The holes the Cavaliers must fill are daunting. They need to replace half the starting defense and several skill players on offense, including the quarterback. Although the new starters are promising, how quickly they mature against a brutal early schedule will decide whether Virginia reaches a sixth bowl game in seven seasons.
Virginia opens the season with three of four games on the road -- against North Carolina, Clemson and Brigham Young. After that, home dates still remain with what may be the three best teams on the schedule: Virginia Tech, Florida State and Georgia Tech.
The Cavaliers' main reason for hope is Thomas Jones, who led the Atlantic Coast Conference in rushing last season. Senior fullback Anthony Southern and heralded redshirt freshman Arlen Harris will spell Jones while second-team all-ACC junior tailback Antwoine Womack (708 yards rushing last season) redshirts while awaiting trial on charges of malicious wounding.
Junior quarterback Dan Ellis takes over as the starter after backing up Aaron Brooks for two years. He will have a strong offensive line, led by two seniors: 1998 first-team all-ACC guard Noel LaMontagne and second-team all-ACC center John St. Clair. First-team all-ACC tight end Casey Crawford, another senior, should help compensate for a wide receiver corps that returns no certain number one target.
The defense must replace six starters, four of whom were selected in the NFL draft. And it lost four potential starters during the offseason -- junior linebacker Donny Green and sophomore defensive end Darryl Sanders to academic problems, and sophomore linebacker John Duckett and sophomore safety Devon Simmons for their roles in the same on-campus fight for which Womack awaits trial.
Defensive tackle is perhaps the Cavaliers' only position with depth. Senior Maurice Anderson and sophomore Monsanto Pope started last season. Junior Kofi Bawuah played extensively, and senior Johnny Shivers was a regular before being academically ineligible in 1998.
The linebacker situation also is uncertain, other than junior Byron Thweatt. Senior Shannon Taylor returns from academic ineligibility at the other outside spot, and sophomore Yubrenal Isabelle takes over the middle. Senior cornerback Antwan Harris switches to safety, and junior Tim Spruill and senior Dwayne Stukes will play cornerback.
Donnie Scott is back after averaging 42.6 yards on 58 punts in 1998.
Players to Watch.
QB Dan Ellis (first season as starter)
G Noel LaMontagne (first-team all-ACC)
WR Kevin Coffey (25.4 yards per catch, 5 TDs)
LB Byron Thweatt (99 tackles)
DE Travis Griffith (two-year starter)
DB Dwayne Stukes (2 INT)
Top Players Lost.
QB Aaron Brooks (156 of 290 for 2,319 yards, 12 TDs)
WR Terrence Wilkins (45 receptions, 811 yards)
T Robert Hunt (1st-team all-ACC)
RB Antwoine Womack (redshirting, 708 yards rushing)
DE Patrick Kerney (14 sacks; first-round draft choice, Falcons)
D Anthony Poindexter (ACC defensive player of year)
LB Wali Rainer (134 tackles)
LB Donny Green (85 tackles)
Sept. 4 at North Carolina, Noon, WJLA-7, WMAR-2
Tar Heels' defense is questionable after losing seven starters.
Sept. 11 at Clemson, 3:30 p.m., WJLA-7, WMAR-2
New Clemson coach Tommy Bowden brings name and confidence, but expectations remain low.
Sept. 18 Wake Forest, 7 p.m., ESPN2
Wake Forest's highly recruited freshman QB C.J. Leak might end up a four-year starter.
Sept. 25 at Brigham Young, 9 p.m., ESPN2
Expect the Cougars to return to the classic air attack after relying on the run last season.
Oct. 2 Virginia Tech, 6 p.m., ESPN2
Bruising defense will carry the load until the Hokies' redshirt freshman QB Michael Vick comes around.
Oct. 9 Duke, Time, TV TBA
10 starters return from Duke defense that finished fifth in ACC. Linebackers are strong point.
Oct. 16 at N.C. State, Time, TV TBA
QB Jamie Barnette, a three-year starter, could set ACC career passing record this season.
Oct. 30 Florida State, 7 p.m., no TV
Seminole's Coach Bobby Bowden is eight wins shy of 300 for career. Only two losses in 56 ACC games.
Nov. 6 Georgia Tech, Time, TV TBA
Georgia Tech had highest preseason rank since 1991. At 6-8, 335 pounds, T Jon Carman is imposing.
Nov. 13 Buffalo, 1 p.m., no TV
First year in Division I-A will be painful: Buffalo gave up 30 ppg last season to I-AA opponents.
Nov. 20 at Maryland, 1 p.m., no TV
Maryland needs someone to step up at quarterback, linebacker. PK Brian Kopka hit 10 straight FGs last season.
COACH: George Welsh, 18th season with Virginia (121-75-3; 176-121-4 in 26 seasons overall).
WEB SITE: www.virginiasports.com
GETTING TO THE GAMES: From Interstate 66, take second Route 29 exit to Charlottesville. Those without reserved parking, continue on 29 to Massey Road, turn right and park in lots adjacent to University Hall. From there, shuttle service is available at a round-trip cost of $5 for adults, $3 for children.