Remember how Virginia’s defense almost helped Larry Johnson (188 rushing yards) win the Heisman Trophy two years ago? Or how other quality running backs like Kevin Jones (181), Cecil Sapp (178), Greg Jones (173), Anthony Davis (147) and Bruce Perry (143) ran roughshod over the Cavaliers in games during the past three seasons? Or even how — cringe — pedestrian backs like Fred Staton (151) and Andre Williams (147) looked like Jim Brown against the UVa “D”?
Well, those days may be over.
Judging from the spring, the Cavaliers aren’t going to be pushed around anymore. Finally, for the first time since Al Groh became head coach in 2001, it looks like he has the kind of defense that he desires — fast, strong, tough, aggressive, deep and experienced. That’s true of the front seven, at least, though the secondary remains a significant question mark.
“We’ve got the ingredients to be a great defense. We just have to put it all together,” said end Chris Canty, one of eight returning starters. “I’m already excited about what we can do next season. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Overall, the UVa defense figures to be vastly improved in 2004, particularly when it comes to stopping the run. To be sure, there is plenty of room for improvement. In Groh’s first two seasons, the Cavaliers ranked among the nation’s worst in that department, giving up more than 200 rushing yards per game. In 2001 and 2002, Florida State ran for a total of 700 yards in two victories over Virginia. Wake Forest also piled up 349 rushing yards in a 2002 meeting (though UVa somehow won anyway). That’s atrocious.
The Cavaliers were considerably stingier last season. They allowed 162 yards per game on the ground, an improvement of nearly 50 yards, but they still ranked just 67th out of 117 Division I-A teams in that category. Expect another major upgrade next season, perhaps 30 or 40 more yards per game trimmed off opponents’ rushing totals.
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