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Groh-ing Up

Scott Haynes, College Editor

On Campus 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
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 outings.

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.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Scott Haynes at shaynes@sportsnetwork.com.
Scott Haynes


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