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Cavs aim to shoot down air attacks

Looking back on a season in which Virginia plummeted to the bottom of the conference in pass defense, two culprits emerge: injury and inexperience.

One year later, the Cavaliers have healthy legs in the secondary, but the inexperience factor still remains.

Having lost starting cornerbacks Dwayne Stukes and Antwan Harris to graduation and strong safety Chris Williams to academic ineligibility, Virginia enters the season with only one returning starter in sophomore free safety Jerton Evans.

And with all the concerns and question marks looming over the secondary during the preseason, Cavalier coach George Welsh is as unsure of what to expect as the next person.

"We're going in there four deep without much experience," Welsh said. "That's not good."

A secondary without credentials is never good, especially for a Virginia team that faces several opponents capable of putting up huge passing numbers this year. The Cavs open their season against a pass-happy Brigham Young team and later meet Clemson and Florida State, three teams that passed for over 300 yards last year in their meetings with Virginia.

Despite all the uncertainties, Evans will likely be a pillar of solid play after earning freshman All-American honors last year. Evans started in 10 games as a true freshman, recording an 44 tackles and four interceptions, including a game-saving pick that sealed a 45-40 upset win at BYU.

"We're going to surprise a whole lot of people," Evans said. "I've got a year under my belt, and some people have been here for a while."

One experienced defensive back is senior cornerback Tim Spruill, a projected starter who started 17 games in his career, including the first six of last season. He has more experience than anyone in the secondary. But his performance last year was below average, as he got beat deep too often and recorded only 24 tackles compared to 57 in the previous year. When Antwan Harris and Dwayne Stukes returned from injury late in the season, Spruill lost his starting job.

"We had one of the worst secondaries in the nation last year," Spruill said. "But if anything we'll be gaining a lot this year. We have people who don't know the defense but are willing to learn."

That learning process is in full swing for senior corner Ahmad Hawkins, who is penciled in as the starter opposite Spruill. Hawkins should certainly understand what opposing wide receivers are trying to do to him, after lettering the last three seasons at that position.

"He's got a chance to be a pretty good corner," Welsh said.

Sophomore Rashad Roberson and long-awaited freshman Art Thomas also should see time at corner, but Virginia will not have the services of converted basketball player Chezley Watson, who had hoped to contribute as a cornerback but failed to qualify academically. Besides Spruill, none of the Cavalier corners have seen any real time in the secondary, making that second starting slot a major defensive concern.

Another potential trouble area is the strong safety spot across from Evans, which likely will be filled by sophomore Shernard Newby. Newby started two games as a freshman last season, including the Bowl, and chalked up 33 tackles and two interceptions. Junior Jermaine Lauzon is waiting in the wings as well, but he moved over to safety just last year and has seen the field primarily as a cornerback.

Despite the lingering questions at safety and corner, a solid corps of experienced defensive ends should supply enough pressure to contain opposing passing attacks. Junior Ljubomir Stamenich was the Cavs' top rush end last season, starting every game and recording five sacks, 49 tackles and a team-leading 13 quarterback hurries. Sophomore Merrill Robertson has earned the starting job opposite Stamenich. Virginia has a pair of talented backups in junior Darryl Sanders, who returns from academic suspension, and sophomore Boo Battle, who may miss the season opener with ankle and foot problems.