Spring Practice Set to Start

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The Virginia coaching staff opens spring football practice on Wednesday.

Virginia football coach Al Groh addressed the media Tuesday as the Cavaliers prepare to open spring practice this week. UVa’s first day of drills is Wednesday and will continue through the Spring Game on Saturday, April 22. Groh said that there is excitement throughout the team as practice resumes.

The Cavaliers have practices scheduled for March 29, March 31, April 1-3, April 5, April 7-8, April 10, April 12, April 14-15, April 17, and April 19. The first open practice session is this Saturday at noon.

“We’re going out there tomorrow. This is a spring practice that we approach with a great deal of excitement, a great deal of energy, and a great deal of enthusiasm. I think that’s pretty much throughout the team,” Groh said. “We’ve certainly have noticed here in the last two days, just a real spark for the players as they see that they’re that much closer to practicing as opposed to the rigors of the previous seven weeks of the offseason program.”

The Hoos enter the spring session of 2006 with a variety of questions to answer on both sides of the ball. Virginia loses two of the most productive players in school history in quarterback Marques Hagans and running back Wali Lundy as well as three offensive linemen in D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Brian Barthelmes, and Brad Butler. Defensively, the Cavs’ leading tackler Kai Parham has left for the NFL Draft and several other players (see note below) will not be back either. On special teams, kickers Connor Hughes and Kurt Smith are also moving on after several years of quality play at UVa.

That leaves the Cavs with what Groh described as a “significant rebuilding job,” particularly for a team that is also introducing several new coaches to the fold as well.

“As you can see, those players take a lot of points with them. Those points are going to have to be found in different areas. … We have [new coaches starting in] all three of our coordinator positions,” Groh said. “We have a significant rebuilding job in front of us. We’re eager to get started on that particular job.”

With so many question marks entering this practice period, individual players’ development will be a hot topic. And not just for fans of the team, but for the coaching staff as well. Groh said that spring practice is always more about the progression of players’ skills.

“While we’re doing things collectively as a team, a lot of spring practice is about individuals. That is developing the individual skills of a player, fundamental development and so forth, so that he has the skills not only to learn his job – ‘Hey, this is what your assignment is’ – but the skills to do his job. So a lot of the emphasis is on a day-to-day basis,” Groh said. “We don’t have a deadline at the end of the spring like you do at the end of training camp when there’s a game you have to play or when there’s a game at the end of the particular week. … Here in spring practice, there is no particular deadline so if we can accelerate [something] or we need to slow down at a particular stage to accommodate individual skill development, then we’ll be able to do that. That will give us an idea of what the pace should be when we come back in August.”

Brooks, Redd, Franklin No Longer With Team

The loss of Tony Franklin leaves the safety position thin and young.

It had been speculated about for weeks, but Groh officially discussed the dismissal of linebacker Ahmad Brooks on Tuesday; he addressed the issue in conjunction with the dismissals of safety Tony Franklin and Vince Redd . All three players previously had served suspensions for violation of team rules. Franklin was arrested for marijuana possession on Dec. 4 and pleaded guilty last month in court. He is on probation.

Groh categorized the decisions as something that “goes along with this job.”

“It’s a privilege, not a right, to wear the Cavalier jersey and to represent our University community. There’s certain things that are vital to putting your team together every year and those things become in sharper focus and multiplied when you’re in a rebuilding circumstance as we are. Those things are focus, commitment, dependability and so while each one of these players circumstances are distinctly different, in order to put the team together with some consistency and dependability, I’ve decided that it’s best for us to move on from these circumstances and it’s best for these players to move on,” Groh said.

“Each circumstance is different. They’re all in school. They’re all pursing their academic circumstances, but I think it is essential that internally, or leadership-wise, that we have the discipline within our organization [to make sure that things are] done the right way and not just to chase talent for talent’s sake. That’s how you put a team together. So that’s what we’re doing,” he added.

Groh had no knowledge of the players’ future plans.

“I don’t know. That’s not my issue,” he said.

Ahmad Brooks , Tony Franklin, and Vince Redd are no longer with the team.

Virginia’s coach was also asked if Brooks’ career at UVa, in the end, was disappointing. He did not address Brooks’ directly, but responded with a more generalized statement.

“It’s a partnership, what you do with every player. … So anytime you’re in a partnership, 1. You have to have mutual goals and 2. You all share in the final result whatever that result might be. When it doesn’t turn out the way that you want with any particular player, it’s a little bit disappointing,” Groh said.

Groh shifted the focus back to the upcoming 2006 season with a reminder of the team’s season-ending success in the Music City Bowl.

“It really doesn’t change our prospectus very much, particularly when you realize that two of the three players weren’t even part of what the team was able to do in Nashville,” Groh said. “So it really hasn’t changed our perspective as to what the 06 season will be anyway.”

Olsen Selected As No. 1 For Now

As mentioned above, the departure of Hagans leaves the Cavaliers in search of a new starting quarterback. Groh said Tuesday that Christian Olsen would be first in line for reps, followed by Kevin McCabe , Jameel Sewell , and Scott Deke .

Olsen was the back-up QB this past season for Hagans after transferring to Virginia from Notre Dame earlier in his career. The 6-3, 216-pounder has just one year of eligibility remaining.

Christian Olsen has completed 17 of 23 pass attempts in his career (73.9 percent), including the first seven.

“We’ll start the spring with Chris Olsen . He’ll be the first guy to go into the huddle,” Groh said. “Kevin McCabe will follow him in and that’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s going to stay until performance by any of the quarterbacks determines otherwise.”

Certainly, replacing Hagans will be no easy task. He accounted for 6,583 yards, 27 passing touchdowns, 11 rushing touchdowns, and 1 punt return touchdown in his career. That overlapped with the outstanding career of Matt Schaub, who is now the back-up quarterback with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.

“We’re one of those teams that’s been very fortunate. Over the last four years, we’ve gotten very dynamic play from our quarterback position,” Groh said. “Both Matt and Marques have done it in a somewhat different style, but what they do have in common is that they’ve imbued the team with competitive toughness, they’ve really been terrific leaders on the team, they’ve been great representatives of the team in the community, and they’ve been significant playmakers in games. So that’s certainly an important position for us, but really no more important than the other positions [we’re replacing].”

Sewell could make the competition interesting after reports about his QB skills late in the season and since. The left-hander has drawn comparisons to former Cavalier Aaron Brooks, who recently signed with the Oakland Raiders. Sewell moved under center during the Music City Bowl preparations in order to gain valuable repetitions at the position. Speculation quickly materialized that he was being prepped for the starting job once Hagans left.

Groh said Tuesday, however, that the late-season reps were designed to help Sewell learn at the position, not to immediately anoint him as the future starter.

“That was profitable for him. When we said accelerate his progress, that didn’t mean that we were going to zoom him to the top. That meant just to accelerate him from where he otherwise might have been or give him the opportunity to [move up the depth chart],” Groh said. “All we can do is provide the opportunity and in any case, the player has to take advantage of it. [We wanted to] give him a few more turns there at a certain point, [more] than a freshman quarterback that’s being redshirted might anticipate getting. We probably wouldn’t have done that if we had a returning quarterback, but to kind of catch him up to where the veteran players were and to give him an opportunity to compete in the spring, we wanted to do that.”

What About Vic Hall?

One person not competing for the QB job is former Gretna star Vic Hall, who set several state records in his career. Hall compiled a Virginia state record 13,770 career yards of offense and passed for state records of 8,731 yards and 104 touchdowns in his career.

Hall will remain in the defensive backfield as a cornerback where he is part of a deep and talented secondary. Groh said that decision is based on getting Hall on to the field as quickly as possible. He compared Hall’s attitude to that of Hagans, who moved to from quarterback early in his career in order to get more talent on the field while Schaub handled the quarterback duties.

“We think he could do a very nice job [at quarterback but] … it would be advantageous to the team to have him in the game and [because of] the amount of time it usually takes a quarterback to develop to get in the game – it was really three full years before Marques was really ready to go do that – we all think, Vic included, that we’re anxious to see Vic in the game,” Groh said. “So we want to give him the best possible opportunity to compete for the most possible playing time at the soonest possible time in his career.”

Lyles’ Recovery Going Well

Safety Nate Lyles will not be participating in spring practice, but he has started limited training after a neck injury in last season’s Georgia Tech game. Lyles started the first nine games of the year and averaged 4.3 tackles per game.

Nate Lyles started 9 games last season for the Cavaliers.

“He’s not going to participate in the spring. His circumstances are very positive. … His surgery was, from a layman’s point of view, remarkably successful. He’s doing very well with his rehab. The prognosis is positive, whatever that means – I think that’s still to be determined by future development and visits with the doctor,” Groh said. “Everything has gone in a very positive [manner]. He’s training on a limited basis because there’s obviously some healing to go on with this as well as just correcting the situation that was present. I wouldn’t say count him in, but I wouldn’t say count him out either. He’s got a great attitude about it and his doctors are very positive about it. It will be some time yet before we can make a final determination, but certainly that’s a lot more positive than ruling him out today would be.”

Groh said Lyles’ injury was not a result of poor technique. In fact, he believes that the safety approached the play correctly.

“He did everything right on the play. If the injury occurred because he had his head down or because he speared the player or whatnot, then [maybe he would have to change the way he plays]. But his technique on the play was good. He did all the things all coaches teach. … He did all the things that coaches try to teach from a safety issue to players, it was just the force of the concussion that caused the injury,” Groh said. “He’s a high contact player. That’s the way he plays. If he’s able to come back and play, we wouldn’t send him out there without having a discussion about [how to approach playing].”

Injury Report

Several players will miss the spring practice period or will be limited in the sessions. Rashawn Jackson , Kevin Crawford , and Bud Davis “all had some repair work done” in cases similar to last spring’s rash of shoulder injuries for other players. Crawford had his surgery the earliest, while Jackson and Davis underwent their operations in January.

Running back Michael Johnson’s availability is unknown at this point. He is wearing a protective boot at this time to protect an injury first discovered in October.

“This is a strange one. He got hurt in October, came back and played some in December, and now he’s worse in March. We do have a concern there. We certainly want to get Mike into the action, get him into the competition – he certainly wants that,” Groh said. “His game is speed. We have to make sure his wheels are in shape. We’re just trying to avoid any antagonizing of the issues that are involved with his ankle so they decided to put him in a boot that gives him full protection so that he’s not going to step off any curb and hurt his ankle doing those kinds of things. There’s no guarantee on it. We’re just trying to find a way to get him out there as fast as we can.”

Chris Cook , who was injured in the Boston College game last season, is still progressing with his rehab as well. Groh said he still had to meet with the athletic training staff in order to determine the official status of some of the players for spring practice.

“At one time, we anticipated on the information we were receiving that he’d get some action in December. That didn’t come about. He’s one of the guys I want to inquire about this afternoon whether we’re going to see him tomorrow or not,” Groh said.

Academic Break

At least three players will sit out the spring in order to focus on academics. “There are three that I can think that we’ve talked about with this so far. Olu Hall , Branden Albert , and Emmanuel Byers ,” Groh said.

Spring Game Set

As was announced Monday, the Virginia Spring Game has been moved to Saturday at 3:30 p.m. after originally being slated for Friday, April 21.

Groh said Virginia fans should definitely find a way to attend the event, which will begin with Fan Fest activities at 1 p.m. The festival will include a variety of interactive games and activities for children, performances by the UVa Marching Band and cheerleaders, autograph sessions featuring former UVa players, live bands, and a food court. There will also be a pro football style of comine that will allow fans to test their abilities. Admission is free.

“We’d given some thought to playing on Friday night. Actually it was just a suggestion to us that we were open-minded to and [said] ‘Sure let’s go ahead and try it.’ There were some real good reasons behind it, but there have been some other suggestions made and some real good leadership shown from the direction of Jon Oliver about some things we can do with this Spring Game. He had some real good suggestions. I was real open to them, I appreciated them, and said hey those are some real good, let’s go ahead and try to promote it on that basis,” Groh said. “We would pleased to double last year’s crowd, but what we’re really trying to do is quadruple last year’s crowd. If you’re a Virginia fan, it’s the place to be on April 22. If you’re a casual observer, then go play golf.”

This notes package is an example of the great coverage you get through a subscription to the Sabre Edge. For the most complete coverage of the Cavaliers throughout the spring practice period (including features on Christian Olsen and Kevin McCabe later this week) and all year long, please sign up for Sabre Edge today!

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