Any college football analyst could deliver a slew of reasons why the Virginia football team could struggle this season.
Most arguments begin with the departure of tailback Thomas Jones, the school's all-time leading rusher and the undisputed backbone of last year's squad. Then critics likely will point to a long, worrisome list of 11 suspended players and to a defensive secondary riddled with holes.
For all of the physical conditioning that summer two-a-days demand, perhaps the team's most important exercise is a mental one: block out the hype. Focus.
"We don't worry about all the press," senior cornerback Ahmad Hawkins said. "Them saying that we're not going to do well just motivates us more. We only care about doing well in practice and getting the season started."
Ever since the Cavs were handed a 63-21 drubbing at the hands of Illinois in the Micronpc.com Bowl, coach George Welsh has made some serious house renovations in the hopes of finding his 14th consecutive seven-win season. In a process he called "reinventing the corporation," Welsh shuffled around his coaches for the running backs, defensive backs and wide receivers and placed a fresh emphasis on preseason strength and conditioning.
Despite the loss of Jones and the stalwart, All-American center John St. Clair, three capable backs will continue to make the Virginia ground game a serious threat. Antwoine Womack, Arlen Harris and Tyree Foreman all have some big-game experience and will supply the Cavalier offense with three different running styles. Filling the hole left by Anthony Southern at fullback, senior Patrick Washington should create some wide running lanes for the tailbacks.
"From the offensive standpoint, we shouldn't dip at all," Washington said. "A lot of people are underrating us. We have three great backs here."
"He's out there right now getting stronger and faster," Hawkins said of Ellis. "He had a great year last season that a lot of people don't give him credit for."
In the air, Ellis will look for sophomore Billy McMullen, who had a team-leading 28 catches for 483 yards last year, along with senior Kevin Coffey.
On the other side of the ball, Virginia hopes to patch together the unhealthy defense that ranked seventh in the conference. Junior Ljubomir Stamenich returns at end as the only defensive lineman that started all of last season's games. The Cavs hope to see steady time from junior tackle Monsanto Pope, who missed six games.
Middle linebacker Yubrenal Isabelle, after leading the Cavs in tackles last season, returns to head the ground defense, along with senior Byron Thweatt.
"Judging from spring football, we should be a lot better this year," Thweatt said of the defense. "We had a lot of guys injured last year and they all did really well in the spring."
But the defensive secondary, especially at the corners, has been Virginia's main anxiety heading into this season. The Cavs had the worst passing efficiency defense in the conference last season and, to make matters worse, have only one returning starter in free safety Jerton Evans. The defensive backfield was vacant enough for Welsh to turn Hawkins, a former receiver, into a cornerback.
The Cavalier defense hopes to solidify a secondary before it meets with the pass-oriented, air attack offense of Brigham Young in the season opener.
"We're excited about playing BYU," Hawkins said. "There's nothing like being doubted to make you want to work hard."