Sabre Roundtable: Summer Football Questions

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With June’s final days clicking off the calendar, the Cavalier football team is inching closer to fall practice and, of course, the big opener against Southern California. The Sabre has assembled a roundtable to tackle some summer gridiron questions, including which running back will be the “starter” for USC. See what Richmond Times-Dispatch writer Jeff White, Sabre columnist Jed Williams, Sabre intern Bailey Stephens, and Sabre EDGE member gate-hoo think about a half dozen Hoo questions.

1. Based on their overall career performance which one of Virginia’s “starting” running backs do you think will be the true starter come Aug. 30?

Our panelists think Cedric Peerman will start the first offensive play against USC, but that Peerman and Mikell Simpson will get “starter’s carries” over the course of the season.

JEFF: Assuming he’s healthy, I expect Cedric Peerman to be in the backfield for UVa’s first series against USC. But Mikell Simpson will get plenty of work. I wouldn’t be shocked if they got about the same amount of touches this season. The tailbacks on the outside looking in figure to be Keith Payne , Max Milien, and Raynard Horne . There are only so many carries to go around.

JED: Unlike defensive end, quarterback, and offensive line interior, this is actually a nice dilemma for Al Groh to have. One – Cedric Peerman – paced the team and the entire league in rushing for the first half of 2007. The other – Mikell Simpson – emerged from obscurity to single-handedly shoulder the offensive burden at Maryland and offer up several other instances of brilliance (the 96-yard Gator Bowl scamper comes to mind).

My money is on Peerman, being that he should be healthy, is an acknowledged team leader, and fits the every-down back mold more naturally than the smaller Simpson (though he proved he’s no slouch toting the mail either). But I’m hedging here. I’m not sure there will be a “true starter.” Groh has shown a propensity for rotating backs (see Alvin Peerman/Wali Lundy), and most elite programs shuffle their runners to protect their welfare and keep opposing coordinators guessing. Just look at Virginia’s top two foes this fall: USC and Clemson.

gate-hoo: I think, like a lot of others have mentioned, that snaps at the RB position will be shared pretty even between Peerman and Simpson, if Peerman proves to be healthy. That said, I expect Peerman will be lined up in the backfield on the first play against USC. Groh has a fairly obvious tendency to get really conservative when there’s a great deal of uncertainty or unproven players involved. With the OL breaking in three new starters, I expect Groh will want someone dependable in the backfield for help with pass protection, and that’s Peerman.

Very rarely has Groh done anything risky or creative, which is a shame, as the times he’s let it fly in the game plan, we’ve been successful – FSU with Hagans rolling out and throwing the ball and the DL dropping in to coverage on zone blitzes as the defensive game plan in the Gator Bowl vs. Texas Tech both come to mind. Unfortunately, I can very easily see Groh going ultra conservative in the first quarter vs. USC, resulting in a bunch of three and outs, botching some punts, losing the field position battle and giving up 3 quick TDs. But I’m trying to be more positive these days, so maybe Groh will surprise us, and whatever personnel he ultimately chooses, he takes a higher risk, higher reward approach vs. USC.

BAILEY: While I don’t disagree with everyone above in that I do think that Peerman will most likely line up first vs. USC, I hope that Groh doesn’t forget about Simpson who was an integral part of the success story last season. It would be easy to forget about Simpson if the always steady (when he’s healthy) Peerman strings together a couple of 100-yard plus rushing games in a row. But we can’t forget about the explosive play-making ability’s that Simpson exhibited so many times during 2007, but perhaps most memorably at the Gator Bowl with his record setting TD run.

2. Which new Wahoo (2008 recruit) are you the most excited about seeing at fall practice?

JEFF: LB Cameron Johnson is an intriguing as any player in the class that signed in February. He’s an exceptional athlete – see his basketball career at Gonzaga High in D.C. – with great size and speed. Whether he’ll play as a true freshman, I don’t know, but at some point Johnson should supply playmaking ability at a position where it’s needed.

JED: I’m no recruiting wonk – no Chris Horne if you will – so I’ll go primarily on the reviews of those I trust about the incoming crop combined with the team’s most urgent needs. And that leads me to Cameron Johnson and Devin Wallace . Both are dynamic athletes – two of the best if not the very best in this group – and both offer the versatility to contribute at multiple positions on defense. Johnson may be a towering safety, or better yet, an electric outside linebacker in the 3-4. Wallace could find a home at either corner or safety … and both positions have questions. The highest regarded pledge is Connecticut running back Torrey Mack , but unless injuries or other unforeseen circumstances derail both Peerman and Simpson, Mack’s brightest days are ahead of him. In fact, a redshirt year would seem logical.

gate-hoo: I’m probably most interested to see how Buddy Ruff does. I’m a believer that we need talent and depth at the NT position for our defense to be successful. For the first time in Groh’s tenure, we’re starting to build a pipeline and depth at NT. I was really happy to see Nick Jenkins redshirt last year to keep the NTs spread out eligibility-wise and to allow a top end talent guy like Jenkins time to develop. So, I’d like to hear that Ruff is tearing it up in practice and also that he won’t see the field this year. I think that would e a very positive development, long term for the future of our defense. Other guys I’m excited to see would be the stars of the class on defense – Cam Johnson and Rodney McLeod .

BAILEY: Tight End U has been great don’t get me wrong but I think it is time to bring the wide receivers back into the game for the Cavaliers. In that spirit, Javaris Brown has blazing speed and a likely redshirt year will give him the time to hone his receiving skills. We may not see him in a game for at least a year but I have a good feeling about this kid. I’m really excited to see what Groh and the coaching staff can do with Brown, a raw talent who needs refinement. I think he could be a really nice deep threat to have on those pesky third-and-long situations. Look forward to seeing how quickly Cam Johnson will take the field as well.

3. Is there a new player in your opinion who has to come in to fall practice “guns blazing” (other than placekicker since we’ve talked quite extensively about that)?

JEFF: There are as many questions at punter as at kicker. But leaving special teams out of the discussion, the OL and the DL will be huge storylines this season. I’ll go with Jack Shields, the likely starter at center. If he’s not at least solid, the whole offense could break down.

JED: Gee, when a team loses Branden Albert , Mike Brown (assuming he doesn’t return), Chris Cook , Jeffrey Fitzgerald , Chris Long , and several other members in one tumultuous offseason, there are holes aplenty to fill. In some cases (Long, Albert), those holes look more like canyons.

I’ll start at another position, though – center. Yes, UVa loses both guards, and the Albert loss – while unsurprising – translates into an overall talent downgrade on the interior. But a line devoid of a center that can make the appropriate calls while developing an invaluable rapport with his signal caller is a line, and thus an offense, that will struggle. Virginia fans should look no farther than 2006 when rookie starter Jordy Lipsey was flat overwhelmed in the season’s first half, and by extension, gave fledgling quarterback Sewell little confidence and almost no shot. In other words Jack Shields, time to come out “guns blazing.” UVa has been prepping Shields for this inevitability ever since signing him out of Massachusetts three years ago, sliding him over from tight end and redshirting him in 2006. He has better overall size than the smallish Lipsey and shouldn’t be physically outmanned from the outset. How fluidly his intellectual adjustment to such a demanding position goes will largely determine how smoothly the offense runs. There is enough surrounding talent to be good, but it all starts with the man squatting over the football.

gate-hoo: For guys who haven’t seen the field yet, I’ll stick with safety and go with Corey Mosley . I think he really has an opportunity to take a starting position with a strong fall practice. And he may need to because we’re bringing in a lot of safety types in the 08 and 09 class, so it’s going to get crowded on the depth chart pretty soon. In any event, somebody needs to step up in the middle of the secondary, as we haven’t had a star or potential star back there since Willie Davis got injured.

BAILEY: I haven’t been shy about my fears about the special teams situation but that aside, I’m going to sidestep my own question. I think one of the people that need to come in ready to go is Marc Verica . Not that I expect him to get the start over Lalich, because I don’t. But Lalich needs something to light a fire under him. He’s not competing with Sewell anymore so he doesn’t have the drive of last season. If Verica comes into the fall and is on the ball, it could have the positive effect of pushing Lalich to develop faster. Also, it may push Lalich to round out his appeal by becoming a more complete asset, by stepping into the leadership role that this team so desperately needs filled.

4. If you are Al Groh, how do you prepare for a championship-caliber team like USC? How do you motivate your players to ignore the media?

How will Al Groh motivate his players for the opener? That’s easy – it’s USC!

JEFF: I’m sure Groh will try to use the media’s predictions to fire up his players. Sometimes being the underdog isn’t a bad thing, and that may prove to be the case here. A desire not to be humiliated on national television Aug. 30 should fuel the players in the offseason.

JED: First off, there’s endlessly more pressure on USC than on Virginia in this game. The Trojans are expected to compete for and perhaps win another National Championship, and with that comes the natural assumption that they’ll handle UVa without breaking a sweat. Plus, two weeks later they host Ohio State in what might just be the game of the year, so there’s incentive for USC to be sharp from the start but also the suspicion that they may overlook UVa.

What do the Hoos have to lose, other than one game? They’ll be 15-20 point ‘dogs, so “ignoring the media” seems a little silly considering there isn’t much media hype around this team anyway. And that’s when Groh operates best. The focus for the next 70-plus days, clichéd as it may sound, is to compete and improve at a number of critical positions. I’m not sure Groh even has to utter “Southern” and “California.” Players don’t live in caves; they know it’s out there. They also can’t obsess over an opponent that’s merely one of twelve and won’t be viewed as a springboard to a title, but rather a barometer for improvement.

gate-hoo: If I was the coach, I’d probably try to keep my team from being in awe of USC and remind them that they are imminently beatable. I’d remind them that Stanford beat them in the coliseum. I’d remind them that we went in to Miami in final game in the Orange Bowl and pasted them. I would say they are beatable and if we play our game then we can win. As for the media, I might use that as additional motivation – develop an “us against the world” mentality because no one will think we have a chance in this game. Now, if I was Al Groh, I would probably give a boring speech and use the word circumstances at least three times in the same sentence and at least once in three consecutive sentences.

BAILEY: I agree with the fact that Groh should stress the idea that USC is beatable. We have to escape the aura that this program carries around it – this is just another Div. I-A opponent. They are human and they are beatable. (Although this does remind me a little of the plot of Space Jam). The fact that USC is pitted against Ohio State just around the corner is yet another chip in Virginia’s favor as it is likely that the Trojans will focus heavily on that game. Avoiding embarrassment is a good tactic especially if he focuses on the fact that it is in Virginia’s own house. The Trojans will come in no doubt cocky that they will pull off a win. If Groh can convince the Cavaliers that they can win and that no one expects them to, they might just go out and “shock the world.” (a la Wali Lundy circa 2005)

5. Which former Virginia player (excluding Chris Long ) drafted or signed to a free agent contract this offseason do you expect to make the biggest splash in the NFL?

Branden Albert should make the most immediate NFL splash other than Chris Long .

JEFF: Branden Albert is the obvious choice, but TE Tom Santi could be a steal for the Colts, who drafted him in the sixth round. Santi has to make the team, though. (Obviously)

JED: Since Long is excluded, I guess I have to go with Branden Albert , who will be kicked out to tackle from his natural guard position and immediately upgrades Kansas City’s offensive line. By all accounts the Chiefs’ draft was sterling. Glen Dorsey and Albert are interior cornerstones on both sides for the next decade. Albert can only have minimal effect, however, if the Chiefs can’t find a quarterback. If the Brodie Croyle experiment fails, this franchise will again be set back.

On another note, I’m not sure that Tom Santi will make a “splash” in the NFL this year or at any point in what I expect to be a solid-but-unspectacular career, but I love the fit in Indianapolis. It’s a scheme that maximizes the versatility of its tight ends through different alignments and pre-snap movement, a concept that’s turned Dallas Clark into a weapon. Santi isn’t ready to become Clark just yet, but his broad skills set (tight end, slot, h-back, special teams) will certainly be utilized.

gate-hoo: I’d have to go with the obvious and take Branden Albert . I think Albert was a great pick up for the Chiefs and I think he’s penciled in as the starter at left tackle. So, I think he’s in a position to be able to make a significant impact for the Chiefs almost immediately. Furthermore, I think he’s better suited to tackle than guard, so he’ll also be a position to really let his talent come out.

BAILEY: Again, Albert should make his presence known early on for the Chiefs. But I think that if Santi makes the Colts, he could become a target quickly for Peyton Manning. At Virginia, Santi was limited by the (in)accuracy of Sewell’s arm and the crowded depth chart, two things that likely won’t plague him in Indy. I’m not saying he will be the next Randy Moss, I’m not sure he has that kind of star potential but I do think he could have a good solid career. I also think Chris Gould (if he makes the Buccaneers) will put up a lot of points for a long time. This kid is undeniably consistent and didn’t get near enough praise at Virginia.

6. What will be new defensive coordinator Bob Pruett’s most important early season focal points. Will we be able to see the effects right away?

JEFF: A coordinator usually is only as good as his personnel, and it’s too early to tell what impact Pruett will have in 2008. Long and Fitzgerald were huge losses, and I’m not sure Field, Conrath, Gottschalk and the other DEs will be able to wreak nearly as much havoc as Nos. 91 and 95 did in 2006 and ’07. An extremely experienced group of linebackers must contribute big plays. I’m curious to see if the safety play – generally a weakness for UVa during the Groh era – improves, because that’s the position with which Pruett has been working most closely.

What impact will new defensive coordinator Bob Pruett have on Brandon Woods and his fellow safeties?

JED: Clearly his biggest immediate challenges are filling the voids left by Fitzgerald and Long at defensive end and Brown and Cook at cornerback. Thus, the defensive anchor becomes a very experienced linebacking corp. Pruett has a standout-in-waiting on the defensive front in Nate Collins ; now he must find ways to maximize his talents, including whether to bump him outside to end in certain situations. Also, while Byron Glaspy mans one safety spot, Pruett must identify a second to handle the other. It’s now or never for Brandon Woods , with Rico Bell and others waiting in the wings. In other words, before he ever addresses scheme, Pruett must address and find solutions to several personnel quandaries. After all, doesn’t Groh like to use a line about “coaches with schemes but without talent becoming the coaches of unimportant teams?” I believe the talent is present. Best figuring out how to tap into it will largely determine how “important” this Orange Crush D is.

gate-hoo: I think this is a great unknown, at least by the casual fan. I don’t know enough about Pruett’s coaching style or tendencies or preferences to really say. From all accounts, he’s a guy that Groh trusts and respects, so I think he’ll have the opportunity to run the defense without too much meddling by Groh. So, in that respect, I expect the effects will be evident rather quickly. In London’s two years as DC we saw a more aggressive deployment of the defense. I hope to see that trend continue under Pruett. He’s inherited a defense with more mid-career depth and players who have been in the systems and know the defense. So, he should be able to deploy all aspects of the 3-4 and we should be able to see the multiple looks that this defense enables.

BAILEY: Not having personally been around for spring practice and the so-called Spring Game, I’m going blind here. But I think one of the most important areas for Pruett is the secondary. The Cavaliers, at least in the Groh era, have struggled with giving up the deep pass most frustratingly on third down. It’s a problem that has fans pulling out their hair and it is where Pruett has reportedly spent a lot of time already. I have every hope that his progress will be evident early on as Pete Carroll will no doubt test the waters early.

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