By Jeff White
PINEHURST, N.C. — UVa’s baseball team advanced to the College World Series this year. Its men’s lacrosse team won the NCAA title. The men’s tennis team was NCAA runner-up.
Virginia’s football players took note.
“Earlier we were talking about how it seems like [other UVa teams compete] for national championships every year, and we’re just trying to get to that level, us and men’s basketball,” all-ACC cornerback Chase Minnifield said Sunday evening.
“That’s kind of interesting. It kind of pushes us, also, at the same time, because you don’t want to be looked at like that. We notice it, and we’re trying to change it. We’re the money revenue-gaining sports, and we’re the teams that are not competing for national championships right now. We hear it from [other UVa athletes]. We all eat at the same place. We hear it from them, and it kind of motivates us.”
Wide receiver Kris Burd: “You can’t ignore it. That’s the truth. We need to pick it up, honestly. I feel like they’re representing Virginia in the way that Virginia needs to be represented. It’s always in the back of your head when you see them competing for championships. You think to yourself, ‘The time is now.’ “
Minnifield, who’s from Lexington, Ky., and Burd, from Matoaca, Va., were the UVa players fielding questions Sunday at ACC Football Kickoff, the conference’s annual preseason media gathering. As fifth-year seniors, they’re part of the class that enrolled at Virginia in the summer of 2007, a group whose members expected to make regular postseason appearances and win many more games than they lost.
Burd and Minnifield redshirted that fall, as did such classmates as Matt Conrath, Nick Jenkins, Anthony Mihota, Max Milien and Aaron Taliaferro, all of whom are projected to start this season. The newcomers watched a team led by All-America defensive end Chris Long win nine games and play in the Gator Bowl that year.
Since then, highlights have been few and far between for UVa. The Wahoos have had three consecutive losing seasons for the first time since the early 1980s. They finished 5-7 in 2008 and then dropped to 3-9 in ’09, after which Al Groh was dismissed as coach. In 2010, the Cavaliers’ first season under Mike London, they went 4-8.
After posting a 6-2 record in ACC play in 2007, the ‘Hoos slipped to 3-5 in ’08, to 2-6 in ’09 and to 1-7 last season.
To qualify for a bowl, a team must win six of 12 regular-season games. The bar for postseason, then, is not set especially high, yet the Cavaliers have struggled to reach it. For London’s seniors, some of whom never redshirted and so were not in the program in 2007, one opportunity remains.
If Virginia doesn’t win at least six games this season, Minnifield said Sunday, “I’ll be devastated, honestly. I would consider it an unsuccessful college career, just not being able to play in a bowl game. I’ve seen a bowl game, but I’ve never played in one.”
UVa’s other seniors include Matt Snyder, Corey Mosley, Austin Pasztor, Cam Johnson, Rodney McLeod, Robert Randolph, Jimmy Howell and Dom Joseph. These veterans would be delighted to win 12 regular-season games, of course, or 11 or 10, or nine or eight or seven. But six is the magic number.
“As seniors, yeah, we talk about it,” Minnifield said. “That’s what we really want to get to, so that’s the motivation.”
When the media’s preseason poll is announced Monday afternoon at the Pinehurst Resort, Virginia probably will be picked fifth in the six-team Coastal Division. So expectations will be low for this team. But in 2007, it’s worth recalling, the Cavaliers were picked fourth in the Coastal, and they finished second.
Those UVa players had “confidence, swagger and an ability to think that they were never out of a game,” Minnifield said. “I think that’s something that you can’t deny.”
So how does a team obtain that swagger?
“It starts with wins,” Minnifield said. “You gotta win to gain confidence. You can come in with confidence, but if something goes wrong, does it fall, or do you stick with it? When negativity comes in, it’s kind of hard to keep your confidence high.”
Leading the Cavaliers in 2007, of course, was a player whose feats that season became the stuff of legend in Charlottesville.
“We all knew what Chris Long had,” Minnifield said. “He had an innate ability to change the game at big times in the game. He made plays at the end of the game, and that’s what I really try to bring to this team. When a play needs to be made, I try to make plays.”
In each of UVa’s victories last season, Minnifield had at least one interception. He finished the season with six picks, which ranked sixth nationally.
He wants to be an All-American this season and establish himself as a first-round NFL draft pick. Those honors would not mean as much to Minnifield, though, if he had to suffer through a fourth straight losing season.
Burd played for some of the Richmond area’s top teams when he starred at Matoaca High. At Henry Clay High in Lexington, Minnifield played for teams that were among the best in Kentucky.
“I’m a very competitive person,” he said. “This is how I’ve always been. I can’t stand to lose. It’s just something that eats at me. It just drives me to work harder.”
Minnifield is not alone in that regard, said Burd, who led the Cavaliers with 58 receptions last year.
“We’re a very close-knit class,” Burd said. “We’ve had a lot of people fall off for academics or off-the-field issues, but the guys who are still here are a very close-knit group, and we’re definitely the leaders of the team and trying to make sure everybody’s doing things the right way, because we want to go out with a bowl win.”
STRAIGHT TALK: ACC commissioner John Swofford didn’t mince words Sunday in his state-of-the-conference address to the media. He acknowledged that criticism of ACC football is in many cases legitimate.
The league has great depth, Swofford noted, but it has not been producing national-championship contenders.
“Obviously, we need to win more of our high-profile games with non-conference opponents,” Swofford said. “That’s the one thing we haven’t done enough of in recent years. We’ve had some of it, but not enough of it, and for us to gain the kind of respect that we want for Atlantic Coast Conference football, those are the kind of games that we will need to win going forward.”
This fall, Swofford said, ACC teams will “have a number of those opportunities.” Opponents include Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Stanford and Notre Dame.
“So those opportunities will be there for us,” Swofford said, “and hopefully we’ll be able to win our fair share of them.”