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May 13, 1998

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.–What a difference a year makes for the University of Virginia football program. A year ago, the Cavaliers prepared for the 1997 season with four new coaches on the staff, just eight returning starters (four on defense and four on offense) and a quarterback that hadn’t started a game. As the Cavaliers look ahead to the 1998 season, the coaching staff has remained intact, 15 starters (nine on defense and six on offense) are among 32 lettermen returning from last year’s 7-4 team and Aaron Brooks has established himself at quarterback after finishing the 1997 season in spectacular fashion.

Welsh Photo
George Welsh returns as Virginia’s head coach.

George Welsh returns for his 17th season as Virginia’s head coach in 1998. Under his guidance, UVa is one of just four Division I-A programs in the nation to have won at least seven games each of the last 11 seasons.

All-American safety Anthony Poindexter is back for his final year of eligibility as the leader of Virginia’s defensive unit. Poindexter announced in January he would not make himself available for the 1998 National Football League Draft. Despite being hampered by injuries, he earned first-team All-America honors from The Sporting News, second-team All-America honors from College & Pro Football Newsweekly and third-team All-America honors from The Associated Press last season. Poindexter missed one entire game and most of two others, but still led the team with four interceptions and finished third in total tackles with 78. He also was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award and a first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection.

Poindexter’s return bolsters the only area of UVa’s defensive unit that has starters missing from a year ago. Safety Stephen Phelan (46 tackles, three interceptions, six pass break-ups) and cornerback Joe Williams (42 tackles, one interception) are the only starters lost from Virginia’s 1997 defensive unit. The Cavaliers finished 21st in the nation in rushing defense (114.0 yards a game) and 24th in the nation in total defense (324.9 yards a game) last season.

Poindexter Photo
All-American safety Anthony Poindexter

Joining Poindexter as a returning starter in the Virginia secondary is junior cornerback Dwayne Stukes who earned honorable mention All-ACC honors last season. Stukes was fifth on the team in total tackles last fall with 54, and he had a team-leading three fumble recoveries. He also broke up five passes, blocked one punt, intercepted a pass and caused one fumble. Stukes returned a fumble recovery for a touchdown against Richmond and returned a punt blocked by Poindexter for a touchdown against North Carolina.

The leading candidate to replace Phelan at safety is senior Adrian Burnim. Burnim played in all 11 games last season, starting four, and finished tied for seventh on the team in total tackles with 48. He also intercepted two passes. Sophomore Johnny Ponder (12 tackles) and red-shirt freshman Devon Simmons are expected to compete for playing time at the safety positions.

Junior Antwan Harris and sophomore Tim Spruill are the leading contenders to replace Williams at cornerback. Harris has lettered twice despite being slowed by knee injuries. Last season he was in on 27 tackles in nine games. Harris also broke up two passes, recovered two fumbles and caused one fumble. Sophomores Jason Small and Duane Fisher should also compete for playing time.

Virginia’s front seven starters on defense last season all return for the Cavaliers. Along the line, seniors Antonio Dingle and Johnny Shivers are back at the tackle positions, and senior Patrick Kerney and junior Travis Griffith return at the end positions.

Dingle Photo
Senior Antonio Dingle

Dingle earned first-team All-ACC honors last season after leading UVa defensive linemen with 48 total tackles. He was in on two quarterback sacks among nine tackles for lost yardage, and also caused two fumbles. Shivers was in on 14 tackles last season, including one quarterback sack, and he broke up five passes. Junior Maurice Anderson provides additional experience at the tackle positions. He played in 10 games last season and lettered for the second time after being involved in 31 tackles. Additional depth will be provided by sophomore Kofi Bawuah (one tackle) and junior Will Jackson.

Kerney was in on eight quarterback sacks last season to finish second on the team in that department and he was an honorable mention All-ACC selection. He had 45 total tackles, caused three fumbles and recovered two fumbles. Griffith was in on 43 tackles in 1997, including six quarterback sacks. He also recovered one fumble and broke up three passes. Juniors Andreas Karelis (nine tackles, one fumble recovery) and Dillon Taylor (13 tackles), both two-year lettermen, could be factors at end, while red-shirt freshmen Monsanto Pope, Darryl Sanders and Ljubomir Stamenich are expected to compete for playing time.

“The defensive line should be pretty good,” Welsh said. “We should be better in all phases of the game. We should be stronger and more experienced, and we should have better depth.”

At linebacker, senior Wali Rainer returns in the middle and sophomore Byron Thweatt is back at one of the outside linebacker positions. Junior Wale Elegbe and sophomore Donny Green, who shared the other outside linebacker position last fall, also return.

Rainer led the Cavaliers in total tackles in 1997 with 118, and he was in on a team-leading nine quarterback sacks among his team-leading 15 tackles for lost yardage. He also broke up three passes, intercepted one pass, recovered one fumble and caused one fumble. Rainer was the co-recipient of Virginia’s Speed Elliott Award as one of the team’s most improved players and he earned honorable mention All-ACC honors. Yubrenal Isabelle (11 tackles), who played in five games as a true freshman last fall, provides depth behind Rainer. Thweatt was second on the team in tackles in 1997 with 97 and received the Bill Dudley Award as UVa’s top freshman football player. He was also a first-team Freshman All-America selection by The Sporting News. Thweatt broke up six passes and was in on three quarterback sacks. Elegbe started six games and Green five at the other outside linebacker position. Elegbe finished fourth on the team in tackles with 74 and was in on two quarterback sacks, while Green was sixth with 51 tackles. Junior Shannon Taylor, who played in all 11 games and started two at defensive end last season, played linebacker in the spring. He was in on 24 tackles, including two quarterback sacks, last fall. Sophomore Earl Sims (two tackles) provides depth at the outside linebacker positions after playing in three games during a true freshman season that was hampered by injuries. Red-shirt freshman John Duckett played both linebacker and fullback in the spring. It’s uncertain whether junior Jami’h Rainer, Wali’s brother, will be ready for the 1998 season after suffering a knee injury in the fifth game of the 1997 season. He was in on 11 tackles at outside linebacker and on special teams last fall before his injury.

“We should be an improved defensive team,” Welsh said. “Hopefully we’ll have a little better pass rush, and do a little better job stopping the run and creating turnovers. With our red-shirt freshmen, we should have better depth.”

Senior quarterback Aaron Brooks leads a Virginia offensive unit that returns six starters from a year ago. In 1997, Brooks became the fifth UVa quarterback in the last eight years to lead the ACC in passing efficiency and he finished 11th in the nation in that department. He completed 164 of 270 passes (60.7 percent) for 2,282 yards (average of 207.4 yards a game) and 20 touchdowns with seven interceptions. He also finished the season as the Cavaliers’ second-leading rusher with 85 carries for 255 yards and five touchdowns. Brooks was spectacular in Virginia’s final four games of the 1997 season. During that stretch, he completed 66 of 102 passes (64.7 percent) for 1,065 yards and 14 touchdowns with one interception. He passed for a school-record 390 yards in the Cavaliers’ 34-20 victory over Virginia Tech in the final game of the 1997 season. Brooks was the co-recipient of UVa’s Speed Elliott Award as one of the team’s most improved players.

Sophomores Dan Ellis and David Rivers, and junior Will Thompson provide depth behind Brooks at quarterback. As a true freshman, Ellis worked his way into the back-up spot behind Brooks by the end of last season. He played in three games and completed 17 of 33 passes (51.5 percent) for 252 yards and one touchdown with one interception. Rivers also played in three games in 1997 and completed one of two passes for four yards. Thompson lettered for the first time after holding for extra point and field goal attempts last fall.

“We are solid at quarterback with Brooks and Ellis,” Welsh said. “It took time for Brooks to develop, but by midseason he was pretty good. We pass protected for him better the last half of the season and that helped.

“Brooks has a great arm and he’s very athletic. He’s a good scrambler and he can create if necessary.”

Joining Brooks in the Virginia backfield is junior tailback Thomas Jones, who led UVa in rushing in 1997. Jones, who is the leading returning rusher in the ACC in 1998, carried the ball 201 times for 692 yards and four touchdowns. He also caught 17 passes for 127 yards and one touchdown. Sophomore tailback Antwoine Womack played in five games for UVa last season as a true freshman and carried the ball 44 times for 208 yards. Red-shirt freshman tailback Tyree Foreman is also expected to compete for playing time at tailback.

Junior Anthony Southern, who can play either fullback or tailback, is the leading candidate to replace the departed Charles Kirby as Virginia’s starting fullback. Southern played in nine games last fall and carried the ball 43 times for 158 yards and one touchdown. He was third on the team in receptions with 18 for 207 yards and one touchdown. Sophomore Patrick Washington is expected to provide depth at fullback. Washington saw action at both fullback and tight end last season when he lettered for the first time. Red-shirt freshman John Duckett played both linebacker and fullback in the spring.

“Southern can play both fullback and tailback, but he’s likely to play more fullback this fall,” Welsh said. “He is probably faster and a better receiver than your normal fullback. Southern’s also a really good pass protector and that’s why we had him in there a lot in the one-back set last year.

“I think we’ve got a solid group of players at tailback. Thomas Jones’ per carry average wasn’t very high last year, but we played some really good defensive football teams early last season and didn’t block very well the first few games. I think this is his year to get stronger.”

The Cavaliers must replace both starting wide receivers from a year ago, Germane Crowell (53 receptions, 969 yards, nine touchdowns) and Bryan Owen (17 receptions, 272 yards, two touchdowns). Crowell, Virginia’s leading receiver last fall, finished his career ranked second on UVa’s career list for receptions (122) and fourth on the Cavaliers’ career lists for yards receiving (2,142) and touchdowns receiving (19). Senior Terrence Wilkins started four games last season and is expected to be one of the Cavaliers’ starting wide receivers in 1998. He caught 37 passes for 506 yards and four touchdowns last season. Wilkins also led UVa in punt and kickoff returns, and in all-purpose running. He returned 17 punts for 94 yards (average of 5.5 yards a return) and 21 kickoffs for 441 yards (average of 21.0 yards a return). He totaled 1,039 yards in all-purpose running, an average of 94.4 yards a game. Sophomores Kevin Coffey and Ahmad Hawkins should compete for the other starting position at wide receiver. Hawkins played in eight games last fall as a true freshman before suffering a season-ending injury. He caught four passes for 37 yards and one touchdown. Coffey played in eight games and had four receptions for 44 yards and one touchdown. Red-shirt freshman Chris Luzar moved to wide receiver during spring practice after playing tight end last year. Sophomore Kenny Crawford and red-shirt freshman Scooter Clark provide depth along with junior Tim Johnson. Wide receiver is a position where one or two true freshmen could contribute for the Cavaliers.

“After Wilkins, Hawkins and Coffey, I’m not sure what to expect at wide receiver,” Welsh said. “It’s an area where true freshmen could have an impact.

“Wilkins should be a very good wide receiver right now. Moving from running back to wide receiver was a difficult transition for him, but he’s played a lot the last two years and should be very good this year. He improved a lot last season. Wilkins is also a good return guy.”

Four players accounted for Virginia’s 11 starts at tight end last season and all four of those players return in 1998. Juniors Casey Crawford and Brad Dittman each started four games in 1997, while sophomore Billy Baber started two games as a true freshman and sophomore Patrick Washington started one. Crawford opened the 1997 season as the starter and remained in the starting lineup until a broken leg in the fourth game ended his season. He caught 10 passes for 110 yards. Dittman started the last four games of the season and caught two passes for 44 yards, while Baber played in all 11 games as a true freshman and caught eight passes for 93 yards and one touchdown. Washington is expected to play fullback for the Cavaliers in 1998. Sophomore Adam Westcott provides additional depth at tight end after playing in nine games last fall and catching one pass for five yards.

“Crawford is a good blocker and receiver, and Baber did well last season,” Welsh said. “Baber caught the ball when we threw it to him. Dittman helped us block when he started to play at tight end late last season. He can also catch the ball.”

Three starters return from tackle to tackle on the offensive line for Virginia, but the Cavaliers must find replacements for center Matt Link and second-team All-ACC selection Doug Karczewski at tackle. Junior John St. Clair is expected to replace Link at center with junior George Seals providing depth. Senior Fady Chamoun and junior Noel LaMontagne return to starting positions at guard with sophomore Brad Barnes as a backup. Senior Robert Hunt returns to one tackle position after starting the last eight games of the 1997 season. Sophomore Jermese Jones saw action as a true freshman last season and is the leading candidate to replace Karczewski at the other tackle position. Junior Kevin Hillerich is expected to compete for playing time at tackle as is sophomore Dustin Keith, who moved from defensive tackle in the spring. Red-shirt freshmen Josh Lawson and Evan Routzahn could also factor in on the offensive line with one of them likely to play guard and the other tackle. Red-shirt freshman Jared Woodson provides additional depth.

“We return six starters on offense and, if a couple of wide receivers come through, we should be able to throw the ball,” Welsh said. “The quarterback situation is solid with Aaron Brooks and a good back-up in Dan Ellis. Our running backs and our tight ends can catch the ball. We need a wide receiver or two to come through for us from among our returning players or our true freshmen.

“On the offensive line, Doug Karczewski was our best lineman last season and he was a leader. We need to find someone to replace him and we also need a replacement for Matt Link at center. Chamoun and LaMontagne made good progress at guard last year, and Hunt is back at tackle. We still don’t have a lot of depth on the offensive line, but it could be a solid unit if everyone stays healthy.”

The Cavaliers will continue to operate out of the Multiple I and Welsh hopes for a balanced offense.

“We will try to keep a balanced offense if we can run the ball,” he said. “We didn’t run the ball as well as I would have liked in some games last year, so we’re looking to improve in that area. We want to have a good running game. I don’t want to go pass first, but we’re capable of doing that if necessary.”

For the second consecutive season, the Cavaliers must replace both their punter and place-kicker. Welsh no doubt hopes things work out at those positions as well in 1998 as they did in 1997. In their fifth years in the Virginia program, punter Frank Rotella and place-kicker John Allen Roberts provided UVa with solid seasons in their only year as starters. Rotella punted 60 times for a 40.0 yard average, while Roberts was successful on eight of 14 field goal attempts, including five of nine from 40 yards and beyond.

The leading candidates to replace Rotella are junior Donald Scott and red-shirt freshman Mike Abrams. Neither player has punted in a game for the Cavaliers.

Three players are expected to compete for the place-kicking responsibilities. The candidates for the place-kicking responsibilities include sophomore Todd Braverman, and red-shirt freshmen Greg Owens and David Greene.

“The kicking game is up in the air,” Welsh said. “I have no idea. It’s like starting over again, just like last year. We really don’t have anyone in the program like Frank Rotella. He’d been in the program for four years and we knew he was pretty good. I’m not sure about the two punters we have in the program. Abrams has only been with us since last August and Scott joined us in the spring of 1997.

“With the place-kickers, it’s a similar pool to what we had a year ago. Hopefully someone will emerge.

“I wouldn’t have any idea about our punter or our kicker, and how they might do. There’s no way to tell right now. We’ve got good snappers and good holders, and hopefully that will help them.”

Dillon Taylor and John St. Clair are solid long snappers, and Will Thompson is back as the holder for field goal and extra point attempts.

Terrence Wilkins returns as Virginia’s leading punt and kickoff return man from 1997. Antwan Harris and Thomas Jones could also see action on punt and kickoff returns in 1998. Harris returned seven kickoffs for 146 yards (average of 20.9 yards a return) last season, while Jones returned three punts for 41 yards (average of 13.7 yards a return) and one kickoff for 20 yards last fall. Dwayne Stukes could see action on kickoff returns. He returned two kickoffs for 38 yards last season.

“I think we have the experience and we have the talent to win more than seven games,” Welsh said. “You’ve got to have some luck and some breaks, and you’ve got to stay healthy. There aren’t many teams that can survive injuries to key people any more. There are a few out there, but not many. It’s a tough league. The Atlantic Coast Conference is tough.

“I think we project to be a better team early in the season than we were last year. You’ve got to have a good kicking game and that’s a big question mark. You can’t win without a decent kicking game. You can’t lose too many yards in the kicking game if you’re going to win these days.”

Welsh is the winningest football coach in the history of the ACC. His 16 Virginia teams have compiled an overall record of 112-72-3 (.607) and are 69-43-3 (.613) in the conference. Welsh has won more conference games and more games overall than any other head football coach in the history of the ACC. His Virginia teams have competed in nine bowl games, including eight in the last 11 years.

Welsh was the head coach at Navy for nine years before becoming head coach at UVa. His nine Navy teams compiled an overall record of 55-46-1 (.544). Welsh’s overall record in 25 years as a collegiate head coach is 167-118-4 (.585).

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