- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 3, 2009

CHARLOTTESVILLE | As the what’s-old-is-new phenomenon of the spread offense seeped into nearly every major conference this decade, the ACC was mostly immune.

Until this year, when staid old Virginia of all teams embraced the scheme in what could lead to an intriguing transformation.

Sure, Georgia Tech runs a spread option that will fluster teams unaccustomed to its nuances. And Clemson, past and present, incorporates spread elements into its approach. But no one has embraced a more conventional spread than Virginia has, a decision that led to some long days during camp.

“The ACC hasn’t seen that kind of offense too much, so it’s going to be fun to see how teams play us and the choices they make,” linebacker Aaron Clark said. “I know at practice, it’s definitely different playing against those guys. We find some kinks on our defense that we didn’t know we had because we hadn’t seen that on a regular basis.”

Virginia at least has the benefit of seeing the scheme on an everyday basis. On the flip side, it’s a seismic shift for a stodgy offense that plodded along the past few seasons in a pro-style formation.

Much of it was dictated by the options the Cavaliers possessed. Coach Al Groh’s team utilized a more dynamic offense when Matt Schaub was under center earlier this decade, only to tighten things up the past few years.

It was especially true last year, when Jameel Sewell was an academic casualty, Peter Lalich was dismissed from the program and Marc Verica was tossed into action as a redshirt sophomore. The chances of a more wide-open offense withered with each quarterback lost.

“Some circumstances kind of derailed that,” Groh said. “We’re not really a spread offense team. We’re not a power running team. We’re not a wishbone team. We’re not a wing-T team. What we want to do is move the ball the best way possible with the personnel we have.”

The Cavaliers might have the personnel for something more interesting - and effective. After Mike Groh resigned as offensive coordinator after last season, Al Groh replaced his son with Gregg Brandon, a former Bowling Green coach who was Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator at the MAC school for two seasons.

Brandon installed the spread in the spring and had more quarterbacks to work with. Sewell returned after a yearlong hiatus, and Verica is back as well. In addition, Virginia moved cornerback Vic Hall to quarterback for last year’s season finale and kept him there for his senior season.

“The offense is built for a quarterback who can run,” Brandon said. “I think we have three of them right now. Sewell and Hall are pretty nifty on the perimeter. Marc’s not as quick and as fast as those guys, but he can make a guy miss out there and get yards. The system is predicated on reading defenders and exploiting what they do, so obviously if you have a quicker, athletic quarterback in the running game, it’ll probably work better.”

Groh, per his usual custom, remained mum with reporters this week about who will start Saturday’s opener against William & Mary. Unlike last season, when the lightly experienced Lalich seemed the most likely option compared to a pair of unseasoned options, this one seems more up in the air.

Hall, a two-year starter on defense, probably isn’t at quarterback not to play. But Sewell owns 22 career starts and led Virginia to the Gator Bowl in 2007, and Verica steadied a reeling team for a time last fall.

“The quarterbacks all look good,” fullback Rashawn Jackson said. “They’re like a box of chocolates. You don’t know which one you want to pick. They all have different skills and different talents that I feel like we can utilize.”

Whoever winds up playing will step into a new-look offense for what the Cavaliers hope is a substantially different team. Last year’s 5-7 record still gnaws at them, especially since the four losses that closed the season came by 11 points or less.

The spread’s different elements could provide a boost, but Virginia knows it won’t guarantee a thing without smart play.

“These defenses aren’t Pop Warner defenses,” Jackson said. “At this level, it doesn’t matter what you’re running. What matters is the execution aspect.”

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