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In the first Sabre Roundtable published as a part of this year’s Hoo Preview, guest panelists answered some questions about the UVa football team. In Roundtable II, I asked another set of contributors to give their thoughts on more questions as the Hoo Preview rolls on. Does Virginia need a go-to receiver? Who should return punts this season? See the answers to those and more as Jerry Ratcliffe of The Daily Progress, Marc Davis of WCAV and Sabre fan UVAlex29 join me for another Sabre Roundtable.
The offensive line returns four starters from last year – Will Barker (RT), Austin Pasztor (LG), Jack Shields (C), and B.J. Cabbell (RG) – and replaces NFL-bound Eugene Monroe with Landon Bradley . Which player’s growth will be most important to the O-Line’s success this season?
JERRY: I think without a doubt it’s the development of Landon Bradley that will be the most important for this offensive line to establish itself. The left tackle is the guy who has to keep the pass rush off the quarterback’s blind side (assuming Jameel Sewell ‘s not the starter) and if he can’t do that, it presents a dangerous problem. All of a sudden, you have to keep an extra back in to make sure the QB doesn’t get hammered. I think a little wider line split in the spread (nothing outrageous like Texas Tech, but a little more of a split) will help create some lanes, but this offensive line should be much improved over last year’s because of a year’s maturation, development in strength and experience, but largely with communication. That’s key on the line.
UVAlex29: Individually, Landon Bradley has to grow into a first-team player and mesh with the returning starters. It’s tough to replace a top 10 pick in one of the most pivotal spots on the line. He will have to protect Vic Hall or Marc Verica ‘s blind side, if either one is to start. But the most important growth on the O-Line will have to be the growth of the whole unit on running plays. Cedric “Rev Run” Peerman is no longer here to take handoffs and create something out of nothing. There have to be gaps created and they need to be done game-to-game.
MARC: Bradley fitting in and maturing quickly will be the most important thing to the offensive line this year. Barker headlines the group, with the others gaining key experience last season. Picking up the void that Monroe leaves will not only fall on Bradley, but the entire group. The offense will only go as far as these five players take them, but Bradley moving along and progressing at a faster-than-normal rate is the key to having the complete puzzle.
PAUL: You could make a good case for either Landon Bradley or Will Barker – Bradley filling Eugene Monroe ‘s spot, Barker being a consistently productive right tackle. But, I am going to go with Jack Shields. The center is the brain on the offensive line in terms of making the line calls; Shields must be able to understand the nuances of the offense to make the right calls on the line. Admittedly, line calls themselves don’t change too much even with a different offense, but understanding the play that is being called is the basis for what calls to make on the line.
Virginia lost its top three receivers in catches from last season. With Gregg Brandon’s new offense, do the Cavaliers need a go-to receiver? If not, why not? If so, who will it be?
JERRY: I think every offense needs a go-to receiver no matter what formation it uses. However, the spread presents many more players with more opportunity to play a role. In some spreads, there are as many as eight to 10 receivers with catches in a game. I don’t think that will be the case at Virginia this season, but we’ll see. Personally, I think Mikell Simpson could be the go-to-receiver from his running back position. We’re waiting to see what kind of receiver that Torrey Mack is … we’ve heard he is as talented as Wali Lundy, but that remains to be seen. I think Jameel Sewell can be a dangerous receiver in the slot. Tim Smith has impressed me in the practices I’ve seen and Javaris Brown . The coaches are high on Matt Snyder, so I wouldn’t be surprised if all these guys and a few more contribute greatly to the passing game … and don’t forget Joe Torchia at a split tight end, creating mismatches over the middle.
Jared Green is a candidate to be one of Virginia’s “go-to” receivers.
UVAlex29: The Hoos will most likely spread the ball around this year. I can see a different receiver stepping up each game, becoming the go-to receiver based on reads and mismatches. It’d be nice to have a dependable receiver, and it’s possible that relationships will be built between the starting quarterback and certain receivers, but I think the offense can produce by using all the options available. With some young, talented guys like Javaris Brown , Tim Smith , and Jared Green , and a stable of running backs including Simpson and Mack that can also catch, there’s no shortage of exciting options for our offense to use.
MARC: The Cavs definitely need a go-to receiver, and his name is Jared Green . Al Groh said during the offseason that Green would still have competed for the No. 1 WR spot, even if Kevin Ogletree would have returned for his senior season. He’s an offensive coordinator’s dream, and he’s the fastest player on the field at almost all times. Green headlines an underrated receiving corps, but look for him to have a breakout season, after one TD reception a year ago.
PAUL: With the number of Virginia’s untested receivers you’d like to say no, but given Gregg Brandon’s offense and the likely quarterback under center (ahem: Vic Hall), the answer appears to be a qualified yes. Brandon spent six seasons as a head coach and two as an offensive coordinator at Bowling Green; in all but two of those seasons, one receiver had at least 20 more receptions than any other receiver. One of the exceptions was in 2004 with Omar Jacobs under center, who even Brandon admitted “couldn’t run a lick” – his strength was spreading the ball around while staying in the pocket, and he became the MAC Player of the Year doing just that. The other year was 2008, when Bowling Green went 6-6, also with a primarily pocket-passing quarterback.
Why does a running quarterback need a receiver he can count on in Brandon’s offense? Who knows; maybe a running QB finds a comfort level with one guy or another in a broken play. Maybe the running quarterbacks tend to not be as great passers (a la Hall and Sewell), and therefore tend to rely more on an outstanding receiver. In any case, the trend is there.
It’s tough to say who that guy will be; Jared Green is a popular choice, and I’ll stick with that. I like his size (6’2”) combined with his speed. Brandon’s offense is based largely on match-ups, and Green’s assets appear to cause the most match-up problems. Either Mikell Simpson or Torrey Mack at the running back spot would also be a reasonable choice.
The defense lost its top five tacklers from last year. Who will pick up the most slack from that production this season?
JERRY: I think a couple of these linebackers will step up. Aaron Clark was having a really good game against Southern Cal last year before he blew out his knee in the third quarter. Denzel Burrell should be better with a year of starting under his belt. I’m hearing really good things about Cam Johnson. Who doesn’t like the way Corey Mosley hits? Rodney McLeod appears to be a real playmaker in the secondary. I believe Matt Conrath will come on strong at the defensive end spot and it will be interesting to see how freshman Will Hill performs.
Denzel Burrell will look to pick up his production at outside linebacker this season.
UVAlex29: I want to say the incoming linebackers for two reasons. If the new starting linebackers are making the tackles, then that means there is no big loss on production and that tackles are being made near the line of scrimmage. As much as I love our secondary unit this year, I hope the only tackles they have to make are on corner and safety blitzes. Specifically, I’ll be looking for Darren Childs and Aaron Clark to step up their production. They’re the seniors in the group and have proven to be active tacklers when in the game, so they should embrace their first-team roles this year.
MARC: Denzel Burrell and Aaron Clark are two names that Cavalier fans will become very familiar with this season. Clark started to make some noise in the first game against USC last year, before suffering a season-ending injury. Burrell got solid experience, learning from Clint Sintim , Jon Copper, and Antonio Appleby . Look for these two players to be near or at the top of the Cavaliers’ final season tackling stats.
PAUL: With the linebackers being the most inexperienced unit on the field, the question isn’t so much who will be the top five tacklers this season, but how often a tackle will be made when it should be made, particularly at linebacker. Steve Greer and Darren Childs at inside linebacker will likely end with plenty of tackles, because that is the way the 3-4 is designed – will they get anywhere close to the 182 tackles that Jon Copper and Antonio Appleby accounted for in 2008 is the better question. The same goes for Aaron Clark replacing Clint Sintim at OLB.
If the production at inside linebacker can’t be directly replaced, then it will obviously have to come from somewhere else. Denzel Burrell was No. 6 on that list last season, so he’s a pretty obvious candidate, especially now that the defense isn’t designed for Clint Sintim to do all the blitzing from the outside linebacker position. Corey Mosley is the most explosive tackler on the defense, and he finished at No. 8 on that list as a redshirt freshman; his numbers should improve. Chris Cook will probably do his fair share of tackling in the box, a role that Vic Hall once inhabited. And with the experience on the D-Line, Nate Collins , Matt Conrath , and Nick Jenkins should be able to plug more holes than they did last season.
The “playmakers” in Al Groh’s 3-4 defense are considered to be the linebackers. This year, though, the linebackers are potentially the weak spot of the three levels of defense – line, linebackers, secondary. Can the 3-4 and UVa’s defense in 2009 succeed without a strong linebacker corps? Why or why not?
JERRY: Well, I’m not sure this linebacking corps is all that weak. As mentioned earlier, Clark and Burrell could be very solid and Johnson could be that guy that puts a lot of heat on opposing quarterbacks from my viewpoint. Steve Greer is a bit of an unknown but Jon Copper said that Greer listened to everything he told him about how to be a successful linebacker and that can’t hurt. I believe this year’s linebackers will benefit greatly from having a more experienced defensive line in front of them to shield them from blockers, so that the linebackers can go make plays. That wasn’t always the case last year. In addition, should the linebackers not develop the way coaches believe they will, the coaches can do some things scheme-wise that can make up for it in some respect. The beauty of the 3-4 is that the offense knows the three linemen are coming after the quarterback on passing situations, but it doesn’t know where the fourth is coming from … could be any of the linebackers or a safety or a corner. Or a combination of those. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this defense throw more junk at opponents this year than in the past and in my book, that is a good thing.
UVAlex29: I think it can succeed. It’s not like the linebacker corps has been depleted completely. The talent is there, just not the game experience. Darren Childs proved last year he can step in and make the tackles, and younger guys like Cam Johnson were able to make an impact while on the field last year. It hurts to lose the core of last year’s corps, but it’s not like Jon Copper and Clint Sintim were unique players to the program. If Coach Groh has proven anything defensively, it’s that he can produce solid linebacker groups year in and year out. Sandwich that group with a solid D-Line and the best secondary unit I’ve seen in the Groh years and the defense should be O.K.
MARC: I think the linebackers are stronger than many people think, and will exceed expectations. Not only with Clark and Burrell, but with Darren Childs as well. However, the position is definitely not as strong as last year. This defense can be successful. Experience returns on the line, and the bright spot is the defensive backfield. Ras-I Dowling enters as one of the most exciting cornerbacks in the country, and Chris Cook returns after a year away from the program. Cook was one of the bright spots for the Cavaliers in 2007. Add Corey Mosley , Rodney McLeod and Chase Minnifield , and you’re looking at the one of the strongest defensive backfields in the ACC.
PAUL: The linebacker corps does have to be solid, but it doesn’t have to be as good as last year’s group. It’s no secret how the 3-4 works – the D-Line plugs the holes, the linebackers shoot the gaps. With the improved D-Line that Virginia has, though, those gaps should be easier to cover. And, with one of the best secondaries Al Groh has ever fielded, the linebackers should have another split second to get to the quarterback, and they don’t have to be as good in coverage. A good secondary also allows the defense as a whole to make the opposing offense more predictable, and the all-important turnover battle should be in Virginia’s favor more often. That said, this is a linebacker-based defense. The linebackers have to be able to make plays. They don’t have to be the strength of the defense, but they must hold their own. I think they will.
Vic Hall was the punt returner last year; while he is still taking reps in practice, he is likely to be saved for offensive plays at quarterback or elsewhere. The placekicker position saw a revolving door of players in 2008, though Robert Randolph returns having started the last three games. Who you would like to see start this season in those two positions?
JERRY: I don’t imagine we’ll see Vic Hall returning any punts because I firmly believe, as I have all year long, that he will be the starting quarterback. I liked what I saw in Tim Smith returning punts in practice. He has good hands to field the punt, which is the most important thing, and the speed and athletic ability to make something happen. I don’t know if that’s what Ron Prince is thinking, or how many others he is considering in the practices that we don’t see. I still think that sometime this season that Chase Minnifield is going to return some kind of a kick or punt for a touchdown. I believe that Robert Randolph will win the kicking job. He seems to be the most dependable even though his leg might not be as strong as Chris Hinkebein ‘s. I don’t know if the freshman – Drew Jarrett – is ready. I haven’t seen enough of him yet to make a determination.
UVAlex29: I like the way Hinkebein hit the ball at last week’s open practice and he also seems to have the strongest leg in the group, so I’d go with him. If he can match his power with some consistency, then I think we’ll be set. Needless to say, Connor Hughes nor Chris Gould are here to kick game-winning field goals, so the Hoos need to put games away with touchdowns this year. As for punt returning, I’m hoping a young speedster, like Tim Smith or Javaris Brown , can step into the role. It’s a good chance for one of the new guys to get some playing time and show what he can do. However, after watching all the muffed punts in last week’s practice, I’ll settle for anyone that consistently catch the ball.
MARC: Randolph seems the likely choice for place kicker, though Al Groh has options at returner. I think it would be interesting to see what Jared Green could do at this spot from time to time. His speed and agility make him a weapon. I think this is a possibility, though a deep receiving corps gives Groh options at this spot.
PAUL: Picking a kicker from this group is like picking your favorite third-world country. Though Randolph had a few adventures last season because he doesn’t always get the proper height on the ball coming off the ground, he appears to be the best choice. From watching him in the open practices, he appears to be able to hit the field goals that every Division I kicker should make – i.e., inside of 35 yards. Chris Hinkebein has a better leg than Randolph, but he is erratic, particularly when he doesn’t have the benefit of a tee; he will likely be used on kickoffs, as he ended last season. And Drew Jarrett didn’t seem to be a viable option yet from watching him at the open practices.
Punt returner is more of a puzzle. The most important quality at this position is that the guy can simply catch every ball cleanly; nothing is more devastating than a muffed punt. But there is just so much inexperience in all of the candidates, so who knows who can handle a punt in front of 60,000-plus fans with a tackler coming on full speed? You just can’t simulate that in practice. Since none of the candidates have done it before in a college game, I’d say give Tim Smith or Javaris Brown a try if either of them looks good enough on the practice field. They are both candidates, and they are exciting, explosive players who need to be utilized in some way.