With the season winding down, I'll be using my Monday weekend-review segment to highlight and break down some of the interesting teams to watch heading into the 2003 campaign. We'll start with Virginia and Connecticut, two teams fresh off statement victories on Saturday.
VIRGINIA: Building a Solid Foundation
In coach Al Groh's second season as the head coach in Charlottesville, the Virginia Cavaliers have improved from a 5-7 campaign in 2001 to a current record of 8-4 heading into the Virginia Tech game this Saturday. Plus, they've finished second in the ACC behind Florida State and just ahead of Maryland and N.C. State. Virginia shocked Maryland 48-13 on Saturday. There's no question that the foundation is being built for future milestones for Virginia football.
Groh recruited top-quality athletes to Charlottesville, and the coaching staff has done a great job of quickly developing that talent. The Cavaliers are slated to return 17 starters next season, plus their punter and placekicker. Here's a quick rundown of the superior young talent and the seasoned veterans who could key a rise to top-16 status (or perhaps higher) in 2003.
|The Cavaliers and QB Matt Schaub have had plenty to celebrate this season.|
After being benched briefly after the season-opening loss to Colorado State, junior QB Matt Schaub caught fire, settling in to complete a remarkable 69.7 percent of his aerials heading into this week's game against Virginia Tech at Blacksburg. He has also thrown 26 TD passes (and just six interceptions). Redshirt freshman Marques Hagans, who presents a nice change of pace with his scrambling ability, will be competing for the backup job with Anthony Martinez, a first-year performer who has redshirted this season.
At tailback, the Cavaliers have five talented underclassmen -- giving them as as much depth as any team in the nation.
In addition to sophomores Alvin Pearman and Marquis Weeks, they have versatile freshmen Wali Lundy and Michael Johnson, along with promising youngster Tony Franklin, who redshirted as a freshman this season. Lundy, who would have to be listed as a co-starter, leads Virginia with 572 rushing yards and is second on the team (behind senior WR Billy McMullen) with 49 receptions. That total is the most catches ever by a freshman running back in the ACC.
Freshman FB Jason Snelling has carried the ball only seven times, but he's factored in heavily as a pass-receiving option, with 30 grabs and four TD catches.
With McMullen moving on to the NFL in 2003, Groh and his staff will be making wide receiver a priority in recruiting this season. Junior Michael McGrew will be the most experienced returning wideout, meaning that opportunities exist for incoming standouts to immediately push their way onto the field. It will also be interesting to see if Groh decides to move one of the young tailbacks to WR, since there figures to be a logjam in the backfield.
One of the main targets for Schaub has been redshirt freshman TE Heath Miller. At 6-foot-5, he provides an ideal target, and he's hauled in 28 receptions for a 9.2-yard average. His eight TD receptions tie an ACC record for tight ends. Miller has also thrown a TD pass this season.
Up front on the offensive line, freshman D'Brickashaw Ferguson (6-4, 265) has been holding down the critical LT spot, while redshirt freshman Brian Barthelmes (6-7, 288) moved into the starting lineup midseason. But the top returning starter for the Cavaliers will be huge RG Elton Brown (6-6, 340), who will be a junior in 2003. Also, keep in mind that former starter Kevin Bailey will be back on the field after missing most of the 2002 campaign with a knee injury. Bailey figures to anchor things at center, although he also has experience at tackle.
On defense, Groh's 3-4 is keyed by potential future superstar Darryl Blackstock. Just a freshman, the athletically gifted outside linebacker has recorded nine sacks (the most ever by a first-year performer in the ACC).
On the D-line, sophomore DE Chris Canty has averaged 7.6 tackles per game, tops in the ACC among defensive linemen. He has also recorded two sacks, recovered three fumbles and blocked a critical field goal against Maryland on Saturday. Redshirt freshman DE Brennan Schmidt started all year and has recorded 73 tackles, the third-highest total among first-year players in the ACC. Freshman Kwakou Robinson started the first five games of the season at DE before being sidelined due to an illness.
In addition to Blackstock, the linebacking corps figures to also include highly regarded youngsters Kai Parham and Ahmad Brooks. Battling an injury when he arrived for fall practice, Parham redshirted this season. He could definitely be a major factor at the OLB spot opposite Blackstock. Brooks was rated by recruiting guru Tom Lemming as the nation's third-best prep prospect last year, behind only QB Ben Olson (BYU) and Ohio State freshman sensation RB Maurice Clarett. Brooks spent this season at Hargrave Military Academy. In 2003, he has the versatility to see action at any linebacker position.
As for the secondary, the coaching staff has to be thrilled with the potential displayed by freshman safety Willie Davis. He looks like a future standout.
Special teams was also keyed by first-year performers. Freshman Tom Hagan handled the punting duties all year, while freshman walk-on placekicker Connor Hughes connected on a 47-yard field goal against Maryland on Saturday. Also, redshirt freshman Kurt Smith has shown steady improvement as the kickoff man. On Saturday, he negated the return skills of speedy Terrapin Steve Suter, driving nine of his kickoffs into the end zone, resulting in four touchbacks.
Depending on the result of the regular-season finale on Saturday at Virginia Tech, Virginia likely will be heading either to the Toyota Gator Bowl, Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl or Mazda Tangerine Bowl. For such a young team -- which was expected by many observers to finish as low as sixth, seventh or eighth in the ACC -- what Groh, his fine staff, and these young men were able to accomplish is something all their fans and everyone associated with the Cavalier program should be extremely proud of.
CONNECTICUT: Long Way From I-AA
Another head coach who deserves high praise is Connecticut's Randy Edsall. In the past decade, Connecticut's athletic program has been known primarily for excellence on the basketball court (both men and women). Now Edsall is transforming the Huskies into a force to be reckoned with in college football.
In fact, the Huskies' shocking 37-20 victory Saturday over Iowa State, which earlier this season was ranked in the top 10, was big news to college football fans nationally this past weekend. And Edsall should be able to use the victory as a major springboard for recruiting in the final two months of the process. The Huskies closed out the 2002 campaign with a surprising 6-6 record.
Against Iowa State on the road at Ames, the Huskies frustrated standout senior QB Seneca Wallace, who was playing his last regular-season game in a Cyclones' uniform.
Wallace, who is a potential second- or third-round selection in the 2003 NFL draft on April 26, completed just 19-of-44 passes for 216 yards. He was intercepted four times and failed to throw a TD pass. The Huskies also sacked Wallace three times, which tied ISU's single-game sacks allowed total this season.
Edsall's squad also outrushed the Cyclones, with impressive freshman Terry Caulley carrying the football 32 times for 191 yards and one TD. Check out the list of heralded running backs who have rushed for fewer yards this season against the Cyclones' defense: Florida State's Greg Jones, Iowa's Fred Russell, Oklahoma's Quentin Griffin, Kansas State's Darren Sproles and Colorado's Chris Brown. The only back to top Caulley's total was Texas' Cedric Benson (199 yards).
The Huskies proved from the outset that they had the mettle to be competitive against strong competition. Remember, in the season opener at Chestnut Hill against Boston College, the Huskies battled hard the entire way, only to fall 24-16. They proceeded to defeat MAC foes Buffalo, Ohio and Kent State, while falling by just three points to Ball State. Edsall's squad also lost by just two TDs to Temple and by just four points at Vanderbilt. They walloped Navy 38-0 on the road in Annapolis, just one week after the Midshipmen battled Notre Dame to the whistle.
It's hard to believe that in 1999 the Huskies were in their final year at the Division I-AA level. Also keep in mind that this was the first season Edsall benefited from 85 full scholarships and the first season the Huskies were bowl-eligible. This was also the first year that UConn was included in the Division I-A statistics.
Next season, Edsall is expected to welcome back 16 starters, including sophomore QB Dan Orlovsky (2,488 yards passing, 60.4 percent completion percentage, 19 TDs and 11 picks) and Caulley (1,247 rushing yards, 5.7-yard average per carry, 15 rushing TDs, 25 receptions). Also due back is junior wideout Shaun Feldeisen, who hauled in 33 catches for a 12.9-yard average.
Defensively, blue-chip senior defensive lineman Greg Smoot will be a key graduation loss, but they are slated to return sophomore LB Maurice Lloyd (led team with 112 tackles, 18 stops behind the line, four interceptions) and junior DE Uyi Osunde (74 tackles, 9½ sacks).
Plus, the Huskies will be moving into brand-new Rentschler Field in East Hartford, with Indiana the first opponent in the new stadium for the 2003 season opener on Aug. 30. Also included in the 12-game schedule will be home dates with Boston College and Western Michigan along with road games against Virginia Tech, N.C. State and Wake Forest.
The Huskies will remain an independent the next two years before joining the Big East in 2005.