Much Anticipated 2007 Season Arrives for the Cavaliers
By Al Featherston for theACC.com
A year ago, Al Groh joked that he was playing the 2006 season with his 2007 team.
Actually, it wasn't so much a joke as an honest explanation for what was clearly a rebuilding season. Virginia's coach had just three senior starters in the 2006 lineup and he had to rely on a freshman quarterback and a host of newcomers at a number of other key positions, especially along the offensive line.
But now 2007 is finally here and Groh's talent has caught up with the calendar. He has 19 returning starters, including 10 on a defense that finished the nation ranked No. 17 in fewest total yards allowed.
"It's a season that the staff and the players have looked forward to with significant anticipation," Groh said at the ACC Football Kickoff. "I think everybody feels very positive, but I'd say it's more of a little attitude toward performing the way that we think this team can perform. I can clearly see that there are a lot more players that are much more familiar and comfortable that they can do their job. A lot of them were sticking their toe in the water for the first time last year."
That includes quarterback Jameel Sewell, a mobile lefthander, who was one of four freshmen quarterbacks who saw significant starting action in the ACC last season. The Richmond, Va., product moved in as a starter in the fourth game of the season and remained behind center for the team's final nine games. While his overall numbers weren't eye-popping, he showed considerable promise late in the season, especially when he led the Cavaliers to a 17-7 victory over Miami - hitting 22 of 33 passes for 217 yards and running for two touchdowns.
Sewell underwent surgery on his right (non-throwing) wrist last December and was limited during spring drills. But Groh sounds confident that his talented young signal caller will be ready for the new season.
"He's been a full participant in the summer off-season program," Groh said. "He's positive about where he is. We're positive about where he is. He told me they were working one day on the field and he tripped and put his hand out to cushion himself. He got up after the play and it was like, 'Wow, this is still good.' "
Sewell is especially important on a team that will be breaking in several new skill performers. Despite the wealth of returning talent, Groh does have to replace do-everything running back Jason Snelling, who led the team in rushing last season and finished as the team's No. 2 receiver. He's also expecting to replace top receiver Kevin Ogletree, who underwent ACL surgery in the off-season and will probably sit out the season.
"Miracles do occur, but as we stated when it occurred, it is a 12-month injury and sometimes it's longer than that before the player is ready to perform at the level he was on the day that he was injured," Groh said.
The departure of Snelling and the unexpected loss of Ogletree makes it more tempting for Groh to utilize Sewell's mobility as a big part of his offense.
"It's a skill that he has," Groh said, "but you've got to balance that with, 'He's our key guy right now.' We don't want to overexpose him to unnecessary hits. We spend a lot of time trying to protect the quarterback so he doesn't get hit."
The demands on Sewell probably will depend on how much help he gets from Virginia's other potential playmakers. Junior Cedric Peerman, an outstanding kick returner in his first two seasons; speedy redshirt freshman Raynard Horne; and redshirt freshman Keith Payne, a powerful 6-3, 234-pounder, are vying to take Snelling's place as the team's primary ground threat. Sewell's top receiving target is likely to be veteran tight end Tom Santi, the pre-season All-ACC pick and a worthy successor to position that previously has been filled by such standouts as Chris Luzar, Heath Miller and Patrick Estes.
If Virginia's offense still has something to prove, the Cavalier defense merely has to maintain last season's level of excellence to be successful. That should not be hard with the likes of defensive end Chris Long, linebacker Antonio Appleby and safety Nate Lyles returning from a unit that shut out two ACC opponents last season and limited two more to a single touchdown.
Senior Defensive End
Groh, who gave up an NFL head coaching job to return to his alma mater, has won 42 games and led the Cavs to four bowls in his first six seasons in Charlottesville. His 5-7 record last year was just the second losing season in his Virginia tenure, matching the record in his first season on the job.
A year after Groh's 2001 team finished 5-7, his 2002 Virginia team won nine games and finished second in the ACC.
Is a similar surge possible this year?
"Thinking specifically of the years when I was the head coach, this will be the 14th time," he said. "Each year has felt the same for me going into the season. There is just an urgency to try to win games. I feel the challenge on a season-by-season basis to make our team add up to everything it can be. It's an ongoing thing. It's what we live with, but it sort of energizes us, too."
Several of Groh's players sound energized by criticism from critics disappointed by last season's losing record.
"No disrespect to anybody's opinion, but I wouldn't rather play for anybody but Coach Groh," Chris Long said. "He's made me the player and the man that I am today. Coach Groh is a hard-nosed, old-school guy."
And the Cavaliers hope to demonstrate that last season was merely a case of a painfully young team growing through a learning experience.
"I couldn't feel any more pressure this season than I put on myself," Santi said. "People can think what they want and read what they want, but all the greatest intentions aren't going to win a football game for you."
STRENGTHS: A proven, experienced defense, anchored by Long, the son of NFL Hall of Famer Howie Long ... depth at tight end ... a stable, experienced offensive line that returns intact ... the return of QB Jameel Sewell and a season of on-the-job training.
CONCERNS: The health of Sewell after off-season wrist surgery ... replacing injured wide receiver Kevin Ogletree ... finding a dependable running back to replace Snelling.
EARLY BELLWEATHER GAME: The Cavaliers travel to Chapel Hill to take on North Carolina in Sept. 15. The Tar Heels, another young team hoping to show improvement this season, have often tested Virginia in Kenan Stadium.