By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Senior linebacker Aaron Clark had barely settled into his chair at the front of the John Paul Jones Arena press room when the first question arrived.
So, who’s going to start at quarterback in the season-opener against William and Mary?
“No idea,” Clark said with a smile. “If I knew, I couldn’t tell you anyway.”
The leading candidates, of course, are seniors Vic Hall and Jameel Sewell and junior Marc Verica, who have 32 starts among them at that position as Cavaliers. Hall started UVa’s most recent game — last year’s regular-season finale at Virginia Tech — and no one will be surprised if he takes the first snap Saturday against W&M at Scott Stadium.
But don’t expect an announcement from Al Groh before the opener, and Hall said he knows not which way his coach will turn.
“We’re taking it one step at a time, one day at a time,” Hall said.
Asked when he would pick a starter, Groh said he doesn’t “necessarily have any timetable for it. Whenever seems appropriate. Whenever the moment is right. Whenever the scales tip in one direction or the other. We probably don’t feel any great urgency to do so because if we only had one of the three participating, we would feel very good whichever one it was. With three of them we feel very comfortable with the flexibility and the versatility that we have.”
Hall, a first-team cornerback in the Cavaliers’ first 11 games last season, was a surprise starter at QB against Virginia Tech. Hall has said he didn’t let even his mother in on the secret that week.
And if he’s told early that he’s starting against W&M?
“I guess she can find out at the game,” Hall said, eliciting laughter from his audience.
He figures to be a busy man Saturday night. Hall also will return punts and hold on extra points and field-goal attempts.
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Verica threw twice as many interceptions (16) as touchdown passes (eight) last season, when he started nine games.
In practice thus far, he’s cut down on his poor decisions. Still, it’s too early to know if Verica’s problems have been fixed, “because those mistakes seldom ever showed up last year in practice, either,” Groh said.
“We would sometimes throw a lot of passes in a row where the ball never hit the ground. But it’s the same thing with Jameel and Vic. We haven’t seen either one of those players throw a pass in competition for a long time, either. So I’m sure there are a lot of players who are anxious to see how all of these players do when they play, and we are equally anxious to see.
“We realize that maybe we have watched them in practice for now 40 practices. But still, the greatest reading comes in the game. So as important as it is to our team and everything the coaches and players have invested in this, we are all looking forward to seeing what the results bring.”
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Poor special-teams plays contributed to UVa’s 5-7 record in 2008. That phase of the game is now under the direction of Ron Prince, who spent three seasons as Kansas State’s head coach before returning to Virginia as special-teams coordinator.
Prince was offensive line coach and, for three seasons, also offensive coordinator during his first stint on Groh’s staff at UVa.
“Coach Prince is one of the most intelligent coaches I’ve ever been around, and his special-teams game plan and intensity and excitement, it’s unmatched,” Clark said. “He’s a great coach, and we’re all excited about using special teams to change the game.”
A year ago, Clark was asked, would he have thought Virginia wasn’t emphasizing special teams enough?
“I think you always think you’re doing enough until something else comes along where you’re like, ‘Wow, we really stepped it up,’ ” said Clark, who plays on three special-teams units.
“It’s about the same time in practice, but it’s a different mindset, so it seems a lot more focused and intense. I’d say the core of our special teams has changed, and it’s going to be a different special teams to watch. It’s going to be fun.”
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UVa hasn’t played William and Mary in football since 1995. If the teams had met last year, the Phillips brothers’ rivalry would have been one of the more compelling storylines around the game.
The Tribe’s starting quarterback was Jake Phillips, and Virginia’s No. 1 tight end was his brother, John. Both have exhausted their college eligibility, but each has a rooting interest this weekend.
“I imagine that household is going to be a fun one Saturday,” Clark said.
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With Hall now on offense, Virginia’s top returning tackler is senior linebacker Denzel Burrell, who made 48 stops last season.
Burrell said he hasn’t been an especially vocal player and so didn’t expect to be named a team captain. But the players selected Burrell, Hall, Clark, cornerback Chris Cook, defensive end Nate Collins and offensive tackle Will Barker as captains.
“I remember the night it happened, the first night of training camp, just tons of emotion went through my body,” Burrell said. “To be chosen as one of those guys, to really be the true leaders of the team, words can’t really explain how I felt after the guys saw me as one of those leaders. Now, in my mind, I really have to fulfill this role.”
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The Cavaliers had a special guest at practice Sunday: Romeo Crennel.
Crennel, a Lynchburg native who still has relatives in Madison Heights, dropped in to see his longtime friend Groh, who called him “the best defensive line coach we’ve ever been around.”
Groh and Crennel coached together on three NFL teams — the Giants, the Patriots and the Jets.
Crennel spent four seasons as the Cleveland Browns’ head coach before being dismissed in January. His assistants in Cleveland included Bob Trott, who’s in his first year as UVa’s linebackers coach.
After practice ended Sunday, Crennel spoke to the players for about 10 minutes.
“His insights were helpful,” Groh said. “It’s just fun to have him around.”
Crennel has an open invitation to attend UVa practices and games, Groh said, whether “he wants a sideline pass or a seat in the stands. He likes football. He likes being around football guys. He’s one of the family.”
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William and Mary’s longtime coach is Jimmye Laycock, whom UVa assistant Wayne Lineburg knows well.
Lineburg, a Virginia alumnus, was W&M’s restricted earnings coach in 1996 and ’97 and its running backs coach and recruiting coordinator from 2000 to ’03.
Groh said today that to not ask Lineburg for insight into Laycock’s system “would probably be negligent in terms of doing due diligence. I think that would be the same in any profession. If any of you were going to write a story about somebody that one of your colleagues had written a story about, you would at the very least read the story and also ask the person what it was like to interview that person.”
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A new radio show focusing on UVa sports can be heard each week in the Richmond area, starting Sept. 2. The hosts of Hoos Talking are UVa graduates Jim Hobgood and Frank Maloney, and Sports Radio 910 (WRNL) will carry their show from 6 to 7 p.m. on Wednesdays.
Hobgood, as many fans know, is a former UVa basketball player. He was the analyst on radio broadcasts of Virginia games when Mac McDonald was the play-by-play announcer.
Guests on the Sept. 2 show will be former UVa football players Frank Quayle and Ahmad Hawkins. Quayle is the analyst on radio broadcasts of UVa football games.
The show will be streamed live on www.sportsradio910.com and www.thesabre.com.
Questions and comments from listeners are welcome during the show. The phone number is (804) 345-0910. The e-mail address is HoosTalking@sportsradio910.com.