By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Al Groh’s players never thought that, three games in, they’d be 0-3.
Maybe 3-0, or 2-1, or even 1-2, if things went awry. But not 0-3.
Alas, that’s where UVa finds itself on the eve of its ACC opener. The Wahoos opened with a stunning loss to William and Mary, got hammered by TCU and then, on Sept. 19, played well for the first two-and-a-half quarters at Southern Mississippi, only to collapse and lose 37-34.
You take inspiration where you can find it, and UVa players, in interviews this week and among themselves, have noted that the team’s bid for the Coastal Division championship is unblemished.
“We just keep reminding ourselves we’re 0-0 in the ACC right now,” nose tackle Nick Jenkins said. “It’s a brand-new season for us. Unfortunately, we do have three losses, but those three losses are out of conference.”
UVa’s opponent Saturday afternoon in Chapel Hill, N.C., is longtime rival North Carolina (0-1, 3-1). The Cavaliers have won six of the past seven games in the series, but the Tar Heels are heavy favorites in this one.
That doesn’t seem to bother the ‘Hoos. They say the recent bye week gave them time to address their most glaring problems.
“We took some steps forward,” said Jenkins, a redshirt sophomore.
Like most of his teammates, Jenkins never has lost to UNC. None of them wants that to change.
“We’re really, really locked in,” quarterback Jameel Sewell. “You still have an opportunity to pull something out of a hat and have an awesome season.”
UVa modified its offense before the Southern Miss game, with impressive results. The extra practice time since then, Groh said, seems “to have given a number of [the players] who went through some of those transitions more confidence in what they’re doing.
“There was nobody who said going into the first game, ‘Coach, I don’t feel confidence.’ What it is now is, a lot of players after the third game are saying, ‘I feel a lot more confidence and a lot more comfortable in what my role is.'”
Those players include Sewell, a fifth-year senior who’ll make his third consecutive start Saturday. Sewell started 22 straight games for Virginia — the final nine in 2006 and all 13 in ’07 — before being suspended for academic reasons.
Sewell was out of school last fall. He participated in spring practice this year, but that didn’t make up for his time away from the game. Only recently — late in the TCU game and against Southern Miss — has the 6-3 left-hander looked in rhythm.
“In our conversations, he’s allowed that he didn’t fully appreciate how much effect the year away might have on him, because he was so anxious to get back,” Groh said.
“It was kind of like, ‘Hey, I’m back, and everything’s going to be back — presence, performance, everything.’ But by his evaluation, everything wasn’t back, and now he’s feeling much more comfortable, much more confident. Makes his throws with a much higher level of conviction.”
Sewell, whom William and Mary intercepted three times, threw two late touchdown passes against TCU. At Southern Miss, he passed for a career-high 312 yards and two touchdowns. He also had 23 carries, the second-most ever by a UVa quarterback.
“I didn’t expect to start off so slow,” Sewell said. “Coming off of a year’s suspension, I guess it does have a big [effect] on just seeing the game, because things change. It’s just like coming from high school and going into college — everything’s faster and everything’s different.
“So a lot of things were different. Even though I had a lot of game experience, practice experience, whatever the case may be, it was still different to me.”
Virginia lost one of its most promising young players, first-year tailback Dominique Wallace, to a season-ending foot injury at Southern Miss. In general, though, the Cavaliers head to Kenan Stadium in good health.
Senior cornerback Chris Cook, who lasted only one play against Southern Miss, is expected to be back Saturday, and Vic Hall may well play, too.
A converted cornerback, Hall started the opener at quarterback but suffered a hip injury that effectively sidelined him for the next two games.
Hall, a senior, has been back at practice, but how Groh plans to use him isn’t clear. Sewell is likely to take most of the snaps against UNC, but Hall could line up at quarterback or running back or wide receiver. Or back in the secondary.
Wherever and whenever Hall plays, the other ‘Hoos will be excited to have him back.
“He brings an energy to the whole team,” Sewell said.
A winless team can use that kind of boost. Denzel Burrell, a two-year starter at outside linebacker, said he’s heard from former teammates, including Clint Sintim, who inquired about the players’ morale.
Burrell told Sintim, a rookie with the New York Giants, that the team has remained positive.
“Everybody still has the mindset that we can do this,” Burrell said.
“I feel like once we can get that first game, hopefully momentum will come, and we can just keep rolling from there.”