By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — After the first two games, Kris Burd had six catches, twice as many as any other receiver on the team. Still, the UVa wideouts who had fans buzzing were redshirt freshman Javaris Brown and true freshman Tim Smith.
In the final minutes of Virginia’s blowout loss to TCU on Sept. 12, Brown had caught a 56-yard touchdown pass and Smith a 26-yarder, both from quarterback Jameel Sewell.
Brown and Smith dazzled again Saturday in a 37-34 loss at Southern Mississippi. Brown had two receptions for 52 yards, and Smith had three for 76, including a 69-yard TD catch in the first quarter.
But Burd impressed too. The 5-11, 190-pound sophomore from Chesterfield County caught six passes for 79 yards, both game highs. His receptions included a spectacular TD grab, on a post pattern, of a 29-yard dart from Sewell.
“I’m just trying to do what I can do to help the team win, trying to make plays for the offense,” Burd said after the game.
The Cavaliers didn’t win Saturday, and they’ll take an 0-3 record into their next game, Oct. 3 at North Carolina (3-0). But their passing game is developing rapidly, in part because of Burd’s growth as a receiver.
“He really stepped up,” Al Groh said Sunday night on his teleconference with reporters. “He made some plays that to be a good receiver you have to make. They’re not all routine plays, and Kris’ catches yesterday clearly were not all routine catches. He did a real good job on some in finding the open spot in the zone and placing himself perfectly within that, and he made a couple that took a significant effort to get. And those kind of plays definitely juiced up our passing game.
“It takes more than one game to come of age, but you’d certainly like to look back in the future and say that that was the day where it all started. It really presents that possibiilty. Now, where it goes from there is clearly up to Kris.”
It’s still early, but this may be the most talented group of wide receivers Groh has had in his nine years as coach at his alma mater. And none of the wideouts is a senior. The group also includes sophomores Jared Green and Matt Snyder, true freshman Quintin Hunter and junior Dontrelle Inman, who missed training camp and the first two games with an injury but was cleared to play last week.
“If you take the fourth quarter of the previous game, and then yesterday’s game, we certainly had a lot more in the explosive-play category than we have had during some previous times,” Groh said. “A great deal of that was just their ability to get open upfield that perhaps their predecessors didn’t present for us.”
That receivers would play a leading role this season was expected after the hiring last winter of offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon. But the offense Brandon put in has changed. It now looks more like what Groh has run at UVa than the spread offense Brandon oversaw as coordinator and then head coach at Bowling Green.
After the Cavaliers struggled to move the ball in losses to William and Mary and TCU, Groh decided he’d seen enough. Virginia is off Sept. 26, but with a trip to Southern Miss looming, Groh didn’t want to wait until the bye week to implement his changes.
So starting in practice last Tuesday, some of the staples of previous UVa offenses were introduced again. The linemen moved closer together and, on occasion, dropped into three-point stances. On some plays Sewell had a running back on either side of him, and on others he lined up under center and not in the shotgun.
“For some players there was a familiarity with it,” Groh said Sunday night. “Obviously for players like Tim Smith and, for that matter, to a degree, Javaris Brown, there wasn’t much familiarity with it. But they did OK with it. We had some things that, it’s quite clear to us, need work for better execution, but overall obviously it produced some results that we hadn’t had beforehand. So we consider the first phase of it to have worked out OK.”
Indeed, the ‘Hoos dramatically increased their production Saturday. They picked up 25 first downs, totaled 390 yards and scored four touchdowns.
“The offense, we showed that we have the potential to score,” Sewell said. “We can move the ball down the field for the most part …. Even though we lost, we still have bright spots.”
Groh said: “We’re getting back to our game.”
Vic Hall started the opener at QB for UVa, but he’s sidelined indefinitely with a hip injury. Sewell, who was missed last season while serving an academic suspension, has taken all of the Cavaliers’ snaps in the past two games. He’s starting to resemble the quarterback who led Virginia to nine wins in 2007.
Against Southern Miss, Sewell completed 24 of 46 passes for a career-best 312 yards and two touchdowns. He was intercepted once.
Sewell was physically spent after the game, and for good reason. A week after rushing 21 times versus TCU, the 6-3, 225-pound left-hander had 23 carries against Southern Miss. He tied his career high with two rushing touchdowns.
“Obviously the quarterback had a real good game, and he’s finding his stride,” Groh said Saturday. “I’m real pleased with what Jameel did, both in his performance and the competitiveness that he showed.
“He showed his teammates that he’s a player that they can jump on his back, and he’s going to try to carry them. He made some real good throws, and the receivers stepped up and made some real good catches.”
At the start of the Sunday night teleconference, Groh was informed that former UVa quarterback Matt Schaub had played and passed brilliantly that afternoon for the Houston Texans in their victory over the Tennessee Titans.
Later, asked if he wanted Sewell to run less, and thus take less of a beating, Groh said, “I guess if he could have a Matt Schaub-type game, as you just described to me, that would be beautiful. But this is part of his game, and to inhibit him would be to take away a talent that he has, and an attribute to the team.
“So we just talk to him about good judgment. I try to stay in touch with him as to just what his stamina and endurance is and how much is good for him, and he’s a good communicator about that. Right now clearly it’s to our advantage to let him go ahead and be himself and play his game, so we’re going to continue in that fashion.”
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LaRoy Reynolds, a safety from Norfolk, played on special teams Saturday and thus became the sixth true freshman Groh has used this season. Look for classmate Brent Urban, a 6-7, 280-pound defensive end from Canada, to join that group sooner or later.
“I think probably the reality is that will be the case,” Groh said Sunday night. “He’s the fifth end at the game, but he could very well be in there. He’s coming along nicely.
“This is a big, fast player who has picked things up pretty quickly. It might be a little much for him early, but by the same token, it’s the only way probably for him to get started. There’s very definitely the possibility of his being in there for some plays in the future.”
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Among the players not on the trip to Hattiesburg, Miss., were juniors Raynard Horne and Jared Detrick. Both played regularly on special teams in 2008, but what “happened last year won’t make any plays this year,” Groh said.
“We weren’t satisfied with the production at those [special-teams] positions here throughout the first two games. That’s what created the opportunity for some of these other players.”
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The tight end, all but invisible in the offense against W&M and TCU, returned against Southern Miss. Joe Torchia, one of the highest-rated recruits in the class that entered UVa in 2006, had the first catches of his college career.
The redshirt junior from Cold Spring, N.Y., gained 27 yards on two receptions.
“Obviously our tight ends have been highly productive players here,” Groh said. “In order for that to happen, we’ve had quite a few patterns in that had them as part of the normal progression of the pattern. We did re-institute some of those.”
Standout tight ends have “been an integral part of what we’ve done here,” Groh said. “When you can present a threat in the middle of the field, either you take advantage of people overloading the outside or it helps keep the outside a little bit cleaner. So it’s an important thing for us to be able to continue to work and expand.”