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There are plenty of questions for the Virginia football team entering the 2009 campaign. I sent out a few to some media members as part of the month’s Hoo Preview. What are you watching with the new offense? What are realistic expectations for the secondary? See the answers to those and more as David Teel of The Daily Press, Leon Oliver of The Best Seat in the House and Sabre EDGE subscriber The Schm-Hoo join me for a Sabre Roundtable.
Gregg Brandon steps in as UVa’s new offensive coordinator and lots of fans are excited about the potential of his spread offense. What are you keeping an eye on with the new offense early in the season?
DAVID: Gregg Brandon’s innovative formations and plays aside, the end game is about production. Virginia ranked 105th nationally or worse last season in total offense, rushing offense and scoring offense. Plus, the Cavaliers scored more than 21 points only three times. With a defense that lost its top five tacklers from last season – this presumes Vic Hall remains at quarterback – that must change for Virginia to avoid a losing season. And the reversal needs to happen quickly. Sure, William & Mary is I-AA, but the Tribe should field one of its best recent defenses. Also remember that Virginia mustered only 16 points last season against I-AA Richmond.
The Schm-Hoo: As any chef will tell you, anything worth eating is prepared with the ingredients in proper balance. Otherwise, you end up with a dish that’s either repulsive or insipid. Neither are going to earn you many points. In the seasons since Bill Musgrave left, we’ve gone from a bland offense that lacked the flavor of hot water to some sort of hybridized Texas Tech soy sauce ice cream abomination. Not to fear! The new offensive coordinator’s cookbook is full of delicious recipes, using fresh ingredients with just the right amount of spice and Chez Brandon is set to open at 1815 Stadium Road this September. Alright, analogy over.
Between Hall, Simpson, Green, Mack, Brown, Sewell, Jackson, Verica, etc. etc. etc., I imagine Gregg Brandon to be a little giddy at what he sees before him. Exactly how he will utilize his different weapons at the skill positions likely will remain a mystery for another month, but the one thing we are sure to see is wider splits on the line. As all of the options at quarterback are capable runners (some more than others, obviously), the O-Line holding its blocks could mean the difference between breaking a long run and a broken play when no receivers are open. And, assuming Vic Hall gets a fair number of snaps behind center, those passing lanes staying open is key for him to see his targets.
The wider splits also mean that the mobility of the line must also improve. Running plays in Brandon’s offense require a healthy dose of backside guard and tackle pulling. We’ve been doing that fairly well the past few years and I would be surprised if Dave Borbely doesn’t have our guys prepared again. As the big boys up front take to Brandon and Borbely’s instruction, so goes the season.
Javaris Brown is one of many available weapons for the spread offense.
So, while I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on the offensive line this season, what I’ll really be LOOKING at is pass distribution. We lost over 80% of our receiving yards so the learning curve of the wide receivers will have to be rather steep if we’re to have a just moderate level of success. The talent and depth is here to do better than that. In fact, we have eight receivers who could see significant minutes this fall: Javaris Brown , Kris Burd , Jared Green , Raynard Horne , Dontrelle Inman , Staton Jobe , Tim Smith , and Matt Snyder. I also hope to see Hall out there catching passes. I’ll discuss that next.
But, that’s just the receivers. You can bank on the backs getting plenty of catches in Brandon’s offense and we have a few that are very good at it. Simpson caught 43 passes two years ago, Jackson has very good hands for a guy his size, and both Torrey Mack and Max Milien looked very good catching the ball in the spring. Oh, and Joe Torchia , who is as fast as and as big as Heath Miller, runs good routes, and has very good hands, will be a threat whenever he is split out, either as a receiver or as a blocker on sweeps and screens.
Prediction: Virginia will rank no worse than 60th nationally in scoring or total offense in 2009.
LEON: I think everyone’s collective eyes will be on who is under center for the Cavaliers early in the season. I believe the success, or lack thereof, with this new offensive scheme with Coach Brandon rests on the shoulders of whoever is under center for the Cavaliers. That being said, whoever is under center will be handed the keys to a more up-tempo, more wide-open attack than what we’ve seen in recent years in Charlottesville. If Vic Hall doesn’t wind up being the starting quarterback, it will be interesting to see how he is utilized offensively in this scheme; with Vic’s speed he is a player that can take it to the house on every play and I imagine there will be a concentrated effort to get the ball into his hands as often as possible.
KRIS: Run blocking. I know that seems like an odd answer for a system perceived as pass-happy. Truthfully though, almost every team that runs the spread features frequent running plays and some spread teams are flat out run heavy. Throw in the fact that Al Groh has always said you have to run the ball to win even if you throw the ball to score and you can bet there will be plenty of running calls in the book, particularly for situations with late-game leads. Plus, two of the three quarterback candidates are big-time running threats in Vic Hall and Jameel Sewell . Last season, UVa really struggled with run blocking, particularly early in the year. I’ll be interested to see how a more experienced line handles the new offense, particularly on running plays.
Many of the familiar offensive playmakers like Cedric Peerman , Maurice Covington , and Kevin Ogletree have moved on so who do you see emerging as one of the offense’s playmakers this season?
Can Vic Hall help boost the Hoos’ offense this season?
DAVID: Please excuse me for answering a question with some questions, but does anyone NOT expect Hall to start at quarterback? And is anyone NOT intrigued to see if, five years later, his outrageous numbers from Gretna High School translate to college? If Mikell Simpson circa 2007 replaces the ’08 model, Virginia will have a versatile, game-turning tailback. Spring Games can be more misleading than political ads, but redshirt freshman receiver Javaris Brown sure was impressive that afternoon.
The Schm-Hoo: I thought about making a more adventurous pick that would make some people scratch their heads while others might say, “Hmm, ya know … I was thinking the same thing.” And while I really do think guys like Mack and Simpson and Green and Brown and Jackson will all make positive impacts this year, there is really only one answer to this question: Mr. Vic Hall. I won’t bother to bring up Hall’s high school numbers (8,731 yards passing, 104 TDs; 5,039 yards rushing, 66 TDs) because everyone has seen them so many times. And I won’t go over [again] why he should have been in the mix at quarterback the day he set foot in Charlottesville. Everyone is probably tired of hearing all that. Instead, I’ll go over how I hope and expect to see our beloved No. 4’s talent utilized.
I don’t think anyone doubts that Vic Hall will see significant time at quarterback. There, he will be at home for the first time since he was actually AT HOME in Gretna. He showed what he could do with just a little practice against one of the best defenses in the country and I believe we’ll see great improvement at that position compared to what we saw in that one game. His throwing the occasional pass should be enough to provide that. Vic has shown that, given just a crack of daylight, he’s a threat to cross that plane no matter how far way it is. Spread out the secondary, make the defense guess what’s going to happen and there will be broken ankles all over the field.
The spot where I want to see plenty of Vic is at slot receiver. He hasn’t shown how well he catches the ball save some punt returns and interceptions over the past two seasons, but, given the fact that so many high school QBs make their way as some sort of receiver – Heath Miller, Matt Jones, Michael Crabtree, Kerry Meier, and Antwaan Randle-El to name just a few – and that his hands were good enough to be the holder on field goals the last two seasons, I would imagine that Hall will be able to play that position competently. He certainly has the smarts, the quicks, and the speed to do so. However, catching balls from Jameel or Marc is only part of what I expect to see from him out of the slot. There are a slew of plays in Gregg Brandon’s cookbook (sorry) that involve motion from the slot and Vic Hall’s skill set makes him a dangerous weapon on sweeps, options, double options, triple options, option passes, reverses, and so on and so on and so on. Like I said before, Brandon has got to be a little giddy at what he has to work with. And Hall being that man in motion at the snap is sure to grab the attention of the defense just about every time. It’s hard not to let your focus wander a bit when a guy who can motor, cut, and pass on the run goes zipping past your eyes. I expect big things from our team captain in the ’09 season.
LEON: For this team to be successful this year I believe Mikell Simpson has to re-emerge and exhibit the playmaking ability he showed in the latter half of the 2007 season. Simpson’s production was considerably down last season and he was lost for the remainder of the season after suffering an injury in the Miami game, but I believe he can be very successful in Coach Brandon’s spread offense. Simpson has the ability to break it on every touch, as he exhibited with his 96-yard TD scamper in the Gator Bowl during the 2007 season. I believe the staff will make an effort to get Mikell the ball in space and that is going to create a lot of problems for defenses trying to tackle him in the open field.
The receiving corps has to step up this year as well, Jared Green had 12 catches and a touchdown last year. Kris Burd I believe has the ability to step up and produce this year and do not forget Dontrelle Inman who showed glimpses in 2007 of being a solid contributor to this offense. I think the change in philosophy offensively will give these players a chance to shine.
KRIS: I’m thinking Javaris Brown will be one of the playmakers. He’s got a lot of speed and good burst with the ball in his hands. Even the watered-down Spring Game offense showed that the Hoos are going to get the ball to receiver types in various ways – traditional passes, varying screens, end-around hand-offs, and so on. Coach Groh said after spring practice that Brown is the type of player that does something impressive every day in practice so you’re always thinking a big moment could be close on offense. I can’t wait to see that on Saturdays!
Defensively, the linebacker trio of Jon Copper, Clint Sintim , and Antonio Appleby is also gone. Which “new” linebacker are you the most interested to watch?
Cam Johnson could emerge as a playmaker at linebacker.
DAVID: Sophomore Cam Johnson is listed behind Aaron Clark at outside linebacker on the media guide depth chart. But with a 6’4″, 255-pound frame and serious athletic credentials, he merits watching. He played wide receiver and defensive back at his Washington D.C. high school, where he also was a double-figure scorer in basketball. Sounds like someone who could thrive in the 3-4 defense.
The Schm-Hoo: The answer to this one is easy for me: Aaron Clark . Maybe that’s because the other “new” guys have already had some moments or have another year or more to go, but, when I think about how Aaron finally broke through the depth chart to start in his final year of eligibility only to blow out his knee in his first game, I feel like anything short of giving an insane amount of support and attention to this young man is out of the question.
Whether he is the starter or not, he is going to see plenty of action. It shouldn’t be forgotten that he was playing as well as anyone on defense when he went down against USC. In fact, he had the only tackle in their backfield all game. With plenty of time to heal up and a drive to succeed that has been building so long now that his teammates cannot help but be positively affected by it, I see young Mr. Clark becoming an absolute terror at the edge against every team we face. Like everyone here, I’m looking forward to seeing some Cavalier football in a few weeks, but, just as much, I look forward to seeing Aaron Clark plant his hand in the dirt, take that monkey off his back, and start beating quarterbacks with it.
LEON: To me, this is one of the more interesting stories going into the 2009 season: the rebuilding on of the linebacker corps. Appleby and Sintim, especially, were exceptional talents on the field and while Jon Copper may not have been the most athletic player on the field, no one could match his effort or football knowledge – he was always in the right place at the right time and I feel his presence will really be missed this year.
That being said, I really like Cam Johnson to be the next linebacker to shine for the Cavaliers. Johnson at 6’4″, 225 pounds, is a very skilled athlete, evident by his prowess on the basketball court in high school. He played in six games as a true freshman last year and to me looked better and better in each game. I think it is only a matter of time before Johnson is cemented as a starter and a household name to Cavalier fans. Another player to keep a watch on is Steve Greer , from all accounts Greer is a smart football player, hard-worker, and has instincts to overcome his size – sure sounds a lot like the second coming of Jon Copper to me.
KRIS: For some reason, I find this a hard question to pin down an answer for. I don’t really consider Aaron Clark or Darren Childs new linebackers, though they could be new starters this fall. Cam Johnson definitely could become a star on defense after showing positive signs as a true freshman. Steve Greer has been drawing Jon Copper comparisons.
In the end, I’ve decided to go with Terence Fells-Danzer . An in-state recruit, TFD received four stars from Rivals and was named a PrepStar All-American. At Culpeper as a senior, he piled up 82 tackles and 7 sacks. I’d like to see what kind of athleticism Fells-Danzer could add to the inside linebacker position for the Hoos.
The secondary appears to be a strength of this defense and fan favorite Anthony Poindexter has moved over to coach the unit. What do you think are the realistic expectations for this unit in 2009?
Ras-I Dowling and his secondary mates look very talented on paper.
DAVID: If you like tall corners, this secondary is promising with Ras-I Dowling and Chris Cook , both 6’2″. I’ve been a fan of Dowling’s since his trying game at North Carolina State as a true freshman in 2007. The Wolfpack picked on him, with some success, but he still busted up five passes. And let’s be honest. For all his unselfishness and versatility, Hall was an average corner. So having Cook back is a plus. As at corner, there’s depth and experience at safety. Now look at the schedule. Top-shelf passers are difficult to find – Southern Mississippi’s Austin Davis (23 touchdowns, eight picks last season) may be the best.
The Schm-Hoo: Virginia has what many people much more knowledgeable than I are calling the best secondary since Ronde Barber and Co. back in ’95 … or maybe ever. So, let’s go down the list. Ras-I Dowling will probably be First-Team All-ACC. Chris Cook will find his way on an All-ACC team. Corey Mosley and Rodney McLeod , though young, played very good football in their first season in action. Between Chase Minnifield , Dom Joseph , and Mike Parker at corner and Ausar Walcott , Trey Womack , Brandon Woods , and Matt Leemhuis at safety, the depth chart is so swollen with talent that we’ll probably see a good deal of nickel on first and second downs just to get those guys on the field.
Now, it’s a pretty safe assumption that players from one year will be better the next, but the improvement we will to see in the secondary in 2009 could be tremendous. Poindexter is the best to ever play defensive back at Virginia. Period. Now he is, for the first time, coaching his old position. I simply cannot help but feel like the boys in the defensive backfield are going to absolutely butcher anybody dumb enough to encroach upon their turf. The talent is there. The depth is there. The coach is there. And so the big plays will be there, too.
What we are absolutely certain to see is a secondary with the right attitude. Dex turned an ordained minister into a wrecking ball who would just as soon plant a defender’s head in the dirt like it was a rose bulb as pour him some grape juice at communion. It’s a lovely thing to think that he’ll be in charge of a group whose job it is to hit people as hard as possible. We are about to see some delectable nastiness unleashed on wide receivers this year. A lot of feelings are going to get hurt out there. Wild hyenas! Swarming pterodactyls! Sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads! I can hardly wait to hear what hilarious nonsense Doc Walker comes up with!
LEON: As a Cavalier fan this is the unit that really has to have you excited for the 2009 season. Headlined by All-ACC second-teamer Ras-I Dowling, plus the return of Chris Cook , youngsters like Corey Mosley , Rodney McLeod , and Chase Minnifield looking to build on last year’s experience and Anthony Poindexter shifting over to coach the secondary. Exciting for sure. This could be the best secondary in Charlottesville in a decade. This unit I believe will be the strength of this team and will be one of the best, if not the best unit in the Atlantic Coast Conference. I would not be surprised at the end of the season to see Dowling’s name on many All-America lists. I think the depth of this unit is a big advantage as well; it says a lot when you can move a player like Vic Hall over and hand him the offensive playbook only.
KRIS: Hmm. I would submit “big hits, forced turnovers, and a few burnt toast moments” as a fair barometer. Can this group deliver those three things? Without question. Honestly, the likely starting quartet of Ras-I Dowling, Chris Cook , Corey Mosley and Rodney McLeod brings a nice blend of skills. Big hitters? Cook and Mosley. Ball hawks? Dowling and McLeod. Strong man coverage skills? Cook, Dowling and McLeod. Tough against the run? Mosley and Cook. A little bravado? All of the above.
That’s without even mentioning the depth created by Chase Minnifield , Mike Parker, and Trey Womack , who all have seen game action. Then throw in Dom Joseph , Matt Leemhuis , and others and the secondary looks like a very, very good unit.
The Hoos could use a boost in the return games on special teams. Will the return games improve this season? Why or why not?
DAVID: Virginia has not returned a kickoff or punt for a touchdown since 2004. Kansas State last season scored on a kick return, punt return and four blocked punts. That’s a primary reason Cavaliers coach Al Groh hired deposed K-State coach Ron Prince to coordinate special teams. That’s also a reason Groh became most animated during the Spring Game when Jared Green and Rodney McLeod blocked punts. Many of the schemes Prince brings come from his special teams assistant last season, Jeff Rodgers. Kicking game contributions from the likes of Green, Hall, McLeod and Chase Minnifield could be the difference between 5-7 and 7-5 – if the Cavs find a dependable kicker.
The Schm-Hoo: Over the past three seasons, Virginia has averaged 8.1 yards per punt return and just 21.2 yards per return on kickoffs with no returns for a touchdown during that time. We haven’t returned a punt for a score since 2004 when Alvin Pearman returned one 70 yards in the second quarter of the season opener against Temple and the last kickoff return for a touchdown came the next week when Marquis Weeks took one the length of the field against UNC. That means it has been 59 games since Virginia has returned a kick of any kind for a score. Does that make anyone else a little sick? Thought so.
If Ron Prince’s track record with Kansas State is any indication, he will be the cure. From 2005-08, KSU, under Prince, averaged 16.1 yards per punt return (including a ridiculous 23.6 in ’07) plus 13 TDs. As for kickoff returns during that same period, they averaged 23.0 yards and added 5 TDs. That would be enough for me to be pretty optimistic about the prospects for our return teams, but there’s more.
Nobody but Al Groh knows who will be returning punts and kicks this season, but my money is on Javaris Brown on punts and Chase Minnifield on kickoffs. If that’s who we see, I think we’re in good shape. Brown runs fast – as he showed in the Spring Game – and I look forward to that “wiggle” JHoo spoke of in his “Summer Reading” article. Minnifield looked just great on kickoff returns last season, averaging 23.2 yards per return. With Prince instructing both of them along with the rest of the guys on the return teams, we should see that horrible streak end very soon.
One last note even though it’s not on returns: Ron Prince’s special teams units have blocked 15 punts and kicks over the last three seasons, including 9 in 2008.
LEON: Special teams always seem to be an enigma in Charlottesville, but I have some optimism for the return units this year. Having Ron Prince return to Al Groh’s staff to coach the special teams after being the head coach at Kansas State from 2006-2008 will almost certainly provide a boost to the return game. Coach Prince’s record speaks for itself – the Wildcats led the nation in kickoff returns and kickoff returns for TDs in 2006, punt returns and punt return touchdowns in 2007, and punt return touchdowns in 2008. That certainly leads to optimism for the return game in Charlottesville this season. Chase Minnifield , Rodney McLeod , and Vic Hall return as players who have seen action returning punts and/or kickoffs and I believe under the tutelage of Coach Prince this unit should show a great deal of improvement in the 2009 season.
KRIS: Absolutely. There’s no question that the return game will improve. I believe coach Ron Prince will work diligently on special teams and wrinkles for the varying groups on that side of the ball. As a former offensive coordinator and head coach, he’s definitely not in over his head either. Add in the fact that some explosive playmakers are emerging back there – like about-to-break-one Chase Minnifield – and it’s pretty clear that the return units have a good chance of looking a lot better this fall.