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The Virginia football team wrapped up spring practice earlier this month and now the long wait for Southern Cal trickles toward summer. For all the news-thirsty fans out there, don’t worry. The Sabre is breaking out a roundtable to quench your thirst. Jeff White of The Richmond Times-Dispatch and Melinda Waldrop of The Daily Press join Sabre Editor Kris Wright to answer some questions about the Hoos.
Coach Groh says it is a three-man race for the starting quarterback slot heading into the summer. Who do you think will be the starter for the Southern Cal game in late August? Will it remain that way throughout the season?
Peter Lalich gets all 3 votes from the panel to be the starting quarterback this fall.
JEFF: I would be shocked if Peter Lalich – assuming he’s healthy and eligible – is not the starting quarterback Aug. 30. He’s the most talented of the three QBs, no matter how shaky he might have looked at times in the Spring Game, and as the Grohs look to throw the ball more in 2008, Lalich is the guy best prepared to do that. As long as he plays well, I believe, the job will be his.
MELINDA: There’s a chance Scott Deke could get a thanks-for-going-through-four-spring-practices starting nod in the opener. If that happens, it won’t remain that way throughout the first quarter. Despite everyone’s sincere insistence that there’s a three-man race for quarterback, I think the starting job is Peter Lalich ‘s to lose. He’s the only player who’s thrown a pass in a game and he showed some ability last season – when he wasn’t running for his life. Lalich himself is completely confident in his abilities – a confidence that can come off as surliness when he’s asked about the supposed three-man race. Unless he does something in fall practice or early in the season to completely undermine his chances, Lalich’s the guy
KRIS: I too would be shocked if Peter Lalich is not the starter throughout. This spring’s coaching motivation technique aside, Lalich beat both guys out last fall to be the back-up QB with only fall camp to show his ability. He has more arm strength, more touch and zip on deep and intermediate throws, and a background in a pass-heavy high school offense. There will be growing pains, particularly against teams with a speed rush early on. Lalich will make mistakes by trying to make throws he maybe shouldn’t, but he’ll also successfully make some of those throws too. Bottom line: Lalich is the guy.
Last season, a running back (Mikell Simpson ) and two tight ends (Jonathan Stupar and Tom Santi ) led the team in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. However, Kevin Ogletree returned from injury this spring and most of the receiving corps is back from a year ago. Based on what you saw in the spring, do you think the receivers will lead the receiving categories this season?
Can Kevin Ogletree help spark the receivers in the passing game?.
JEFF: I expect Ogletree to lead the team in receptions and receiving yards this season, with tight end John Phillips emerging as Lalich’s second-favorite target. If the Grohs indeed are serious about borrowing parts of Texas Tech’s playbook – and Mike Groh’s two trips to Lubbock this spring would suggest that’s the case – then the wideouts must become a more focal point of the offense. With options such as Ogletree, Maurice Covington , Dontrelle Inman , Kris Burd , Cary Koch, Staton Jobe , and Jared Green , that seems realistic.
MELINDA: It seems like a simple question, doesn’t it? But I’m not convinced, even with Ogletree back, that “Tight End U” will look much different this season. A big, sturdy body with good hands (i.e. John Phillips ) flashing across the middle on a short slant route can look very comforting to an inexperienced, young quarterback, and with Cedric Peerman back, Mikell Simpson may return to his hybrid roots as a runner and a receiver. And in the Spring Game, TE Andrew Devlin had a team-best seven catches for 64 yards. That said, Ogletree does provide a deep threat that the Cavaliers were sorely lacking last season, and in the Spring Game, all three QBS seem enamored with a healthy Kris Burd .
KRIS: The receiving corps has depth and talent plus a few guys that can make tough catches. If I had to guess, I think Ogletree will lead the team in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns this season. I wouldn’t be surprised to see another receiver slide into the top 3 or 4 on the receptions and yards lists either. Maurice Covington will find more space to operate. Staton Jobe and Cary Koch seem like the forgotten receiver in spread sets that teams leave open, accidentally or not. Dontrelle Inman showed signs last season and is a favored target of Lalich. Kris Burd seems to be in the right spot a lot, a sign of a good route runner. And so on. I think the receivers are going to make catches, but yards after the catch will be the thing to watch if the offense has to dink and dunk behind a developing line.
The team had no kicking time during the Spring Game. Placekicker Chris Hinkebein struggled in the two open practices. Plus, Coach Groh has gone out of his way to talk about how much the program will miss Chris Gould this spring. Is it too early to panic about the kicking game? Why or why not?
JEFF: UVa fans have every reason to be concerned about the kicking game. They should be worried, too, about the punting game, rarely a strength during Groh’s tenure in Charlottesville. Booting the ball against USC on Aug. 30 will, in all likelihood, be Hinkebein, who never has kicked in a college game, and punter Jimmy Howell , who’s still in high school. Since the end of last season, Virginia has lost six key players who had eligibility remaining – Branden Albert , Jameel Sewell , Chris Cook , Jeffrey Fitzgerald , Darnell Carter , and J’Courtney Williams – and Mike Brown may soon join that list. Given that exodus of talent, UVa is unlikely to blow many teams out this season, and a solid kicking game will be crucial if the team is to prevail in close games, as it did so often in 2007.
MELINDA: As Johnny Majors once said with powerful succinctness, you gotta be sound in the kicking game. From the little we’ve seen of the Cavs’ so far, that’s not an adjective I’d readily apply. I saw quite a few short, wide, wobbly, and blocked kicks in spring practice. Now granted, that’s spring practice. But it’s not just Chris Gould who’s gone, it’s punter Ryan Weigand , too, who averaged 45.2 yards per kick as a senior. Which leads me to suspect that the Cavs are looking forward to the arrival of big-legged Jimmy Howell in the fall with more anticipation than might normally follow a true freshman punter. Perhaps it’s too early to panic, but it’s never too soon to worry.
KRIS: It’s too early to panic. Two reasons. First, Hinkebein is still adjusting to live theater and may turn out just fine once he gets settled in. Leg strength is not a problem so if he can just become consistently accurate inside the 35, it will probably work out fine. Two, 2008 class signee Jimmy Howell isn’t here yet. Howell handled punting and place-kicking duties for West Florence High School in South Carolina. No need to panic until you see Howell give it a shot in fall camp.
The entire starting group on the defensive line needs to be replaced this season. Who impressed you during the spring? Who are you keeping an eye on when fall practice rolls around?
JEFF: I was hoping to see what Sean Gottschalk could do in a prominent role at DE, but his offseason shoulder surgery limited his participation. His absence meant extensive work for Matt Conrath , about whom Chris Long has raved and who looks like a big-time talent. Alex Field looks good at DE, and with Nate Collins and Nick Jenkins , UVa may have its most promising set of nose tackles. I’m curious to see if Kevin Crawford succeeds in gaining re-admission to UVa and rejoins the program this summer. His return would be a big boost to a line that lost most of its playmaking ability with the departures of Long and Fitzgerald.
MELINDA: Defensive end Matt Conrath made an athletic, diving interception in the Spring Game that raised a few eyebrows and the hopes of a fan base still reeling from the twin losses of Chris Long and Jeffrey Fitzgerald . Alex Field and Sean Gottschalk have more experience at the position, but all three will be the focus of much scrutiny as the opener against Southern Cal draws nearer. Nate Collins will also have to be solid at nose tackle, because the depth behind him is pretty thin in terms of experience.
KRIS: A lot of guys had moments this spring in the media’s limited viewings. Matt Conrath , of course, stole the spotlight with that diving interception in the Spring Game, but Coach Groh has been impressed with Zane Parr as well. Jason Fuller seems like a motor guy that can make some plays. Of course, Alex Field has played well in substitution packages in the past and if he wasn’t playing behind Chris Long and Jeffrey Fitzgerald , who knows what he could have shown.
With all of that said, I’m watching two guys this fall that we didn’t see this spring. Sean Gottschalk sat out the spring for the most part rehabbing an injury and he has been prepping to be a DE successor since he arrived. Klinton “Buddy” Ruff, meanwhile, is an incoming recruit that can reportedly play either D-End or nose tackle; there seems to be a lot of depth in place and redshirting has become a theme around UVa lately, but I still want to see what Ruff does in the fall.
After spring practice, who do you anticipate making a bigger than expected impact on defense? In other words, who is your defensive sleeper?
JEFF: I’ll go with Matt Conrath , who could keep Gottschalk out of the starting line-up this season. When Groh talks about Conrath, the enthusiasm in his voice is striking. I’ve heard good things about safety Corey Mosley , too, but he missed the Spring Game with an injury, and he may play more on special teams than in the secondary this season.
MELINDA: Junior linebacker Denzel Burrell was the defensive winner of the Rock Weir Award for the most improved player in spring practice, but don’t overlook sophomore Jared Detrick , also slated to play outside. After making an impact as a freshman with his special teams tackling ability, Detrick seems primed for a bigger role this year. He had a big deflection in the end zone during the Spring Game and was bearing down on Peter Lalich when the QB hurried a throw that was tipped into the arms of a defender.
KRIS: I make up these questions, but I still waffled quite a bit on this one. Vic Hall will likely have a better season than expected, but can a co-captain be a sleeper? No. I mentioned Alex Field above and Nate Collins is a pretty well known name at this point on the defensive line. That leaves safety and linebacker. I really wanted to go with Corey Mosley , but the safety battle is up for grabs with Brandon Woods showing signs of turning that mythical corner throughout the spring and Rico Bell making plays all over the place in the Spring Game. Who could you pick back there?
I’m going to settle at the linebacker spot even though there are a ton of names dueling for two-deep spots. You could make arguments for Jared Detrick , Terrence Fells-Danzer, and others. We know Jon Copper, Antonio Appleby , and Clint Sintim will eat up a lot of snaps so that leaves one outside linebacker spot to keep an eye on. I say Aaron Clark will be the sleeper of the defense. He seems to make plays when he’s given the chance (Georgia Tech and Miami last year come to mind) and he’s a smart player (more on that in a Q&A coming next week). Clark is also a high energy guy that will help spark teammates. I guess we’ll see how it all plays out.