Scott Haynes, College Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Most coaches need a couple of years
before the fruits of their labor are seen. This is definitely the case in
Charlottesville, as Al Groh's fourth season at the helm could prove to be one
of the best in school history.
When George Welsh (school's winningest coach) retired after 19 seasons,
Virginia went outside of the college ranks, but stayed within the Cavalier
family, to pluck Al Groh away from the New York Jets and bring him home to his
alma mater. One of the youngest teams in the nation the last two years,
Virginia has finally grown up and it certainly shows on the field. Not only is
the ACC title within reach, but a national championship is not out of the
realm of possibility.
The maturation process is complete.
Al Groh's fourth season at the helm of the Virginia Cavaliers could prove to be one of the best in school history.
In 2002, the Cavaliers went 9-5 overall and finished second in the ACC at 6-5.
Despite the overall youth of the team, Virginia went on to beat four ranked
foes (NC State, Maryland and South Carolina in the regular season and West
Virginia in the Continental Tire Bowl). In 2003, the team finished the season
at 8-5 (4-4 in the ACC) and a second straight trip to the Continental Tire
Bowl, this time besting Pittsburgh.
The bar is set even higher in 2004.
Thus far, no team has been able to come close to challenging the Cavaliers, as
the squad has won four straight lopsided games. The offense is one of the most
potent units in the nation, averaging just over 45 points per game, on 500
yards of total offense.
All-American quarterback Matt Schaub is no longer in the fold, but this team
is probably better now that it ever has been. Junior quarterback Marques
Hagans has taken over under center, and while he is not the marksman that
Schaub was, Hagans does bring more athleticism to the position. What he has
done is systematically move his team up and down the field. Virginia likes to
pound the ball with a trio of talented tailbacks. Junior Wali Lundy has proved
to be the best of the bunch. He has been a scoring machine in the early going,
averaging over five yards per carry (5.2) and scoring 10 TDs already.
Sophomore Michael Johnson is a dangerous back as well, netting just over seven
yards per carry (7.1), while senior Alvin Pearman (5.2 ypc) gives the team
another hard runner. Throw in Hagans' ability to run (9.3 ypc and three TDs
this year) and this is a rushing attack that simply can't be stopped.
The ground game has produced a whopping 19 TDs in the first four games, but
that doesn't mean that Virginia won't go vertical. Hagans has passed very
little thus far, but he has completed over 76 percent of his attempts, for 770
yards and four scores, ranking fourth nationally with a passer rating of
182.93. Wideout Michael McGrew is a big target (6-2, 205) downfield, but the
crown jewel of the receiving corps is All-American tight end Heath Miller. The
6-5, 255-pound junior is the best tight end in the country. Last season he led
all tight ends with 70 receptions, for 835 yards. He is off and running again
in 2004, already having found the end zone three times in the first four
It is not all offense in Charlottesville, as Virginia boasts one of the best
defensive squads as well. It all starts with perhaps the country's best
linebacking corps. Sophomore Ahmad Brooks is one of those rare talents that
just seems to be destined for greatness. The 6-4, 250-pound tackling machine
has been all over the field this season, currently leading the team in tackles
and sacks (five). Fellow sophomore Kai Parham and junior Darryl Blackstock
(three sacks) comprise the other two-thirds of this impressive trio.
The star up front the last couple of seasons has clearly been 6-7, 290-pound
end Chris Canty, but the All-American suffered a knee injury against Syracuse
and will miss the remainder of the season. That will certainly be a huge blow
to the defense the rest of the way, but Groh has been able to get the most of
his youngsters, and a nice mix of youth and veteran leadership on the
defensive line could soften the blow.
With all the attention surrounding new ACC members Miami-Florida and Virginia
Tech this season, Virginia has quietly flown under the radar. However, there
will be plenty of opportunities down the stretch to get noticed. A treacherous
road trip to Tallahassee in mid-October and a pair of home dates with Maryland
and Miami in early November will determine the Cavs' season.
If Virginia can get it done at FSU next week, the college football world may
just have to open its eyes and see this program for what it is:
A supremely talented and mature group, whose time has come.