Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Virginia coach Al Groh looked at his watch, sarcastically noting that it's 2009, not 2008, and that's what he wants to talk about.
You can't blame him.
Last year was a rough season for Virginia, as the Cavaliers dealt with the academic suspensions of two key players in quarterback Jameel Sewell and cornerback Chris Cook, there was no experienced quarterback to turn to in the season opener against USC, two players were arrested for trying to steal beer from a bar refrigerator, and a four-game losing streak capped the end of a miserable season that could have been salvaged but instead ended one win shy of a bowl bid.
"The 2008 team had to endure more things probably than any team that I've been associated with," Groh said. "And to remain strong in the face of all of that, they did that, and for that I have a great appreciation for what they did. It's like in boxing. The less amount of body punches they can take over the course of the fight, probably the better off you are and the fresher you are at the end. That team and those players took some body punches and they shook them off, but they still take their toll at certain points. Right now we've been free of those particular things."
And it's made a difference.
In fact, the entire program looks different -- literally. New linebackers, new receivers, a new offensive coordinator, and a newfound desire to win some football games. While Groh doesn't want to spend too much time dwelling on the past, it's served as an inspiration to his team this year.
Senior linebacker Denzel Burrell said he can still picture the disappointed looks on the faces of former linebackers Clint Sintim and John Phillips, and how heartbroken they were after Virginia Tech ended their season with a 17-14 loss.
"To me that's all motivation," he said. "We want to get out there and prove ourselves and prove everybody wrong. We want to make our fans happy, our coaches and ourselves."
Defensive end Nate Collins agreed.
"No one wants to have that season," he said. "No one wants to end the season without making a bowl game. That was a huge loss for us. I feel like everyone on our team realizes that. No one wants to be in that position again. No one wants to be home for a whole month in December when you're watching all these bowl games, teams you might have beat during the season, and you're like, 'We're better than them.' Everyone is buying in. we want to have a better season and I feel like we will have a better season this year."
The reality of the situation is that it's a work in progress, and nobody knows how Virginia will look until it takes the field on Sept. 5 against William & Mary. Outside expectations are low because of the high amount of transition the program is going through. Offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon said some players have learned his offense quicker than others, but the staff has yet to determine who its starting quarterback will be, let alone the wide receivers. Still, those within the program believe they have the pieces in place to improve upon last year's 5-7 season.
"We've got something to prove this year," said offensive tackle Will Barker. "I think we've got all of the right guys and the right system to do it."
At the very least, they've got the determination.
"What I like about the players so far is they have demonstrated a very strong resolution towards what they want to get accomplished," Groh said. "We see ourselves making a lot of progress in developing the mental strength that's necessary to have the resilience and positive energy and confidence to take on all the things that happen during the course of a season."
So far, Virginia is already ahead of where it was last year in that the Cavaliers are only answering questions about football -- not distracting off-field issues.