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Aug. 19, 2002

During the first period of a man’s life the greatest danger is not to take the risk. The philosopher who said that must have been a college football fan…maybe even a Wahoo. Thursday night the University of Virginia opens the 2002 NCAA Division 1 season against Colorado State. The upstart ‘Hoos, who have been picked anywhere from third to eighth in the Atlantic Coast Conference, will receive an early test from a Mountain West Conference program that has been as rock solid as Pike’s Peak.

Head Coach Al Groh and his coaching staff begin their second year in returning UVA to the level of the elite. The winter recruiting class was bountiful, despite losing a couple kids via the prep school route. So, with all of the questions that are out there, and the fact the Cavaliers play one of the nation’s most demanding schedules, how does Groh and his staff get it done?

Patience. Against Colorado State, Groh has indicated up to 16 first year players could see playing time. All the two-a-days, all the video tape work, all the drills, still can’t prepare a kid for the speed and demands of the college game. Virginia is young up front, inexperienced in the defensive line, and will rely on youth when it comes to special teams. There will be mistakes, missed assignments, blown coverages, but a whole lot of exuberance. Virginia fans will learn to love these kids….guys like “the Quake”…defensive end Kwakou Robinson…a Brooklyn kid who came to camp weighing over 325 pounds. Linebacker Darryl Blackstock…a Virginia product from Newport News and Fork Union who hits and tackles everything in his path. There’s punter Tom Hagan, who averaged over 43 yards per punt at Cave Spring High School in Roanoke, who struggled a bit in the pre season getting used to the speed of the college rush. Bryan Smith, the listed number one place kicker is a Hampton product who missed the entire spring due to a knee injury…not good for a kicker. There will be growing pains but Groh and his staff are quality teachers and communicators. Patience will be a virtue considering a 13 game, 9 bowl team schedule.

Speed. This might be one of the fastest Virginia teams in history…from top to bottom. These kids can run. And run….and run. The Cavalier’s defense showed a renewed swagger during the August pre season drills. During one scrimmage the “Orange Crush” showed up the offense which surprised a member of the offensive staff. “It might be a good thing,” was the quote. UVa is quicker in the secondary, at linebacker, and at defensive end. UVA will be able to pressure teams a little more this year. Groh and his staff have recruited players who can run and they will continue to build this program with quickness. That has been the pattern with some of the top programs in the country…FSU, Oklahoma, Miami…and Virginia is headed in that direction.

On offense Virginia has a leader. I like Matt Schaub. Not only is he a quality kid…but he is comfortable in his role. He knows the team is his and he will be able to utilize a stable of skill players. Billy McMullen is the marquee player after his 83 reception season a year ago but he has help. Michael McGrew and Ottawa Anderson have improved. They both had great summers and they have loads of confidence. Virginia’s line is better than people think. Kevin Bailey will vie for all conference honors at center and Elton Brown and Mike Mullins provide a solid foundation. The starting five up front will play a lot of downs so short drives and big plays will help. The tight ends are good and Patrick Estes could have a breakout year in only his second campaign with the program.

Alvin Pearman is Alvin Pearman….hard worker, tireless runner, huge heart, and quality leader despite just being a second year. He worked hard this summer to develop a frame that could take a lot of punishment. Marquis Weeks and first year phenom Michael Johnson will add plenty of support.

Virginia is quicker…much younger…but quicker.

Ball Disruption. Two of Al Groh’s favorite words. Groh is a defensive guy…it’s the side of the ball he wants to discuss first. With speed comes ball disruption. The players simply call it “making plays”. That’s their job…to make plays. Translation? Strip…deflect…hammer…tip…catch. It’s done with your feet and your mind. Turnovers create points and give your offense momentum. Crowds love picks, fumble recoveries, big defensive plays…sacks…sacks with fumbles. This Virginia football team has kids who can make those kind of plays. At safety Shenard Newby and Jerton Evans are kids who have been in the program long enough now to understand what is expected. Jamaine Winborne and Art Thomas are corners who started to shake things up a bit in the latter part of ’01. Throw in Raymond Mann, Angelo Crowell, Merrill Robertson and the younger mix, defensive coordinator Al Golden has a few players to work with now. UVA’s takeaway statistics will improve in 2002. That’s a given.

How this all transfers into wins and especially against a quality Colorado State team in the opener is yet to be determined. However Virginia is hungry. And in a bit of a hurry. Al Groh would like to see the quickest turnaround possible for this program and there are only 13 opportunities. A team that has won seven games 8 consecutive seasons and just two years ago went 10-2 is the first hurdle. Colorado State is a quality beginning…and a chance for Virginia to grow up in the dog days of summer.

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