-- At the time, Ahmad Brooks's 40-yard kickoff return merely seemed a good way for Virginia to begin its season opener at Temple on Sept. 4. In retrospect, it was a sign of things to come.
Later that day and then a week later against North Carolina, the 12th-ranked Cavaliers added a trio of kickoff and punt returns that totaled 263 yards and set up or scored three touchdowns. Twenty Division I-A teams have returned a kickoff or punt for a touchdown this season, but only Virginia has done both.
"It's not just another play," said Coach Al Groh, whose team hosts Akron on Saturday. The players "think it's an opportunity for a big play every time."
Glories were heaped upon Marquis Weeks for his 100-yard kickoff return against North Carolina and Alvin Pearman for his 70-yard punt return against Temple and 93-yard (non-scoring) kickoff return against the Tar Heels, but the blockers in front of them have been just as big a reason for Virginia's sudden explosiveness in the return game. They are a faster, more athletic group than in Groh's first three seasons, stocked with members of three strong recruiting classes.
"To have good special teams," Groh said, "you find who on your team can do each particular job the best. That's different than saying, 'We're going to play first-team players on special teams,' because you might have a really good first-team player on offense or defense, but he's not the best guy on your team at any particular special teams job."
Weeks and Jermaine Hardy, the starting safeties, and Brooks and Dennis Haley, two of the starting linebackers, are among Virginia's top performers in the return game, but for others such as reserve linebackers Isaiah Ekejiuba, Mark Miller and Jon Thompson, special teams is their best chance to shine.
Thompson and reserve fullback Brandon Isaiah were two of the hardest workers on Weeks's return against UNC, leading him from the start of the return all the way down the field. Haley provided the key block when he laid out North Carolina's Bryan Bethea as Weeks cut left near midfield.
Pearman's return later in the game required even more teamwork. He picked his way down the field, kept alive by blockers such as Ekejiuba and reserve tailback Michael Johnson before the Tar Heels finally tripped him up at the 1-yard line.
"We really feed off each other," Pearman said. "When I'm running the ball and somebody's making an incredible effort to make a block, that makes me want to score even more. . . . There's guys busting their butt, running 100 miles an hour to get back in front of me and make another block."
At the center of all this is special teams coach Mark D'Onofrio, brought from Rutgers this offseason after Corwin Brown took a position with the New York Jets. Like his predecessor, D'Onofrio came in without much experience coaching special teams but plenty of experience playing it in the NFL.
"Mark's very industrious, very bright, very detailed, very organized," Groh said. "Just as a person and his ability to relate to players and to comfortably fit with the philosophy or this organization, he's a fellow that we had on our short list for quite a while to have with us. . . . For many reasons, it's turned out to be just as we thought it would, which is a terrific addition to our staff."
D'Onofrio has incorporated a few new wrinkles into Virginia's special teams operation, but he differs most from Brown in his personality.
"Maybe he might talk and Coach Brown might scream it," Johnson said. "And he may walk down the line and tell you what to do. Coach Brown's going to haul tail down the line to tell you what to do. Just basically two different attitudes about it."
D'Onofrio's way is obviously working so far. These days, the competition at Virginia for spots on the special teams is nearly as intense as for the supposedly more prestigious jobs on offense and defense.
"It's kind of a cool thing now to be on some of these return units," Groh said. "Everybody wants to be part of them and be part of the success."
Cavaliers Note: Groh is not sure when guard Ian-Yates Cunningham, a former starter recovering from back surgery, will return to the field, but said the pace of his rehab has "picked up considerably."