Hoo Preview ’08: Sabre Roundtable II

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Virginia fans can check out more from the roundtable panelists. Make sure to check out the Sabre EDGE, The Virginian-Pilot, and WCAV today!

With training camp firmly under way, position battles have heated up, especially on the defensive side of the ball where Virginia has many spots up for grabs. In the concluding roundtable of the series, panelists dissect the defense and answer questions about the defense and the punters.

See what Sabre EDGE user Sobocav, The Virginian-Pilot’s Ed Miller, WCAV’s J.W. Stehle, and TheSabre.com’s Nick Sauer think about everything from the up-and-coming stars of the defense to new freshman punter Jimmy Howell .

Will this be the year it all clicks for safety Brandon Woods or will he be pushed aside in favor of the younger contingent?

Sobocav: I think there is an answer that lies somewhere in between. There’s something to be said for waiting your turn, learning your role and then hitting the ground running as an upperclassman, but the conventional wisdom “knock” on him is that he doesn’t play instinctively. It’s entirely possible that defense just doesn’t come naturally to him and the pluses in the physical traits department will not make up for that possibility. Everyone is big. Everyone is fast. But if you can’t see the play developing before it happens, you’re behind from the start.

So the answer is the young guys then, huh? It’s possible but I have my doubts. Corey Mosley has good potential but seems to be at least a year away, Rico Bell has tools but may be just a “track guy” playing football, and Matt Leemhuis seems to be a S/LB ‘tweener but not quite at the level we need to be successful at either position. At the end of the day, I’m seeing a revolving door at the opposite safety spot for most of the year with Mosley seeing the most playing time of the 3 (but behind Woods) because it’s clear that he has the brightest future and Glaspy’s spot is his next year.

ED: I don’t know whether it will “all click” but I think it’ll click enough that he’ll start the season alongside Byron Glaspy. If I were Woods, I’d stick close to Glaspy, one of the savviest players on the team, and soak up every bit of knowledge I could. Woods has a lot of talent, and certainly looks the part of a safety. As Groh has indicated, decision-making has held him back. You’d expect that to improve with experience and practice reps.

J.W.: Coach Al Groh certainly sounds like Brandon Woods has the inside track to be right there opposite of Byron Glaspy. Replacing the departed Nate Lyles and his hard-hitting style will be a tough thing to overcome. Woods is a converted wide receiver and has the most experience of any other candidates to start at safety besides Glaspy. Woods played in every game last season, but primarily was a special teams guy. The most important things to watch with Woods during the preseason is his decision making. When do you commit and when do you sit and wait? He’s got some help, Glaspy is a great guy to learn from. He’s done it all while moving from walk-on to scholarship starter now.

NICK: I think it will be. Really, Woods isn’t far off what would be a normal progression for a player on a team stocked with depth. Starting as a redshirt junior gives a player 1 or 2 years to learn, 1 or 2 years to contribute on special teams or package situations and then 2 years to get the majority of the snaps. Part of the reason it seems as if Woods is “behind” and that we’re asking this question is because of the expectations placed on him and the fact that the secondary was thin during his early years. I expect Woods to put his considerable athletic ability to work and make an impact as a starter this year. His length and speed are desperately needed and will pair well with the steady Byron Glaspy.

Speaking of the younger contingent, which of the young safeties, Corey Mosley , Rico Bell and Matt Leemhuis has the most potential to be a contributor in the immediate term?

Sobocav: I sort of combined that question in with the one on Woods. Basically it’s Mosley. He has the combination of “talent” and “football player”. I don’t think Rico has the instincts for the position. Leemhuis perhaps does not have the package to be more than a “2nd on the depth chart” kind of guy (but then again, the same was said of Jon Copper). The staff will determine that it’s in their best interest for both now and long-term that Corey is the first guy off the bench.

ED: Hmmm. Having not been privy to practice yet, I don’t have a strong opinion here. Mosley’s a hitter in the Nate Lyles mold and Groh mentioned he’s working with the goal line unit, where he can really bring the wood. If you’re talking about the “immediate term” he might be the guy.

J.W.: It will be interesting to see how these three continue to progress. Matt Leemhuis and Rico Bell are just sophomores while Corey Mosley is a redshirt freshman. All three are speedy guys but have a lot to learn. One way of getting that experience getting in there and making mistakes. They will need to learn from those on-field lessons. There’s not a lot of time to sit back and hope they develop into stars. They need to contribute immediately with “on the job training.”

NICK:Corey Mosley will have the biggest impact of the younger safeties. Mosley is going to carve out a niche for himself on short yardage and goal line packages. He has the requisite aggressiveness for that type of a role and I expect him to perform well. It will also be interesting to see how many snaps he gets in the base packages. In the nickel/dime packages, I think he could be a perfect “star” position, in a Muffin Curry style playmaking role. I think we’ll see a lot of Rico Bell and Matt Leemhuis on special teams. Leemhuis is a good in the box type of safety and Bell has speed to burn, but the playing time in the base secondary packages is going to be tough to come by.

How much of a statistical drop of are we realistically looking at in 2008 after the departure of two of the league’s best D-Ends?

Sobocav: Fairly sizable. Lost over the last couple of years is the criticisms of the 3-4 defense that were so loud over much of Groh’s tenure. The defense is too slow. There is no pressure on the QB and he has all day to throw. The linemen do more than occupy blocks for the playmakers of the defense, the LBs. London received much credit for the change in focus of our defense but being a genius is easy when you have talent and we had one transcendent talent on one side and another guy on the other side that will be playing on Sundays someday. How much more a pounding will our quicker nose tackles take now that they could be the lead targets of the opposing blocking schemes? Will we see again the “no pressure from our line” much like we said before Long and Fitz? How much did what they do help to cover up any deficiencies behind them? We’ll going to find out exactly how good our LBs and DBs are this year.

ED: I’d be surprised – no, make that shocked – if Virginia equals last year’s total of 43 sacks. There are some promising young defensive ends on the team – big, rangy guys like Matt Conrath and Zane Parr . But even Chris Long was not finishing the deal as a sophomore. I’ve always liked Alex Field , a real powerhouse guy, but I’d expect OLB Clint Sintim to be the team’s best pass rusher.

J.W.: No Fitzgerald and no Long equals the loss of 69 solo tackles, 21 sacks, and 3 interceptions. Yeah, it’s only academic that this year’s Virginia defense will see a big drop in big plays. I always liked to call Fitz and Long the bookends that kept the defense together. With both gone, Groh will use his favorite saying, “Next man up.” The problem with that in regards to the defensive end position … you don’t have any players even remotely in the same league as those two.

NICK: I think the pressure statistics from the defensive ends are going to drop pretty dramatically. I do think the coaches will find a way to scheme pressure but I would expect a lot of those numbers to surface at the NT, LB, and S positions. The most important difference won’t be in statistics, however. Chris Long and Jeffrey Fitzgerald were able to apply pressure without the defense having to “throw the kitchen sink” at the offense. In order to get consistent penetration, more numbers will be needed and a good offense will be able to take advantage of that. The defensive ends in the program are good ones but the shoes of Long and Fitzgerald are going to be nearly impossible to fill this year. I think at the end of the year, we’ll be talking about the rock solid defensive end unit in 2009.

With Long out of the picture, will guys like Clint Sintim and Jon Copper be able to keep up the defensive energy? Who will be the leader of this squad?

Sobocav: It’s Sintim and I think that everyone that has a connection to the team has pretty much expressed that. And as far as the defensive energy, that has as much to do with the play on the field as the leaders involved. I have faith that the defense is in good hands but there’s only so much anyone can do when the defense is on the field for one “double-digit play drive” after another. I see it as a Catch-22. The defense needs to play well to create confidence, but an energy and a swagger is needed for this defense to succeed. No one questions that Copper and Sintim are well-respected and vocal when it comes to their teammates, but ultimately their leadership qualities will rely on how well those teammates can play football.

ED: Sintim is the emotional, vocal type. I’d expect him to be the energy guy. Copper is as solid and smart as they come. Don’t forget Antonio Appleby . As for the D-Line, Nate Collins has played enough to emerge as a leader up front.

J.W.: I like Clint Sintim in this role a lot. Nobody on this defense has learned more from Chris Long . They were roommates for three years and Clint has already expressed that he’s ready to be more vocal. Jon Copper is not the “in-your-face” guy. He will lead by example and lead by his play on the field. Look for Sintim to be the vocal leader. He already talks a lot during games. Take a listen to what he sounds like after games. His vocal cords are always totally shot.

NICK: With Clint Sintim on the field, the defense should be able to come up with plenty of energy. Players like Aaron Clark , Nate Collins , and Denzel Burrell should also provide a great deal of emotion, which will cover that type of leadership in the front seven. I see Jon Copper and Antonio Appleby as the balancing forces or rocks of the defense that should keep the unit playing at a solid level. What I am looking to see is some attitude in the secondary to complement the consistency of Byron Glaspy. Brandon Woods plays with a lot of swagger and could provide that spark if he plays well, and if Corey Mosley is on the field, you can expect plenty of confidence.

Will new Defensive Coordinator Bob Pruett opt for a similar nickel D set-up, that worked well in the Gator Bowl, against the always potent aerial attack of USC?

Sobocav: It will be a part of the game plan but just a part. USC can run or pass with the best of them so it’s basically pick your poison. It’s easy to play a single defense if you’re playing an equally gimmicky, one dimensional offense. We’re going to have to mix things up and hope to keep them confused and guessing in order to stay in the ballgame. If UVa becomes predictable and obvious, the game will be over quickly.

ED: Might not be a bad idea. The nickel adds quickness and gives Sintim the chance to put his hand down as a D-End. Generating some sort of pass rush will be important. Can’t cover receivers as talented as USC’s all day.

J.W.: I personally have not had the chance to chat with Bob Pruett about his defensive philosophy, but I would be surprised if he mixes things up too much. We all saw how successful this defense was one year ago. One would think Groh and Pruett will be on the same page to make sure this side of the ball is poised to be the best they can be.

NICK: I would expect the Cavalier defense to play more of a base set against the Trojans. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a little bit of a four-man line even. I think it would be tempting to counter the USC speed by putting an extra defensive back on the field, but it could be a big mistake. I expect the Trojans to line up and give the Hoos a steady diet of All-American running back by committee and I don’t see a nickel or dime defense holding up to that kind of attack. Virginia needs to stack the box, spread the line to hold the edge and make Mark Sanchez or Mitch Mustain come up with plays to win. Early in the year, I believe Pruett will take his chances with the passing game and hope the timing isn’t allowing peak performance for Patrick Turner and Vidal Hazelton .

How far does punter Jimmy Howell have to become game ready and how quickly in your opinion can he do that? Is Aug. 30 realistic?

Sobocav: You mean there are other options? Seriously though, the key for Howell is tempo. Getting the ball out is his primary concern, distance is a distant second (pun intended). Unfortunately, reports out of practice are that Howell isn’t the quickest of punters and it’s too late in the game to change things. If you can find a guy between now and then who’s guaranteed to get the ball away for, let’s say, 32-37 yard punts with very limited returns, I’m all for him. But Howell’s our best option and that’s the guy that will be back there on the 30th. I would just warn him that he’ll see numerous guys in cardinal red and gold coming his way.

ED: Realistic or not, it doesn’t appear the Cavs have much choice. Howell is a huge (6-6, 238) punter with a lot of leg and flexibility. He was a HS quarterback, which suggests he’s got some poise. He’ll need it making his college debut against the Trojans.

J.W.: There are not a lot of choices at punter for coach Al Groh. There have been multiple times over the Groh tenure that there has been some uncertainty at the punter position. All Howell can be asked to do is concentrate on getting better every day and work on things from there. Howell doesn’t have a lot of time to become all-world. He’s not expected to become that either.

NICK: Jimmy Howell seems to have a lot of physical ability. I’ll go on record (after only one practice mind you) and say he will be a star punter in Charlottesville. I don’t say that because I know anything about punting mechanics or the like, but instead I base it on the way the ball jumps off his foot. Being ready for the bright lights on Aug. 30 may be a different story. The whole punting operation will likely be a bit shaky as would be expected and I can’t imagine a scenario where Pete Carroll doesn’t try to take advantage of that fact. I would expect Howell to have to hurry his punts and as a result will have a couple of early attempts that leave a lot to be desired. I wouldn’t doubt that he booms a couple either and goes on to have a pretty good season. Again, I don’t know much about punters, mechanics, etc. – just visual impressions from watching a lot of football.

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