By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — During Ron Prince‘s first stint as a UVa assistant, he and Al Groh were close, and they continued to speak regularly after Prince left to become head coach at Kansas State.

Now that Prince is back on Groh’s staff, their relationship is even stronger.

Groh said the other day that Prince, the Cavaliers’ special-teams coach, is a “very good sounding board. Ron was always, when he was here first, a source of some very insightful suggestions, particularly in the area of players and dealing with players and understanding the things that go on with players.

“On a football team, clearly, we have such a diverse grouping of people geographically, socio-economically, racially, religion-wise, position-wise, that it really takes a lot to pull a group together in harmony. Most likely, probably, if lots of other elements of society could come together the way a football locker room does, we would have probably the most cohesive circumstance we could have.

“Ron’s got a really good feel for a lot of the dynamics that go on in the overall life of many of the kids, and he’s always been able to give me some very good insights in terms of some particular players. And plus he understands me, he understands how I think, and his suggestions are always in line with that. And now that he’s been the head coach, he also has the all the insights that go with that and the understandings of what the head coach deals with. So he continues to be a very good resource for me.”

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With the opener looming — UVa hosts William and Mary on Sept. 5 — the battles are some positions have been all but decided.

On his teleconference this morning, Groh said that kicking responsibilities are likely to be split this way: 6-6, 238-pound sophomore Jimmy Howell will be the punter, sophomore Robert Randolph will handle extra points and field goals, and Randolph or sophomore Chris Hinkebein will kick off.

As a true freshman in 2008, Howell was Virginia’s punter, and he averaged 39 yards per kick.

“We’ve had a lot of live kicking situations,” Groh said. “He has progressed with that. Clearly, we’re anxious to see what happens in a game, but based on the best pressure we can put on him under our circumstances, [Howell has gotten better].”

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At UVa’s media day this month, quarterback Jameel Sewell talked about his reaction to being declared academically ineligible — and suspended from school for two semesters — in January 2008.

“I cried, because I was very hurt,” Sewell told reporters. “I felt like everything was taken away from me because of my decisions, so it really hurt me. It bothered me, but if you sit there and [dwell] on that, nothing is going to get better. You have to do what you can to make things better. You have stuff you have to take care of. It’s life. You’re going to go through all these bumps and everything.”

A year after his suspension began, Sewell was re-admitted to UVa. He’s now a fifth-year senior who’s battling Vic Hall for the starting job. In 2007, Sewell started every game for a Virginia team that won nine games and played in the Gator Bowl.

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The Cavaliers’ first scrimmage was Aug. 15. Their second was scheduled for a week later, but lightning ended the scrimmage early.

The players got Sunday off, as planned, then gathered at Scott Stadium late Monday afternoon for another try at the scrimmage. Mother Nature cooperated this time, but Groh said he had “a long list of concerns” afterward.

“I would say that had everything gone beautifully, which probably is a pretty low-odds circumstance for most teams, I would feel swimmingly about things,” Groh said this morning. “But not everything went beautifully.”

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Like most college football teams this time of year, UVa has several players out because of injuries. Groh, however, isn’t inclined to issue medical reports any more often than the ACC requires him to.

Asked this morning about senior tailback Mikell Simpson‘s health, Groh said, “I think our first injury report will come out by conference regulations the Thursday before the first game.”

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Safety Matt Leemhuis, who missed much of last season with a thumb injury, is pushing for playing time.

“Matt’s had a nice five or six days,” Groh said. “We’ve given him increased responsibilities on the sub teams [in passing situations], and he’s done a nice job with them. So as his possibilities there expand, then obviously we’re going to also see him as somebody who’s got more application on special teams.”

Leemhuis, a 6-1, 195-pound junior, is from Bethesda, Md.

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Chase Minnifield‘s days as a return man for UVa appear to be over, at least for now.

Groh said the top candidates to return kickoffs this season are Simpson, redshirt freshman Torrey Mack, sophomore Corey Mosley, true freshman Javanti Sparrow and senior Chris Cook.

The punt returners, Groh said, will come from this group: Hall, Sparrow, redshirt freshman Javaris Brown and true freshman Tim Smith.

Sparrow, who also plays cornerback, starred in track at Chesapeake’s Western Branch High.

“When we said this class would, amongst other things, make the team faster and be one of the faster classes we’ve had here, he certainly was one of the players in mind,” Groh said. “We knew that by numbers and by video, but to see that with our own eyes, he’s legitimately fast.”

Minnifield ran back 21 kickoffs, for an average of 23.3 yards, as a redshirt freshman last year. He also had one punt return, for 10 yards.

Groh said he won’t hesitate to let Hall, who’s expected to start at quarterback against W&M, return punts. Hall started at cornerback for UVa’s first 11 games last season.

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After a recent practice, Chris Slade stuck around to talk to Virginia’s players. Slade, a former All-America defensive end for the Cavaliers, lives in Atlanta, but he’ll be around the program a lot this season. He was hired recently as the sideline reporter for radio broadcasts of UVa games.

Slade spent eight seasons with the New England Patriots and played outside linebacker in their 3-4 defense. His position coach from 1993 to ’96 was Groh, who also served as the Patriots’ defensive coordinator.

Having Slade around “certainly benefits the overall team, No. 1,” Groh said. “Chris is, as we all know, one of the all-time great players here, and he’s one of the all-time great guys. And he’s got a great affinity for football and for the University and for competition. To have somebody like that be able to convey his feelings to the players about what it takes to be successful and what it means to play for Virginia is a very significant thing.

“I think it’s really important for players in any program to have an appreciation for the legacy of the program and those who have gone before them.”

Moreoever, Groh said, given Slade’s success as a pass rusher, “just to have him around where players could go to him, and ask him questions about how to do different things, is very helpful.”

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At about 255 pounds, junior John-Kevin Dolce is small for a nose tackle in the 3-4 scheme. But the 6-2 Dolce is strong and quick, and those assets helped him record five sacks in 2008.

Dolce, whose first sack came last year against the University of Richmond, plays primarily in passing situations.

“It was unreal,” he said. “The thing I can compare it to is winning my first wrestling match [at St. Anthony’s High on Long Island, N.Y.] … It’s an awesome feeling. I look forward to third downs every game.”

Virginia tried Dolce at outside linebacker and then inside linebacker before moving him to nose. His lack of bulk notwithstanding, Dolce fit well on the line.

According to Groh, the coaches’ position on Dolce was this: “Look, here’s a kid who deserves every opportunity, and let’s just keep working it till we find a place that he feels the most comfortable.”

Nose tackle “was just one of the stops along that experiment to find out where he might be very comfortable, and it just worked out well,” Groh said.

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The media guide lists Dolce as the second-team nose tackle, behind sophomore Nick Jenkins. Dolce isn’t big enough to be an every-down player at that position, though, so if Jenkins were out for an extended stretch, Nate Collins would probably replace him, Groh said.

Collins, a 6-2, 290-pound senior, is a starting defensive end. But he played nose tackle in 2006, ’07 and ’08 before shifting to end this year.

The team’s No. 3 defensive end? Zane Parr, a 6-6, 275-pound sophomore who missed the final five games of the 2008 season with a knee injury.

“Zane is one of the players here who in the last 10 days has come on strong,” Groh said Monday. “His game has really picked up in a number of different areas. He’s certainly moved himself much more into the picture than he has been in the past.”


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