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Out-of-town Q&A: Virginia

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It’s time for this week’s out-of-town Q&A, this time with Jeff White of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. White handles all things Hoos for the Times-Dispatch, and always has fine insight whether it’s into a reeling football program, a scuffling basketball team or Dom Starsia’s lacrosse juggernaut.

His insight is much appreciated – as is the time he took to answer five questions about the 1-3 Cavaliers – and you can get yourself up to date on Virginia by reading his blog as well as his daily work in the Times-Dispatch.

There’s obviously plenty to delve into with the Cavaliers, including the chances of coach Al Groh returning in 2009, Marc Verica’s progress at quarterback and whether anything has actually gone right this season.

1. The most obvious thing to ask about is coach Al Groh’s job security. After the ugly 31-3 loss at Duke, does it look more plausible he could be out of work at season’s end?

JW: Barring a dramatic turnaround — maybe a 5-7 finish, with an upset of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg — it’s unlikely that Groh will return in 2009.  The mood among U.Va. fans never has been uglier.  Expect university officials to look closely at the attendance during the three-game homestand that starts Saturday night.  If U.Va. loses to Maryland, I would expect to see tens of thousands of empty seats for the Oct. 11 game against East Carolina.

2. With the Peter Lalich saga over for more than a week, how well is Marc Verica adapting to being the starting quarterback?

JW: Verica played well against Connecticut, all things considered, but he struggled with his decision-making in his second start, against Duke, throwing four second-half interceptions.  He has talent, but unfortunately for Virginia he’s having to learn on the job.  And it doesn’t help Verica that the rebuilt offensive line has been awful.  If U.Va.’s running game were more effective, there would be less pressure on Verica to make plays.

3. Virginia endured an offseason with repeated off-the-field issues cropping up. How much has the steady drip of bad news since last winter exacerbated the poor start and affected the program?

JW: The fan base feels beaten down.  Since the high point of the Groh era — the 48-0 win over Miami at the Orange Bowl in November — virtually all the news out of his program has been bad.  Virginia closed last season with losses to Virginia Tech and Texas Tech.  A win over the Hokies would have sent U.Va. to the ACC championship game.  A win over the Red Raiders would have given Virginia only the second 10-team season in school history.  Since the bowl game, unexpected attrition has ripped apart Groh’s program. Nearly a dozen players with eligibility remaining are not on the 2008 roster, including quarterbacks Jameel Sewell and Peter Lalich, cornerbacks Chris Cook and Mike Brown, defensive end Jeffrey Fitzgerald and linebackers Darnell Carter and J’Courtney Williams.  All of them figured to be on the two-deep.  With some or all of those players, U.Va. would be a contender in the Coastal Division, and Groh’s job security wouldn’t be an issue.

4. The Cavaliers brought back one of the nation’s top offensive linemen (Eugene Monroe) and two solid tailbacks in Cedric Peerman and Mikell Simpson. Why hasn’t the rushing attack worked in the first four games?

JW: Peerman has been banged up — a knee injury kept him out of the Duke game — but even if he were healthy, his numbers probably wouldn’t be impressive.  U.Va. lost three starters from a good offensive line, including guard Branden Albert, a first-round NFL draft pick, and their replacements have struggled to adjust to the pace of the college game.  That’s not a shock, though.  What’s been more damaging for Virginia has been the stunning decline in the performance of junior Will Barker, a three-year starter at right tackle.  Simpson hasn’t looked like the player who ran wild against Maryland in College Park last year, but a lot of that can be attributed to the line’s problems.

5. From a distance, things look like a disaster. Are there any bright spots on this team?

JW: Things looks like a disaster up close, too.  But junior wideout Kevin Ogletree, who missed last season while recovering from knee surgery, has played well, and senior Clint Sintim leads the nation’s linebackers with four sacks.  The biggest surprise, however, has probably been the steady play of punter Jimmy Howell and kicker Yannick Reyering, neither of whom was on the team last season.  Reyering, a former all-ACC soccer player at U.Va., is 3 for 4 on field goals.

Again, much thanks to Jeff for his help, and remember to take a peek at his blog, where you’ll be able to find a Maryland Q&A later in the week.

Patrick Stevens

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