Virtually everyone expected Chris Long and Jeffrey Fitzgerald to have strong seasons for the Virginia football team. After all, the duo had wreaked havoc throughout the 2006 campaign and another season of experience usually boosts individuals’ talents. So far this season, the dynamic duo has 55 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, and 8 sacks. At this rate, they’re going to shatter last season’s production where they combined for 121 tackles, 20.5 TFLs, and 10 sacks.
There are no signs of slowing down. Just this week, Fitzgerald was named the ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week after a good outing against Georgia Tech. The sophomore had five tackles, including three tackles for loss and a sack that caused a fumble. Of course, he also hauled in an pinball interception and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown.
Even he seems a little surprised by his good fortune on those types of plays.
“It’s kind of hard to explain I guess,” Fitzgerald said with a smile. “I just happen to be in the right place at the right time. I guess it’s a blessing.”
The interesting thing is that Long set the turnover into motion by deflecting the pass attempt out of the air. He batted another ball in the game as well, which comes on the heels of similar plays at North Carolina, including an interception of his own. In the end against GT, Long had racked up nine tackles and a sack, his sixth of the season.
“He’s a great player,” Georgia Tech head coach Chan Gailey said. “He’s one of the best defensive players I’ve seen in our conference. You’d better know where he is and you’d better have a plan to get more than one player to him.”
Right now, even the best-laid plans aren’t doing much to slow down Long. He has been double-teamed and triple-teamed, cut blocked, held, and more. He just keeps going after opponents no matter what. That non-stop motor is leading to impressive results. Long has 28 total tackles (second on the team), 6.5 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 6 quarterback hurries, 4 pass break-ups, and 1 interception.
For those scoring at home, those six sacks are the best season of his career. He’s on pace to break the school’s single season sack record held by Chris Slade (15 in 1992) and Patrick Kerney (15 in 1998); three more sacks would vault him into the top 10 in that category. Currently, Long’s 13 career sacks leave him tied for 13th on the all-time list. As for tackles for loss, Long recorded TFL No. 30.5 against GT to move past Brennan Schmidt for 10th place on the career chart.
“He’s another one of those players who has a passion for it and a real intuitive feel for the game,” Virginia coach Al Groh said. “He combines those things with his excellent ability and he’s progressively moving forward. He’s another player who’s very humble about his achievements. Therefore, he’s constantly looking in terms of what he can do better rather than ‘Hey, did you see that?'”
And what about Fitzgerald on those lists? As just a sophomore, he will be threatening the charts soon with 17 career tackles for loss and 7 career sacks. Groh likely wouldn’t be surprised to see him keep climbing up many lists because of Fitzgerald’s aptitude for quick improvement.
“As we’ve talked about him in the past, he has the capacity to take what he’s incurred, whether it’s coaching, opponent preparation, correction from practice or games – he’s got the ability to take that and move his game forward without too much lapse time in there,” Groh said. “Some players, you have to go over it over and over and over again before it sticks. When a player has that, it’s usually one of the traits of your better players.”
Fitzgerald on Earls
Near the end of Saturday’s game, Georgia Tech receiver Correy Earls was injured in scary incident, remaining on the field motionless for an extended period and being taken off on a stretcher. He stayed overnight in a Charlottesville hospital before being released Monday. All tests were negative (for more information, click here).
Earls was injured on the playing while trying to block Fitzgerald, who said he too was shaken up on the play. In fact, he said he likely would not have been in on fourth down if the play had occurred immediately. Fitzgerald said it was a few scary moments waiting for Earls to be examined on the field.
“I was trying to run down the play and he just tried to crack-back on me and I saw him at he last second. At first, my initial reaction, I thought he was going to come down low and cut [block] me so I kind of leaned into it and he tried to hit me and our heads kind of collided,” Fitzgerald said. “I was kind of shaken up on the hit also and I walked off to the sideline. Then, I saw that he was still down so it kind of shook me up but then I got word after the game that he was doing O.K. so I was real happy about that.”
Monroe’s Status Uncertain
Eugene Monroe left Saturday’s game in the closing moments with a leg injury, which happened when a player fell on his leg around a pile of bodies. The prognosis for the left tackle seems to be better than expected, though. Groh said they’re dealing with it day by day; when asked if it was more promising than Maurice Covington ‘s “out for a while” status, Groh said “that’s the reports on it and that’s the way we feel about it.” He also indicated that the injury did not appear to be as severe as the knee cap injury that he suffered in the spring of 2006.
“We’re just going day to day on that one. He’s doing everything he can to get back as quickly as he can and we’ll just see,” Groh said.
And how will Monroe deal with the frustration of another injury?
“I talked to him about that yesterday and we talked about that particular fact. Frustration is not a medicine that’s prescribed by any doctor,” Groh said. “It’s not going to make him heal any faster. He’s been through these issues before. We feel it for him and feel it for us, but we just keep a positive attitude. He’s been through this before, which was a much, much greater long range [issue] than this one.”
In other injury news, Groh said that Kevin Ogletree ‘s possible return is a “non issue right now.”
Linebackers Still Iron Men
During spring practice and throughout the offseason, one hot topic surrounding the Virginia football team was the “iron man” concept on defense. The Cavs’ starters played a ton of snaps in 2006, leading some observers to notice fatigue late in games and late in the season.
With almost an entire class redshirting in 2006, there seemed to be reinforcements on the way this season. That’s been the case at some positions where players like safety Jamaal Jackson , defensive end Sean Gottschalk , and defensive end Alex Field are seeing significant time (official number of plays aren’t available until season’s end).
What about the linebacker slots? Not so much. Antonio Appleby (732 plays in 2006), Jon Copper (785), Jermaine Dias (587), and Clint Sintim (673) are still taking the majority of the snaps. That leaves second-stringers like Denzel Burrell (OLB), Aaron Clark (OLB), Bernie McKeever (ILB), Darnell Carter (ILB), and John Bivens (ILB) trying to break into the rotation. While Bivens is “getting a few more turns in practice” after a preseason injury slowed his progress, it doesn’t seem likely that any of the back-ups will be getting a significant amount of snaps any time soon.
“That’s a spot right now that I would say that the gap – all along the way at all four spots – the gap between one and two is substantial enough that while we might like to rest them a little bit, I think it’s in our best interests to go with the guys that we have. They’ve proven over the course of 16 games now that they hold up pretty well,” Groh said. “We’d like to see the other guys progress a little bit more where we could use them, but they’re going to have to earn their playing time. In other words, we’re not going to diminish the team just for the sake of rotation.”
“Once he was cleared to play, everybody was in agreement, we’re going to play the player the way he needs to be played and do all the things that the position requires. And what comes comes. Whether it’s 10 years of injury-free play or something comes as a result of it, but this can’t be a stick your toe in the water and see what happens deal, we have to go full speed ahead.” – Al Groh on Jameel Sewell ‘s wrist injury.