Press Conference Notes ’09: GT

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Al Groh and UVa’s coaches will have their hands full preparing for the unique schemes of Georgia Tech, a team on a four-game winning streak.

Without a doubt, Virginia is playing a better brand of football the last three weeks than it did the first three. It must be noted, though, the competition that UVa has faced. Last week, the opponent was an injury-plagued Maryland team that is struggling to tread water. The week before, an Indiana team that is traditionally a bottom-dweller in the Big Ten.

And the week before that? A North Carolina squad that, prior to playing Virginia, got pounded 24-7 by the Cavaliers’ opponent this Saturday: No. 11 Georgia Tech. And, while Virginia’s win against the Heels spurred a three-game win streak, the Yellow Jackets’ victory prompted four wins in a row. GT is rolling, and not against soft competition – the Jackets followed the win against the Heels with wins against Mississippi State and Florida State on the road, and a season-defining win last Saturday against then-No. 4 Virginia Tech. For Virginia, this Saturday’s game will likely be its toughest test during this year’s version of “Grohtober.”

There is “about as good as challenge as we could look for this week in an opponent,” Virginia coach Al Groh said. “You sure could make a pretty strong argument, they’re the hottest team in the ACC.”

Scouting the Jackets

Every week, Groh talks about the challenge that the upcoming opponent presents in its schemes. Georgia Tech, with its triple option attack, is certainly one of the more unique looks the Cavaliers will see. Virginia, though, handled that look last year, downing the Yellow Jackets 24-17 on the road. Not only does that win give the Cavs some confidence, but it also gives them film of how they managed to be successful.

“Certainly it is a smoother week than it was last year,” Groh said. “At least we have a set of ideas going into the week, whereas last year it was really well into the week – we had to just go to the practice field and see it. Now we can watch the game video and see things that worked, and we can also see things that were really an issue.”

Groh noted that Virginia didn’t exactly shut down the Yellow Jackets last year, as they rushed for 156 yards on 41 carries. If it hadn’t been for three GT turnovers in Virginia territory – including a fumble on a mishandled snap at the Cavalier 5-yard line – the outcome may have been very different.

“It wasn’t all perfect. We had a lot of issues during the course of the game,” Groh said. “Some of those issues were solved frankly because we had an effective offense that day and cut down on time of possession.”

Indeed, an effective Virginia offense was a big part of the story, as QB Marc Verica threw for 270 yards and two touchdowns while running back Cedric Peerman rolled for 118 yards on 25 carries. Special teams, though, almost cost Virginia; the only big special teams play of the afternoon was a 29-yard GT punt return on the Cavaliers’ lone punt, which was ultimately nullified by the Jackets’ fumble in the red zone. Success in the punting game is in fact a hallmark of Georgia Tech’s play this season – they lead the nation with a 24.9 punt return average, 3.7 yards better than the next-best team in Division I. That statistic, Groh indicated, is no accident.

“Much is made of the uniqueness of the Georgia Tech offense, but they do some very, very creative things with their special teams that make their special teams amongst the most effective and the most difficult to prepare for any particular year,” Groh said. “As a result, they frequently gain a big field position advantage in each one of the turnarounds, which then puts this ground-eating offense in a very advantageous position to start with.”

The general challenge that Georgia Tech presents is the willingness of coach Paul Johnson and the coaching staff to evolve, both within a game and week to week. As soon as an opponent works out a way to solve one problem, Groh said, the Jackets have already countered with variations in their scheme. It follows that Virginia can’t put too much stock in any success it had against GT a year ago in this week’s preparation.

“They’ve got projectors, too,” Groh said. “So we would expect a counter move on their part.”

Next Men Up

Groh said Monday that he learned the gist of the “next man up” philosophy from Bill Parcells, whom Groh assisted with the New York Giants, the New England Patriots and the New York Jets at various times in the 1990s. That philosophy was put to the test last week against Maryland, and it held up. With Mikell Simpson out with a neck injury, Rashawn Jackson picked up 90 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. After quarterback Jameel Sewell left late in the third quarter, Marc Verica stepped under center and effectively managed the clock as the Cavs protected their lead. And, after defensive end Matt Conrath rolled his ankle right before halftime, replacement Zane Parr “did a very nice job the other day throughout the second half,” Groh said, while playing every down.

Jameel Sewell ‘s status for this Saturday will continue to be evaluated throughout the week, Al Groh said.

The status of all three players is still obviously a concern; and, the status of all three players remains something of a mystery. Both Sewell and Conrath suffered right ankle sprains, and both put little weight on the injured leg as they were helped off the field. On Sunday, Groh said that Sewell is sore like many other players, and that the team would “just see how the week goes,” later saying that the same applied to Conrath. When asked again about Sewell Monday, Groh said, “If I knew I probably wouldn’t tell you.” He did indicate, though, that he is confident in Verica should he be needed – in last year’s game against GT, Verica threw for 270 yards and two touchdowns, though he also threw two of his 16 picks.

“We would be very comfortable with Marc,” Groh said. “We are very comfortable with him in any circumstance.”

Parr, meanwhile, will play on the base defense and in his usual role on dime packages as he did against Maryland, Groh said, should Conrath remain unavailable. Fellow defensive end Nate Collins has also been impressed with Parr, who saw few snaps last year before finding his niche on the dime package this season.

“[Parr is] probably the best pure pass rusher on our team,” Collins said. “He has a lot of speed. He sort of has the outside linebacker’s mentality, so that makes pass rushing come second nature to him.”

As for Simpson, Groh said Sunday that his unavailability last Saturday was as much precautionary as it was due to his neck injury physically impairing him from playing. His status for this Saturday, Groh noted, will be evaluated in a similar fashion.

“Clearly there are more important things in life than just football, especially with a young guy like that who’s got everything in front of him,” Groh said. We’re going to strictly go on whatever the medical people say, but at the same time, if forced to make any [decision] on it, we will certainly be on the cautious side.”

Jackson’s performance Saturday, though, can have Hoo fans resting a little easier. Groh said that Jackson’s 10 touches in the fourth quarter – every play with the exception of two QB kneels at game’s end – had to do as much with his attitude as his performance.

“Through the course of the game the other night and then as we went through those final five or six minutes, it was very apparent that he had that ‘Give me the ball attitude,'” Groh said. “The big factor in the thinking there wasn’t so much about the plays first, or run this play; it was, hey, this guy wants the ball, he wants the game, so give it to the guy who wants it.”

It has taken four years for Jackson to see significant carries, mostly due to players in front of him. Jackson came in as a running back, but was moved to linebacker as a true freshman and did not return to the backfield until two years later. At 6’1″, 245 pounds, Jackson’s combination of size and deceptive speed make him tough to bring down, a quality that did not go unnoticed by Groh when he made a recruiting visit to Jackson’s high school, St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, N.J. Prior to a meeting with Jackson at St. Peter’s Prep, Groh said he looked on as Jackson, unaware of Groh’s presence, shot some hoops, and made an acrobatic move that made an immediate impression.

“He did a little 360 and went up and dunked it,” Groh said. “That’s pretty good for a player that size; it’s not as if he’s 6’4″. That gives you a good idea that he’s got really good overall athletic skill.”

Another tailback whose snaps increased with Simpson’s absence is redshirt freshman Torrey Mack . Though he has been heralded as a player with a potentially big upside, Mack’s performance has not been consistent to this point, as he has 19 carries while averaging 3.2 yards per rush. For a young player, though, Groh said that doesn’t mean there aren’t still good things to come.

“He’s eligibility-wise a freshman, been in six games,” Groh said. “It’s a developmental thing for carries. It comes sooner for some than others.”

Coming into their Own

Much has been made of Virginia’s success in October, both this season and in years past. In a variety of ways, Groh has been asked how the Hoos have turned around this season, and why it has become something of a trend – they have won 12 of their last 13 October games in the last three seasons.

“There was a topic of question last night, which seems to be the current question, to what do I attribute the team playing well here the last three weeks and during this time span last year and during the time span the year before?” Groh said. “Well, it’s very simple. The team is doing what it’s supposed to do; it’s getting better. We’re a lot better each one of those years than when we started – maybe we’re exactly where we should have started. The players deserve a lot of credit for practicing, and training, and going forward, and getting better.”

One thing that catalyzes such a turnaround, though, Groh said, is the players taking ownership of the team, something that players and coaches said they have seen evidence of already this season.

“Ultimately, on every team, players have to take ownership,” Groh said. “It’s a collaborative thing out there – we give them direction … and articulate what the model is supposed to be, and eventually they have to buy in.”

The time at which a team makes that step is obviously a determining factor for the degree to which it aids a team. Both of Groh’s nine-win teams at Virginia – the 2002 and 2007 squads – made such a leap at different times, Groh said, but they both came relatively early.

“There was a circumstance that characterized what was the ’07 team, but they made that step in March – that’s very early,” Groh said. “I think back to ’02, I think players took ownership there about the second or third week. It doesn’t mean everything’s got to be perfect, but they just said, ‘Okay, this is the way it’s going to be. We’ve had enough instruction, direction. We can see where the coaches want us to go.'”

It is a concept that Groh says he discusses with the players, but he said that the coaches only can facilitate it so much before the players make a move on their own. While Groh says that the captains and the veterans are significant in this regard, he noted the importance of everyone else following in kind.

“In circumstances where you have that collaborative attitude, or as it’s sometimes referred to as team chemistry or unity or whatever, there’s always a leadership-followership circumstance,” Groh said. “Those roles go back and forth for people to have success in the leadership capacity. It’s not all about the leader. It’s a lot about the followers, too, that they are equally good at grasping what’s being put forth there and buying into it and doing it. They’re the doers.”

If last Saturday’s game is any indication, Virginia has certainly bought into “next man up.” And, as the Cavs ride the high of a three-game win streak, Groh said that another important part of the culture is the “one-game season.”

“As we have said, there’s a reason why God put eyes in the front of our head and not in the back,” Groh said. “So you can make progress by looking forward.”

Worth Noting

  • Groh said that Riko Smalls will be one of the players who will occupy the role of Josh Nesbitt in practice as Virginia prepares for the GT triple-option attack.
  • Groh noted that Virginia is playing all dime and no nickel outside of its base package this season, “because of the personnel on hand, different guys to do different jobs,” he said.
  • The Yellow Jackets’ current No. 11 AP ranking is their highest since they were ranked No. 9 in September of 2001.
  • Georgia Tech has not defeated Virginia in Charlottesville since Nov. 3, 1990, a span lasting eight games.
  • The series with Georgia Tech is 44 years old, and Virginia holds a 16-14-1 advantage. Virginia has won five of the last six meetings, and the home team has prevailed in 12 of the last 14.
  • The Yellow Jackets are just one of two teams in the ACC to have played five conference games, while Virginia is one of just three teams who have played only two. At 2-0 in the conference, UVa technically sits ahead of GT in the Coastal Division standings; the Jackets are 4-1 in conference.

Worth Quoting

“Al Groh, we call him, ‘Jeezy,’ after the rapper Young Jeezy. He likes that at times. I believe he actually does understand the reference – he references hip-hop at times and everything. He knows a little bit of Kanye West and a couple other guys that we really like.” – Denzel Burrell on one of the players’ nicknames for Al Groh.

“Me, [Dom Joseph ], and Ras-I [Dowling], now I can joke around with them and say I’ve got the same amount of picks as them. And now I kind of have one up on them, because no one in the house has a touchdown yet. So I can kind of brag about that for a while.” – Nate Collins on discussing his pick-six against Maryland with roommates Dom Joseph and Ras-I Dowling. Joseph made the first interception of his career against the Terps.

“The week that precedes the game, the word practice is certainly accurate, but it’s not just practice like going and practicing the piano. It’s preparation for what’s coming on Saturday. So we’re trying to do whatever has us best prepared on Saturday. That might mean scrimmage every day. That might mean go bowling. I’m not trying to be smart, but whatever.” – Al Groh on how practice changes from week to week.

“You look at military leaders or industrial leaders or for that matter parents, and certainly football coaches, people who try and lead, they’ve got to believe, they’ve got to believe in a leader, they’ve got to buy in, they’ve got to see the value to them. That’s why if you go down to Barnes & Noble, you can probably spend the next three or four weeks just walking up and down the section of the stores that have books on leadership and management. Many people recognize that as the best secret to increased performance, that’s what we’re interested in, performance. So it’s about a lot more than just the schemes that you put out there.” – Al Groh on players taking ownership of the team.

“I would say that they got a new set of shutters, maybe painted the front door, but the foundation is still the same and the structure of the house is still the same.” – Al Groh on how the GT offense has changed since last season.

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