Tuesday Press Conference Notes – NCSU

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Linebacker Jon Copper had a career-high 12 tackles at Maryland.

Did you know that linebacker Jon Copper has been one of the team’s top two tacklers in seven out of eight games this season? It’s true. It’s also fitting. After all, this year’s version of Virginia football has been a steady, slug-it-out group. Not flashy. Not too much sizzle, but a rather tasty 7-1 steak.

Copper embodies that very ‘get the job done’ line of thinking. He’s not loud or ostentatious. Far from it. A 6-0, 230-pound former walk-on, Copper shows up and does his job well every single week. It’s easy for him to go unnoticed with players like Chris Long and Jeffrey Fitzgerald in front of him. There are guys with more bravado all around him. Clint Sintim and Nate Lyles are video worthy with their swagger and on-field hits. Vic Hall is Virginia’s ‘slash’ superstar and a high school legend.

Copper? He watches game and practice video like he’s dissecting the Zapruder film. He’s married. He wears glasses to the press conference and has that Andy Griffith ‘Aw shucks’ vibe – the ‘why would reporters want to talk to me’ air about him. He’s not that fast. The TV announcers for the Middle Tennessee game kept calling him Cooper. He won’t be on the Heisman hopeful list any time soon. He’s been waiting to be replaced for nearly two full seasons now, at least according to some folks who think the position could be easily upgraded with a better athlete.

But Copper makes plays. Right spot, right time. Repeatedly.

“I think we have to say that Jon is a tackle-maker. He’s got just a wonderful sense for where the ball is going and ends up with a lot of production that players who are playing well at his position wouldn’t necessarily have amassed,” Virginia coach Al Groh said. “He’s got a real good sense of the flow of play and how to fit on it, when to change direction and when to keep on going. It’s almost not possible for me to recount for you all the amount of hours he puts in over there studying it. It comes from tremendous preparation on his part. Whether it’s in at night watching the practice tape on his own or in the morning watching opponent tape, he’s willing to do whatever it takes to maximize his production.”

A productive tackling machine indeed. He hasn’t had less than 7 tackles in any game this season (7 vs. Wyoming, UNC, and Duke). For five straight weeks, he’s logged 8 tackles or more (8 vs. GT, Pitt, and UConn, 9 vs. MTSU, and 12 vs. Maryland). That includes a career-high 12 stops in College Park on Saturday where Groh said he “had an excellent night again” and made two or three plays that “were really difficult plays to make.”

For the season, he has a team-leading 66 tackles. That’s 8.25 tackles per game, which ranks 10th in the ACC. Copper is on pace to have 99 tackles, which would surpass his career total of 91 coming into the season. He also has 7 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, and 1 interception in 2007.

Heisman Hopeful?

Chris Long points to the crowd during UVa’s win at Maryland.

Virginia coach Al Groh fielded another question about Chris Long being a potential Heisman candidate on Tuesday. All Hoos say it together now: Long for Heisman!

“If it’s for the best player in college football, it’s hard to imagine that anybody’s been playing his position better than Chris Long is. It’s usually difficult to amass the type of numbers that [get attention if you’re a defensive lineman]. You have to see him to appreciate him. You all get to see him every week, you know how good of a player that he is and the impact that he has on games,” Groh said. “He had 10 tackles the other day, that’s pretty terrific. It’s not the same as completing 25 passes. So for some guy in Seattle or Portland who’s trying to mark his ballot, it’s hard to pick a guy who had 10 tackles or eight tackles over somebody who scored four touchdowns; we appreciate that fact. That’s the way the award has become and everybody in football understands that, but if it went strictly by the definition of the best player in college football, it’s hard to imagine that there are many players who are better than Chris Long is.”

A Lot Of Work Left To Do

The Hoos have posted seven straight wins and a 4-0 record in the ACC so far this season. With Coastal Division rivals like Georgia Tech and Miami trailing by at least two games in the loss column, Virginia and Virginia Tech are leading the way and both control their own destiny so to speak. That has some folks already getting geared up for the Nov. 24 contest with the Hokies.

Don’t count the coaches and players in that group. The Cavaliers are only halfway through their ACC schedule and three more conference opponents are on the docket before the VT game. So the team is focused on the next opponent: N.C. State. Besides, Groh pointed Tuesday that “at this time of the year it really is not about what your record is” because there’s a lot of work left to do. Some teams will continue to get better and improve their record. Some won’t. Some will rise and some will fall. As Groh as points out frequently you have to be ready to play each and every week because of the parity in college football. A lot of teams have talented players and outside of what Groh calls dominant teams, every team is capable of beating another.

Virginia fans are rightfully excited about the 7-1 Hoos, but the team is only at the halfway point of the ACC season.

There’s also an added complication for UVa: the bye week doesn’t come until Nov. 17. That means 11 straight weeks of practice and games following a month of fall training camp. There is a day-to-day grind about that sort of schedule that can wear you down physically and mentally. Add in the fact that Virginia has been in emotional, down-to-the-wire battles for three straight weeks and there may be cause for concern.

“What’s really critical for our team to understand, and I think we do appreciate this fact, is we’ve been doing this since Aug. 5. We’re pretty close to putting our pads on every day for three months. We’ve played two-thirds of the games on our schedule, so it would seem as if ‘Boy, we’ve been doing this a long time.’ [But] we’ve only played four of our eight conference games, so we’re really just getting started in terms of how this thing is going to turn out,” Groh said. “This is the time that individually and collectively we need a surge of energy and enthusiasm and interest, not a wearing-out of it. As challenging and exciting as some of the previous games and weeks have been, it would be more so now. That stimulus hopefully will be part of the overall progression of the team.”

Don’t underestimate the proverbial being hunted factor either. The Hoos’ winning streak, a primetime ESPN spotlight last week, and national rankings in the polls and the BCS standings add a little extra incentive for teams in the coming weeks. You don’t think that N.C. State would like to play a little spoiler role this Saturday?

“We’ve cited the fact that it’s more now than just your natural rivals, those people who point for you every year. And it really didn’t change until Saturday night. We have addressed with them the fact that the teams that we’re playing and their perception of us is going to be different than it was before,” Groh said. That ought to serve as another source helping us elevate our game.”

The Right Side

With linemen as talented as Eugene Monroe and Branden Albert on the field, the left side of Virginia’s offensive line rightfully receives a lot of attention. Monroe’s injury earlier this season forced that side of the line to be shuffled in his absence as Albert moved to tackle and Gordie Sammis took over the guard duties. Those games drew notice because of the next man up scenario surrounding the injury.

But what about the right side of Virginia’s line? How have guard Ian-Yates Cunningham and tackle Will Barker played this season? So far, that duo has put together a very solid campaign.

Cunningham handles many duties similar to Albert, pulling on certain plays and operating in space frequently on certain running calls. He’s thrown several key blocks and cleared the way on a lot of plays this season where he pulls to the left and leads the way – Cedric Peerman ‘s touchdown run against Duke comes to mind immediately as one example. Cunningham was at the point of attack on the shovel passes that were so successful against Maryland and Groh said he had a very solid effort in College Park.

“It’s a little hard to get your eyes off of what those other two are capable of doing over there [on the left side]. But Ian had a very good game the other day. In fact, I told him yesterday I thought he really did a heck of a job,” Groh said. “He was downfield and working really hard on plays. There were a number of downfield blocks for us – really showed his energy and how into the game that he was.”

Barker, meanwhile, is handling life on the tackle island a lot better than his first tour of duty. He’s dealing with speed rushers and their moves more confidently while becoming more of a force in the running game. Against Maryland on Saturday, Barker had a key block that allowed Mikell Simpson to cut and sprint to the end zone

“Will has really come on and done a nice job for us. Of all those guys up there last year, maybe Will was the one that the circumstances were a little unfair to – just had to move him in there faster than probably was a preferred way to do it,” Groh said. “But he got all of that [experience] and had to deal with some up and down circumstances. He’s certainly profiting by it now.”

Injury Update

Tight end Tom Santi left the Maryland game after the first play on Saturday and did not return. That adds his name to a list of injuries that includes Rashawn Jackson , Cedric Peerman , and Chris Cook to name a few.

“He sprained his ankle so we’re getting deeper in to the week to see where we are with all these guys,” Groh said when asked about Santi’s injury.


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