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Sabre Roundtable: 2008 In Review

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Virginia fans make sure to check out more from the roundtable panelists!.
Kris Wright’s work on the Sabre EDGE
Jerry Ratcliffe’s UVa football book “University Of Virginia Football Vault” and at The Daily Progress
David Teel’s “Teel Time Blog” at The Daily Press
Jeff White’s blog at The Richmond Times-Dispatch
Marc Davis’ work at WCAV

The Sabre’s look back at the 2008 football season has included a “10 Things I Learned” article from JHoo and a “2008 Stock Report” from Greg Waters. We are wrapping things up with a free Sabre Roundtable, featuring some of the media giants that cover the Hoos. Sabre Editor Kris Wright is joined by Marc Davis (WCAV TV), Jerry Ratcliffe (The Daily Progress), David Teel (Daily Press), and Jeff White (Richmond Times-Dispatch) to answer 6 Quick Questions about the Hoos.

1. Virginia’s offense averaged 16.1 points per game, the defense allowed 21.7 points per game, and the special teams had various results. Which unit performed the best in your opinion? The worst? Did any particular performance stand out to you on the schedule from any unit?

KRIS: If you could choose segments of the special teams, you might put that unit here. The punt coverage team was excellent and punter Jimmy Howell was solid thought not spectacular. The kickoff coverage team was fairly strong throughout as well. On the flipside, the return teams (on both punts and kickoffs) were inconsistent with average at best blocking and the placekicking was just shy of erratic – plus, keep in mind how often coach Al Groh went for it on fourth down. 20! That tells you that the placekicking didn’t have the complete trust of the staff. Beyond that, we know it wasn’t the offense. So, I’ll settle with the defense as my answer. That unit got better after an awful start against USC and UConn in the first few weeks of the season and several individuals performed at high levels.

MARC: I think overall the defense performed the best throughout the season. This was a tough one to pick though, as both the offense and defense finished in the bottom half of most categories. The performance that stands out the most for me, however, is both the offensive and defensive performance against Maryland back on Oct. 4, a 31-0 Virginia win, especially coming off the Duke loss.

Clint Sintim and the defense put together a solid year.

JERRY: I believe the defense did just about all it could considering the pressure it was under due to turnovers by Virginia’s offense throughout the majority of the season. Often tired, they had to trudge back out on the field after another interception or an untimely fumble. It is difficult for a defense to withstand this kind of pressure, but these guys did about as well as anyone could have expected given the circumstances. They often exceeded expectations all things considered. There was some great leadership on that defense, especially from the seniors and from Sintim and Copper, particularly.

The worst? Well, it had to be the overall operation of the offense and the numbers say it all. I would have to say that offensively, Virginia didn’t really have anyone that really struck fear in the hearts of the opposing defenses. Yes, Cedric Peerman was a tenacious runner, Kevin Ogletree is a nice receiver, and at the very end we saw that Vic Hall can be effective. Having said that, there really wasn’t a guy who scared defenses. There wasn’t one guy that once Virginia reached the red zone, you just knew there was a good chance he was going to score. Sewell could be that guy next season along with some newcomers (either redshirt freshmen or true ones), and possibly Vic Hall if he’s used properly.

Special teams were so-so, and I still believe that one day Minnifield is going to break a kickoff return for a TD. It didn’t help that there really wasn’t a place-kicker that UVa could count on. None of those guys were what I would term good kickers.

DAVID: Clearly the defense was best, especially after the debacle at Connecticut. Sure, the Cavs yielded 31 points at Duke and 28 at Wake Forest, but each of those opponents scored on interception returns, and one of Duke’s touchdown drives was a mere 25 yards. Just as clearly, the offense was putrid, managing three touchdowns in a game once in the final six outings and ranking 114th nationally in scoring. The performance of the season was the defense’s in the victory at Georgia Tech, where Virginia limited the ACC’s No. 1 overall and rushing offense to 259 total yards, 156 on the ground, both more than 100 yards below the Yellow Jackets’ average.

JEFF: The best: the defense. Other than the dreadful early-season performances against Southern California and UConn, Bob Pruett’s – or should that be Al Groh’s? – defense generally played well in a season when it got little help from the offense. The worst: the offense (of course). For the offense, the high point was the 31-0 win over Maryland, which came a week after the 31-3 loss to Duke. The low point: the Clemson game. For the defense, the high point was probably the Clemson game, when such playmakers as C.J. Spiller, Aaron Kelly and Jacoby Ford were all but shut down.

2. Eugene Monroe , Clint Sintim , Cedric Peerman , and Vic Hall are all examples of standout performers this season. Did any individuals stand out to you? Any individual surprises for you?

Antonio Appleby set a new career high with 72 tackles in 2008.

KRIS: I wrote the question and all of those players stood out to me as having great – or better – seasons. Monroe and Sintim both played at an extremely high level consistently, but I don’t think that was surprising to anyone. I will point out two players that had strong seasons, but don’t necessarily come across as headline grabbers even as seniors. The first is receiver Maurice Covington , who posted 414 receiving yards to set a new career best mark. Covington may have been the best blocking receiver on the team as well. The other is linebacker Antonio Appleby , who had the best year of his career as well. He recorded a career-high 72 tackles despite missing time (essentially two full games after getting hurt on the first drive against UNC) with an injury. Appleby was on pace for nearly 100 tackles and he may have threatened Jon Copper for the season lead if he didn’t get hurt. Kudos to Covington and Appleby.

JERRY: Well they all stood out. Monroe is a beast and we’ll be watching him on Sunday for a long time. I expected Sintim to be good, but he was better than I thought he would be. Does anyone have more heart that Peerman? The “Running Rev” was outstanding. Some of those runs he had against Georgia Tech, where he refused to go down, using the stiff-arm to perfection, were something else. I really wasn’t surprised at all by Hall. I saw him play several games in high school where he did the same things. Sometimes I believe college coaches forget the KISS method. It’s still football and great performers usually perform on any level. I really hope that the staff finds ways to use Hall effectively next season. One guy who did surprise me was Dowling, who I believe will be terrific next year.

DAVID: Don’t forget about All-ACC tight end John Phillips and receiver Kevin Ogletree . Moreover, linebacker Antonio Appleby and cornerback Ras-I Dowling seemed headed for big years until injuries struck. Like most, I was struck by redshirt freshman defensive end Matt Conrath and true freshman offensive tackle Austin Pasztor . They are blessed with the size and skills to become all-conference players and top-flight NFL prospects.

JEFF: Kevin Ogletree showed that he was on the verge of becoming one of the nation’s elite receivers. Others who impressed me this season, for various reasons, included John Phillips , Cary Koch, Maurice Covington , Alex Field , Denzel Burrell , Rodney McLeod , Chase Minnifield , and Corey Mosley . During UVa’s four-game winning streak, Marc Verica became one of the best stories in college football. Unfortunately for him and the team, Verica regressed dramatically over the final four games, and I’m not sure now what the future holds for him at UVa.

MARC: Monroe and Sintim did what I expected. Cedric Peerman proved to be the rock of the Virginia offense in most contests, both on and off the field. Hall stood out to me based solely on the last game of the season, when he got the start at quarterback and rushed for 109 yards and two touchdowns. With a new offensive coordinator on the horizon, what will this mean for Vic?

3. Which result or string of results surprised you the most on the schedule in 2008?

Coach Al Groh’s team won four straight starting with a dominant win against Maryland.

KRIS: I’ll say Georgia Tech. Yes, Virginia had won three straight games, but three wins had come at home and the Yellow Jackets were strong in the running game, something that gives trouble at times to UVa’s 3-4 defense. Plus, Marc Verica and the Cavaliers hadn’t exactly played very well on the road on the previous trip to Duke, the season’s other truly surprising outcome. Throw in the fact that they needed to drive the field in the final moments to get it done and it was a surprising day for Hoo fans.

DAVID: Maryland was 4-1 and had won three straight, most recently at Clemson. Virginia was 1-3 and had been outscored by its three Division I-A opponents 128-20, most recently 31-3 at Duke. So what happened Oct. 4 at Scott Stadium? Cavs 31, Terps 0. Surprising doesn’t begin to describe. Not necessarily the result. Virginia is a tough out at home, particularly at night. But a 31-point blowout?! Much like last season’s 48-0 kneecapping of Miami, I never saw it coming.

JEFF: The 31-0 rout over Maryland was a shocker – not so much that the Cavaliers won the game, because they often play well at Scott Stadium, but the margin of victory. The season-ending four-game losing streak was the biggest surprise to me. After climbing out of the Coastal Division cellar with four straight wins, Virginia was in a great position entering November. The trips to Wake Forest and Virginia Tech never were going to be easy, but the home games against Miami and Clemson were very winnable, and I figured the Cavaliers would go at least 1-3 down the stretch and thus become bowl-eligible. The crushing loss to Miami was the turning point for UVa, which never recovered.

MARC: The four-game winning streak, followed by the four-game losing streak. Virginia looked like a solid team to be reckoned with, especially after the win at Georgia Tech. After the loss to Duke, many had written the Cavaliers off, but they responded for the four straight wins. The four game-losing streak to close out the season was equally as surprising to me, especially after they looked so strong. The Miami game was the turning point in my opinion, as Virginia played 59 minutes of good defense, before the Hurricanes were able to tie the game and win in overtime.

JERRY: To be honest, I thought the four straight wins were a near miracle. After the start Virginia had and losing Lalich, I really didn’t think they would win more than possibly one more game. Groh and his staff had to essentially go back to the drawing board and start all over again. To beat ECU, Maryland, UNC, and Georgia Tech in a row was remarkable under the circumstances. They should have beaten Miami, too.

4. Did Virginia exceed, meet, or fall short of your expectations in 2008?

KRIS: The team fell short of my expectations in 2008. And yes, I know the drill about attrition, three starting quarterbacks in 12 months, injuries, and so on. Still, looking at the schedule in the preseason and how it set up, I expected the Cavaliers to post at least a 6-6 record with a decent chance at 7-5 and an outside shot at 8-4. Flawed expectations? Maybe to some, but looking back at my preseason thoughts, I still am not sure how this year’s team lost miserably at Duke and UConn while also dropping winnable games against Miami and Clemson at home. I still believe that with my postseason goggles too. This team should have made a bowl game, adversity aside.

JEFF: I expected the Cavaliers to go 6-6 or better during the regular season, so they fell short. Looking back, I still believe they should have gone at least 6-6.

MARC: 5-7 is what I predicted at the beginning of the season, though I was wrong on several individual games. The way this team lost players dating back to last Christmas was a big factor. The offense seemed to fall off the charts the final four games of the season, which I did not expect following the winning streak, but in terms of overall record, it’s what I thought would happen back in August.

JERRY: Well, that’s a conditional question. Had Lalich not been booted, I believe Virginia would have won 7 games, possibly 8 and won the division. Before the season, I thought 7 wins would have been about right with a new offensive line and a QB who was going to get better as the season progressed. I also wasn’t completely sold on the secondary, and an unproven place-kicker.

I will admit that I didn’t think – before the season – that 7 wins would have been good enough to win the division. I did believe that most of the ACC was pretty even in talent, but I didn’t believe it would be as unpredictable as it turned out to be.

As stated above, once UVa started so poorly and had to start over with an inexperienced QB, I really thought they were done. So, in that respect, they overachieved in my book. I wouldn’t have given them a snowball’s chance to win five with a chance to win six or seven after that start. The fact that Groh and his staff kept this team from falling apart at the seams was a true testament to his leadership and the rest of the staff. And, it was a testament to the players for believing in what their coach kept telling them. I talked to a great number of current and retired coaches around the country and still am, and they all were amazed that Virginia could turn it around after that shaky start. Beating Georgia Tech – in my mind, the most talented and best team in the ACC – on the road? Are you kidding me?

DAVID: Before the season I had the Cavaliers pegged for six or seven wins. Some will call that unrealistic or unfair, but I wasn’t sold on North Carolina, expected Georgia Tech to struggle in Paul Johnson’s first season, considered Miami coach Randy Shannon a liability and figured Duke would be, well, Duke.

5. Who/which storyline are you looking forward to watching this spring and next season?

KRIS: The safeties. With Byron Glaspy departing, there is a starting safety slot up for grabs. Will someone emerge from the depth chart like a Rico Bell or Trey Womack ? Will someone move over from corner like the returning Chris Cook or perhaps Mike Parker? How do youngsters like Ausar Walcott factor in to the mix? What impact will legendary Cavalier safety Anthony Poindexter, moving over from running backs coach, have on the defensive backs? I can’t wait.

The quarterback battle is one storyline that is drawing interest.

MARC: I’m really looking forward to what lies ahead at quarterback. Assuming Jameel Sewell returns in January, Al Groh and company will enter spring practice with two quarterbacks that have starting experience, which is two more than they had last spring. Sewell and Marc Verica will be a good battle, and another question is what will happen with Vic Hall? Options are numerous for the Virginia offense in 2009.

JERRY: There’s a few. The most obvious is quarterback with Sewell coming back. I think that if the new offensive coordinator has his way, Sewell will become an immediate star in the ACC. I believe we’ll all keep a watchful eye on whether the offensive line continues to develop, what is going to happen at linebacker with three strong leaders leaving the program, whether or not the staff can find a kicker they can rely upon, who is going to step up at running back, and how Vic Hall is going to be used.

Sewell has the mobility to make himself a household name around the state and I believe the kid has learned a valuable lesson while missing a year of the game he loves. I’m interested to see who will play left tackle and how well. Seems like it’s wide open at that spot. Who is going to be the stud running back that Virginia needs? I might not be surprised if it turns out to be a true or redshirt freshman. I’m anxious to see if Chris Cook can regain his previous status and take his game to the next level, and if Dowling can elevate his game to All-ACC caliber. I’m anxious to see if Vic Hall will become a two-way performer much like Macho Harris. They had better come up with a more reliable kicker if they want to win close games. They might have to find one that’s not currently in the program.

DAVID: Like everyone else, I’m curious to see how Virginia evolves at quarterback with Marc Verica , Jameel Sewell , and perhaps Vic Hall, working under a new coordinator. How that dynamic works will determine, in large measure, if Al Groh survives as head coach.

JEFF: First and foremost, the competition at quarterback. Will Groh go with Jameel Sewell or with Marc Verica or with Vic Hall, or some combination of those three? Also worth following will be the battles at tailback – there’s been a lot of buzz about Torrey Mack , who redshirted this year – and at linebacker. With Jon Copper, Clint Sintim and Antonio Appleby gone, no position faces a bigger transition than linebacker.

6. Where does UVa go from here?

KRIS: It’s either up in results or back to the proverbial beginning. After two losing seasons in three years for the first time since the early 1980s, the program is not just in a hole, it’s in a trench. In fact, it’s so deep that we’re in danger of losing sight of the light here in terms of fan enthusiasm and support. UVa has absolutely no excuse to have two losing seasons in three years or three in a decade. None. Simply put, 2009 is a critical season for the Virginia football program.

JERRY: Well, I wouldn’t be surprised that under the given circumstances that the staff has to go into the true freshman ranks to pull out a few key players to raise the talent level. I imagine there’s some redshirt freshmen that are ready to contribute a bit as well. The fact that a new offensive coordinator will bring some fresh ideas to the program can only be a good thing and I think Virginia’s offense could evolve into an explosive attack almost overnight. It seems to me that the Cavs’ coaches are making some great strides in recruiting around the state and that can only be a good thing. Virginia seemed to be close to matching Virginia Tech’s talent this past season, so the Cavaliers shouldn’t be considered at a lower level any longer. Yeah, I know, they haven’t beaten Tech in a long time, but the game was pretty close in Blacksburg and it wasn’t unthinkable that the Cavs could have pulled off the upset. There used to be a big gap and it has narrowed considerably. If Al makes the right hire at the other spot, things could start to happen. I truly wish he would hire Danny Wilmer to coach the defensive line. With him on the staff, I think UVa could land a lot of big-time players out of Virginia and North Carolina. The schedule next season is a challenging one, but if the Cavs can win eight games, go to a bowl, then I believe they could be good for a long, long time. That is barring a bunch of key guys flunking out again.

DAVID: To be charitable, the program is in disarray. Paying customers are unhappy, witness the record-low home attendance (worst since the 2000 stadium expansion). The administration – athletic director Craig Littlepage hasn’t distinguished himself here, either – forced Groh to remove his son as offensive coordinator, and the team dropped its final four games for the first time since 1982, producing a losing season for the second time in three years. Next season could easily spiral into a weekly referendum on Groh, and absent a winning record and/or victory over Virginia Tech, it’s difficult to imagine him returning in 2010. That said, this is the ACC, where the difference between 4-8 and 8-4 is minimal.

JEFF: Groh returns the foundation of a solid team, with a well-regarded recruiting class coming in. But if he’s ever going to make Virginia a consistent contender in the Coastal, he must find a way to limit the offseason attrition that has crippled his program. As many observers have noted, Virginia might well have been one of the Coastal’s top teams had players such as Jameel Sewell , Chris Cook , Mike Brown, and J’Courtney Williams remained in the program. If UVa again loses more than a player or two from its projected two-deep for 2009, another disappointing season is likely.

MARC: In one word … up. With a revamping of the coaching staff and a lot of experienced players returning, Virginia is primed to have a better season. I don’t know if they’ll compete for an ACC title, but keep in mind, they were in first place this season with a team that finished 5-7. Cavalier fans can expect big things in 2009.

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