- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 1, 2004

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Three years into his tenure as Virginia’s coach, Al Groh has built a team stocked with players who fit his ideals of size and speed and are well-schooled in their coach’s view: Excuses are for losers, and the time for winning is now.

And this year, the Cavaliers aren’t the only ones who think it.

They were ranked 16th in the preseason poll, their highest spot since 1998, and are viewed by many as the team most likely to keep Florida State and Miami from turning the new-look ACC race into a two-team race.

“We’re stacked at every position,” 6-foot-6, 338-pound right guard Elton Brown said. “This is the year to do it. We’re making strides the last couple of years.”

The Cavaliers have 16 starters back from last season, when they were 8-5 and beat Pittsburgh 23-16 for their second straight Continental Tire Bowl championship.

Gone are record-setting quarterback Matt Schaub, now backing up Michael Vick with the Atlanta Falcons, and seven other starters, but the roster is still loaded with candidates for postseason honors and others eager to take their place as stars.

“All the hype is good, but we’re a team,” linebacker and Butkus Award contender Darryl Blackstock said. “You want to recognize somebody, recognize the team.”

Question marks seem a rarity, but the one most apparent is also the one most important: Is Marques Hagans ready to take over leadership of the offense as Schaub’s replacement? The 5-10 junior certainly thinks so.

“I just can’t wait to get started, period,” he said. “There are plays for everybody — the tight end, the receivers, the running backs. A couple in there for me as well.”

Hagans brings speed and elusiveness to the position that Schaub didn’t possess, and coach Al Groh plans to take advantage of it, putting in plays that allow Hagans to hurt teams with his feet. The scrambling quarterback also has plenty of guys to lean on.

There’s Heath Miller, who caught 70 passes last season and may be the top tight end in the country; running backs Alvin Pearman and Wali Lundy, who combined for more than 1,500 rushing yards, 90 receptions and 18 touchdowns; and fullback Jason Snelling, a key third-down contributor two years ago who missed last season because of a personal issue.

Miller, the focus of many defenses last season, hopes the rest of the offensive arsenal will loosen defenders up on him or allow his teammates to take advantage.

“It’s definitely possible for me to be a better player this year and not catch as many passes or as many touchdowns,” said Miller, who has 15 touchdown catches in two seasons.

Catching won’t be Miller’s only contribution this year, either, Groh said.

“His strength is at its best level ever,” Groh said, adding that the additional explosiveness off the line will help in blocking and in beating physical defenders.

Explosiveness could become a popular word at Virginia, Pearman said.

“We have so much potential,” the enthusiastic senior said. “Big plays left and right. We have some youth at receiver just waiting to blossom. We’re excited, man. I mean, we’re as confident and excited as we’ve been since I’ve been here.”

The Cavaliers also get Michael McGrew back to bolster a young receiving corps. McGrew was counted on heavily last year until he broke his leg in training camp.

When the offense fizzles, the Cavaliers also hope Connor Hughes can be as close to automatic as he was last season, converting all 40 extra points and 23 of 25 field goals.

Defensively, the secondary is young but stocked with eager wannabes, and it will be helped by a front seven that features a host of probable future NFL players.

“We’ve got like the No.1 linebacker corps in the country and the top defensive line in the country,” safety Jermaine Hardy said. “There has to be a weakness somewhere, so I guess they have to pin it on us because we don’t have much experience.”

Up front, there are defensive ends Chris Canty and Brennan Schmidt and nose tackle Andrew Hoffman, all at least two-time letter-winners, and possibly the best group of linebackers in the country in Blackstock, Ahmad Brooks, Kai Parham and Dennis Haley.

“Collectively, you can’t have a much higher motor than what Schmidt and Hoffman and Canty bring,” Groh said, listing Hoffman as possibly the key to the defense. “For all the talk about linebackers in the 3-4 defense, if you don’t have a real good nose, it’s hard to make the defense work. It takes a unique skill.”

Despite all the names, Virginia still allowed more than 20 points and 380 yards a game last season, often allowing teams to rely on running in crucial situations.

That will change, Canty said, because of offseason attention to assignments.

“We have a better understanding of the defense now as opposed to last year, how it’s supposed to be played, gaps we’re supposed to be in and assignments,” he said. “Of course, we have to come out and prove it on Saturdays.”

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