Five Questions for Virginia
As camp opens today, Adam Kilgore looks at some of the biggest issues facing the Cavaliers this season:
1. IS PETER LALICH READY?
Coach Al Groh used his first depth chart of the summer to send a not-so-subtle message: He listed Lalich, Virginia's most talented and most experienced quarterback, not as the starter or even the backup, but third string. Lalich experienced growing pains last year as a freshman, but his most troubling misstep came this offseason, in July. He was charged with possession and purchase of alcohol by a minor, an error in judgment by a sophomore who will be expected to be a leader. He'll also have to get over his shaky Gator Bowl performance, which included a fourth-quarter fumble inside the Virginia 4-yard line that led to Texas Tech's game-tying score. If Lalich can't deliver on his potential, Scott Deke, a senior who has never thrown a pass, likely will take over under center.
2. WILL THE DEFENSIVE LINE BE OVERWHELMED?
Alex Field, Sean Gottschalk and Nate Collins have been thrust into a somewhat unfair position. They have to replace not only Chris Long, perhaps the best player in school history, but also Jeffrey Fitzgerald, the player who should have replaced Long. Long was the second pick of the NFL draft; Fitzgerald was thrown out of school for violating the honor code. Defensive ends Field and Gottschalk proved capable, but never dominant, in bursts of playing time last season. Collins used his quickness to become a playmaker while splitting time at nose tackle, but he'll find the sledding a bit tougher without Long and Fitzgerald chewing up blockers at his sides.
3. WHAT WAS WILL BARKER THINKING?
Barker, a junior right tackle who has started for two seasons, was arrested two weeks ago, along with freshman walk-on Dave Roberts, and reportedly admitted to police officers that he stole beer from a club near campus. The transgression was mind-numbing for two reasons. First, it jeopardizes his eligibility for a team that lost three offensive line starters, including first-round NFL draft pick Branden Albert. Second, it added to a gaggle of off-field troubles: there's Lalich; Fitzgerald; four players, including quarterback Jameel Sewell and cornerback Chris Cook, will not play this season because of academic troubles; cornerback Mike Brown was charged with, among other things, grand larceny; linebacker J'Courtney Williams, who has since transferred, had a run-in with the law. The silver lining is left tackle Eugene Monroe has a pristine off-field reputation and is one of the best tackles in the conference, if not the country.
4. HOW WILL CEDRIC PEERMAN AND MIKELL SIMPSON WORK TOGETHER?
Running back appears to be Virginia's offensive strength, but the Cavaliers need to figure how best to divide carries. Simpson emerged from nowhere last year after Peerman, who was leading the ACC in rushing at the time, was lost for the season during the Cavaliers' sixth game. If Peerman's ankle has healed, his punishing style should mesh well with Simpson's breakaway speed and proficiency at catching passes. Peerman's no-nonsense leadership alone should help, especially given the Cavaliers' spate of off-field troubles.
5. CAN KEVIN OGLETREE RECOVER?
Ogletree should have spent last season becoming one of the best wide receivers in the ACC. Instead, he spent the year watching from the sidelines and rehabbing a knee injury. Best-case scenario: Ogletree regains his big-play speed, becomes a safety valve for Lalich and takes a spot of the all-ACC team. Worst-case scenario: Ogletree struggles to return to full health, the Cavaliers are rendered punchless again at wideout and Lalich never finds comfort throwing to the outside.