Hoo Preview ’08: Sabre Roundtable I

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Virginia fans can check out more from the roundtable panelists. Make sure to check out the Sabre EDGE, The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, The Best Seat in the House, and WCAV today!

With the Cavaliers’ season opener two and a half weeks away, anticipation is growing. While Al Groh and the other coaches are busy at training camp sorting out answers to the team’s greatest questions in 2008, The Sabre assembled a roundtable to try and work out some answers ourselves. This, the first of two roundtables during the 10-Day Hoo Preview, covers the offense and placekicking squads.

See what Sabre EDGE member Louisahoo, Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star writer Taft Coghill, Best Seat in the House’s Macon Gunter, WCAV anchor Marc Davis, and Sabre intern Bailey Stephens think about the biggest questions facing the offense and placekicking units in 2008.

For which offensive player could the pressure to “step up to the plate” be the most beneficial?

Louisahoo: I think Eugene Monroe . He will be the leader of the line and has seen it all by now. He will also be protecting the QB’s blind-side. He will be called upon to lead vocally this O-Line unit because of the inexperience in play and leadership from the QB position. I predict he will step up to the plate. The question is, will it be enough if defenses send the house against a slow, inexperienced QB.

TAFT: The pressure to step up will be most beneficial to the middle of the offensive line, particularly senior left guard Zak Stair . Stair had his struggles in the past, but he’s in his fourth year in the system and he’s received solid coaching from offensive line coach Dave Borbely. He won’t make Virginia fans forget Branden Albert and he likely won’t be as adept at pulling, but I think he could produce a solid season and allow Cedric Peerman and Mikell Simpson to thrive.

MACON: Over the past 10 months, one Cavalier has seen his career year cut short, his replacement shine, and many of his teammates display a lack of commitment. Now, he is called upon to be the team’s unquestioned leader. In my estimation, Cedric Peerman will thrive on such pressure.

On the field, a replication of his 2007 campaign (minus the injury) would serve an inexperienced Cavalier offense well. Despite an 18-yard dud at Wyoming and an injury-shortened performance at Middle Tennessee in the first week of October, Peerman still led the team in rushing last year and was on pace to eclipse the 1200-yard mark. More than the numbers, though, he ran as hard as anyone I can remember – his legs never stopped moving. Hopefully, he and Mikell Simpson can both be utilized to their fullest in ’08. And as far as leading the team off the field, Peerman need only continue to be himself and hope that others take notice.

MARC: Anybody at quarterback. Whoever gets the nod to be the starter will have the chance to really step up and lead a team that many feel will not achieve what it has in years past. Peter Lalich will end up being the guy. He played in eight games last season, and, despite the others being upperclassmen, has more game experience than both Scott Deke and Marc Verica combined. If Lalich can handle the pressure and start leading the Cavaliers to some wins, he’ll be hyped up in 2009 for his junior season. If not, we may be talking about yet another quarterback “controversy” next year.

BAILEY: Two months ago I would have said Peter Lalich . Now, his days to “step up to the plate” are numbered. I’m going to say Jack Shields. Shields was forced into a strange situation and from early reports seems to be responding very well. He has good size and I’m not sure this move was that big of a stretch. While this role was somewhat unexpected, I think Shields will thrive and leave Virginia secure at the center position for at least the next few years.

Will the combination of an untested center in Jack Shields, with a trial by fire offensive line and a slower pocket-passer quarterback like Peter Lalich crumble when pressured by USC’s top ranked pass rushers?

Louisahoo: The “height” of the pocket, as Groh calls it, will be tested early and often. It seemed that of all the QBs that Pete Lalich was the least mobile. If Lalich is the QB, I have big questions about how effective he will be against USC’s defensive rush, or anyone’s for that matter. Shields is the key though. His line calls will be crucial to get right so that the inexperienced lineman can pick up the blitz packages. Also, Shields and whoever the QB are need to be in sync. If not, look out!

With seven starts and significant playing time under his belt already, Zak Stair isn’t exactly inexperienced as he moves to guard.

TAFT: I don’t think crumble is the word. I can see the Cavaliers using a frenzied crowd and the excitement of their first game of the season against a top-ranked foe to its advantage – but not for too long. Eventually the Trojans’ overwhelming talent across the board will wear them down, but not until the second half. Shields and the rest of the Cavaliers have been preparing for this game too long to completely lay an egg. Also, for all the talk about Virginia’s inexperienced middle of the line, the bookend tackles, Eugene Monroe and Will Barker , are a real strength. They’ll give the quarterback time to throw, but then the question is, ‘Can they find the target?’

MACON: Probably. Fortunately, Virginia’s offense has become more adept at putting the ball into space more quickly. Either that, or Mikell Simpson running roughshod over Maryland is blissfully clouding my memory.

At any rate, words do little to describe USC’s defense. It’s scary good. I don’t believe, however, that the Groh game plan will allow for any of Virginia’s quarterbacks to idly take their time in the pocket, which will help to offset the inexperience of the offensive line.

MARC: I think there’s a strong possibility, but that’s not a knock on the offensive line. Any team that plays USC is in for a tough test in every aspect of the game. Inexperience would hurt any team against the Trojans, so it could play a factor on Aug. 30th. Unfortunately, I see USC on a totally different level, so it will be tough for Virginia to handle it. No doubt that Lalich, or whoever is under center, will face heavy amounts of pressure from a Trojan team that is ranked number two in the nation.

BAILEY: If I say yes, will I be tarred and feathered? I want to drink the kool-aid. Really! I do. I don’t doubt that Groh will have these guys fired up come Aug. 30th. They may even hang in for the first quarter or so. But at a certain point, sheer size and talent will win out. Trust me, if I end up being wrong, no one will be happier to eat their words than me. I’m starting to think the idea of starting Deke to preserve Lalich’s mental development is a smart plan. The last thing this team needs is for Lalich’s progression to be stunted by the nightmares of 250-pound pass rushers coming at him.

Which up-and-coming members of the offensive line will really have to shine early in 2008?

The man in the middle, center Jack Shields, will have to play well for the O-Line to succeed.

Louisahoo: Of the new line, I think Shields is key along with Cabell. Shields because of the calls from center on blocking and blitz protection, and Cabell because he is apparently a good drive-blocker. We will need this to have a decent running attack and with two of our best offensive weapons being our backs – we will need to run some.

TAFT: The pressure will squarely be on the entire middle of the offensive line, but center Jack Shields and right guard B.J. Cabbell are clearly the two with the least amount of experience. Both have good size, strength and knowledge of their position. Cabbell has progressed greatly since he arrived on campus and Shields bulked up in the offseason. Both Shields and Cabbell have redshirt freshmen as their primary back-ups in center Anthony Mihota and right guard Billy Cuffee, making it more crucial that they perform well early and also stay healthy.

MACON: Well, it would be nice if B.J. Cabbell channeled his inner Branden Albert and Jack Shields proved to be a steady and dependable force at center. To what extent that’s possible, I don’t know. Eugene Monroe and Will Barker are known entities and fifth-year Zak Stair knows the system. With Pat Slebonick able to provide some interior security and Landon Bradley continually in the coaches’ good graces, this offensive line has the potential to be better than anticipated. How’s that for an endorsement?

As opposed to individuals shining brightly – and Virginia has enjoyed its fair share during the Groh regime – it would be refreshing to see a better-rounded group. Then again, I assume one would need to develop individuals before expecting a cohesive offensive line, but such talent should have produced more imposing units over the years.

MARC: While all of the offensive line will be anchored by Eugene Monroe , Zak Stair will be the X factor on the offensive line. With only Monroe and Will Barker returning from last year’s starters on the line, Stair is the guy who will be looked to in order to fill voids left by Branden Albert . The senior saw time at tackle early in the season, and will move into a significant starting role.

BAILEY: We know Will Barker and Eugene Monroe will perform and anchor the line. Personally, I don’t think Zak Stair has been that bad and he definitely knows the system. Like I said earlier, Shields should be fine, as long has he just snaps the ball without over-analyzing it. According to Groh, Cabbell has greatly benefited mentally at least from playing a role on the special teams last season. I don’t think you can discount how important have any time on the field can be. B.J. Cabell is the biggest wild card in my opinion and a key to the line’s performance in 2008.

With another strong crop of tight ends in the mix this year, will Tight End U continue or does Groh need to figure out another way to put points on the board?

Louisahoo: I don’t see as many balls to TEs this year. There will be, depending on formation, a lot more WRs flooding the underneath zones. The “dump-offs” or “check-down” throws could go to them instead of TEs. Look for them to be involved in the red zone, however, and in blocking. We will need them to block during running plays either from the traditional location outside of the tackle, or as a motioning H-back who can lead into the hole.

TAFT: I think the production of the Cavaliers’ tight ends is something to be proud of, but it’s definitely time to gain yardage and points from other positions, too. This year, they have the talent to do just that. Senior wide receiver Maurice Covington came on strong at the end of last year and with Kevin Ogletree completely healthy and the maturation of Dontrelle Inman , the receiving corps is as strong as it’s been in Al Groh’s tenure. John Phillips is every bit as good as the tight ends who preceded him, but more balanced ball distribution will help the offense take the next step.

MACON: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. While Wahoo Nation longs for the speed of the SEC (or even Blacksburg), I can imagine that Virginia’s tight end employment is widely admired as well. For fear of introducing a commentary on recruiting, it will suffice to say that the staff might as well utilize what it has. Fortunately, what it has in John Phillips and Joe Torchia is poised to be as productive as other tight end tandems have been in the past.

MARC: Scoring is something that has not always come easy for the Cavaliers during the past couple of years, but the tight end has solidified itself into the offense. John Phillips has played well, and moves into the number one spot after the departure of Tom Santi and Jonathan Stupar . Tight End U definitely continues. Look for Joe Torchia and Andrew Devlin to have more prominent roles, as the tight end continues to play a pivotal role in the offense.

BAILEY: While I think that Tight End U lovers can rest safely in their beds – Phillips and Co. are more than capable of carrying on the tradition of big yardage from that position – maybe it’s time to give the other guys a chance. With a healthy Kevin Ogletree on the field and a solid group of veterans like Maurice Covington and Cary Koch supported by a plethora of young guys who seem perfectly capable (i.e. Staton Jobe , Dontrelle Inman ), now seems to be the perfect chance to air it out a little bit and see what happens. Now, I don’t expect to wake up and see that Virginia had 445 yards in the air, Graham Harrell style but Mike Groh did visit Lubbock and maybe just maybe he took a few notes from their playbook that will find their way onto the field in 2008.

Simply put, who do you expect to be Virginia’s playmaker this year?

Louisahoo: I think Virginia’s playmaker this year will be Brandon Woods . He has all the tools but has been held back because of some mental lapses. But sometimes, you just have to put the talent out there and let them play and I think Woods is ready to be the type of safety we have needed for sometime.

Mikell Simpson will be expected to make plays again this year.

TAFT: The simple answer is Mikell Simpson . He was dazzling last year from the moment he stepped on the field against Maryland all the way through the Gator Bowl against Texas Tech when he rushed for 170 yards, including a 96-yard touchdown run. The time he spent at wide receiver really shows in his game, with the way he catches the ball out of the backfield. Cedric Peerman will certainly provide a nice complement, but look for Simpson to be used in a variety of ways. I think he’ll prove last season was no fluke.

MACON: Let it be Vic Hall. Stop me if you’ve heard that before. He led all Wahoo corners in tackles in 2007 (granted, not a tremendous feat) and was fifth in the conference in punt returns – he set up two scores against Pittsburgh and brought one back 67 yards against Duke. Hall also found the end zone on a fake field goal and completed a 35-yard pass last year.

Once fuel for a future fire, his high school numbers now serve as a distant memory (an unbelievable, jaw-dropping distant memory). He compiled 13,770 yards at Gretna and accounted for 120 touchdowns over his final two years. That is difficult to fathom. But barring a Lalich-Deke-Verica Club216 outing, Hall won’t be calling any signals. While his now-comforting presence at corner should not be understated, it would stand to reason that his abilities would be welcome all over the field. The more touches for No. 4, the more big play potential for Virginia football.

MARC: A two-part answer here. Offensively, I like Mikell Simpson . He moved into the starting tailback spot, and I think he’ll have a better year than Cedric Peerman . Don’t get me wrong, I think Peerman is a great back, I just feel that Simpson’s speed and agility sets him apart. Al Groh praises Simpson’s vision as well, making him close to the complete package at running back. By season’s end, Simpson is your go-to-guy on offense.

Defensively, it has to be Clint Sintim . He returns after leading the nation in sacks by a linebacker in 2007 with nine, and has become a leader on and off the field for the Cavaliers. Sintim anchors a core of experienced linebackers that sees three of four starters returning. Clint’s a possible All-American in my book.

BAILEY: I think Ogletree will be the team’s go-to guy for a score this season. Someone (cough: Kris Wright) pointed out to me at Saturday’s practice just how fast this guy can run. A 4.31!!!! No, I’m not brown-nosing. But seriously, I think we haven’t even seen how good this kid can be. Groh hinted Sunday that physically Ogletree might be better than ever. I think if Virginia is to be successful in 2008, I think they’re going to have to try something different. Someone will have to step up. Some one who has the talent but whose chances have gotten cut short. Someone like KO. That is if we can figure out who will be on the other end.

Which non-experienced placekicker will it be come Aug. 30th? Will Yannick Reyering turn out to be the savior or will Chris Hinkebein rise to the challenge? Robert Randolph anyone?

Louisahoo: I have not seen the newer additions, but will on Thursday. My guess is Reyering if he can gain consistency. He has all the leg, apparently. Of course, so does Chris! This will be a key to the Cavs season though – so I hope the Special Teams Coordinator is up to the task!

TAFT: No matter who wins the kicking job, there will be a major drop-off. Connor Hughes and Chris Gould (particularly last year) spoiled Groh with their consistency and ability to make clutch kicks. I can see freshman Chris Hinkebein emerging to win the job this season. At the most recent open practice, he converted kicks of 44 and 45 yards, providing a glimmer of hope for a position that was a very serious concern after spring practice.

MACON: Yikes. There is trepidation about entering a season with a senior kicker who hit just 58 percent of his field goals the previous year (See: Chris Gould , 2007), and then there is this … if the pressure doesn’t prove to be too much, Hinkebein could develop the consistency necessary to prove serviceable in his first year and it sounds as if Reyering has the leg to handle kickoff duties. To hearken back to The Princeton Review, however, I’m afraid that Hinkebein-Reyering is to Connor Hughes-Kurt Smith as The Waffle House is to The Tavern – they just don’t compare (pre-salmonella shut down, of course).

Kicking off cannot be avoided; though Reyering might be able to hit Klöckner from the 30-yard line, accuracy notwithstanding. As for the three-pointers, I think we’ll find our answer Aug. 30 when Coach Groh is presented with 4th-and-6 from the 28. My guess? Snap back. Ball down. Vic Hall scampers for six.

MARC: Reyering will end up being the guy. Connor Hughes was more than reliable during his final year in 2005, and Chris Gould got the job done well at kicker for the Cavs last year. Now, Reyering will prove that he is a stand out at both European and American football. It’s a great story to see a guy pass up a pro soccer career and give football a try. I think he’ll end up being not only a fan favorite, but a favorite of Al Groh and the Wahoos as well.

BAILEY: Groh says it’s gone from horrible to hopeful. Well after watching Reyering boot the ball cleanly for what seemed to be a heck of a long way at practice on Saturday, I certainly am hopeful. But in a press conference Sunday, Groh pointed out that some kickers kick with blinders on and others flinch with 275-pound beasts flying at them and 60,000+ looking on. That’s the one variable no one will be able to simulate until their first test, which by the way against arguably the best college football program in the last decade.

Having watched him on the soccer field, I feel safe in saying that for Reyering at least, distance shouldn’t be a factor. While Klöckner is no Scott Stadium, at least he’s played in front of a collegiate crowd before and well that’s more than we can say about anyone else. I haven’t seen much of Hinkebein having only heard about his horrific showing during the spring. Early word is that he is much improved in training camp. Overall, I’m not as convinced that the kicking game will be the train wreck I predicted earlier this summer. That’s right people. Watch out, I’m being optimistic.

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