ACC: Jack Shields
2009 conference record: 2-6
Offense: 6, defense: 6, punter/kicker 2
WR Kris Burd, QB Marc Verica, DE Matt Conrath, LB Steve Greer, CB Ras-I Dowling
WR Vic Hall, T Will Barker, C Jack Shields, QB Jameel Sewell, FB Rashawn Jackson, NG Nate Collins, CB Chris Cook, LB Denzel Burrell, TB Mikell Simpson
2009 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Jackson (461 yards)
Passing: Sewell (1,848 yds)
Receiving: Burd* (413 yds)
Tackles: Greer* (92)
Sacks: Collins (6)
Interceptions: Cook (4)
1. Johnson’s move a hit. Cam Johnson’s move from linebacker to defensive end proved beneficial, as he returned an interception 51 yards in the Cavaliers’ spring game. Johnson, who started 10 of the 12 games he played in last year, showed he can transition to playing with his hand on the ground.
2. Aboushi a boost up front. Offensive tackle Oday Aboushi could be Virginia’s next stellar lineman. He’ll only be a sophomore, but he showed this spring he can help plug up some holes in an offensive line that was rather porous last year. Aboushi played in late in the Clemson game and he held his own as a freshman last year.
3. Mending fences. First-year coach Mike London has been working the crowd and winning it over by making the staff more approachable. He held a scrimmage at Old Dominion, and had been rebuilding relationships with high school coaches and media throughout the state.
1. Which Verica will show this fall? The one who was pushed into duty without experience two years ago and performed well, or the one who last year struggled in mop-up duty? Verica said he avoided turnovers during every team drill this spring, but threw two interceptions in the spring game. Verica is the only player on the roster who has attempted a pass in a game.
2. Kicking competition. Last year, the kicking duties were done by committee. This year, London would like to find one player capable of PATs, field goals and kickoffs. Robert Randolph handled most of the field goal duties last year. Drew Jarrett handled the PATs at the end of the year and Chris Hinkebein did kickoffs. Hinkebein has the strongest but least accurate leg.
3. Defensive transition. How will the players adjust to their new roles in the transition from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme? London has moved a lot of players into positions where he’s trying to get speed on the field. LaRoy Reynolds and LoVante Battle moved from the secondary to strongside linebacker. Ausar Walcott moved from defensive back to whip linebacker, and other players -- like Conrath -- have moved from defensive end to tackle.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
At 6-foot-7, 320 pounds Virginia offensive tackle Will Barker looms large. He's not the only one. Left tackle Landon Bradley is also 6-foot-7. So is left guard Austin Pasztor. Right guard B.J. Cabbell is 6-foot-6. Center Jack Shields is the shortest at 6-foot-5.
|Bob Donnan/US Presswire|
|Vic Hall isn't concerned his height will limit his effectiveness at quarterback.|
And the central figure of their offense, the one lining up behind them every snap when practices begin on Friday, will be 5-foot-9 quarterback Vic Hall.
Nobody is questioning Hall's athleticism -- he's played cornerback, quarterback, returned punts, covered kickoffs and was even the holder on place kicks.
It's his height that's under scrutiny.
"Honestly it didn't seem to affect him at all during the spring," Barker said. "Me and Landon being tall ... tall defensive linemen, he seemed to handle it pretty well. He's a nimble enough guy that if he can't throw over somebody maybe he can move around them and then throw it. I think that works for him. I can't speak for him, but I don't think it's an issue."
Neither does Hall.
"This spring we didn't have a lot of problems with that," Hall said. "Obviously I can't see everything, with them being as tall as they are, but with more and more reps and knowing the plays, you know where guys on the team are going to be."
Hall started 11 games at cornerback last year and started at quarterback against Virginia Tech in the season finale. He only attempted one pass, though, against the Hokies. Hall worked exclusively at quarterback this spring and heads into summer camp as the first-string quarterback.
"If you're not 6-6 or 6-5, people are always going to question what you can do," Hall said. "They say, 'He's 5-9 but ... I try to have a lot of 'buts' [like] he's fast or he's strong or he can do this."
Hall has also drawn some inspiration from former Virginia quarterback Marques Hagans, who is listed at 5-foot-10 for the Washington Redskins, and, like Hall, had to help out the Cavaliers at other positions before he was given a shot at starting quarterback in 2004.
"He was the same height as me," Hall said. "That let me know that you don't have to be 6-5 or 6-4 to play quarterback."
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Position rankings today will include who has what up front. While it's not exactly glamorous, it wins games.
Let's start with the offensive lines.
1. Florida State -- Ah, it's amazing what a year can do, no? At this point last season, I had the Noles ranked No. 12. That's right, and I'd do it again. There wasn't a senior in the group, and they were the youngest O-line in the FBS with a lot to prove. It was a work in progress, and the tight ends had to help out, but Rick Trickett did a heck of a job, and I take partial credit for the motivation. You're welcome, coach. Now this group, led by Rodney Hudson, Ryan McMahon and Andrew Datko could be one of the best in the country.
2. Boston College -- Four starters return who started all 14 games last year, including potential All-ACC candidates Anthony Castonzo and Matt Tennant. It took some time for this group to come together after Castonzo moved from right tackle to left, Thomas Claiborne was a defensive lineman who moved to the right guard spot and Rich Lapham came off the bench in nine games in 2007. Once they got comfortable, they were a major factor in the success of true freshmen running backs Montel Harris and Josh Haden. It should only be better this year.
3. Wake Forest -- This should be a much-improved group, and deeper, especially with the return of Chris DeGeare, who missed last fall for academic reasons, at left tackle. Seven players with starting experience return to the offensive line and they have combined for 95 career starts. Russell Nenon, who moved to center after Trey Bailey broke his ankle last year, has solidified the position, and Jeff Griffin, who had been a starting tackle, is now comfortable at right guard. Barrett McMillin returns at guard.
4. Clemson -- This is where the problems began last year, and it should be part of the solution in 2009. In 2008, Clemson had to replace four starters. This year, all five starters return. Since 1963, Clemson has had a winning percentage of 76 percent when it returns five starters on the offensive line. Thomas Austin has starting experience at center and guard and should be one of the top offensive linemen in the 2010 NFL draft.
5. Virginia Tech -- The Hokies should be more athletic up front, and this unit goes eight deep, which might be the best depth they've had in the past two seasons. Ed Wang, who is entering his third season as a starter and Sergio Render, who is entering his fourth, are the veterans of a group that includes seven redshirt freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep. Beau Warren is expected to replace Ryan Shuman at center and Jaymes Brooks took over the right guard position and played well in the Orange Bowl in place of an ineligible Nick Marshman.
6. Miami -- Depth remains a concern, but veteran tackle Jason Fox is as dependable as they come, with 36 career starts. There were some tweaks to the line this past spring, as Matt Pipho will be the new starter at right tackle, and the staff is eager to see how he handles that role. A.J. Trump moved from right guard to center, and Joel Figueroa took over at right guard. The health of the starters will be key through the tough stretch to start the season.
7. Georgia Tech -- There is definitely potential here, but first the Jackets have to replace Andrew Gardner and David Brown, which they started to do last season when that duo got hurt. Then they have to keep everyone healthy, which didn't happen this spring. With Dan Voss, Nick Claytor and Cord Howard back for summer camp, and Joseph Gilbert having started 12 games last year, this group should improve and be more consistent this fall, but it will get even better as Paul Johnson's staff begins to recruit more athletic linemen.
8. Virginia -- There are no athletic freaks on the line like coach Al Groh usually finds, but it should still be a solid group. Four starters return, including senior right tackle Will Barker, who has 37 starts. Junior B.J. Cabbell at right guard was a solid blocker last year in his first season as starter, as was Jack Shields, who improved as the season progressed. Sophomore Austin Pasztor moved into the starting lineup against Maryland and sophomore Landon Bradley was Eugene Monroe's backup.
9. NC State -- The good news is that the Pack have plenty of upperclassmen to depend on, and four of the five starters have combined to start 60 games. The only player listed as a current starter who has never started is redshirt senior Andy Barbee, who has spent the previous three years as a reserve center but has now moved to guard. Behind those veterans are several players who redshirted last year and will be given an equal opportunity for playing time.
10. North Carolina -- The Tar Heels took a hit early last month when starter Aaron Stahl decided to forgo his final year of eligibility to "move forward with the next phase of [his] life." His experience will be tough to replace, but there are a handful of players who had a good spring and will compete for his spot. Kyle Jolly, who is entering his third year as a starter, Alan Pelc, who earned a starting job at guard last year, and Lowell Dyer, who has started at center each of the past two seasons, will be the leaders of the line.
11. Maryland -- The Terps lost five of their top seven offensive linemen, including three starters, and the development of their replacements will go a long way in determining how their season unfolds. Despite the graduation of longtime center Edwin Williams, it's the position of least concern as the staff is confident in the leadership and playing abilities of Phil Costa. There are also high expectations for left tackle Bruce Campbell, a physically gifted athlete.
12. Duke -- This has been a trouble spot for the Blue Devils for years, and it's a work-in-progress for coach David Cutcliffe. This year should be another challenge as Duke has to replace three starters after making some progress last year. Center Bryan Morgan is the anchor of the group and enters his second season as a starter and is the only player back in his original position. Kyle Hill moved from left guard to left tackle, so this group will have a whole new look.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
It's tough to find faces that aren't new on Virginia's offense this spring -- the Cavaliers have a new offensive coordinator in Gregg Brandon, they'll likely make a switch at quarterback, and they've got to find new leading receivers and rushers. The stability, though, can be found where college offenses usually need it the most -- up front.
With the exception of NFL-bound left tackle Eugene Monroe, Virginia returns four starters on the offensive line, including senior right tackle Will Barker. Barker enters his fourth season with 37 career starts. Next to him is junior B.J. Cabbell at right guard. Cabbell proved to be an effective blocker last season in his first year as the starter. Fellow junior Jack Shields was another first-time starter a year ago who improved throughout the season.
Sophomore Austin Pasztor moved into the starting line-up in the fifth week against Maryland and remained there the rest of the season.
"Everything seems to be going real smooth," Shields said. "We've been picking up the new offense really well, even into the two-and three deep, everyone has a good grasp on it. It looks really promising. It really does look like everything is going the way we want it."
Sophomore Landon Bradley backed up Monroe and while he lacks game experience, Bradley has been getting the bulk of the reps there this spring.
"With everyone getting a lot of experience last year and Landon, he's been around for a while, so he's gotten a lot of experience at practice being around some of the older guys," Barker said. "We're all ready to go, especially in this new offense. We're really excited about it.
"There's a lot of new things we've had to learn, but there's also been a lot of carryover from our old offense," he said. "We were able to use some of the same communication, language, terminology. I think we're all pretty happy about it. We feel pretty comfortable after a couple of weeks to learn it, we feel pretty solid about it now.
While the starters have somewhat cemented their roles, depth is usually an issue and Virginia is no exception. Sophomore center Anthony Mihota is the only other lineman who has seen any significant playing time, as he started in place of an injured Shields in last season's finale against Virginia Tech.
Without hesitation, Shields said the area the line needs to make the most improvement is in the running game. Despite talented tailback Cedric Peerman lining up almost every game, Virginia ranked 108th in the country and last in the ACC in rushing offense last year.
"We definitely need to make drastic improvement there," he said. "We're just watching a lot of film and focusing hard on the techniques ... we're just drilling and drilling. Drills that might seem pointless to some people but in reality once you get the hang of them it becomes second nature and that's what you need in the run game -- coming off the ball with the right speed, fitting on the linebackers the right way."
They did well in protecting the quarterbacks, though, and led the ACC in fewest sacks allowed. (1.33 per game).
"Obviously we want to score a lot more points this year, and I think we will," Barker said. "The pass protection has been pretty good for us. If we get this run game going we'll be pretty good too."
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
There is an unlikely source in the ACC with a deep rooted understanding of the rivalry between Boston College and Notre Dame. Virginia center Jack Shields grew up in Duxbury, Mass., and attended Boston College High School. His father, Jack, was a middle linebacker for Notre Dame from 1979 to 1982.
"Up until I started to get mail from schools it was always Notre Dame, clear and above BC," Shields said. "I couldn't stand BC. I couldn't stand anything about BC."
Those were the days when Notre Dame, as Shields said, was "America's team." Both programs have since changed, though, and in turn the rivalry has somewhat fizzled. Considering Notre Dame's recent slide and the fact that BC has won the past five meetings, beating the Irish has become a trend, rather than a remarkable feat. It has always seemed to mean more to those around Chestnut Hill anyway, though, and that hasn't changed. Nor has the fact that they're the only two Catholic programs who play football in the FBS.
Boston College defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani flew his wife and kids out to South Bend to experience it last year.
"There was a time, when I was at Navy and we were at Virginia, that we played these guys and I thought I would never, ever get on the field and beat them," Spaziani said. "It was like man, you can't beat those guys. And then I came here, and we've been able to have some success. It's just a great atmosphere. It's kind of what college should be all about.
"I think with the whole landscape of college football, with the scholarships and numerous things, other people have closed the gap a little bit but they still are who they are. There's nothing wrong with Notre Dame. They're just waiting to rear their head again."
Saturday's game will be just the fourth time in 17 meetings that neither team is ranked for the game. Four of the past five games between the two have been decided by a touchdown or less.
"It's a big game," fifth-year senior Brandon Robinson said. "I've never lost to them. We definitely want to keep this streak going and I think we can. It comes down to a mentality. I think it's going to come down to the fourth quarter and whoever plays 60 minutes is going to win this game."
Robinson said the Eagles will have a slight advantage because they know what defensive scheme to expect. Notre Dame hired former Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta.
"It's very familiar," Robinson said. "We know they're going to blitz every play. They're going to play three fire zone, two fire zone and they're going to play a little bit of man against us. We really know what we have to play against. We just have to go out there and execute. It's very helpful, especially the other guys as a receiving corps, we know what their defense is going to do. We know what their defensive backfield is going to do."
The series will end in Chestnut Hill in 2010, but Boston College coach Jeff Jagodzinski said he'd like to see it continue.
"It's a great tradition and rivalry," he said. "It's really a natural."
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
The work Virginia running back Cedric Peerman has put in this season to lead the Cavaliers' improbable ascension from last place to first in the Coastal Division pales in comparison to the real work that has defined him.
|Cedric Peerman has rushed for over 100 yards in three of the past four games.|
Peerman could tell you more about the tobacco plant than you'd probably like to know. He spent his high school summers working on his grandfather's farm, hidden amongst the tall harvest. His grandfather had suffered a stroke and was confined to a wheelchair, leaving it up to Peerman and his family to work the farm.
He knows how to fertilize the tobacco, cultivate it, and bag it. He would get up at dawn and work until noon, when the sun began to scorch.
It put food on their table, he said.
"It was about a half a day's work, pulling a whole barn worth of tobacco," he said. "If you ask anybody about it, the people who know about it, they think it's a very tough job, it's very hard work. And it is very hard work. For us, it really brought the family together."
This past summer, Peerman took on a new job, and was licensed as a minister on July 19.
He also happens to be the heart of Virginia's offense. His recovery from a bruised knee and the Cavaliers' four-game winning streak heading into Saturday's game against Miami is no coincidence. After being limited in the first four games, Peerman has rushed for over 100 yards in three of the past four games. He is averaging 5.7 yards per carry and is seventh in the ACC with 4.29 receptions per game.
Just how much has Peerman meant to this Virginia team?
"It's hard to put a measure on how much it is, that's how significant it's been," coach Al Groh said. "Actually in a lot of ways, on a personal basis, Cedric is not one to insert himself into a lot of situations. I would say that while his influence has been broad-based, probably much more so on the field, how he conducts his business, runs each play, practices, competes. Things he says on the field have had a much greater impact than anything he says inside."
Groh said he hasn't seen anyone run harder or finish plays stronger than Peerman.
"He's at a very high level, that's for sure," Groh said. "Certainly nobody that we've had since we've been here who has surpassed that."
It all goes back to Peerman's work ethic. Center Jack Shields said Peerman is a team captain and "rightfully so."
"If you watch practice, on every play when he's handed the ball, it could be the 30th play of practice or it could be the first, but he runs hard," said Shields. "He'll run after the play. Coaches will even show it. That's something that ever since I came here as a freshman I've always noticed. All his hard work is starting to pay off for him."
And for Virginia, too.
It was his work on the tobacco field, though, that Peerman credits most.
"Working on the farm really shaped me into the person I am today," he said. "I know that without that, I wouldn't be where I am without that upbringing, even though some days I didn't like being out there in the hot sun working. It definitely paid off."
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Granted, the pool at the Ritz, the lake and the top shelf drinks were somewhat of a distraction this past weekend, but I didn't forget to finish up the remaining position battles left in the ACC. You guys have been doing a great job of reminding me if I'm too heavy on one school or another, so keep keeping me balanced.
All the more reason not to forget the end of the alphabet.
Here's a look at the top spots still up for grabs in Charlottesville, and since there are only 10 returning starters, get comfy:
QUARTERBACK -- This is the most obvious spot, but according to Al Groh, there's not an obvious candidate. It's not like he hasn't dealt with this before. It's the fourth time in Groh's tenure at Virginia that the quarterback job has been contested during fall camp. Scott Deke, Peter Lalich and Marc Verica split time during the spring. Lalich has the most experience, as he completed 35 of 61 passes for 321 yards and two TDs as a true freshman last season. Deke, a senior, played in one game last year and was the starter in the spring game, while Verica, a sophomore, has yet to play.
KICKER/PUNTER -- The most likely replacement for placekicker Chris Gould would be redshirt freshman Chris Hinkebein. The situation at punter is wide open. Senior John Thornton joined the team as a walk-on two years ago but has never played, nor has sophomore Nathan Rathjen, who rejoined the team in the spring after not being on the roster in '07 (he walked on in 2006). Jimmy Howell was one of the team's signees in February and could be in the mix as well. Groh has used true freshmen as punters before (Tom Hagan in 2002, Gould in '04).
DEFENSIVE LINE -- The only thing we're certain of here is who's gone. Junior nose tackle Nate Collins worked with the first unit during the spring in place of the graduated Allen Billyk. Collins has significant experience and is likely to be backed up by redshirt freshman Nick Jenkins, a promising player.
Alex Field, a 6-foot-7, 270-pound senior, is probably going to be Chris Long's replacement at one end. He got the most work there this spring. Redshirt freshman Zane Parr will also be given a chance to get in the rotation.
Sophomore Sean Gottschalk finished with four tackles in nine games last season and will battle redshirt freshman Matt Conrath at the other end spot formerly manned by Jeffrey Fitzgerald. Conrath has good size at 6-foot-7, 269 and is still growing into his body.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- Both tackles are back, including Eugene Monroe, who might be the best left tackle in the league. Center will be contested between sophomore Jack Shields and redshirt freshman Anthony Mihota. Shields, who came to Virginia as a tight end, played in only one game last year. Senior Zak Stair and junior Patrick Slebonick will start out in the competition to replace first-round draft pick Branden Albert at left guard. Stair, previously a tackle, moved inside this spring. Slebonick has made just one appearance in his career. Sophomore B.J. Cabbell took the most snaps at right guard in the spring and is trying to replace the graduated Ian-Yates Cunningham. He's expected to battle redshirt freshman Billy Cuffee.
Check back tomorrow for Virginia Tech, and I'll wrap it up on Friday with Wake Forest.