- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 1, 2002

CHARLOTTESVILLE The Virginia Cavaliers prefer to call it "a sense of urgency" rather than a feeling of desperation. The football program that recently was a measuring stick as a consistent winner is now trying to rebound from its first losing season since Ronald Reagan was president.

But few outside the Wahoo faithful expect this year's particularly young team to return to the glory of teams that had at least seven wins for 13 straight seasons before going 6-6 in George Welsh's final season (2000).

Last fall, Al Groh's first team had a 5-7 record the program's first losing campaign in 15 years. Virginia is picked to finish eighth this season in the nine-team ACC.

"It's been very disappointing since I've been here," said Billy McMullen, a senior all-conference wide receiver. "We're just trying to take it to another level now. Instead of being the bottom dwellers or the middle dwellers, we want to take it to a higher level."

The team starts practice this morning to prepare for the season opener three weeks from today against Colorado State. The game against the Rams in the Jim Thorpe Classic in Charlottesville will begin a brutal three-game stretch for Virginia, which visits Florida State the following week and then is home to SEC power South Carolina.

"If you're a competitor, you don't want to play rinky-dink teams," said senior linebacker Angelo Crowell, who vividly remembers the five-game losing streak in the middle of last season. "We just can't make the same mistakes we made last year."

That could be difficult, as 23 freshmen and sophomores appear on the two-deep depth chart, and many of the 22 true freshmen will also earn playing time. Crowell, a second-team All-ACC selection, will be the stalwart on a defense behind an entirely rebuilt line.

One positive is the Cavaliers will not have a quarterback controversy. Junior Matt Schaub owns the job by default after splitting duties with Bryson Spinner last season. Spinner left the team after his sophomore season, handing the job to Schaub, a drop-back passer.

"I'm going into my fourth year," said Schaub, a 6-foot-5, 235-pounder who completed 58 percent of his passes last season with 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. "It's helped going through the offseason [as the starter]. This is my team. It just gives you more experience and more leadership with your team."

There is limited depth behind Schaub. No other quarterback on the roster has taken a snap in a college game. Redshirt freshman Marques Hagans is the top reserve, which will be a common trend for a Virginia team that seeks to develop youngsters quickly with on-the-job training.

If the offensive line can come together, Virginia could have a potent passing attack with Schaub and the 6-4 McMullen, who led the ACC with 83 receptions, 1,060 receiving yards and 12 touchdown catches last season. The Cavaliers' featured rusher figures to be sophomore Alvin Pearman, a 5-10, 195-pound tailback who ran for 371 yards last season.

The defense has a similar mix with four secondary starters including senior safeties Jerton Evans and Shernard Newby back. They will play behind an inexperienced line. The linebacking corps will start strong with seniors Merrill Robertson and Crowell, although depth there is an issue.

Groh said there is a definite "sense of urgency" and insists this is not a re-building year. The former New York Jets coach preferred to say, "This team is evolving." He has done little to hype expectations, and believes the Cavaliers' predicted finish near the ACC cellar is justified.

"Based on last year, who would you rank above us?" said Groh, who's team went 3-5 in the ACC and finished tied for seventh in the league. "Wake Forest beat us. North Carolina beat us. Maryland? They're the defending champion. N.C. State? They beat us.

"Do I necessarily think it's going to finish that way? No. Do I understand it? Yes. If [the poll ranking] had been much higher, I would have said 'What are you looking at?'"

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