By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He starred at Stafford High School, where he played several positions, including quarterback. But Torrey Smith didn’t impress the UVa coaching staff enough to earn a scholarship offer, a decision Al Groh regrets now.
“Clearly, if we foresaw him being the type of player that he is now, he would be returning kicks for Virginia,” Groh said Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.
“So, we’re not above admitting that there is a player that certainly has turned out to be superior to what many people thought, including ourselves. He’s — regardless of what the circumstance was in the past — he’s a superior college football player.”
Smith is a 6-1, 200-pound redshirt sophomore at Maryland, UVa’s next opponent. The Terrapins (1-1, 2-4) host the Wahoos (1-0, 2-3) at 4 p.m. Saturday in College Park.
He’s also the ACC’s specialist of the week. Wake Forest scored early and often in its 42-32 win over Maryland this past weekend, and Smith returned six kickoffs for a career-high 194 yards. At wide receiver, he caught a career-best 10 passes for 70 yards and a touchdown.
Smith leads the nation with 236.7 all-purpose yards per game, and with 1,926 career yards on kickoff returns, he already ranks eighth in ACC history.
“Dynamic player,” Groh said.
That same is true for UVa cornerback Ras-I Dowling, the ACC defensive back of the week.
A junior from Chesapeake, Dowling forced a fumble, intercepted a pass, recorded his first career sack and made a team-high nine tackles in Virginia’s 44-7 rout of Indiana at Scott Stadium.
Dowling was the only Cavalier to make the preseason all-ACC team selected by media members in July.
NIGHT AND DAY: Groh is generally not a rah-rah guy in the locker room before games. He believes preparation and execution win football games, not fiery pep talks.
His players, though, have cranked up their volume in the minutes before kickoff the past two Saturdays, with impressive results. After losing their first three games, the ‘Hoos beat North Carolina 16-3 in Chapel Hill on Oct. 3 and then destroyed Indiana a week later.
“It’s been the kind of football you dream about playing and being around the past two weeks,” senior linebacker Aaron Clark said Monday. “It’s been amazing.”
Check this link on VirginiaSportsTV.com for a glimpse of the locker-room scene before the Indiana game. The video clip doesn’t tell the whole story, though.
“I’m sure all of you guys would have liked to have been a fly on the wall in the locker room before this game,” Clark said. “It was incredible. About six or seven minutes before kickoff is when we all start kind of getting ready to go out, and it went from two or three of us screaming and yelling, trying to get everybody jacked up, to the entire locker room out of their chairs jumping around. It was something to see. Something I’ll remember.”
Clark, a team captain, said the played noted a lack of emotion in the locker room early in the season, and they decided to change that, starting with the UNC game.
“If you’re not ready and jacked up for that first play, then that’s going to set the tone for the whole game,” Clark said. “So that was pretty important for us to change, and we noticed that had to be a point of focus.
“One of our points of concern in the first couple games was that our locker room just wasn’t what it had been. Everybody was anxious for the game, but I think some of that anxiety was in a bad way. So it was time to refocus the locker room and to get everybody ready to play a football game. It’s a battle out there, and you gotta go out there at the highest intensity level that you can muster yourself.
“I think it was a good change for us to get back [to being] rowdy before a game, and to get everybody juiced up for the first play that would eventually lead to how we’re going to play the rest of the game.”
That said, Clark acknowledged, emotion will carry a team only so far.
“You gotta make plays,” he said. “You can go out there jacked up to the moon if you want to, but if you get beat on the first couple plays, that’s energy’s going to deflate really fast. So you have to go out there and make plays. The first drive [in the Indiana game], Ras-I stripped the ball, Rodney McLeod took off and re-sparked the team. Even though we were still riding high, things like that really set the tone. And we had enough plays that game to really sustain the energy for 60 minutes.”
PICK YOUR POISON: Throughout his college career, Vic Hall has shown the ability to contribute in myriad ways. He’s returned punts, held for extra points and field goals, and played cornerback, quarterback, safety and, now, wide receiver.
The touchdown Hall scored against Indiana was his first on a reception, but the graduate student from Gretna has reached the end zone in a variety of other ways as a Cavalier.
In 2007, as the holder, Hall ran for a TD on a fake field goal. In 2008, he returned an interception for a TD against Richmond in UVa’s second game and ran for two TDs versus Virginia Tech in the season finale.
In the opener this year, Hall started at quarterback and rushed for a touchdown against William and Mary.
PLAY IT AGAIN? After losing its opener at Wyoming in 2007, UVa ran off seven consecutive victories. A year later, after a loss to Duke dropped the Cavaliers’ record to 1-3, they won four straight games.
And now the ‘Hoos head to College Park seeking a third consecutive win.
“You would like to think that we’re going to pull off another one of those Virginia streaks right now, but you have to take it week to week and game to game,” Clark said. “I know in the past those streaks have been fun. That was an incredible run [in 2007] … So you’d like to think you could do something like that, but we’ve just got to keep grinding and keep working diligently every week to get better and to make our team better so that we can keep producing.”
PERFECT TIMING: It’s not coincidence, Clark believes, that the Cavaliers’ turnaround began on their bye week. After playing — and losing — on the first three Saturdays of September, UVa was off on the 26th.
“When you’re on a winning streak, I think bye weeks are bad things,” Clark said, but “the way we started, I think the bye week was very needed. It came at a crucial point in our season, and I think it was what the doctor ordered. We needed to kind of pull the reins back in and re-focus our team. I think that was crucial to the way our season will turn out.”
RISING STAR: Groh’s enthusiasm is palpable when he talks about Cameron Johnson, the 6-4, 255-pound sophomore who has started the past three games at right outside linebacker.
Johnson’s teammates rave about him, too, including Clark, who started the first two games but now splits time with fellow senior Denzel Burrell on the left side.
The Indiana game was “the most physical game” Johnson has played, according to Clark.
“He really did a lot of good things as far as dominating the players across the ball from him,” Clark said. “Cam’s a big, strong guy. I think anybody that looks at him thinks, ‘Wow, this is a prototype.’
“It’s going to be exciting to watch him grow. He’s very quick in learning the game. He picks it up well. He knows the defense, he understands how he works and fits into that. It’s going to be fun to watch him play the next couple of years.”
FAVORITE TIME OF YEAR: The Cavaliers haven’t lost in October since 2007, when they fell 29-24 at N.C. State on the 27th. Virginia has won six straight games in October and 11 of its past 12.
DIE-HARDS: The attendance Saturday — 45,371 — was the lowest for a UVa home game since Scott Stadium’s capacity was expanded to 61,500 before the 2000 season. Still, the fans who showed up created a good atmosophere, and Groh thanked them Monday.
“We are appreciative for the fans who are there for us and for the players,” he said. “As you can see, this is a high-energy, high-character bunch of kids who are deserving of all the support that anybody would choose to give them.”