A lot of the familiar names and faces that have marked the Al Groh era at Virginia won't be on the sideline when the Cavaliers open the season today against Western Michigan at Scott Stadium. Seven Cavaliers were drafted in April's NFL draft, and three other starters graduated.
All-American tight end Heath Miller, all-American guard Elton Brown, linebacker Darryl Blackstock and star running back Alvin Pearman all were chosen in the NFL draft. So with a roster that includes six first-time starters on defense and a freshman starting at left guard on offense, Groh isn't sure how his team will react against the Broncos, a team that lost its last 10 games in 2004 and whose coach was fired before the season ended.
"In a lot of ways, it's the most inexperienced team that we've had," Groh said. "We have certain positions that are rich in experience, but, across the board, it's the most inexperienced team that we've had. Not just on the front line, but at some spots all the way through."
The No. 25 Cavaliers essentially will have three new starters on the offensive line, with tackles D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Brad Butler the only players back at the positions they played last season. Senior Brian Barthelmes moved from left guard to center during training camp, and sophomore Ian Yates-Cunningham moved from center to backup left guard. Freshman Branden Albert, from Glen Burnie High School, will become only the second Virginia freshman since 1972 to start the opener on the offensive line (Ferguson did it in 2002).
Among Virginia's six new starters on defense are two linebackers and two defensive backs. Redshirt freshman Clint Sintim (Gar-Field) replaces Blackstock at outside linebacker, and seniors Mark Miller and Bryan White will play in second-team all-American Ahmad Brooks's inside spot. Brooks, from Hylton High, won't play against Western Michigan as he continues to recover from surgery he underwent in March to regenerate bone growth in his right knee. Groh said Brooks did some light work in practice this week, so there's a chance he could play in the Cavaliers' next game, at Syracuse on Sept. 17.
Virginia has two new starters in the secondary, and junior Tony Franklin moved from cornerback to safety. Sophomore Nate Lyles will make his first start at safety, and sophomore Chris Gorham replaces Franklin at cornerback.
Groh said the younger players' ability to remember what they learned during spring practice and training camp will determine how well they play early in the season. He estimated the Cavaliers will have 12 to 14 players appear in today's game who have never played in a college football game before.
"You spend five days giving them the script and the plan, and then, all of a sudden, in the middle of the first quarter, you see the picture of the coach on TV with the grease board, and he's redrawing the coverages that you've got to play or the pass protections that you've got to run during the game," Groh said. "A player's ability to process that has a lot to do with his success in the game."
Western Michigan Coach Bill Cubit, a former offensive coordinator at Stanford who replaced the fired Gary Darnell, said he expects Virginia's young players to perform well.
"They're really good and they're getting themselves geared up to go and win the ACC," Cubit said. "We've been here before, playing the Floridas and teams like that, and I don't think it's anything different. We just have to go out and play hard and if we do, I think the kids will feel good about themselves after the game."