Press Conference Notes ’09: Clemson

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Virginia’s losing streak extended to four games with a loss to Boston College, but the Hoos will try to remain motivated despite the fact that they cannot become bowl eligible.

Spoiling another team’s chance to reach the ACC Championship. Playing for pride. The love of the game. The seniors’ final games in a Virginia uniform. The ramifications for the coaching staff, fans, and the community.

As Virginia’s losing streak has drawn on, all of these motivations have been posed to Cavalier players by reporters as possible reasons to keep playing hard. After the Hoos’ loss to Boston College on Saturday, even a faint chance at bowl eligibility washed away. With no playoff aspirations, what do you play for? The players’ most common answer, both this week and last, is pride. Virginia coach Al Groh, however, likes to think that this attitude is merely the status quo.

“I’ve never said that,” said Virginia coach Al Groh regarding the sentiment of playing for pride. “I think perhaps players say that because they’ve heard it, or it’s the answer to a question – ‘Now that you guys aren’t playing for the championship, are you playing for pride?’ And the reason I preface my answer with that is I thought that’s what we were doing every week. I thought we were trying to prove something every week, and I thought we were playing for pride every week. So, I think you hear it at the end of the season because players have heard other players say it, or as I said, the question gets posed that way, so they answer it in the affirmative.”

In addition, whether Virginia cares about this opportunity or not, it again has the opportunity to play the role of the spoiler this Saturday at No. 23 Clemson. The Tigers have reeled off five straight wins after starting the season 0-2; now with a 5-2 conference record, Clemson can clinch the Atlantic Division with a win against Virginia. Only Boston College at 4-2 in ACC play is a legitimate threat in the division. The Tigers defeated BC earlier in the season, and will therefore claim the head-to-head tiebreaker should that scenario arise. Should Virginia win and the Eagles defeat North Carolina at home, however, Boston College would leapfrog Clemson into first place in the Atlantic. The Eagles would then only need to defeat Maryland, the ACC team with the worst overall record at 2-8, in the season finale to arrive at the ACC Championship Game.

Though Groh said that the coaching staff would “dangle a few different hooks” last week when asked about spoiling Boston College’s season, he made no indication that the team had any such motivation for this Saturday’s game against Clemson. What the Cavaliers are excited about, Groh said, is playing in front of a potentially packed house of 81,500 typically raucous Clemson fans at Memorial Stadium.

“When you go down there, you know a couple of things: it’s going to be loud, it’s going to be challenging, and it’s going to be fun,” Groh said. “It’s a great atmosphere in which to play in. Their energy is right up there at the very top of the ACC sites that we go to. There’s a real football fever – it’s not just a Saturday afternoon activity. There is a real passion and a real fever for Clemson football.”

An Explosive Offense

The Clemson offense has been absurdly productive of late, putting up 38 or more points in a five-game winning streak going into this Saturday. The Tigers have scored 27 offensive touchdowns, and have averaged 425.8 total yards per game and 6.87 yards per play in that stretch.

“Their offensive players have been talking about, particularly since their bye week, where they really were able to get reorganized and get very specific on how they wanted to play, and get in a rhythm, and get better timing down, and all those things,” Groh said. “Then with that goes certainly a level of confidence that, it looks like on the video, every play that is called, they are saying this is going to work, because most of them have here now for the last five weeks.”

Even the casual football fan knows that the focal point of the Clemson offense is running back C.J. Spiller, who has been in the discussion as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Spiller is rushing for 83.6 yards per game this season, including three totals in triple digits. He also has tallied 382 receiving yards, including three single-game totals of at least 67 yards. Spiller is also dynamite on returns, averaging 33.9 yards per return on 16 kick attempts, including three touchdowns, tying him for the NCAA record of six career kick-return TDs. He also is averaging 31.8 yards per punt return on six returns this season, including one for a touchdown. With 140 more all-purpose yards, Spiller will become just the fifth player in NCAA history to total 7,000 yards in his career.

“He’s clearly a dynamic, hard to get on the ground runner – his kick-return record speaks for itself,” Groh said. “He’s got two touchdown passes in his resume, one of which we witnessed [last season]. He’s got touchdowns catches. He is the true all-purpose threat. Maybe as great as we’ve seen in this conference for a long time.”

Groh also noted, however, the importance of the improvement of quarterback Kelly Parker in the Tigers’ five-game win streak. Parker has been more efficient in the span, completing 61 percent of his passes as opposed to 48.7 percent in previous weeks. Against a speedy Miami defense on the road, Parker had a career day, completing 25 of 37 passes for 326 yards with three touchdowns and one interception in a 40-37 victory.

“Early in the season, his skills were apparent, but clearly he was a player who hadn’t had to make those decisions under the speed of ACC competition,” Groh said. “Now that he’s 10 games into the season, he’s really doing a terrific job with it. They have some remarkable playmakers, and he’s very tuned into getting the ball to those playmakers. So those things work very well in consort.”

Parker began his athletic career at Clemson as a baseball player, enrolling in the spring after completing high school in the fall of 2008. He made an immediate impact as a freshman, earning Freshman All-America honors after hitting .303 with 44 runs, 12 doubles, 14 homers, 50 RBIs, a .400 on-base percentage. Parker had another solid baseball season last year, and, all the while has been practicing with the football team – he redshirted in 2008 before earning the starting spot at quarterback this season.

“He’s got the type of eye to hand coordination that would be associated with somebody who could hit a speeding fastball or moving curveball as well as he does,” Groh said. “And he was tremendously regarded quarterback coming out of high school. We were certainly well aware of his circumstances, and there was always some conjecture as to whether or not he would play college football or go directly into professional baseball. So he’s that type of athlete.”

Blows to the Head

All year, Virginia coach Al Groh has discussed games that the Hoos have lost because of merely a couple plays – never this season was that more true than Saturday. Had the spot of the football been a few inches shorter on BC’s 4th-and-Goal sneak into the end zone, or had the spot been a few inches further downfield on the Cavaliers’ 4th-and-1 try on a potentially game-winning TD drive with less than two minutes left, Hoo fans may be talking about the resolve of a battered quarterback, and a still-existing opportunity to make a bowl game.

And, Groh said, the spot on Jameel Sewell ‘s fourth-down run from the BC wasn’t the only play on the drive that determined the end of the Cavaliers’ touchdown drive. Virginia’s first-down play with one minute remaining was a pass attempt from Sewell to an open wide receiver, Dontrelle Inman , over the middle downfield, but the ball sailed high and incomplete. The safety in coverage had fallen down on the play – had the two connected, there was “probably a good chance the receiver’s going to go in for the winning touchdown,” Groh said.

“We would have been in fairly good control at that particular point,” Groh said. “It wouldn’t have affected the assessment of how the team played in the game. We would have played the same game, but for one play. But it would have affected everybody’s perception of how the team played. The team played the same game, but with heartache. If we had completed that pass, we would have played the same game with joy.”

But, at game’s end, instead of a triumphant Jameel Sewell that had led the Cavaliers on a two-minute drill and a narrow victory a la 2007, Sewell appeared as shaken up emotionally by Saturday’s loss as any this season. Sewell had not played since the Duke game two weeks before, where he suffered a shoulder injury that put him out of the Cavaliers’ next game against Miami. Going into Saturday’s game against BC, Sewell had practiced just once, last Thursday, in the previous two weeks, and still suffered numerous physical ailments. Yet, the banged-up Sewell still nearly led Virginia to an emotional victory, which made the loss that much more hard to take for Sewell. Groh was clearly cognizant of Sewell’s emotions after the game, and Groh said it was part of his job to show compassion for his pained quarterback.

Jameel Sewell

“We have some of the same feelings as [Sewell] does,” Groh said. “But in those moments when players are hurt by what happened, when you’re in the position of being in charge, it’s incumbent upon you to put your feelings aside, and offer the type of counsel that they need, just as you would do with any family situation. But, not be overbearing about it – just let him know that you’re there, and that you care.”

If Marc Verica had been available to play quarterback against Boston College, it is likely that he would have due to Sewell’s injuries; however, Verica reported symptoms of a concussion last Wednesday, and was ruled out of action on Thursday for Saturday’s contest. Groh clarified the injury at Monday’s press conference, saying that the concussion symptoms were a result of hits he took in the Hoos’52-17 loss to Miami.

“He brought some symptoms to the medical people on Wednesday after practice, which in their diligence caused them to conduct more tests and more evaluations,” Groh said. “From that it was determined that he had some leftover effect – I just say that without being able to be knowledgeable about talking about the specifics – from the contact that he took at Miami, that it wasn’t feasible for him to play in the game.”

Groh said he had not noticed a difference in Verica during Tuesday or Wednesday’s practice, even noting that “his practices had been pretty sharp.” In general, Groh said that he is not one to take concussions lightly due to an experience he had with Dr. Elliot Pellman, who was the Jets’ lead physician at the time, and also headed the NFL’s concussion committee. Pellman, however, was asked to step down from his position in 2007, after a report by ESPN The Magazine revealed that he had used injury reports selectively and had omitted many players from his research on concussions while heading the committee.

Though Pellman has a shaky background, Groh said that, as a result of Pellman’s knowledge of concussions, Groh became well aware of their ramifications. He also cited now-retired former Jets wide receive Wayne Chrebet, who Groh said had a history of concussions in his career.

“He [Pellman] had our whole [Jets] organization very well informed about all of those issues,” Groh said. “Plus we had in 2000 one of our better players, Wayne Chrebet, who had suffered a concussion and had some lingering effects with it that affected his participation for a while. I think ultimately after I had left that was part of the timeframe in which he retired. So my experience with that had us well tuned into it when we came here.”

Professional Hounds

As a disappointing season winds down for Virginia, reporters have begun asking questions about the process of NFL prospects being contacted by agents during their college careers. Of course, Groh noted, this process doesn’t just occur in a player’s senior season.

“For any coach who thinks it’s just starting now, that coach is about two years too late,” Groh said. “I can remember, for example, I guess it was in ’02, shortly after we got back from the Continental Tire Bowl, one of our players who had played very well in that game, who was a true freshman, came in a little, just puzzled – ‘How do I deal with this?’ While he was home between the bowl game and coming back to school, he had been contacted by a number of agents. So it’s a very prevalent thing.”

The coaching staff, Groh said, informs players about the process early in their careers, and remains as a resource should a player ever need guidance.

“It’s just one of the facts of the landscape that you have to deal with, and try to make sure that the players and their families are able to sort it out and get with the really reputable, professional people,” Groh said. “And we do have all the players who look like they’re going to have some chance to be in that circumstance after a season, we started with all of that specific discussion way back in the spring.”

Groh said that he takes his role in guiding players in their professional aspirations very seriously – “We like to think that we’re a full service program,” he said. Groh said he does not necessarily lead players toward a particular agent, but rather he directs them away from agents who do not have a desirable track record.

“We don’t really care so much who the players pick as their representation as sometimes we are concerned about who they don’t pick,” Groh said. “People that haven’t had an established reputation as being very professional at what they do, very honest what they do, committed to their clients, so that the player can create a partnership with that person that will last during the course of his career.

“Usually what we say is look, I’m not here to get in your business, but if you’d like to use us as a resource, we’d be happy to do that, and bring any questions or any information that you have.’ So sometimes the players will come in and say, ‘Here are some of the people I’m talking about, and do you know about any of these people?’ So we don’t really so much say this is who you should pick or who you shouldn’t pick. We just say if you want to ask our opinion on any of these people, go ahead and do so. And frequently they have felt confident to do that.”

Vic Hall’s versatility improves his status as an NFL prospect, Al Groh said.

In particular, Groh was asked about Vic Hall, who has seen snaps at numerous positions on all three units over the course of his career. Groh has always been high on Hall, and was adamant that Hall is a solid NFL prospect, noting that his versatility will improve his status with scouts. Groh made a comparison between Hall and 2007 Virginia graduate Jason Snelling, now a member of the Atlanta Falcons.

“I clearly remember just being able to say about Jason that, look, he may not be the most spectacular in any way – he’s not the fastest or the tallest or the heaviest running back – he’s just a really good player, and what team wouldn’t want a really good player?” Groh said. “We say the same thing about Vic. He’s just a good player. He blocks, he tackles, he catches, he runs, he covers kicks, he catches kicks. He does what football players do. He’s not a specialist, he’s a good football player.”

Worth Noting

  • The check presented before Saturday’s game to Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich , who continues to battle Ewing’s sarcoma, totaled $8,194.94, including $1,500 from UVa players.
  • Clemson owns a 36-8-1 overall record against Virginia, including a 19-3 mark at Memorial Stadium. The Tigers won the first 29 games against the Hoos until a Virginia victory in 1990 – since then, the Cavaliers are 8-7-1 against the Tigers.
  • Virginia has not played at Clemson since 2003, a 30-27 loss.
  • After this Saturday, Virginia will not play Clemson again until 2013 in Charlottesville and again in 2014 at Clemson.
  • The Cavaliers are 1-5-1 against ranked Clemson teams at Memorial Stadium. The lone win was Al Groh’s first ACC victory in 2001.

Worth Quoting

“That would be a natural thing for anybody. It wouldn’t be an unexpected thing for somebody who had been taken off the field on a board. We thought in one of the first games that he was back that he didn’t have quite the same abandon that he had before, but you’d have to ask him that.” – Al Groh on how tailback Mikell Simpson ‘s neck injury sustained against Indiana subsequently has affected his running ability.

“One of the things that you say in that particular case is that, all the way down the field we saw exactly the same defense, so that could be the case on however many plays that were in there. Eight, nine, 10 plays in a row – we wish that could be the case on 10 consecutive plays any time during the course of the game. That allows the quarterback to get real good looks, to get into rhythm. We were able to kind of repeat a lot of the same plays against the same looks. So that probably all factored into it. But a lot of it just gets down to, a lot of those plays have been called early in the game. They didn’t just come out for that situation. Some had worked and some hadn’t worked as well as they did until that time. In fact, the last play of the game, which didn’t work as well as we would have liked, we had already completed that two or three times within the drive.” – Al Groh on the production of the Virginia offense in its two-minute drill late in the fourth quarter against Boston College.

“It was nice. I had a chance to have some words with Mark well before that – talked about his situation. He’s turned out to be the kind of player we always thought he was going to be and we’re just very pleased for him. The circumstances seem to be working out, and best wishes to him. He expressed his gratitude for our efforts towards his fundraising.” – Al Groh on Virginia’s fundraising effort for BC linebacker Mark Herzlich , who continues to battle Ewing’s Sarcoma.

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