get it done. If the Cavs can find a way to force more turnovers and hit more long plays on offense and special teams, they will be very dangerous. When such a powerful rushing attack is fused with an explosive big-play team, that is a very tough team to beat.
3) Increased aggressiveness
As has been touched on multiple times during the offseason, in order for the aforementioned game-changing plays to happen, the aggressiveness level must be cranked up by coaches and players alike. Increased aggressiveness feeds directly into big plays and I think a lack of risk-taking stunted the playmaking ability of the Cavs last year.
The defense has plenty of talent, although much of it is young. The coaches cannot use this as an excuse to play it safe. The ‘Hoos must get pressure on the QB no matter how they choose to do it. Most likely it will mean a lot more man coverage by the cornerbacks, which should free up the safeties to make plays over the middle of the field. The defensive linemen also must get more pressure on the QB by themselves so that blitzes aren’t necessary all the time. In the offseason the secondary has been seeing the ball a lot better than in years past and I’ll venture a guess that we’ll see a lot more interceptions this year because of it. The coaches also must find a way to set Brooks loose within the duties of the defense. This is a particularly challenging task, but giving an offense different looks from him could cause a lot of confusion and big defensive plays. The tools are available on defense, and the Cavs must use them.
The offense also needs to be more aggressive and creative with its play-calling. It is important for Ron Prince to open up the vertical passing attack, even if it starts off with mixed results. You can’t expect to run the ball on every opponent, and without a respectable passing attack the Cavs offense will sputter once again in big games. The influx of talent at WR has been good with the return of Fontel Mines , Emmanuel Byers (out of the doghouse) and Ottowa Anderson, and the addition of Kevin Ogletree , Theirrien Davis (position switch) and Maurice Covington . Hagans looks more comfortable as a QB, as expected for a returning starter and senior, and the plays need to be called to allow him to get the ball down the field to the WRs. Done are the days when the Cavs can expect to beat a sound opponent by only pounding the run and every once in a while dump a pass to the FB and TE. Other teams must fear the passing attack, which in turn will open up those other options.
The playmakers must touch the ball and be given a chance to make those game-changing plays, and many of them reside at the WR position. Involving the RBs and FB in the vertical passing game is also a viable option for the Cavs, who can create matchup problems with their personnel. Not many LBs can consistently cover Wali Lundy, Michael Johnson or Jason Snelling out of the backfield. The Cavs could really benefit from the offensive diversity more creative play-calling would provide.
4) Win special teams
Every year the pundits talk about how crucial special teams is and how it is so key to this team and that team. Sometimes I read it and think it’s a bit exaggerated, but in this case I think special teams is a major key for Virginia. With the schedule that the Cavs are playing, there are going to be a lot of hard-fought, close contests. The disparity in talent level across the ACC is not great for the most part, and especially among the teams the ‘Hoos are competing against for the conference title. Where Virginia can really make a move on those other squads is on special teams.
Connor Hughes is the best kicker in the ACC, and I’ll trust his foot in any close game. The kick coverage team has also been very solid the last few years, in large part due to the versatility of the players Groh and company like to recruit. Big, fast, mobile players make for big, fast, mobile special teams units, which is exactly what every coach is after. The ‘Hoos also boast a ton of very athletic return men who can quickly turn a game around. Virginia must find a way to get more blocks from the punt block unit this year, despite what may be a tempting call to set up for returns with players like Michael Johnson back waiting. Blocking punts is another perfect example of where a game-changing play can be made by increased aggressiveness – the Cavs have athletic enough people to make it happen. They just have to bring it and take the risk.
The punting game is the only real question mark pertaining to the special teams. The practices that I have seen, Chris Gould has played quite well, but Ryan Weigand must really be showing something in closed practices. Either that or Groh thinks Weigand is close enough to Gould, where Gould can redshirt and be used for an extra year at kicker once Hughes graduates. Whatever the case may be, the punting game can’t help but be better than last year. Punting killed the team in 2004 because of the style of offense the Cavs used. When you try to use a power rushing attack against good opponents and you don’t have the punting ability to play field position to your advantage, there is just no hope. The ‘Hoos need to use field position to their advantage to win the close games that are sure to be commonplace this year, so the punting game is a major key.
5) Play angry
One of the most important keys in my mind is that the Cavaliers must play this year with a serious chip on their collective shoulder. Everyone on this team, players and coaches, will tell you that they underachieved last year. Such a promising season came up short because the Cavs failed to step up and win the big games on their schedule. Because of that underachievement they are being overlooked big-time this year, and nothing could help this team more.
There is no doubt in my mind, and certainly not in the players’ minds, that the talent is there and they just have to make it happen. When a team has that confidence in itself when no one else does, it can serve to be a great unifier and motivator. Virginia must play angry football and go out each and every Saturday with something to prove. There is absolutely no reason that this team cannot beat any name that is scribbled on that schedule despite what they might hear on TV or read in the paper. The winner in college football is so often determined by which team wants it more, or which team needs it more. This Virginia squad has a lot of motivated senior leaders who need to get angry and refuse to lose.
(Nick Sauer is a former walk-on player for the Cavaliers who will be writing a weekly “Keys to the Game” article during football season for Edge subscribers. For the most comprehensive coverage of Cavalier football, including the best in-depth analysis and informed opinions, please consider signing up for Sabre Edge.)