By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Al Groh has coached several standout tailbacks during his tenure at UVa, including Antwoine Womack, Wali Lundy, Alvin Pearman and Cedric Peerman.
Torrey Mack may be as talented as any of them.
Mack is a 6-0, 195-pound redshirt freshman from Stratford, Conn. He’s battling senior Mikell Simpson for the starting job, and nobody should be shocked if Mack runs out for UVa’s first series in the Sept. 5 opener against William and Mary.
“He’s exciting, he’s tough, and he’s improving his game every day,” Groh said.
As a 12th-grader, Mack averaged 13.7 yards per carry and rushed for 20 touchdowns. Mack has excellent hands, Groh said this morning, thought he didn’t catch many passes in high school.
What Mack’s coaches at Stratford High did, Groh said, “was mostly give him the ball and let him run a long way.”
Asked where Mack needed to improve, Groh said that “probably the area that’s still developing the most is in pass protection. Just because, kind of as I mentioned, the smart thing to do in high school was give it to him all the time. And so he really didn’t have much background in [pass blocking], as is the case with lots of backs, when he came here. He’s very willing to do it; he’s got more than enough toughness to do it. It’s just continuing to give him enough looks at the different schemes that might occur.”
Groh also is high on true freshmen Perry Jones and Dominique Wallace, tailbacks who “clearly have high-end potential,” he said.
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He hasn’t practiced recently because of a minor knee injury, but Rashawn Jackson, when healthy, also will contend for playing time at tailback.
The 6-1, 245-pound Jackson has primarily played fullback at UVa. Does he believe he has something to prove to new offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon?
“Honestly? I feel like I have to prove something to not only him, but myself,” said Jackson, who earned his sociology degree from UVa in May. “Every day I go out to practice, I always want to make two or three plays that’s going to have the coaches open their eyes and say, ‘Wow, this guy’s a competitor. He deserves to be out there.’
“I feel like no one should ever be complacent with their current status. ‘Satisfaction’ should never be in an athlete’s vocabulary, because as soon as you get satisfied, you begin to settle. You never want to settle. I’m not a settling kind of guy. I didn’t settle academically, I’m not going to settle on the field.”
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After replacing Yannick Reyering last season, Robert Randolph appeared in five games and went 6 for 6 on extra points and 3 for 4 on field goals.
Now a sophomore, the walk-on from Naples, Fla., appears “much more poised and much more at ease” than in 2008, Groh said.
Chris Hinkebein took over the kickoff duties when Reyering got hurt last season and may handle them again this fall. Hinkebein is a redshirt sophomore.
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In 11 games last season — nine of which he started — quarterback Marc Verica threw twice as many interceptions (16) as touchdowns (eight). He also lost a fumble late in UVa’s loss to ACC rival Miami at Scott Stadium.
“Ball security has been my primary focus this offseason and heading into the season,” Verica said, “because it can change a game on one play, no matter how many good things you’ve done.”
In the race for the starting job this year, Verica is believed to be running third behind Vic Hall and Jameel Sewell.
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Brandon told reporters Sunday at Scott Stadium that he’d like to find a way to play Hall and Sewell at the same time, with one at QB and the other in the slot.
Apprised this morning of Brandon’s comments, Groh paused before saying, “I want to make sure our quarterback play is what it needs to be before we fool around with any experiments.”
Could Hall and Sewell play together?
“Anything is possible,” Groh said. “It’s possible we might get to Mars next. We’ve already landed a man on the moon.”
He added: “As of right now, all three of them are full-time quarterbacks.”
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The Cavaliers finished 5-7 last year, their second losing record in three seasons. But his players’ and coaches’ resilience impressed Groh.
Starting in January 2008, when four players were declared academically ineliglble, including starters Sewell and Chris Cook (cornerback), the Cavaliers encountered one obstacle after the other.
UVa followed its turbulent offseason by dropping three of its first four games n ’08, allowing 128 points during that stretch. The ‘Hoos pulled together and won four straight before closing the season with four consecutive losses.
His 2008 team, Groh said Sunday, “had to endure more things, probably, than any team that I’ve been associated with, and to remain strong in the face of all of that. And they did that, and for that I have a great appreciation for what they did.
“Just like in boxing, the less amount of body punches you can take over the course of the fight, probably the better off you are and the fresher you are at the end. That team and those players took some body punches, and they shook them off, but they still take their toll at certain points.”
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In 2008, Aaron Taliaferro appeared in only game for UVa. It didn’t go well for the Gloucester High graduate, who was badly fooled on a Virginia Tech touchdown pass at Lane Stadium.
Before spring practice this year, the 6-2, 230-pounder Taliaferro moved from outside linebacker to inside linebacker in Virginia’s 3-4 defense. He’s a redshirt sophomore who’s been working with the second team.
“He’s got good initial quickness, and he’s got a lot of thump to him, and frankly we’re looking for some candidates to step up and compete for time [at inside linebacker],” Groh said.
“All things considered, he stepped up as the best candidate. He’s never played [inside]. He played on the outside in high school, he played on the outside [his first two years] here. So he’s got some sorting out to do. He is back outside when we put the nickel and dime in, and he’s done a nice job there. There’s a lot going on for him. With two new roles, plus special teams, it’s almost like he’s a starting-all-over-again player. He’s handling it in a positive way.”
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As a true freshman last season, Rodney McLeod played cornerback, mostly in passing situations. A year later, the former DeMatha High star is a starting safety who regularly makes big plays in practice.
Secondary coach Anthony Poindexter said he’s not surprised by McLeod’s ascent.
“Not after last year,” Poindexter said, “if you watched him last year and watched how the kid approached the game. He comes from a really good high school, so he’s been coached, he knows how to take direction. And football makes sense to him. For whatever reason, he just sees the game. And when you get a bunch of guys like that as a coach, you’ll be in good shape. You’ve just got to guide them in your scheme. But if they can see the game, it makes it a lot easier.”