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NCAA Football Preview - Virginia Cavaliers

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*** NCAA Football Preview - Virginia Cavaliers ***

From The Sports Network By Scott Haynes, College Football Senior Editor 2003 SEASON IN REVIEW: Al Groh's third year in Charlottesville was supposed to feature a huge season for 2002 ACC Player of the Year Matt Schaub, and while he had a solid season (nearly 3,000 yards passing and 18 TDs), it was far from the campaign the veteran signal-caller had envisioned. An injury early on to Schaub should have crippled this team, but he returned quick enough and the Cavs posted wins in four of their first five games. A 30-27 overtime loss to Clemson started a downward spiral for Virginia, which lost four of its next five (including the Clemson loss), including a 19-14 loss to Florida State and a 51-37 shootout defeat at the hands of NC State. Groh's troops rallied down the stretch, closing out the regular season with two straight wins over the likes of Georgia Tech (29-17) and Virginia Tech (35-21) and carried that good fortune into the Continental Tire Bowl, resulting in a 23-16 win over Pittsburgh. An 8-5 overall finish marked a solid campaign, even if a 4-4 finish was good for just fourth in the ACC. 2004 ANALYSIS: OFFENSE: Virginia's offense averaged 25 points and 386.1 yards of total offense under Schaub's leadership. Those numbers may be hard to match this year, but with eight returning starters, including the entire offensive line, the team may not be far off the mark. Notre Dame transfer Chris Olsen is poised to take over under center eventually, but right now junior Marques Hagans seems to be the man. In very limited action a year ago, Hagans completed 65 percent of his passes, for 218 yards and three scores. The ultra- athletic Hagans also rushed for 96 yards and added another two scores. His diversity under center should keep opposing defenses guessing. Olsen has prototypic size (6-4, 220) and is a better pure passer, but Groh will strive for consistency to start the season and Hagans seems to have the inside track at the job. There is plenty of talent in the backfield, with tailbacks Wali Lundy, Alvin Pearman and Michael Johnson joining Hagans in what should be a lethal ground game. Lundy fought through injuries last season to post 929 yards and 10 TDs. Pearman added another 643, on nearly five yards per carry, while Johnson had 133 yards as a true freshman (5.1 ypc). No matter who is under center, the job will be made easier by looking for TE Heath Miller downfield. The 6-5, 254-pound junior is coming off a monster year in which he hauled in 70 balls (led all TEs in the nation), for 835 yards and six scores. Pearman is also a threat out of the backfield, with 63 catches last season (second in the nation among RBs), for 518 yards and four scores. The offensive front is in excellent shape, led by senior guard Elton Brown (6-6, 333) who earned the Jacobs Blocking Trophy, as the top offensive lineman in the ACC last year. DEFENSE: Just like the offense, the Virginia defense returns most of its pieces from a year ago and big things are expected of this unit in 2004. There are playmakers throughout the defense, none more important than 6-7, 280- pounder Chris Canty. The senior end can really play anywhere on the defensive line and will give teams fits this season. Last year, he finished with a remarkable 104 tackles, with three sacks and nine TFLs, earning Second-Team All-ACC honors. Junior end Brennan Schmidt will be called upon to pressure the QB as well, coming off a sophomore season where he tallied 87 tackles and 3.5 sacks. The linebacking corps is one of the best in the league, highlighted by sophomores Ahmad Brooks and Kai Parham and junior Darryl Blackstock. Brooks is ready to become a real star, after totaling a team-high 117 tackles in 2003 (seven TFLs, 3.5 sacks). Blackstock is as athletic as they come and really likes to get upfield. He finished last season with 85 tackles, five sacks and 11 TFLs. The secondary will miss ballhawk Almondo Curry (six INTs last year), but senior safety Jermaine Hardy (97 tackles, two INTs), who is fully recovered from a knee injury, is ready to lead an inexperienced but talented group. SPECIAL TEAMS: It certainly doesn't get any better in terms of kicking than Virginia's Connor Hughes. As a sophomore, Hughes earned Second-Team All- American status, after knocking home 23-of-25 field-goal attempts last year, including a long of 53 yards. He actually hit 3-of-4 from outside of 50 yards and is poised for another big season. The punting duties are no longer Tom Hagan's to handle. Freshman Chris Gould could be the man, if Sean Johnson (missed 2002 and 2003 while on a mission) is unable to shake off the rust and finally get on the field. . OUTLOOK: A fourth place finish in the ACC just won't do this time around. The defense is stacked and there is enough talent on the offensive side of the football for Virginia to make a serious run at the conference crown. The non- conference schedule could result in a clean sweep, with home games against Akron and Syracuse, as well as the season-opener at Temple. The league slate of course will be much more treacherous, but Virginia has to be considered one of the teams in that upper echelon of the conference. Home games in-conference include North Carolina, Clemson, Maryland and Miami. The road tilts come at Florida State, Duke, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. If this team can get enough early wins under its belt, there is no reason to believe that the Cavs will be anything but a league contender as the season winds down.
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