Inside linebacker Ahmad Brooks will debut as a kickoff returner when 16th-ranked Virginia opens the season Saturday at Temple, but he might not start the game at his usual position.

Brooks, who missed two days of training camp for undisclosed personal reasons, has played "very well" throughout the preseason, Coach Al Groh said Monday, but the orange starter's jersey he wore all last season remains with senior Rich Bedesem.

Groh gave largely cryptic explanations why Brooks, a supremely talented player who led the Cavaliers with 117 tackles last season, isn't listed as a starter. He brushed aside the notion that Bedesem is simply a better linebacker right now.

"What would you think?" Groh said. "You think anybody's better than Ahmad?"

Then why is Brooks working with the second team? "This is where I want to put him," Groh replied. "I wouldn't say he's second team. I didn't list him as second team."

Bedesem and Brooks are more like 1-A and 1-B at the position, Groh said.

Of more interest to Groh was the likelihood that Brooks, who also played running back at Hylton High, would be part of the rotation at kickoff returner this season.

"He's got great hands, he's one of the fastest guys on the team and he's got experience in doing it," Groh said of the 6-foot-4, 250-pound sophomore. "Every return that he has had in practice, there's quite a buzz on the sideline."

Barthelmes, on Guard

Throughout preseason training camp, offensive lineman Brian Barthelmes proclaimed himself pleased with his new position.

"I love tackle," he said. "Tackle's great."

Yet Barthelmes also pledged his willingness to return if needed to guard, where he started 16 consecutive games in 2002 and '03. Last week, the Cavaliers did just that, shifting the 6-6, 288-pound junior from right tackle to left guard and reinstalling him in the starting lineup ahead of sophomore Ron Darden.

"That's just what happens in training camp," Groh said. "You just keep taking a look at different combinations till you find the one that you like the best."

In the past two seasons, Barthelmes has played every position on the line except center.

Ian-Yates Cunningham, the sophomore who bumped Barthelmes from the starting lineup for the final five games last season, is ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation from back surgery in May and should also contend for the left guard job when he returns.

Stupar Has Broken Foot

Virginia's tight ends, potentially as deep a group as any on the team, took a hit last week when third-stringer Jonathan Stupar, an athletic redshirt freshman, suffered a broken foot that will keep him out at least several weeks.

Fortunately for the Cavaliers, senior Patrick Estes, a dominating blocker who often teams with starting tight end Heath Miller in jumbo formations, returned to practice Friday after sitting out because of migraine headaches. . . .

Saturday's game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia will be a homecoming of sorts for the 19 Cavaliers who hail from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Delaware, making demand unusually high for the four complimentary tickets players receive for each game.

"It's real exciting," said fifth-year safety Marquis Weeks, a Berwyn, Pa., native who estimates his cheering section will number about 50 people. "When it came time for all the tickets to be dealt with, I was trying to get as many as I could right away."