When the Cavaliers Have the Ball
With record-setting quarterback Matt Schaub playing in the NFL, don't expect the Cavaliers to run the same pass-happy offense they used in each of Coach Al Groh's first three seasons in Charlottesville. While Marques Hagans has a stronger arm than Schaub, Groh isn't sure if Hagans's right arm is as accurate. So look for Groh to use the running game to set up the passing game, a different approach from his play-calling during the past three seasons.
Groh figures to take advantage of Hagans's mobility by using more option plays, rollouts and bootlegs. That would also alleviate Groh's concerns about Hagans's height. Groh is worried that the 5-foot-10 Hagans won't be able to see over the line of scrimmage to look for receivers. By moving him outside the box, Hagans would have a better view downfield.
"That's part of our responsibilities -- to let him see what he needs to see," Groh said.
Virginia's running game, which has been mediocre during Groh's tenure, should be more productive this season. Junior Wali Lundy ran 227 times for 929 yards last season, despite missing the Florida State game and most of three others because of a pulled hamstring. Groh likes to keep his backs fresh so senior Alvin Pearman, who ran for 643 yards and four touchdowns last season, and sophomore Michael Johnson should get their share of carries, too. Whoever is running will have perhaps the ACC's best blocker, guard Elton Brown, leading the way.
Senior Michael McGrew, who missed all of the 2003 season because of a broken left leg, is the team's most experienced wide receiver. He'll need help from a handful of youngsters: Emmanuel Byers, Fontel Mines, Ron Morton and Deyon Williams. At least Hagans will have one of the nation's best safety valves -- junior Heath Miller, who set ACC records for tight ends with 70 catches for 835 yards last season. Lundy and Pearman combined to catch 92 passes and eight touchdowns last season and will remain integral parts of the passing game.
When Opponents Have the Ball
The Cavaliers believe they've finally shored up what has plagued their defense in each of the past three seasons: an undersized defensive front. Virginia made vast improvement last season against the run, allowing 161.7 yards per game, a year after the Cavaliers ranked 108th among 117 Division I-A teams in rushing defense.
Much of the improvement can be attributed to defensive end Chris Canty and linebackers Darryl Blackstock and Ahmad Brooks. Canty has grown to 290 pounds and had 104 tackles last season, a record for Virginia defensive linemen. Defensive end Brennan Schmidt had 87 tackles and four sacks. And the Cavaliers finally have a pair of 300-pounders on defense -- end Kwakou Robinson and nose tackle Keenan Carter.
Groh's defense doesn't ask the defensive line to do too much -- just take on blocks so the linebackers can make plays. And Virginia has perhaps the nation's best linebacker corps returning this season. Brooks started all 13 games as a freshman in 2003 and led the Cavaliers with 117 tackles. Blackstock, a two-year starter, had 85 tackles and a team-high 23 quarterback pressures. Sophomore Kai Parham had 89 tackles as a freshman. Brooks and Parham should be much-improved in their second season in Groh's 3-4 defense.
"We think the linebackers will be pretty good," Groh said. "They certainly look like we want them to look. They're all 6-3 or 6-4 and they can all run. In this system, that's the way it has always been. They've got a chance to make a lot of plays."
There is concern about the secondary after starting cornerback Almondo Curry and cornerback-safety Jamaine Winborne graduated. Tony Franklin, who started the last six games of 2003 as a freshman, returns at cornerback, along with Marcus Hamilton, who played in nickel and dime packages last season. Safety Jermaine Hardy is coming back from a knee injury, and senior safety Marquis Weeks, a converted running back, hasn't played defense since high school.
-- Mark Schlabach