Many new leaders need to step up for Cavs in fall

The Virginia football team entered spring practices with a sign in tow reading "Under Construction." With only 12 starters returning from last year's squad and a completely different coaching staff to boot, Virginia coach Al Groh will have plenty of work to do leading up to the season opener Sept. 2 at Pittsburgh.

The Cavaliers experienced huge losses in four areas: the line play on offense and defense, linebacker, quarterback and special teams.

The offensive line will have to battle in the trenches without first-team All American D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Brad Butler and Brian Barthelmes. While returning starters like junior Marshal Ausberry and sophomore Branden Albert will provide the leadership necessary, losing Ferguson, Butler and Barthelmes are devastating losses because of their long-term roles with the Cavaliers. The three linemen combined to start 124 times during their careers.

During spring practices, juniors Ian-Yates Cunningham and Jordy Lipsey have been battling for the center position on the line. Junior Eddie Pinigis seems to be the lead candidate to take over at right tackle, with redshirt freshman Will Barker behind him. Sophomores Eugene Monroe and Zak Stair have been working at the left tackle position. With Albert out of commission this spring to focus on academics, senior Gordie Sammis and junior David Fairbrothers have received plenty of opportunities at guard, with help from fellow guard Ausberry.

The defensive line experienced huge losses as well, including the loss of seniors Brennan Schmidt and Kwakou Robinson. Schmidt started 51 times at defensive end for the Cavaliers, an ACC record. The departure of Schmidt and Robinson makes junior defensive end Chris Long the lone returning starter on the defensive line. Sophomore Alex Field and redshirt freshman Jason Fuller have been competing all spring for the other defensive line spot. Junior Allen Billyk is now the starting nose tackle, having spent last season as a defensive end.

While the Cavaliers could have had one of the deepest linebacker units in all of college football, the loss of All-ACC linebacker Kai Parham to the NFL draft and junior linebacker Ahmad Brooks has left returning starters like sophomore Clint Sintim and junior Jermaine Dias to pick up the pieces this spring.

"Ahmad and Kai were great players and impact players on our defense," Sintim said. "Every returning starter on defense, especially the linebackers, is a leader. I'm a returning starter, [Dias] is a returning starter, [Antonio] Appleby played a lot, so I think a lot of us have to assume the role of a leader and push each other to get better."

Sintim and Dias have the outside linebacker positions locked up while sophomores Applebee and Jon Copper are the favorites to take over at inside linebacker.

With two-year starter Marques Hagans departing for the NFL after four years with the Cavaliers, Chris Olsen is now Groh's man behind center. At the beginning of spring practice, Groh declared Olsen to be the starting quarterback, and has not wavered since.

"There is no issue here -- Olsen is going into the huddles," Groh said. While Olsen has looked sharp in spring practice, he is the antithesis of Hagans. While Hagans relied on his ability to scramble and run in order to create opportunities, Olsen, at 6-foot-3, is more of a pocket passer. Because a majority of the plays in Groh's playbook were designed with Hagans's abilities in mind, it will be interesting to see how Groh and the coaching staff adapt.

Since Connor Hughes, perhaps the most valuable player for Virginia the past few seasons, is now gone, the special teams will be under much scrutiny come fall. The player that will shoulder the pressure is Chris Gould, who claims to be prepared for his new role as the starting place kicker.

"I'm real prepared," Gould said. "I got the coaches here helping me, but I also have my brother helping me, and my brother is in the NFL. He's learned a lot there, and between him and the coaching staff here, I feel real prepared."

Gould was the starting punter last season, averaging 40.0 yards on 53 kicks. His move to place kicker leaves junior Ryan Weigand as the starting punter.

The Cavaliers got a chance to show off what they have been working on all spring in the Spring Game Saturday afternoon. An estimated 7,869 fans showed up for pre-game festivities and to see the players in action.

Before the game started, the Rock Weir Awards and the captains for the 2006 season were presented. The Rock Weir Awards are given to the players that have shown the most improvement in spring practices. Redshirt freshmen Mikell Simpson won the award for the offense and redshirt freshman Jeffrey Fitzgerald shared the defensive award with Sintim. The captains are Olsen, Long and seniors Marcus Hamilton and Deyon Williams.

The Blue and Orange teams each had a combination of starters and backups to make the game fair. There were no kickoffs or special teams rushes because of the logistics involved and the danger to the players.

While the game did feature a few plays that showed promise for the 2006 season, play was mostly sloppy. Rain began to fall at halftime, contributing to a number of the 10 dropped passes on the day. Olsen was efficient with his passing, completing seven of 11 passes. Redshirt freshman quarterback Jameel Sewell showed flashes of promise with his scrambling ability, but his throws left much to be desired. The game ended with a dramatic tie-breaking field goal by Chris Gould that gave the victory to the Orange Team, 10-7.

In all, the game did little to excite the Cavalier faithful. But Sintim noted that there are still several months before the start of the actual season.

"That's why we're out here right now, that's what spring ball is for -- to get better for the fall," Sintim said. "We'll keep getting better as the season goes on. I'm not making any promises, but I'm just excited to see what we can do."

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