Cavs Will Bring Explosive Offense into 1999
July 22, 1999
The beat rolled on for the 1998 University of Virginia football team. The Cavaliers compiled an overall record of 9-3, finished third in the Atlantic Coast Conference with a 6-2 league record, earned a berth in the Chick-fil-A-Peach Bowl and finished the season ranked 18th in both The Associated Press and USA Today/ESPN rankings. UVa’s nine wins gave the Cavaliers their 12th consecutive season with at least seven victories, a stretch of success matched by only three other Division I-A football programs?Florida State, Michigan and Nebraska. Virginia’s bowl berth was the ninth for the Cavaliers in the last 12 years.
As UVa head coach George Welsh looks ahead to his 18th season of directing the Cavaliers’ football program in 1999, he has 14 starters returning from a year ago. The starters on offense include tailback Thomas Jones, the leading rusher in the ACC last season and a first -team All-Conference selection, and first-team All-ACC selections Casey Crawford at tight end and Noel LaMontagne at guard. Defensively, outside linebacker Byron Thweatt, end Travis Griffith, and defensive backs Tim Spruill, Antwan Harris and Dwayne Stukes highlight the returning players.
There are, however, question marks for the 1999 Virginia team. Gone from the offensive unit are quarterback Aaron Brooks, leading receiver Terrence Wilkins, and offensive linemen Robert Hunt (tackle) and Fady Chamoun (guard). Brooks led the Cavaliers to an overall record of 16-7 as the starter at quarterback the last two seasons. He ranks first in UVa history in 300-yard passing games with six, is tied for second with 33 touchdown passes and ranks third in yards passing (5,118 yards), completions (357), attempts (651) and total offense (5,665 yards).
Wilkins caught 45 passes for 811 yards (average of 18.0 yards a reception) and one touchdown last season. He made several big plays for the Cavaliers last fall and also served as Virginia’s primary punt returner with 17 returns for an average of 9.7 yards a return.
Hunt earned first-team All-ACC honors last season while Chamoun was a key factor in UVa’s rejuvenated running game before he suffered an injury in the final regular season game at Virginia Tech. Virginia averaged almost 100 yards more of rushing offense and 75 more yards of total offense in 1998 as compared to 1997. The Cavaliers led the ACC in rushing yards per game (213.1), rushing touchdowns (27), yards per rush (5.0), yards per play (6.1) and first downs per game (21.4).
Defensively, the Cavaliers must replace two veteran starters on the line, the team’s leading tackler the last two years from the middle linebacker spot, and both safeties. Three of the players earned first-team All-ACC honors last season and one was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
End Patrick Kerney is gone after earning first-team All-America and All-ACC honors last season when he was a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Award which is given annually by the Football Writers Association of America to the nation’s best defensive player. Kerney was in on 15 quarterback sacks in 1998 to tie the Virginia season record and he tied the UVa record for tackles for lost yardage in a season with 21. He was in on 62 total tackles last season to lead UVa defensive linemen.
Tackle Antonio Dingle, a three-year starter, is also gone. He was in on 34 tackles last season, including two quarterback sacks.
Wali Rainer departs after leading the Cavaliers in tackles each of the last two seasons from his middle linebacker position. Rainer, a three-year starter, earned first-team All-ACC honors last season after being in on 134 tackles, including 82 unassisted tackles. He was also in on five quarterback sacks and finished his career ranked seventh on Virginia’s tackles list with 347. In the secondary, UVa must replace safeties Anthony Poindexter and Adrian Burnim. Poindexter earned first-team All-America honors each of the last two years, and was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Award despite playing in only seven games last season. He suffered a knee injury late in the seventh game last season against North Carolina State and missed the final four regular-season games and the Peach Bowl. He finished the season with 73 total tackles, was in on three quarterback sacks, intercepted three passes and recovered two fumbles. His intensity and leadership will be missed. Burnim led the team in interceptions last season with four and was in on 50 tackles.
Six of UVa’s departing players were drafted, including Kerney (first round, Atlanta Falcons), Brooks (fourth round, Green Bay Packers), Rainer (fourth round, Cleveland Browns), Dingle (seventh round, Pittsburgh Steelers), Poindexter (seventh round, Baltimore Ravens) and Hunt (seventh round, Tampa Bay Buccaneers).
Virginia’s 1999 schedule features two new opponents. Brigham Young and Buffalo join Virginia Tech as the Cavaliers’ non-conference opponents this fall. Six of Virginia’s 1999 regular season opponents participated in bowls in 1998, including Brigham Young, Florida State, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech.
The following is a position-by-position breakdown of the 1999 Cavaliers.
Virginia has eight starters returning on offense, including place-kicker Todd Braverman. Welsh likes a balanced offense and the Cavaliers will be hard pressed to be more balanced than they were a year ago when UVa passed for an average of 213.5 yards and rushed for an average of 213.1 yards a game in compiling an average of 426.6 yards a game in total offense. Virginia ranked 15th in rushing offense and 23rd in total offense in the nation. Another key factor for the Cavaliers in 1998 was the fact they ranked in a tie for 15th in the nation in turnover margin, forcing 30 turnovers and turning the ball over just 20 times.
Gary Tranquill, the quarterbacks coach at UVa from 1987-90, returned to UVa as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in February. He takes over for Sparky Woods, who left to join the staff at Mississippi State University.
Quarterback ? The focus of most football observers will be on the quarterback position where junior Dan Ellis is expected to be the starter. Ellis has played in just eight games during his first two years in the Virginia program, including five last season when he completed two of six passes for 30 yards with one interception. For his career, he has completed 19 of 39 passes (48.7 percent) for 282 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
In addition to Ellis, junior David Rivers and senior Will Thompson also competed at quarterback in the spring. Rivers did not see action at quarterback in 1998 and played in just three games at the position in 1997. Thompson has lettered the last two years as Virginia’s holder for extra point and field goal attempts.
Two true freshmen, Matt Schaub and Bryson Spinner, could also factor into the quarterback situation during the preseason practice period in August. “Dan Ellis has to win the job,” Welsh said. “He has to win the job because he hasn’t played that much. I think Ellis is ahead, but he’s not ahead by a lot. Rivers provided competition in the spring. When the freshmen come in we’ll give them both enough work to see if they can help us. I hope to be able to give them both enough work to see if they can learn and execute the offense.
“When Ellis first came here he learned the offense faster than anybody we’ve ever had. He was ready to play as a true freshman. He knew the offense, he knew the reads and his execution was excellent. That’s the way he’s been for two years. Hopefully, after getting more work and working with the first team most of the time, he’ll be an improved quarterback.”
Running Back ? While inexperience is a concern at quarterback, that’s not the case at the running back positions. Jones rushed 238 times for 1,303 yards (average of 5.5 yards a carry) and 13 touchdowns last season, and was also Virginia’s second-leading receiver with 28 catches for 179 yards and two touchdowns. He led the ACC in rushing by almost 400 yards, and also led the conference in rushing touchdowns (13), total touchdowns (15), 200-yard games (two) and 100-yard games (seven). Jones is one of the team’s tri-captains for the 1999 season.
Senior Anthony Southern (14 carries, 59 yards, three touchdowns), a three-year letterman, returns to the starting position at fullback. He has carried the ball 101 times for 399 yards (average of 4.0 yards a carry) and four touchdowns during his UVa career. A very capable receiver, Southern caught seven passes for 96 yards and one touchdown last season. He has 27 receptions for 330 yards and two touchdowns during his Virginia career. Junior Patrick Washington (one carry, five yards), a two-year letterman, started one game at fullback last season as a back-up to Southern.
Sophomore Tyree Foreman is expected to work at both tailback and fullback in preparation for the 1999 season. He played in eight games last season with one start, and carried the ball 14 times for 31 yards and two touchdowns. Freshman Arlen Harris saw action at both tailback and wide receiver in the spring. He had a fine spring game at tailback (18 carries, 93 yards, one touchdown) and could see action in the offensive backfield in the fall.
“Thomas Jones combines all the qualities you want in a big league running back,” Welsh said. “He’s experienced and I know he’ll work hard on his speed and acceleration. I think Thomas has to be one of our leaders. It’s his turn now to step up.
“We should be pretty solid at fullback. Anthony Southern is a good all-around athlete. I’d like to see him improve his blocking, but he’s a good runner and he’s a really good pass receiver. Tyree Foreman worked at both tailback and fullback in the spring.”
Offensive Line/Tight End ? The offensive line has three starters returning from tackle to tackle. Senior John St. Clair, a second-team All-ACC selection and a three-year letterman, returns at the center position. Depth at center is provided by junior Dustin Keith and sophomore Jared Woodson. LaMontagne, a senior tri-captain, is a two-year letterman and returning starter at guard. Sophomore Evan Routzahn lettered last season and is the leading candidate to replace Chamoun at the other guard position. He started five games last fall, including the Peach Bowl. Also competing for playing time at guard are senior letterman George Seals, junior Brad Barnes and red-shirt freshman Butch Jefferson. Red-shirt freshman Tom Posillico provides additional depth. Sophomore Josh Lawson returns at one tackle position after starting every game last season and earning first-team All-Freshman recognition from The Sporting News. Junior Jermese Jones is the leading candidate to replace Hunt at the other tackle position although he missed spring practice with an injury. Barnes, who can play tackle and guard, played tackle in the spring and could compete for a starting position. Also competing for playing time are Woodson and red-shirt freshman Mike Mullins. Junior Alec Fleming and red-shirt freshman Drew Nelson provide additional depth.
“I think we’re in good shape on the offensive line,” Welsh said. “We need to determine a backup center and there isn’t a lot of depth, we’ve probably got eight or nine individuals who are pretty good right now. A lot of them are going to have to learn two positions. I feel pretty good about this unit. It should be a good offensive line, barring injuries.”
Tight end should be a solid position for the Cavaliers. Crawford, a three-year letterman, returns to a starting position after catching 11 passes for 136 yards (average of 12.4 yards a catch) last season. He has been slowed by injuries the last two years, and the Cavaliers are hopeful he can stay healthy and have a big senior season. Junior Billy Baber has lettered the last two years and last season caught 11 passes for 117 yards (average of 10.6 yards a catch). Junior Adam Westcott, who was hampered by injuries last season, provides depth along with sophomore Chris Luzar. Luzar split time between wide receiver and tight end as a red-shirt freshman in 1998. He played in every game and caught three passes. Luzar missed spring practice with an injury. Mike Abrams, the team’s backup punter, saw action at tight end in the spring and provides additional depth.
“We’ve got a solid group at tight end,” Welsh said. “Crawford was a much improved blocker last season. He did a great job in that area.”
Wide Receiver ? With the departure of Wilkins, junior Kevin Coffey is the Cavaliers’ top returning wide receiver. He caught 23 passes for 583 yards (an average of 25.4 yards a catch) and five touchdowns in 10 games last season when he lettered for the first time. A returning starter, his 25.4 yard average per catch was tops in the ACC last season for players with at least five receptions.
Other experienced wide receivers include junior Ahmad Hawkins and sophomore James Johnson. Hawkins, a two-year letterman, caught 10 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns last fall, while Johnson saw action as a true freshman and caught three passes for 25 yards last fall. He had four receptions for 61 yards in the spring game.
Several other wide receivers could compete for playing time including junior Kenny Crawford, and red-shirt freshmen David Blount and Tavon Mason. Mason worked at both wide receiver and defensive back during Virginia’s spring practice period. He could see action at wide receiver if he’s not in the defensive secondary. Arlen Harris could also see action at wide receiver if he’s not at tailback.
“We’ll miss Terrence Wilkins, but everybody else is returning and they should be a little bit better,” Welsh said. “Kevin Coffey did a very good job for us last year and I think he’s a little bit faster now, which he needs to be in order to beat man-to-man coverage. He was greatly improved last year.
“I feel like it’s a good group of wide receivers. Based on last year, I’d like to think they’ll be a little bit better, more consistent and hopefully they’ll all be faster by August. Speed is the name of the game out there anymore with so much man-to-man coverage.”
Offensive Overview ? “There’s a lot of experience on our offensive unit,” Welsh said. “There’s never enough depth, but at wide receiver, running back and tight end we should be all right. There’s not a lot of depth in the offensive line, but there are eight or nine pretty good players so we should be in pretty good shape.”
Welsh hopes that experience elsewhere in the offensive unit can help the Cavaliers’ new starting quarterback.
“I think there’s an unknown when you have a new starting quarterback,” said Welsh, “because you never know how individuals are going to react when it’s their job, but I feel less trepidation about Dan Ellis than I have about some others when we were changing quarterbacks in the past. He understands things and he’s done well in practice. He may be one of those individuals who can play well without a lot of experience. That’s what I’m hoping.
“A running back like Thomas Jones and our depth at the running back positions should take some of the pressure off a new quarterback, but it depends on how teams play us. If they don’t care about our passing game, they can take the running game away. Our wideouts are much more experienced now than they were a year ago with Brooks, so they should be able to help the quarterback. The experience at tight end and wide receiver should help. I know there are going to be days when you have to throw the ball to win.”
Defensively, Virginia has six starters returning including punter Donnie Scott. The Cavaliers registered 36 quarterback sacks last fall, and ranked 16th in the nation in pass efficiency defense (105.70 rating), 17th in rushing defense (118.5 yards a game) and 26th in scoring defense (19.3 points a game). UVa’s 36 quarterback sacks in 1998 are the second most in school history.Several changes in coaching responsibilities have taken place since last season. Rick Lantz is focusing on his responsibilities as defensive coordinator and will not coach the linebackers in 1999. David Turner, Virginia’s defensive tackles coach the last two years, will coach the linebackers, while Ty Smith, who joined the UVa staff in 1998 as the defensive ends coach, will coach both the defensive tackles and ends.
Defensive End ? With the loss of Kerney and his 15 quarterback sacks, Virginia is expected to look to Griffith, a senior tri-captain, to provide leadership from his defensive end position. A two-year starter and three-year letterman, Griffith was second among UVa’s defensive linemen in tackles last season despite missing three games because of injury. He was in on 40 tackles, five of them for losses including three quarterback sacks. Sophomore letterman Ljubomir Stamenich is expected to be the leading candidate for the starting position left open by Kerney’s departure. Stamenich played in eight games and was in on seven tackles, four of them for lost yardage including two quarterback sacks. Red-shirt freshman Antonio Mayfield is also expected to compete for playing time at defensive end.
“Kerney did so much for us last year,” Welsh said. “Griffith should be a lot better and maybe this will be his year. Having Griffith and Kerney together last year was a big bonus for us. Somebody else is going to have to come through for us at end. If we’re going to get sacks out of the end position, Griffith is probably going to be the guy to get them.”
Defensive Tackle ? Despite the loss of Dingle, there is good depth at the defensive tackle positions for the Cavaliers. Senior Maurice Anderson (28 tackles, 17 unassisted) and sophomore Monsanto Pope (28 tackles, 10 unassisted) each started five regular season games last season. Junior Kofi Bawuah played in 10 games last season and started twice. He was in on 12 tackles, five of them unassisted including one quarterback sack. Anderson has lettered three times, while Pope and Bawuah lettered for the first time last season. Senior Johnny Shivers returns to bolster Virginia’s defensive front after missing last season for personal reasons. Shivers is a three-year letterman who started for the Cavaliers in 1997. Sophomore George Stanley, who played in four games last season as a true freshman, and red-shirt freshman Richard Rodgers are also expected to compete for playing time at the tackle positions.
“I think the tackle situation should be good, if they are all healthy, because of the experience they’ve all gained, especially Pope and Bawuah,” Welsh said. “If Shivers gets back to where he was a couple of years ago he should be able to help us.”
Linebacker ? At linebacker, junior Yubrenal Isabelle is expected to fill the starting position vacated by Wali Rainer in the middle. Isabelle lettered for the first time last season as a backup at middle linebacker and a special teams player. He was in on 23 tackles, 17 of them unassisted. Junior letterman Earl Sims (nine tackles) and sophomore William Clark (four tackles) provide depth behind Isabelle. Sims could also see action at outside linebacker.
“Isabelle has been practicing and playing some since his first year,” Welsh said. “He doesn’t have a lot of game experience, but he has a lot of practice and scrimmage experience. I wouldn’t call him a rookie anymore. He’s tough, he works hard, he’s intense and he practices hard.”
Thweatt, a junior, returns to one starting position at outside linebacker. He finished second on the team in tackles for the second consecutive season in 1998. Thweatt was in on 99 tackles, 60 of them unassisted, and was in on six tackles for lost yardage. He also intercepted two passes, recovered two fumbles and broke up two passes. He missed time in the spring with an injury. UVa’s linebacking corps is strengthened by the return of senior Shannon Taylor who missed last season for personal reasons. Taylor, a two-year letterman, is a strong pass rusher who was in on 24 tackles, including two quarterback sacks, in 1997. Red-shirt freshman Darnell Hollier provides additional depth at the linebacker positions.
“Thweatt played well last year,” Welsh said. “His experience helps him.”
Secondary ? The loss of Poindexter and Burnim leaves Virginia with two substantial holes to fill at the safety positions. Senior Antwan Harris, a three-year letterman who played in nine games and started eight last season, is expected to fill one of the safety positions. Harris saw most of his action at cornerback last fall. He was in on 20 tackles, 12 of them unassisted, while breaking up three passes and intercepting two last season. He also caused two fumbles. There are a number of candidates for the other safety position including red-shirt freshmen Shernard Newby and Chris Williams. Sophomore Jermaine Lauzon, who played in eight games as a true freshman last season, could see action at both safety and cornerback. Lauzon was in on seven tackles in 1998, including two for lost yardage.
The expected starters at cornerback are senior Dwayne Stukes and junior Tim Spruill. Stukes’ 1998 season was marred by injuries and he was injured again during spring practice. He played in nine games and started five, and was in on 21 tackles with two interceptions last fall. The Virginia coaches hope he can avoid injuries in 1999 and return to his 1997 form when he was in on 54 tackles and earned honorable mention All-ACC honors. Spruill lettered for the first time last season when he played in every game and started 10. He was second among UVa defensive backs in tackles with 56, including 36 unassisted tackles. He also intercepted one pass and broke up six passes. Lauzon, junior letterman Jason Small (11 tackles) and red-shirt freshman Rashad Roberson are also expected to compete for playing time. Red-shirt freshman Tavon Mason could see action in the defensive secondary if he’s not at wide receiver.
Junior letterman Matt D’Acunto (10 tackles) and sophomore letterman Parker Lange (10 tackles) provide additional depth. Lange missed spring practice with an injury.
“We need to find a safety and I have no idea who that’s going to be,” Welsh said. “We have a lot of good young athletes, it’s just a matter of who’s ready to play. We need to get everyone back and healthy.
“We have enough experience in three spots if everyone is healthy, and we’re going to be very young and inexperienced at the other spot. We have enough talent. Some of the players coming back have played well, and the young players are good athletes.”
Defensive Overview ? “I think we should be a pretty good defensive team,” Welsh said. “We have a lot of players back and we do have experience. Players like Patrick Kerney, Wali Rainer and Anthony Poindexter are going to be missed. We’re a little bit short of depth at linebacker and maybe defensive end but, if we stay healthy, we have the potential and enough experience to be a pretty good defensive team.”
Kicking Game & Special Teams
For the first time in three years, the Cavaliers have both their place-kicker and punter back. Braverman, a junior, was successful on 12 of 19 field goal attempts and 38 of 39 extra point attempts during the 1998 regular season. He finished second on the team with 74 points and lettered for the first time. Braverman won the place-kicking responsibilities in a close competition with sophomore David Greene last season and Greene is expected to compete with Braverman for those responsibilities again this year. Greene lettered last season after handling UVa’s kickoff responsibilities. Red-shirt freshman Andy Dugger could also compete for the place-kicking and kickoff responsibilities. “Todd Braverman is the kicker, but the competition was so close last year with David Greene that I want to take a close look at Greene,” Welsh said. Thompson has lettered the last two years as Virginia’s holder.
Scott, a senior, had a fine season last fall in his first year as Virginia’s starting punter. He averaged 42.6 yards a punt for 58 punts and had 16 punts of 50 yards or longer. He also pinned opponents inside their 20-yard line 23 times. Virginia finished second in the ACC in net punting last season with an average of 37.9 yards a punt. Sophomore Mike Abrams provides depth behind Scott.
“With a year’s experience, I think Donnie Scott will be more consistent,” Welsh said.
Dillon Taylor, UVa’s long snapper last season, is gone and a number of players are expected to compete for those responsibilities. Among the candidates are John St. Clair, Earl Sims, Heath Boucek and Jermaine Lauzon.
With the loss of Wilkins, Virginia must find a new punt returner. The competition for that responsibility could include Antwan Harris, Arlen Harris, Tavon Mason and James Johnson.
Ahmad Hawkins and Tim Spruill saw action on the kickoff return team last year. Hawkins returned four kickoffs for 76 yards (average of 19.0 yards a return) and Spruill returned three kickoffs for 46 yards (average of 15.3 yards a return). Arlen Harris, Johnson and Mason could also get a look on the kickoff return team.