Aaron Clark will see his first action since last year’s opener this Saturday against William & Mary.
From Al Groh on down to the players, Virginia insists that it treats every game the same.
At Monday’s press conference, though, reporters asked several variations of the same question: there has to be some difference in the mindset between opening with an FCS team like William & Mary this year and a perennial BCS National Championship contender like USC last year, right?
Fifth-year senior Aaron Clark had the best answer.
“It’s football,” he said. “You get out there on the field, and that person [on the other team] has practiced and done what you’ve done, whether they’ve got a Trojan on their helmets or they’ve got a Tribe symbol. You just go out there and try to do your best and try to keep your team going, and not really worry about the grandeur that comes with a lot of teams.”
The proof in treating every game the same is in last season, where the Cavaliers’ lone FCS opponent, Richmond, gave the Hoos a run for their money. The final score may have read 16-0 in Virginia’s favor, but it stood at 3-0 through three quarters, with the Spiders missing numerous chances to put points on the board. Coach Mike London’s squad went on to win the FCS National Championship, and it was easy for Groh and his players to see why.
Jimmy Laycock’s William & Mary took that same Richmond team to overtime last season before falling 23-20, and the Tribe played N.C. State to a respectable 34-24 loss to open last season, so this year’s FCS opponent is nothing to sneeze at either. Combine that with the fact that Virginia will be testing out a new quarterback, a new offense and five new assistant coaches – six if you count Groh as the official defensive coordinator – and this game has danger zone written all over it.
“It’s one of the highest scoring teams last year that they’ve had in Coach Laycock’s 30-year tenure,” Groh said, adding that, “they explain it as one of the better defensive teams that they’ve had. We can only take by comparison the games against N.C. State and Richmond which bookended their season. Clearly we have a very high regard for the Richmond team that we played – [William & Mary’s game against Richmond] went into overtime. We know the competition that N.C. State went up against, and that was a very, very challenging game for N.C. State, so that gives us a pretty good perspective of what that match-up is.”
Eyeing the Tribe
The Cavaliers have not played William & Mary in Groh’s tenure; the last time the teams matched up was in 1995. Groh does have a background, though, with Tribe coach Jimmy Laycock, who has a 189-138-2 record in 30 years with the school.
“Similar generation, for one thing. You don’t always get a chance to say that here,” Groh said. “Actually, a long time ago, the last time we played one of Jimmy’s teams was back in the 80s, when we were at Wake Forest, so it’s a tribute to his longevity there. You don’t stay one place as long and as successfully as Jimmy has without being an outstanding coach. His record clearly attests to that factor.”
Running backs coach Wayne Lineburg served as the running backs coach for William & Mary from 2000-04.
The Virginia coach with the most relevant experience with William & Mary, though, is running backs coach Wayne Lineburg, who was on Laycock’s staff as the running backs coach and recruiting coordinator from 2000-04. Groh used a particularly media-friendly analogy to describe how he is using Lineburg’s knowledge in preparation for Saturday.
“To certainly not do so would probably be negligent in terms of doing due diligence,” Groh said. “If any of you were going to write a story about somebody that one of your colleagues had already written a story about, at the very least you would read that story and perhaps also ask the person what it was like to interview that person. We just simply do likewise in this profession.”
As for the Tribe’s current personnel, the Virginia coaching staff has a familiarity with the players just because of locale.
“We are familiar with a lot of their players,” Groh said. “We make sure that every coach in whatever geographical area that he’s responsible for knows about every player in his area. So any of these players that from the state of Virginia or any of the areas that we recruit to varying degrees, most of them we have some awareness of.”
In particular, Groh was asked about W&M starting quarterback and Earlysville, Va., native R.J. Archer. After converting to wide receiver out of high school, Archer started one game at quarterback against Villanova last season – a productive outing at that, as Archer totaled 307 passing yards on 21-37 passing and a touchdown while also rushing for 20 yards and two touchdowns.
“It’s certainly not the same as if he had two seasons or three seasons as a starter, but being a local player, we know a lot more about him than if he was from Detroit just athletically,” Groh said. “He did start one game last year, and played a good amount of time in some other games.”
Groh also pointed out that Virginia is not shy about converting quarterbacks to wide receivers and then back again, and doing so successfully. Marques Hagans was one such player; Virginia may lay the groundwork for Riko Smalls to follow a similar path.
“As I recall, Marques’ first game as a quarterback after two games as a wide receiver, I think we won 51-7 or something like that,” Groh said, “so we have a very high appreciation of how a guy can step in and do very well, especially when he’s a veteran player.”
The Lone Punt Returner
Most quarterbacks don’t return punts.
Vic Hall will return punts for Virginia this Saturday.
Not the case for Vic Hall. If Groh was clear about anything Monday, it was that – whether he starts at quarterback or not – Hall will return punts on Saturday. On the depth chart, Hall is in fact the only player listed at punt returner.
“You don’t need to know the other names,” Groh said. “It’s gonna be Vic.”
Groh had said previously that he had no reservations about putting Hall in this role. While he admitted that having two other game-ready quarterbacks is a factor, he said the primary issue is choosing the best man for the job on special teams regardless of anything else. He reiterated that point Monday.
“Vic’s our best punt returner,” Groh said. “When it’s time to return a punt, that’s all that’s at heart; that’s all that’s at issue. We have a chance to score on that play, and we’ll put our guy back there who gives us the best chance to do that. We want to handle the ball cleanly; to do otherwise, we jeopardize our chance to win.”
Hall – who averaged 6.4 yards per return with a long of 16 yards as the punt returner last season – said that he wasn’t sure if he would still occupy this role as he transitioned back to the quarterback position.
“I guess midway through spring ball, I started working at punt return,” Hall said, “So I went from there.”
Hall admitted that he might be winded if he should spring a long return, but dismissed any notion that he couldn’t come in on the next play at quarterback. If he was needed on defense, he would play there too, he said.
For one of the most unselfish players on the team, of course, Hall’s attitude is not too surprising.
“He probably wants a few other jobs, too, if we let him have them,” Groh joked.
Quarterback Balancing Act
Little was revealed about the quarterback situation entering Saturday’s contest. Hall, Jameel Sewell and Marc Verica are all listed as the possible starter on the depth chart. When Groh was asked if he knew privately who would start, he said, “No, not necessarily.”
With Groh unwilling to lend even a hint as to who the quarterback might be, reporters continued to badger him about the challenges of giving three quarterbacks first-team reps. Do the players need to know who the starting quarterback is going to be? Does a deadline need to be set for when to name the starter? Do the players offer the coaches any insight on the matter?
Vic Hall and Jameel Sewell are both possible starters at quarterback this Saturday.
Answers: no, no, and yes, but it doesn’t change anything in this situation. To sum up: while it would be desirable to have one quarterback emerge as the star of the group, it also is nice to have backups who are game-ready should the starter go down. A deadline does not need to be set, because all the quarterbacks are looking pretty good, and the coaches are happy with the versatility of having three able quarterbacks with varying skill sets. And as for the players, they are comfortable with each QB.
In regard to reps in games, Groh said that he would be willing to use however many quarterbacks for any amount of reps at a time – whatever it takes.
“We’ll take the same attitude kind of like a pitcher in baseball,” Groh said. “However many pitchers we’ve gotta use to keep the other teams runs down so we can win the game, that’s however many we’re gonna use. If the starter can go all the way and win, then he’s gonna do that. If he needs a little relief, then we are gonna do that too.”
Perhaps it’s surviving the off-field hardships of a year ago. Perhaps it’s the desire to get to a bowl game after ending last year with a four-game skid and no bowl. But for whatever the reason, Groh said that this team is one that has grown extremely close in the preseason.
“Really starting at the most important levels, the players have shown from the very start – that is, really when we opened the gates on this raceway way back during the winter – to really bond together with a strong sense of purpose as a team,” Groh said. “When players become connected by more than just winning, then you have a really united, solid team.
“That’s a really important thing to do during training camp because it’s the one time of the year where, literally, we live together, we eat together, we meet together, we really don’t deal with too many people other than ourselves.”
In typical Groh fashion, he cited an NFL anecdote as evidence of this sentiment.
“There’s a very good statement by a player, Rich Schubert, who was an offensive guard on the Giants team that won the Super Bowl,” Groh said, “and he said that in his experience – and he had been in the league for a while – that it’s impossible for a team to achieve at a high level without having those really strong type of connections.”
Depth Chart Notes
- Walk-on sophomore Matt Snyder joins Jared Green as the two first-team wide receivers. Kris Burd sits behind Green, while Javaris Brown is behind Snyder.
- Mikell Simpson and Torrey Mack are listed as “or” at running back, with Keith Payne behind them.
- Robert Randolph is the first-team place kicker, followed by Chris Hinkebein . Randolph and Hinkebein are listed as “or” for the kickoff unit.
- Two true freshman are listed on the depth chart on the offensive and defensive units. Oday Aboushi backs up Landon Bradley at left tackle, while Will Hill is behind Matt Conrath at defensive end.
- The depth chart at kick returner is in the following order: Torrey Mack , Chris Cook , Corey Mosley , Tim Smith , Javanti Sparrow . Smith and Sparrow are both true freshmen.
“He makes them miss. That’s what he does.” – Al Groh on what is exciting about Torrey Mack .
“There’s a lot of occasions. A lot of occasions. Besides, [Rashawn Jackson ‘s] mother asked us to make sure we listed a fullback since he’s a fifth-year player.” – Groh on whether he would have two running backs on the field, and how the fullback would be incorporated.
“There are those players that we think have a chance to be pretty good contributors on Saturday. There are those players that aren’t quite at that level yet, but we see ’em fairly soon doing that, and part of their developmental process is just getting them into games. There are some other players that we can see that if their development continues, that at a certain point later in the year, may potentially move into that circumstance.” – Groh on how he will use his true freshman.
“I couldn’t find my car keys this morning.” – Groh on whether his memory was good enough to remember what William & Mary quarterback R.J. Archer looked like when he played for Albemarle High School.
“He’s progressed thoroughly all the way through. His game continues to grow. He will be, we anticipate, one of our leading special teams players. The way that players like Matt, Patch Duda, some of those kids have bought into their role on special teams has really filtered through the entire team, and there’s a lot of players that perk up and are really interested in watching those guys during the special teams periods, because they really do some outstanding things.” – Groh on walk-on receiver Matt Snyder starting Saturday.