After losing four of last year's starters to the NFL and four of this year's potential starters to academic and legal problems, it would be easy for Virginia Coach George Welsh to be pessimistic about his defense.
But Welsh, although left with a patchwork depth chart, is offering cautious praise about the players who did make it back.
"Up to about Thursday I was worried about our defense," Welsh said today during the ACC media tour. "The offense was having much the better of it in practice and the little mini-scrimmage we had on Wednesday. But they perked up and had a pretty good scrimmage Friday. I hope that's a good sign for our defense, because that's where we need to improve the most."
Losses from last season's defense were devastating enough. Defensive end Patrick Kerney, tackle Antonio Dingle, safety Anthony Poindexter, linebacker Wali Rainer and safety Adrian Burnim were all longtime starters, and all but Burnim were drafted by NFL teams. Poindexter and Kerney were all-Americans.
But compounding those losses were the offseason troubles of several nonseniors. Sophomore safety Devon Simmons and sophomore linebacker John Duckett, both promising players, pleaded guilty to charges relating to their involvement in an on-campus fight Feb. 7 and were suspended by the school for a year. Sophomore defensive end Darryl Sanders, a possible starter, and two-year starting junior linebacker Donny Green were ruled academically ineligible over the summer.
"It's definitely affected our defense," Welsh said. "You just can't lose that many."
A pair of reserve linebackers, junior Earl Sims and sophomore William Clark, showed improvement during Friday's scrimmage. Sims made 10 tackles, moving him up on the depth chart to contest for the starting job at outside linebacker. Clark, listed as the third-string middle linebacker behind Sims and junior Yubrenal Isabelle, posted six tackles. The improvement of two redshirt freshmen competing for playing time at safety -- Shernard Newby and Chris Williams -- might prompt senior defensive back Antwan Harris to stay at cornerback instead of making the switch to safety coaches projected during spring practice.
The skeleton defensive line has shown promise, with senior Travis Griffith and sophomore Ljubomir Stamenich forming a solid pair of ends surrounding talented senior tackle Maurice Anderson and sophomore tackle Monsanto Pope. Pope and his backup, junior Kofi Bawuah, are both being considered for defensive end duty as well. Bawuah is currently out for an undetermined period with a slight knee injury.
Foreman Running Strong
Sophomore Tyree Foreman is giving heralded redshirt freshman Arlen Harris serious competition for the backup tailback slot, vacated when second-team all-ACC junior Antwoine Womack elected to redshirt while he awaits trial on charges of malicious wounding. Foreman led all rushers in Friday's scrimmage with 105 yards on 12 carries, including a 63-yard touchdown against the second-string defense. Foreman played both fullback and tailback over eight games in 1998, with two touchdowns. Welsh said there is not much separating the two for the backup job behind all-ACC tailback Thomas Jones.
Former O'Connell High tight end Casey Crawford is questionable for the Cavaliers' Sept. 4 opener at North Carolina, Welsh said. Crawford, a first-team All-ACC selection as a junior in 1998, is 11 weeks removed from hernia surgery.