For all of you first-years who just finished hugging Mom and Dad goodbye and are now wondering how you got stuck on the top floor of an non-air-conditioned dorm, welcome to the University. For everyone else who is enjoying feeling superior to the first-years stuck in their non-air-conditioned dorms, welcome back.
As the sweltering, oppressive, just-plain-nasty heat of August gives way, so do the summer sports doldrums. While I appreciate the reprieve Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt provided from baseball’s trade deadline “drama,” I’ve had enough diving, fencing and rhythmic gymnastics to last me another four years. But thankfully, mercifully, the return of collegians to America’s campuses also means the return of collegiate athletics.
I prefer, without apology, college football to its professional counterpart. The staid, over-regulated and over-unionized world of pro sports effectively sterilizes the human drama and neuters real enthusiasm. If Mark Richt were a pro coach and allowed his team to celebrate the way the Dawgs did against Florida last year, he would’ve lost his job instead of just stoking an already fierce rivalry.
So while the Manning brothers play chess (yea, sure, we believe that gimmick, NBC) until Monday Night Football returns, I’m chomping at the bit to get back into the swing of the NCAA, in all of its gloriously cheesy pageantry.
As a former lineman, and student of the all-time slobber-knocking greats, I look toward football season with an eye toward the big men. If you catch me using the idiotic phrase “skill players” to describe non-linemen, I’ll buy you lunch (seriously). And with the “anything can happen” mentality of the truly stupid and hopelessly devoted, I give you the four Hoos in the trenches to watch in the upcoming months.
Offensive returner: Eugene Monroe, OT.
Monroe is the latest in a string of great linemen at the University. From Dombrowski to D’Brickashaw (find me two better names for linemen, I dare you), outstanding line play has marked Virginia football through the years. Coming out of high school in New Jersey, recruiting services were fairly unanimous in rating Big Gene as the nation’s Number One lineman; some said he was the No. 1 overall recruit.
Though slow to adjust to the college game, Monroe has grown into the man-beast those recruiting services thought he would. Learning under D’Brickashaw and practicing against Chris Long has helped him mature into a true force on the field for the Orange and Blue.
With at least three, and possibly four, new starters on the O-line, Monroe will need to be the Rock of Gibraltar at left tackle. This line is his to lead; doing so will free up Cedric Peerman and Mikell Simpson to run over, around and through opposing defenses.
Defensive returner: Clint Sintim, OLB.
Defense is inherently harder to learn at the major college level. Offensive newcomers have to adjust to stronger, faster players, but still get to initiate the action on the field. Defensive players have to adjust to the physical differences as well, but must also hone their instincts and reactions; the positioning errors they could overcome with athleticism in high school now mean points for the other team.
This makes leadership and coaches-on-the-field all the more important with a young defense. Chris Long, Allen Billyk, Jermaine Dias and Nate Lyles all graduated. Jeffrey Fitzgerald, Chris Cook and Mike Brown are gone because of off-field problems. Thus it all returns to Sintim to bring the young’uns up to speed, and fast.
He’ll have help from the other returners in the linebacking group. Jon Copper and Antonio Appleby have both proven their mettle over the last three years and will be called upon to hold down the fort in the heart of the Orange Crush defense. But Sintim is the heart and soul of this defense and the true playmaking threat at outside linebacker.
Virginia’s 2008 season requires some tweaks to the old mantra “offense wins games, defense wins championships.” Our offense should keep us in games, but it’ll be up to the defense to win them.
Offensive newcomer: B.J. Cabbell, OG.
Cabbell certainly has the biggest shoes to fill of the young U.Va. linemen: those of first-round pick Branden Albert (who has been projected as the starting left tackle for the Chiefs, by the way). He certainly has the size to do it.
Standing 6-foot-6 and already more than 300 pounds, the Nelson County High School product will be a central part of the Hoos’ offensive production. Whether it’s springing Peerman and Simpson or keeping blitzers out of Peter Lalich’s pocket, Cabbell and his O-line cohorts are the lynchpin to gridiron success. If he’s not up to the task, Billy Cuffee and Patrick Slebonick wait in the wings.
Defensive newcomer: Sean Gottschalk, DE.
The defensive line is the biggest area in which new players will need to step up — and step up in a hurry. A relatively experienced linebacking corps is the catalyst of this year’s defense, but the 3-4 scheme makes those linebackers vulnerable to offensive linemen getting to the second level and blowing up defensive schemes. Unless, of course, the D-line can wreak havoc.
Last year, the front three did just that. Over. And over. And over again. Having one of the most physically freakish defenders in the country made that possible. Losing all three starters hurts all aspects of the defense, but Gottschalk is one part of the solution.
No one is expecting him, or Alex Field on the other side, to be the next Chris Long, at least not right out of the gate. But making strides in that direction will be a crucial part of keeping U.Va.’s opponents out of the end zone.

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