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March 28, 2006

Al Groh’s Pre-spring comments – March 28

On starting spring practice:
This is a spring practice that we approach with a great deal of excitement and a great deal of energy and a great deal of enthusiasm. That’s pretty much throughout the team. We certainly have noticed here in the last two days just a real spark to the players as they see that they’re that much closer to practicing as opposed to the rigors of the previous seven weeks of the off-season program.

On his areas of concerns and losses from the ’05 team:
We have a significant rebuilding job in front of us. We’ve had some losses, some pretty huge losses in four areas. Everybody knows that quality play is based on line play. On our offensive line, we’ve lost 60 percent of our offensive line. Those three players- Brian Barthelmes, Brad Butler, and D’Brickashaw Ferguson- are 60 percent of the line that played the better part of three-and-a-half to four seasons for us. So, those players have been in there for a long time. Obviously with D’Brickashaw, we have one of the best players in the history of Virginia football, so we have a lot of work to do in that particular area.

On the defensive line, in losing Brennan Schmidt, we lose a player who set the ACC record for career starts. Not only are those four players who were significant players to our line play, but they did it for a long time for us. That will be a very challenging area for us.

Special teams loses two tremendous producers for us. Connor Hughes is the number-one point producer in the history of Virginia football. So obviously that’s an area of concentration for us. That not only includes total points, but the fact that he was an 83 percent field goal kicker and was 100 percent on game-winning attempts which is a very significant thing to say about a kicker. Kurt Smith, his statistics are probably little less compelling as you read them, but no less important in determining how games went. Last year 60 percent of his kickoffs were touchbacks, and if they weren’t touchbacks, they were in many cases better off for us, because the kicks were high, one yard deep, one-yard short, so they were returnable kicks. We often ended up with better field position than had the ball been a touchback. When it wasn’t a touchback, it wasn’t as if he was kicking the ball to the 18-yard line. Those are two particular positions that will get significant attention here in the spring amongst the two most important positions.

The quarterback position-the magic of Marques Hagans was certainly in full focus by the way he played against Minnesota and how he sparked performance in that particular game. That’s a third significant area for us.

Overall, the point production that has to be replaced in replacing Marques, Wali Lundy who set the ACC record for career touchdowns, and Connor Hughes who was fifth in the history of the ACC in scoring, not only do those players’ absences leave a gap in those three positions, but as you can see, they take a lot of points with them. Those points are going to have to be found in different areas. As was certainly the case, in December we had to deal with the fact that all three of our coordinators positions had to be replaced.

We have a significant rebuilding job in front of us. We’re eager to get started on that particular job. I think we have a tremendously challenging schedule to do it. We’ve got, I think, a brutal finish from the ACC in that our last three games are against … The last two seasons there were only three teams that had a chance to win the championship on the last day of the season. Our last three games are comprised of those three teams. So, in order to make a run at the end, which is the significant part of the season, then this team that we are in the process of putting back together again is going to have to mature quickly through the first nine games to be ready for the final three games.

Bobby Diaco with the special teams and Mike Groh with the offense have particular challenges on their hands in view of the personnel loss from their two particular units. Each unit has lost the principal performers that any of those units has to have every year. The kickoff man, your field goal man, and perhaps your punter- if Chris Gould is able to move over and take on those two roles. Bobby will be looking to replace those three positions.

Obviously with the loss of Marques and then a touchdown scorer like Wali and the three players who were principally responsible for protecting that quarterback or creating the holes for the running back, those two guys (Diaco and Groh) are very eager for their challenge. They’re looking forward to it, but it’s a very challenging way for those two guys to break into their positions also; that’s for sure.

On quarterbacks:
We’re one of those teams that’s been very fortunate. Over the last four years, we’ve gotten very dynamic play from our quarterback position. Now both Matt (Schaub) and Marques (Hagans) have done it in a somewhat different style. But what they do have in common is they’ve infused the team with competitive toughness, they’ve been terrific leaders on the team, they’ve been great representatives of the team in the community, and they’ve been significant playmakers in games. So that’s certainly an important position for us, but really no more important than those other positions cited. That is the three positions that are responsible for not only points but ball movement. It’s ball movement that determines the outcome of the game- that is the three kickers and then the principal point producers.

We’ll start the spring with Christian Olsen. He’ll be the first guy to go into the huddle. Kevin McCabe will follow him in, and that’s the way it is, and that’s the way it’s going to stay until performance by any of the quarterbacks determines otherwise.

Who else will be working at quarterback this spring?
Jameel Sewell and Scott Deke.

Will Vic Hall stay at corner then?
Yes. Now we think he could do a very nice job there. Vic has some of Marques’ personal qualities that would be advantageous to the team to have him in the game. In the amount of time that it usually takes a young quarterback to develop to get in the game, it was really three full years before Marques was bale to do that. We all think, Vic included, we’re anxious to see Vic in the game. So we want to give him the best possible opportunity to compete for the most possible playing time at the soonest possible time in his career.

On Christian Olsen
Christian has certainly been around. His dad’s a coach, so he’s been around it for a long time. That’s really an advantage in many cases. Marques’ dad was a coach, too. There certainly was a lot carried over in that area from what he’d been exposed to. He’s been in two different programs which have similar passing games, so he did have some continuity there. He’s got a good bond with his teammates which is really where quarterbacking starts. He’s got a good understanding of the nature of the position and how it fits in with overall team performance and a good understanding of the offensive system, running game and passing game-wise, where the checks are, where the hot reads are, where the threats to protection are. That’s just part of the schooling process. It takes a bit of time for guy to be exposed to and he’s had four year of that. He’s a got a good foundation that he’s starting with.

On QB Jameel Sewell’s acceleration of development
That was good. That was profitable for him. When we said accelerate his progress, that didn’t mean we were going to zoom him to the top. That meant just to accelerate him from where he otherwise might have been or give him the opportunity to do that. All we can do is provide the opportunity in any case then the player has to take advantage of it. Give him a few more turns at a certain point then of a freshman quarterback being redshirted might anticipate getting. We probably wouldn’t have done that if we had a returning quarterback, but to kind of catch him up to where the veteran players were and give him an opportunity to compete in the spring, we decided to do that.

Any injuries or surgeries?
Now that you bring it up, I guess it’s slowed down a little bit this winter. We did have couple of similar surgeries- Rashawn Jackson, Kevin Crawford, Bid Davis all had some repair work done. Just as was the case with the shoulder guys last year, they’ll participate in relationship to the varying degrees of their rehab. Crawford’s was done the earliest. I’m hopeful he’ll participate on a Kai Parham basis of last year- to be able to get some work done but that we don’t put him in any positions that could cause the shoulder to be pulled backwards. Jackson’s and Davis’ didn’t come until January, so I think they’re participating will be more limited. I’d like to see maybe Jackson work in the pass coverage and work some of those drills. I’d be skeptical as to if Davis will do much.

On safety Nate Lyles
He’s not going to participate in the spring, but his circumstances are very positive. I might have addressed this when we introduced the coaches a couple of weeks ago, but his surgery from a layman’s point of view was remarkable successful. He’s doing very well with his rehab. The prognosis is positive, whatever that means. I think that’s still to be determined by future development and visits to the doctor. Everything’s gone to a very positive degree. He’s training on a limited basis. Obviously there’s some healing that’s going on with this as well as just correcting the situation that was there. I wouldn’t say count him in, but I wouldn’t say count him out either. He’s got a great attitude about it. His doctors are very positive about it. It will be some time yet until we can make a determination, but certainly that’s a lot more positive than ruling him out today would be.

On the 2006 schedule and off-season training
We can’t let the last three weeks of the schedule determine what we’re going to do here in the spring. There are certain things that have to be done. It all starts with your off-season program. If you don’t have a great off-season program, your chances start to go down right away. We’re very pleased with what’s been accomplished in the off-season program both from a team building circumstance as well as individual development. But that’s the off-season program; there’s not guarantee to that. That’s an essential. You have to have that to have a chance. The next phase is to get things done in spring practice. While we’re doing things collectively as a team, a lot of spring practice is about individual. That is developing the individual skills of a player, fundamental development and so forth, so that he has the skills not only to learn his job, this is what your assignment is, but the skills to do his job. A lot of the emphasis is on a day-to-day basis. We don’t have a deadline at the end of the spring as you do at the end of training camp when there’s a game that you have to play. When there’s a game at the end of a particular week, you just have to be ready for the deadline. Here in spring practice, there is no particular deadline. If we can accelerate or we have to slow down during a particular stage to accommodate individual skill development, then we’ll be able to do that. That will give us an idea of what the pace should be when we come back in August.

On ACC schedule for other schools
I think we’re the only ones with the unique opportunity to play those three teams at the end.

Who will play center?
It will be the same players who have been there in the past- Ian-Yates Cunningham, Jordy Lipsey. We’re going to take a look at Zak Stair in there. As has been the case in most of the springs, we’re going to get the line players work at multiple positions, so we build some versatility and depth into the offensive line.

On the linebackers
We feel o.k. in there. We have some young players coming in who add some depth to it. Right now we think the position will be well taken care of by players who are on the team. Antonio Appleby, Darren Childs, Jon Copper, Rashawn Jackson, Bernie McKeever- that gives us five there for the spring.

What about the status of LB Ahmad Brooks, CB/S Tony Franklin, and DE Vince Redd?
It’s a privilege, not a right, to wear a Cavalier jersey and to represent our university community.There are certain things that are vital to putting your team together every year, and those things become in sharper focus and multiplied when you’re in a rebuilding circumstance. Those things are focus, commitment, dependability.

While each one of these player’s circumstance is distinctly different, is order to put the team together with some consistency and dependability, I’ve decided that it’s best for us to move on from these circumstances. It’s best for these players to move one. Each circumstance is different; they’re all in school and they’re all pursuing their academic circumstances.

I think it’s essential that internally and leadership-wise that have the discipline within our organization to do the things we think are done the right way, not just to chase talent for talent’s sake. That’s how you put a team together.

What we’re doing doesn’t really change our prospectus very much, particularly when you realize that two of the three players weren’t even part of what the team was able to do in Nashville. It’s not really changed our perspective as to what the 2006 season would be anyway.

Note: Part two will be posted on Wednesday, March 29.

Part II
More on the reasons to dismiss Brooks Franklin and Redd?
Groh: Each particular individual’s case is different. You have to make personnel decisions. It goes along with this job. Those are some of the decisions that you have to make. There are certain things that we think are essential to put a team together and there’s a right way to do that. You can’t just chase talent for talents sake, and now its time to move on and deal with the players and the issues that are going to be apart of next year’s team.

On who will play defensive end in addition to Chris Long:
Groh: We have Alex Field who saw a little bit of time last year, and it was a situation where the amount of plays that Alex played last year was minimal. The reason we decided about midseason to get him into the game preparation was so he could get used to coming in every day of every week and then get him into the games a little to get a taste of it. It would be a real stretch to say that he gained a lot of game experience. But he’s been in them.

You have got to get used to having the butterflies in your stomach. That ride in on the bus, as opposed to riding in knowing that you’re going to be a spectator, you have to deal with that. You know that you’re going in at anytime and have to be prepared on Wednesday for what your assignments are. So we wanted to get him ready for that. I hope that will kind of moved him along a little bit, kind of in the same mentality as we discussed with Jameel. You just try to accelerate the progress.

Jeffrey Fitzgerald, did real well last fall, had one of the better off-season programs. Allen Billyk did a good for us in a number of different roles last year, and has developed a versatility to play both ends and nose.

On Andrew Pearman’s status as a running back or wide receiver.
Groh: We talked about some of those play makers who are leaving. Obviously any of us who watched the games know how those guys changed the plays. Now we have got to find some plays some place and he can make plays. He’s a playmaker. We’re going to find ways to get Andrew the ball be it special teams or offense. That will be a little bit of an evolving process. This is a player who hasn’t played in a game yet, so we have to show some discipline here to not get carried away with the possibilities too early and give him a good foundation and give him a position that is his position. He can learn how to play the position; otherwise he just becomes a jack-of-all-trades. He becomes a `Get him the ball guy,’ but he has no real position. You can kind of do that quickly if you just want to interject a player in a certain way — just put in plays for him put him in the game for those plays, but then he has no real position and that eventually catches up with you. So our intent is to start him as a wide receiver type player and see how that role evolves.

On the tight ends:
Groh: That certainly should be an area that we can play to as a positive, positive area. We’ve got three good tight ends all have got versatility and they’ve been in the action. We’ve got quite a few wide receivers that have played in the game. We’ve got a couple of emerging players who should be able to give us a little bit more. This particular year, most of the playing time ought to come out of this group. What we build in the spring, we ought to be able to continue to build on. But we’re off to a good start with the development of the tight end position and we’ve got a promising young player coming in. We really want to make this the best place in America for tight ends to play. We certainly have the credentials to follow up on that. You know, those guys, that position, accounting for 176 yards in the bowl game. That shows the ability of these players and the role that they play in this system.

Is Snelling at tailback now?
Groh: He is, yes.

Who’s at fullback now?
Groh: Kevin Bradley and Josh Zidenberg.

On Michael Johnson
Groh: He got hurt in October and came back and played some in December, and now he’s worse in March. So we do have a concern there. We want to get Mike into the action, get him into the competition, he certainly wants that. His game is speed but we have to make sure his wheels are in shape and try to avoid any antagonizing of the issues that are involved with his ankle. We just decided to put him in the boot that gives him full protection. We’re just trying to find a way to get him out there as fast as we can.

On Chris Cook
Groh: Based on the information we were receiving, we thought he would get some action in December. That didn’t come about.

On the depth in the secondary:
Groh: There have been certain springs, where we kind of looked around and said, `Wow, where’s it going to come from,’ but it looks like there is some good talent there and some good young players coming in. As we discussed back in February, the defensive back area was a targeted area in recruiting. There are some players with real good skills in there coming in. It is different than some of the years, I think they’ll have to fight their way in a little bit more, which will be good for them and be good for us. If you do see them playing, then that’s probably a positive sign that they have stood out like a rookie player and gained some attention.

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