Press Conference Notes ’09: Maryland

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Running back Mikell Simpson ran for 86 yards and four touchdowns against Indiana before sustaining an injury midway through the third quarter. His status for this Saturday’s game against Maryland is uncertain.

Virginia’s last trip to Maryland was one that many Cavalier fans will never forget. The Hoos’ 18-17 win on Oct. 18, 2007 in College Park was the narrowest of their NCAA-record five victories by two points or less; Mikell Simpson ‘s 14 consecutive touches on a game-winning touchdown drives included a barely-converted fourth down, and a one-yard dive to the goal line for the go-ahead score with only seconds remaining.

“The energy in that stadium was one of the most surreal experiences of my life,” linebacker Aaron Clark said. “That drive where he made the fourth down down there by the goal line, we’re all, over on the sideline holding hands, not watching plays, watching plays, trying to figure out if we made the first down. … It was a great football experience.”

This Saturday, Virginia will try to recapture that magic as it returns to College Park. Like two seasons ago, the Cavaliers ride a win streak – though this time it is just two games, as opposed to six two years ago. But, while those who witnessed the emotional win in 2007 were happy to share the fond memories, nobody on the team is leaning on that game nor Virginia’s 31-0 slaughter of the Terrapins last year in preparation for this Saturday.

“I think it’s unlikely that any of us feel that previous games with Maryland have any bearing on how this game is going to go,” Virginia coach Al Groh said. “This one is about the level of preparation that we have, how everybody understands and embraces the plan and most particularly how we execute on Saturday.”

Moving Along

Virginia’s turnaround from game one to game five wasn’t quite meteoric. It certainly started at rock-bottom with the Cavs’ first two humiliating losses – from there to the two-game win streak, though, there was the stepping stone of a three-point loss to Southern Mississippi, after which Groh said Virginia was “on the right track.”

In other words, Virginia’s performance hasn’t quite been a quantum leap from awful to superior. Although the turnaround is remarkable from two humbling home losses to a 40-point win against a Big Ten team, there is some evidence of a trend.

“We’ve seen, I would say, two and a half games of positive progress,” Groh said. “Half, not really speaking of the 30 minutes of that third game [against Southern Mississippi], but there was a good deal of positive progress, just not enough to call it a complete game obviously with the result. So we seem to be kind of getting our legs underneath us.”

One thing that has stood out, Groh and players have said, is a difference in practice habits. From the scout team to the first team, players have reportedly approached practice with more intensity and more energy. Groh indicated that, particularly for a young team, improvement in practice performance is not such a surprising development.

“Players need to learn how to practice at this level,” Groh said. “If you’re just a guy absorbing the block or a blocking dummy over there with a real helmet on, then we don’t know whether the play is working or not. Plus, it doesn’t force the guy who is trying to execute the play to get any better.”

Groh noted that he has the first teams play against each other during segments of every practice. That is something Virginia did a lot of last year, Groh said, which contributed to the Cavaliers’ midseason turnaround.

“We ask each player to challenge the player on the other side – challenge him to perform – in doing so, we’ll find out how well the play really does work,” Groh said. “A number of the players have commented about how that level of competition was a factor in the improvement of the play of the team throughout [last year], so we tend to do a good amount of that.”

Zane Parr was relentless in the pass rush on third downs, tallying four tackles and a sack.

One player that has been a microcosm of Virginia’s improvement in practice is Zane Parr , who plays defensive tackle on the Cavs’ sub packages. After receiving few snaps a season ago, Parr has been active in the snaps he has played this season; his 11 tackles have included two sacks.

“The Thursday video should highlight the teams preparation and the players’ preparation – in other words, everything that’s been covered during the course of the week happens on Thursday,” Groh said, “and there have been a number of Thursdays now where we’ve said, wow, this guy [Parr] has had one of the better practices of the week. So he is one of those players that has learned how to practice like a college player. He’s prepared for the games and improving his game, and as you all can see by watching him play, it’s showing up in terms of production.”

Fly on the Wall

In addition to changing practice habits, Clark said that the players took it upon themselves to change Virginia’s attitude in the locker room before games. Early in the season, Clark said, the Cavs were too subdued, not hyped enough to set a good tone early on.

“That was one of our points of concern in the first couple games, was that our locker room just wasn’t what it had been,” Clark said. “Everybody was anxious for the game, but I think some of that anxiety was in a bad way. It was time to refocus the locker room, and get everybody ready to play a football game.”

With the captains catalyzing the change, the Cavalier locker room became more boisterous, beginning with the game against North Carolina. And against Indiana, Clark said that the atmosphere was one that he won’t ever forget.

“I’m sure all of you guys would have liked to have been a fly on the wall before this game this past Saturday,” Clark said. “It went from two or three of us screaming and yelling, trying to get everybody jacked up, to the entire locker room out of their chairs, jumping around. It was something to see.”

Then, of course, Clark said, you have to use that energy to make a good play to start the game, just as corner Ras-I Dowling did when he forced a fumble on the Hoosiers’ first possession.

“You can go out there jacked up to the moon if you want to, but if you get beat on the first couple plays, that energy’s gonna deflate really fast,” Clark said. “Ras-I stripped the ball, Rodney [McLeod] took off and resparked the team. Even though we were still riding high, things like that really set the tone.”

Coming into Their Own

With Virginia’s resurgence, several younger players have emerged as playmakers on both sides of the ball. Offensively, sophomore wide receiver Kris Burd has emerged as a favorite target for quarterback Jameel Sewell . Burd’s 16 catches tie him with tailback Mikell Simpson for the team lead, and he appears to look better every game. His diving catch for 22 yards on Virginia’s second play from scrimmage against Indiana was easily his most acrobatic reception of the season.

“Clearly Kris Burd is making some plays for us,” Groh said. “Kris has done it here now three games in a row, so he would be deserving of going into that ’emerging receiver’ category.”

Kris Burd leads all of UVa’s wide receivers with 16 catches.

Burd was given just a three-star rating by out of Matoaca High School. Groh said that the biggest concern about Burd from football minds was his lack of “raw vertical speed,” but that he makes up for it in other ways.

“He’s got good quickness and he knows how to find openings,” Groh said. “We’ve had a lot of good players here that were not necessarily hyped-name players, but were guys who fit us well – fit our program, fit this school – and that’s an important thing in putting your team together.”

In addition to Burd, Groh also spoke of other young players who have emerged this season, whom Groh recruited because they were good fits to Virginia. Outside linebacker Cam Johnson has started to put his freakish athleticism to use, getting repeated pressure on the quarterback the last two games. The most appealing attribute of Johnson was one that Groh prizes at many positions – versatility. Johnson was a two-way player in football as a wide receiver and safety at Gonzaga High School, and also was an all-conference performer on the 37-0 basketball team his senior year, in a league that includes DeMatha.

“We could see that when you watched him play [basketball], he just had a sense of how to move and how to get open, when to be off-side on rebounds and when to be in front of the basket,” Groh said. “Sports just made sense – ball movement and all those things – and it’s been the same way in football, the game makes sense to him.”

One category that Groh mentioned as an unknown quality in younger players was the ability to learn quickly. Johnson, as well as left offensive tackle Landon Bradley , Groh said, are two players who possess steep learning curves; once they are given an explanation on how to react to a play in practice, Groh said, players like Johnson and Bradley are unlikely to repeat their mistakes. That quality, Groh said, is nearly impossible to recognize in a recruit.

“Those are the things that no rating service can tell you,” Groh said. “For that matter, lots of coaches in the evaluation, it’s difficult to come across that. In fact, unless you really know the people that you’re asking the questions of, it’s really hard to get that – you certainly can’t get that by watching a video. If you get somebody’s combine times, that can’t tell you how well the player can pick things up.”

Keeping It Simple

While the emergence of some of the younger players has factored into Virginia’s turnaround, Sewell and Simpson are the key cogs that have made the offense tick of late. Simpson’s status remains uncertain after he sustained a neck injury Saturday; after he was released from the hospital Saturday night, though, Groh said that Simpson went to team meetings and observed practice Sunday.

Simpson’s output the last two games bring up comparisons to the Simpson of two years ago, when he was the Cavaliers’ best offensive option. Groh again discussed how Simpson has resurged after a disappointing 2008 season, in that he has returned to being more of a decisive, “one-cut” runner as opposed to dancing at the line of scrimmage. The tricky thing about coaching that type of running, Groh said, is that you still have to leave the cut itself up to the tailback.

“One of the things you have to do with a player like that or with any back, is not over coach the cuts, because not every cut is going to be perfect,” Groh said. “There will be some that you might want to have back, but as we have over the years reminded all the different running back coaches, if most of us can see it the same way that those running backs can, then we would have been running backs.”

Worth Noting

  • Groh said on his Sunday media teleconference that true freshman Oday Aboushi and Tucker Windle were used Saturday because they are second-team players who may be needed this season. “It won’t take much from an injury standpoint to get either one of them in the game,” Groh said.
  • Virginia and Maryland have played every season since 1957, the second-longest current streak for a Cavalier opponent behind UNC.
  • The Terrapins hold a 41-30-2 overall record against the Cavaliers, which includes a dominant streak for both teams. From 1969-1987, the Terps won 18 of 19 meetings; Virginia, though, then won 11 of the next 13 from 1988-2000. The series has been more back-and-forth in the Groh era, as the Terps have won four of the last seven contests.
  • Virginia has nine Maryland natives on the roster, including starters Rodney McLeod , Cam Johnson, and Nick Jenkins . The Terps, though, boast 15 players from Virginia, including Charlottesville native Obum Akunyili, a sophomore offensive lineman.
  • The Cavaliers have not turned the ball over in their last two wins and for 35 consecutive possessions.
  • The last time Virginia lost a game in October was against N.C. State on Oct. 27, 2007. The Cavaliers have won 11 of their last 12 October games.
  • Worth Quoting

    “We certainly have a lot more accumulated turns in some of the things that have been successful over the years, so obviously the veteran players, the guys who have been around, have a better sense of it. Now, Tim Smith , and Torrey Mack , and Colt Phillips, and those kinds of players, they don’t know any difference. They weren’t here for the old, and they haven’t been here very long for the new. So it’s only a certain element of the team to which that would apply anyway. But I’d say there is probably a good blend of the two circumstances right now.” – Al Groh on elements of the spread offense and the elements of the offense from previous years that Virginia is currently using.

    “That came about as another part of the creativity and the innovation that people did with [the shield punt]. It was to change as teams do with their quarterback, where they sprint out in order to change the passing point so that particular pressures that are aimed at the middle of the pocket; now, maybe the quarterback’s outside the pocket and it negates the pressure. It’s the same idea, teams do it to try to change the kick point, as well as get a type of kick that has that roll which makes it more difficult to return and cuts down on that particular challenge.” – Al Groh on employing the rugby punt this season.

    “He’s got a lot of confidence in his ability to catch it, he’s got a good level of courage to deal with whatever is impending, so it’s one of those things where we leave it up to him. We talk about what makes good decisions – it’s not a question of laissez-faire coaching, but it’s also a question of not micromanaging the circumstance too, and allowing a player to use his skills.” – Al Groh on punt returner Chase Minnifield rarely calling for a fair catch.

    “Excuse me … (reaches below podium) … let me get my crystal ball up here. (Chuckles). We certainly don’t want to put a cap on that, but that would be hard for me to speculate. If I could do that I would buy stocks low and sell high.” – Al Groh on how much better Jameel Sewell can get this season.

    “The head coach’s role is however extensive it’s asked to be, whether it’s in the area of academic counseling, or recruiting, or boosters, or fans. So we stand willing to cooperate in any particular effort. We are just always appreciative for the fans who are always there for us and for the players, and as you can see, this is a high-energy, high-character bunch of kids who are deserving of all the support that anybody would choose to give them.”
    – Al Groh on the coach’s responsibility in putting fans in the stands.

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