August 27, 2009
I remember when UVA's baseball program was a joke, and the field was like a shitty high school baseball field. Heck, the program was almost dissolved back in the early 2000's. Now we have baseball coaching god Brian O'Connor, a College World Series appearance, will have what figures be the #1-ranked team heading into next season, and will be playing in what looks to be a world-class college baseball venue. The decade has been very, very good to UVA Baseball. (Eat your hearts out, Hokies.)
August 26, 2009
August 25, 2009
Why: I love Mike London. He did good things with the UVA defensive line before he left for the NFL, and he did even better things as UVA's defensive coordinator before he left to coach his alma mater. But what he accomplished in one season as the Spiders' head man dwarfs all of his other career accomplishments. Richmond stormed through the FCS playoffs, won the national championship, and cemented its place among that division's elite teams. London's teams play with overt, demonstrated passion (something sorely lacking at UVA), and he clearly knows how to put together a staff, create a system, and build a team. London has numerous recruiting ties to the area (including the talent-rich 757), and he knows the "game" at UVA after having coached here for several years in several different capacities. His "rah-rah" personality on the sidelines and in interviews would be a breath of fresh air for the stagnated and sour Virginia program.
Why Not: Mike London has a lot of ties to Al Groh. If we fire Groh, I think we might want to make more of a departure from the Groh regime than hiring London would represent.
Troy Calhoun, Head Coach, Air Force
Why: He's a fiery young(ish) coach with ties to Fisher DeBerry's unconventional option passing offense, which I think would play very well in the ACC and especially at UVA. Actually, Calhoun runs a weird combination of the DeBerry option coupled with some Jim Grobe misdirection plays and some no huddle shotgun downfield passing. It would be great to have such a specific offensive system in place, so UVA could recruit to fill the specific roles in the offense instead of constantly retooling the offense to fit the personnel. (I look at what Georgia Tech is doing under Paul Johnson right now, and I am very jealous.) Anyway, Calhoun has ACC experience after serving as the offensive coordinator at Wake Forest and Virginia has had success in the past with plucking coaches from the service academies. As a head coach, Calhoun is winning at a .739 clip. That's roughly 8-9 wins every year. I'm not sure if that would translate directly from the Mountain West to the ACC, but Calhoun's Air Force teams have been able to hang with Utah, BYU, and TCU, any of which would be good teams in the ACC. I think this guy is a solid, no-nonsense coach who comes equipped with a cohesive plan for success. When Al Groh's demise was being reported after the Duke debacle last year, it was Calhoun's name that surfaced as one of the most likely coaching targets.
Why Not: Calhoun has only been a head coach for two years, and it remains to be seen if he has a big enough personality to become a dynamic face for Virginia Football. Can he sell the program? Can he energize the fans? Also, just like with Tony Bennett, there has to be some concern about Calhoun's ability to recruit the East Coast, and also to recruit the level of talent we'd need to compete with the Florida States and Clemsons of the world.
Derek Dooley, Head Coach and Athletic Director, Louisiana Tech
Why: He played at Virginia and his dad is a legendary coach... so he must love UVA and have natural coaching talent in his blood, right? He was the recruiting coordinator for Nick Saban at LSU, and played a pivotal role in stockpiling the talent that won national championships at that school. In two seasons, he's transformed Louisiana Tech from a doormat into a contender in the WAC. He's young, personable, and is a fantastic recruiter. Actually, Terry Bradshaw (a Louisiana Tech alum) said it best: "What we have in Derek Dooley is a man who has a vision for this football program and this university; he wants to make it something special. He has a plan. It is an energetic, aggressive plan, and I could not be more proud to have him as our AD and head football coach." I have no doubt that Dooley could stir the pot here at Virginia and get this program back on the right track in terms of energy and excitement. Mining his dad's contacts, Dooley also would have no problem assembling a world-class coaching staff. For me, Derek Dooley would literally be a dream come true as our next head football coach. And hell, fire Littlepage and make him AD, too. I wouldn't complain.
Why Not: Just like with Troy Calhoun, two seasons is not a very large sample size on which to judge his coaching ability. Unlike Calhoun, Dooley doesn't come equipped with a solid, rigid, well-defined offensive or defensive system. I'm not necessarily sure that's such a bad thing, but I do know that I'm tired of watching the Virginia offense flounder around without an over-arching system to govern what happens on the field.
So while you're keeping your eyes glued to Virginia Football this Fall, and watching intently as the ACC race unfolds, allow yourself a chance to catch Richmond, Air Force, and Louisiana Tech in action. You might just be scouting out our next head coach. Because really, aren't we all hoping for the best but expecting the worst with Al Groh this season?
August 21, 2009
With the ACC office apparently delaying the release of the 09-10 basketball schedule, let's just go ahead and tackle another football piece. I'll post the bball schedule as soon as it's available.
Anyway, we all know that this season is a critical one for Al Groh and really the state of UVA Football in general. I think we have some talent on the roster, and plenty of players with the ability to "come through" for their beleaguered coach and suffering fans. But these ten players are the ones whose performance this season I think are most pivotal when it comes to the ultimate success or failure of the team. These are my ten most important players for this year's football team.
#10 -- Landon Bradley -- The only newcomer on the o-line, Bradley will be protecting the blind side of the quarterback in a pass-happy offense (that is, unless Jameel Sewell wins the QB job -- he's a lefty.) Bradley needs to perform and perform well, or this critical spot will very likely be entrusted to a true freshman in Oday Aboushi. As much as I like Aboushi's upside and talent, that thought scares the piss out of me.
#9 Matt Conrath -- Conrath needs to do two things this season: 1) keep producing pressure in the backfield and 2) STAY HEALTHY. He's poised to take the next step and emerge as a star, and this defense really needs him to take that step forward.
#8 Torrey Mack -- Mack is on this list and Mikell Simpson isn't, because I think Mack is the back with the ability to make hay between the tackles and emerge as our most dynamic threat at the tailback position. For him to explode onto the scene would be a huge boost to the offense in general and overall.
#7 Will Barker -- Let's get this out in the open: to this point in his career, Barker has been a headcase. His play has been erratic and inconsistent, and he hasn't always maintained his focus on or off the field. For all of its experience, our o-line is still relatively young, and needs a leader. Barker representing the team at the ACC preseason function and then being voted a team captain are both good signs...
#6 Rodney McLeod -- If Torrey Mack is the #1 most hyped player this offseason, then Rodney McLeod is #1a. We really need McLeod to deliver the goods on all of his promise as a ballhawking centerfielder. If our secondary can punish teams for passing downfield, then we'll be able to stack the box and assist our potentially-shaky front seven.
#5 Cam Johnson -- I'm not really worried about the defense this season, because I think it will be solid. But if there is cause for concern, it stems from two things: lack of depth at defensive end and lack of an effective pass rush. Cam Johnson, as an every-down OLB and pass rush specialist at DE, can answer both of those questions emphatically if he plays well.
#4 Jared Green -- A passing offense always needs an effective go-to receiver. I love Tim Smith and Javaris Brown's upside and potential, but it's Jared Green who puts together the most complete package. I think he really flashed at certain moments last season, now we just need him to become a more consistent threat.
#3 Robert Randolph -- For better or worse, it looks like he's going to win the training camp battle at placekicker. He's got a weak leg, but [to this point in his career] has kicked with a lot of accuracy. If he can keep that up and extend his range about 10 more yards, we might have a chance to avoid leaving valuable points on the field.
#2 Ras-I Dowling -- He's our best player, so of course he's on this list.
#1 Vic Hall -- Grab the wallet-size schedule card, and it's Vic Hall's picture on the front. Unroll the 2009 football poster, and it's Vic Hall staring back at you. It was Vic Hall who had a speaking part at the ACC Kickoff event, it's Vic Hall with the longest line at Meet the Team Day, it was Vic Hall's performance against Tech that is giving every UVA football fan hope for a successful season in '09. Follow the stories about the training camp battle at QB and believe the rumors that Sewell is rapidly gaining on the lead if you'd like, but it's pretty clear to me that Vic Hall has been promoted as the face of the franchise for this season. He'll start the William & Mary game behind center. And if he's good enough, he might just lead his team to a successful season and save Al Groh's job.
August 20, 2009
- The ACC basketball schedules are announced this afternoon. I'll post the UVA schedule as soon as I see it. And some analysis of that schedule will follow in the coming days...
- I've been working on a piece that details who I think are our top ten most important players heading into this season. That should be finished and posted soon.
- I really want to do an expectations piece to frame Tony Bennett's first season in Charlottesville. I really don't want to see our new coach get torpedoed by unrealistic expectations created by his early success in recruiting.
- The William & Mary game is only two weeks away. It's time to go a little bit more in depth previewing that game.
Paul H. (Chelmsford, MA)Since I'm a Sox fan, I'm greedy. What are they missing out on by not signing Branden Kline? Were they ever close?
Keith Law (3:25 PM)Never close. He said all spring he was going to UVA. How good is that program right now? Full of prospects and tough to sign kids away from. Baseball fans should be all aware of the big-time farm team at Virginia.
August 19, 2009
It's a given that Jay Bilas is a douchebag and it was probably inevitable that we'd be picked to finish 12th in the conference. I think we'll be better than that. Much better than that. The only players we lost are the slump-shooting and turnover-prone Mamadi Diane, the generally ineffective and constantly injured Tunji Soroye, and the seldom-used big man project John Brandenburg. The core of the team -- Sylven Landesberg, Mike Scott, Assane Sene, Sam Zeglinski, Jeff Jones, Jamil Tucker, Calvin Baker, Mustapha Farrakhan, Jerome Meyinnse (or "Jerome Mayonnaise" as my dear friend Joe hilariously calls him), and Solomon Tat (listed in order of importance) -- returns intact, a year wiser and 18 losses hungrier. Uber-athletic wing scorer Tristan Spurlock and gritty-tough attacking point guard Jontel Evans are added to the mix. Tony Bennett has a plan of action, and I think his pack line defense is the perfect antidote to penetration-based ACC offenses. The improved D alone should be worth a few wins in conference action.
So yeah, I disagree with the Bilas picks. Namely, I think he has overrated Mayland and Miami, and I think Virginia will finish ahead of at least three or four other ACC teams this season. If I'm naming names, I'll throw out NC State, Boston College, Virginia Tech, Florida State, and Miami.
But that brings me to another topic, and one which I'd like to tackle in a different blog post -- What should the realistic expectations be for Tony Bennett's first year at Virginia?
August 18, 2009
August 17, 2009
One of my favorite magazines of the year is The Sporting News College Football Yearbook. Now that my fantasy football draft is over, I've had a couple of days to seduce my TSN college football magazine. After combing through the ACC content and studying the schedules of the twelve ACC schools, I'm ready to present to you my picks for the conference.
Florida State -- 9-3 (6-2)
Clemson -- 8-4 (5-3)
Wake Forest -- 8-4 (5-3)
NC State -- 7-5 (3-5)
Boston College -- 4-8 (2-6)
Maryland -- 3-9 (1-7)
Virginia Tech -- 10-2 (7-1)
Miami -- 9-3 (6-2)
Georgia Tech -- 8-4 (4-4)
North Carolina -- 8-4 (4-4)
Virginia -- 6-6 (4-4)
Duke -- 4-8 (1-7)
ACC Championship Game: Virginia Tech over Florida State. I won't say the Hokies are "loaded" this year (I actually think they're woefully overrated), but every one of the Atlantic teams have glaring flaws. FSU will have too much youth and inexperience on defense to make it to the Orange Bowl.
Assorted thoughts and musings...
- Last year, parity ruled the ACC. I think it's similar this season, but with some cream rising to the top in FSU, VT, and Miami, and some turds sinking to the bottom in BC, Maryland, and Duke (and hopefully not UVA).
- I'm not drinking the NC State kool-aid. Not yet. Russell Wilson is good, but I'm not convinced he'll be able to stay healthy. The ACC schedule sets up unfavorably for the Pack, also.
- I'm a believer in Wake Forest and Clemson. I think pure coaching ability (Jim Grobe) and pure talent (Clemson's roster) will buoy these two teams, respectively.
- Way out here on the limb, I'm seeing BC falling apart. They've just lost so much, I really can't see them maintaining the high level of performance from the last few years.
- Maryland's defense and o-line will doom them this season.
- While Georgia Tech will be better running that flexbone offense in year two of the Paul Johnson era, I also think teams will be better at defending it, following LSU's (and to a lesser extent, UVA's) blueprint. I see them tripping up in a few "should win" games... like here in Charlottesville.
- Duke will win another ACC game this season -- October 24th against Maryland.
- It is now clear to me that UVA has settled into the bottom third of the league. I find this to be unacceptable. That being said, I think the TSN staff (and most, if not all of the national media) is taking the lazy route to just dismiss the Hoos this season. I'm trying to maintain realistic expectations, but I like our team on paper right now.
- The SEC has the talent, the Big 12 has the offensive fireworks, and the Big 10 has the tradition... but I'll take the ACC race over any of those.
- If this conference is developing an identity, I think it's got to be strong defense. Think about it... VT, FSU, and Miami are teams known for their tenacious playmaking defenses. Wake Forest and Boston College have a solid five-year trend of strong Ds. Everyone thinks of John Tenuta's blitz-happy defense when they think of Georgia Tech football in this decade. Clemson is always loaded with superior athletes on defense. UNC's defense will be the strength of its team this season. Ditto Virginia (in all likelihood.) Et cetera.
August 11, 2009
August 10, 2009
An over-under or over/under bet is a wager in which a sportsbook will predict a number for a statistic in a given game (usually the combined score of the two teams), and bettors wager that the actual number in the game will be either higher or lower than that number. For example, in Super Bowl XXXIX, most Las Vegas casinos set the over-under for the score of the game at 46.0. A bettor could wager that the combined score of the two teams would be either more than or less than that number (as it happened, the combined score was 45, so anyone who had bet the under won).
Anyway, I thought it might be fun to do a series of over/unders on UVA sports as we head into the new academic year, followed by the way I'd bet these lines, if they were real. Enjoy.
Over/under -- UVA Football wins in 2009: SIX
I'm betting the OVER. I think we'll beat Navy in the EagleBank Bowl to win our 7th.
Over/under -- Al Groh's last season at UVA: 2010
UNDER. I think he gets shit-canned after this season. The fans are too sour for him to survive even a mediocre season of moderate success.
Over/under -- Number of times I'll curse Groh's name for slotting Vic Hall at cornerback until his last season in the program: 2 million.
Bet the OVER. Trust me on this.
Over/under -- Interceptions thrown by UVA quarterbacks in 2009 (as opposed to 20 in 2008): 20
OVER. This might be a run-first nohuddleshotgunspread offense, but the ball is still going up a lot. Add in Jameel Sewell's erratic arm and Marc Verica's penchant for the pick as two-thirds of the three-headed QB monster, and I see some interceptions coming this season.
Over/under -- Passing/receiving TDs generated by the UVA offense in 2009 (as opposed to just 9 in 2008): 20
OVER. Like I said, the ball is going airborn. For better or for worse.
Over/under -- Interceptions by Ras-I Dowling (three in '08): 5
I'll take the UNDER on this one. I think teams are going to try to run on us early and often, until our front seven proves itself. When they do pass the ball, they'll avoid #19's side of the field.
Over/under -- Kickoff or punt return TDs (ZERO in '08): 1
OVER. Against my better judgment, I believe in Ron Prince, and I believe that he just might have the so-called "magic touch" on special teams. K-State did great things in that arena under his watch. Plus, I like the young [speedy] athletes we'll be plugging into the return roles... especially Chase Minnifield returning kicks.
Over/under -- Sacks generated by the Orange Crush (24 in '08): 24
Take the UNDER. I like some of the pieces we're working with in the front seven, but we lack the big-time pass rush threats of years past. I don't see a Clint Sintim or a Chris Long anywhere on the roster, although Cam Johnson and Matt Conrath could come close, respectively.
Over/under -- ACC wins by UVA Basketball during the 2009-2010 season (four last year): SIX
Maybe I'm stupidly intoxicated by Tony Bennett's recent recruiting rampage, but I will take the OVER on this. I think a cohesive system and a coach that believes in them is all these players need to forge a respectable ACC outfit. Nothing ground-breaking, but I see 7 or 8 wins this season.
Over/under -- Number of seasons we get to enjoy Sylven Landesberg wearing the blue and orange: THREE
UNDER. I see Syl bolting for the pros after a great sophomore season.
Over/under -- Number of national championships won by UVA's collection of spring sports: ZERO
Bet the OVER. Between tennis, baseball, and lacrosse, we could see as many as three. Baseball, specifically, is well-positioned for another run to Omaha.
August 4, 2009
What happened to the days of Rafael Garcia, Connor Hughes, and Chris Gould? UVA used to be known for its quality kickers! Hell, at this point I'd settle for Todd Braverman.
Anyway, we barrel into the '09 season with sophomore holdover Chris Hinkebein, who couldn't hack it as the starting kicker last year. He's got a big leg for kickoffs, however. Sophomore Robert Randolph at least showed some accuracy on his kicks last season (3/4, 6/6 on PATs), but his range is nearly non-existent. So take your pick, a bazooka or a pellet gun. Personally, I don't really like either option.
Hope springs eternal, and true freshman Drew Jarrett will have a chance to step in and save the day. Jarrett was a highly-regarded kicker coming out of high school. He turned down a few FCS scholarship offers in order to attend UVA as a recruited walk-on. Here's hoping he can combine Hinkebein's kicking power with Randolph's accuracy. Jarrett represents our best chance to find a sniper rifle in the kicking game... to extend an uncomfortable metaphor.
At punter, the situation is settled with sophomore Jimmy Howell. Along with an awesome last name, Howell boasts a pretty good, consistent boot. He averaged 39 yards per punt last season. Very solid.
I'm not going to waste time with predictions or grades, other than to say that we damn well better find a decent kicker from the Hinkebeinrandolphjarrett three-headed monster, or we could be in trouble. The Gregg Brandon offense is sure to suffer through fits and starts in its first season, and we'll need to be able to post some triples when we get within scoring range.
Wow, I just spent ten minutes writing about kickers. But ha ha ha, you just spent three minutes reading it!
Junior cornerback Ras-I Dowling is the headliner of the group -- he was the only Cavalier named to the ACC's preseason first team, and he's on the trajectory to be our best cornerback since Ronde Barber and our next NFL first round draft pick. Dowling is big (6-2, 200), strong, fast, quick, explosive, aggressive, and has a sixth sense for playing the ball in the air. Speaking honestly, I have a hard time keeping my eyes off of #19 when the Orange Crush is on the field. I love to watch Ras-I play.
If the cornerback conversation starts with Dowling, it surely doesn't end there. There is a helluva training camp battle brewing at the other starting corner spot. Back from suspension, senior Chris Cook is apparently ready to pick up where he left off -- as an elite starting cornerback. Like Dowling, Cook is a big (6-2, 210) corner that plays with a physical, chippy edge to his game. His path to the starting job isn't clear, however, due to the presence of sophomore Chase Minnifield, who emerged last season as a very capable starter and up-and-coming shutdown-type corner. Whichever of Cook or Minnifield loses the battle to start, will play as the nickel corner... which means we'll likely have the best nickel corner in the ACC... which means we'll be seeing UVA play a lot of nickel defense this year. (Imagine John-Kevin Dolce's great interior pass rush, Matt Conrath and Cam Johnson off the edge, and these three corners on the field making plays. Yes, I think our nickel defense could be our best defensive look this Fall.)
The cornerback depth chart is also ripe with maturing young players with great upside. Start with the defense's Spring '09 Rock Weir (most improved player) winner, sophomore Dom Joseph. Joseph is built very similarly to Dowling and Cook; he's a high-slung player who plays a physical game. Junior Mike Parker is a solid all-around corner with a good amount of experience and the ability to start when needed. Redshirt freshman Devin Wallace also figures into the mix at cornerback.
Moving over to the safety position, and there is still a ton of reasons to be excited about this secondary. Sophomore Corey Mosley is the active, aggressive thumper in the secondary. Like Nate Lyles and Anthony Poindexter before him, Mosley is at his best when he's free to roam the field and make big hits like a little heat-seeking missile. (I'm extremely excited to see Mosley headhunting on the field with Poindexter on the sideline coaching him up. I think that could be the best player/coach marriage we'll see this season, as I tend to think of Mosley as a mini-Dex.) Starting at free safety will be the best player you've never heard of, sophomore Rodney McLeod. He's fast and has a nose for the ball, and was probably the most talked-about (in a good way) player in Spring ball. The coaching staff seems to think they have a future superstar on their hands in McLeod. Jamie Oakes and Chris Wallace at Cavs Corner see McLeod as a possible All-ACC first teamer by the end of the 2009 season.
Senior Brandon Woods started at safety at the beginning of last year, but eventually found his way to the bench so that Mosley could start. Woods isn't an elite player, but he can offer some quality snaps if Mosley needs a breather or goes down with an injury. Redshirt freshman Ausar Walcott has a lot more upside, and should see plenty of action this Fall. Walcott is another young player with star potential at the safety position. Junior Trey Womack moved over from cornerback to provide more quality depth at the safety position.
From top to bottom, if cornerback is the strongest position on the team, safety isn't far behind. That's why I'm so amped up about this secondary this season. These are two A+ position groups ready to take the field, and with Anthony Poindexter's coaching providing the straw to stir the drink, this secondary should prove to be an incendiary unit.
Prediction: With so many great players in the secondary, we'll see a lot more nickel and dime looks from the defense. Adding to that, with so many question marks along the front seven (replacing three starters at linebacker, questionable depth at defensive end), we should see an extremely aggressive, blitz-happy version of our base 3-4 defense. The sum of these parts equals more forced turnovers, sacks, interceptions, and all-around big plays than we've seen from the UVA defense in a long while. Offenses will need to run against us in order to beat us, so the challenge is on the front seven to play the run effectively and force the offense into the teeth of our defense -- putting the ball in the air.
Cornerback -- A+
Safety -- A
Make no mistake. The secondary is the strength of the team.
Up next: HOLY SHIT! I ALMOST FORGOT THE KICKERS!
August 3, 2009
Back from injury, and back to the one-cut-and-go style that made him a flash in the pan star back in the latter stages of the '07 season , senior Mikell Simpson is the obvious starter at RB for the Hoos. Simpson will start, and I think he's a great fit in the nohuddleshotgunspread offense -- he's a good receiver out of the backfield and he's good in the open field. Where he struggles is between the tackles and sifting through traffic, which is why I think Simpson will ultimately split carries with redshirt freshman Torrey Mack. Mack is the best all-around back on the roster, and has drawn early comparisons to Thomas Jones. He should excel as Simpson's change-of-pace counterpart, and he could also get some action returning kicks. Also factoring into the mix in the backfield are sophomore Max Milien, a great receiving back who was almost moved to wide receiver along with Raynard Horne, and junior Keith Payne, who is a powerful big back who isn't a great fit in the offense but might find a role as the goal line and short yardage back.
Prediction: Simpson and Mack split carries early, but by the end of the season, Mack will emerge as our best, most explosive option at tailback.
Position Grade: B+
The fullback position is basically non-existent in Gregg Brandon's offense, but senior Rashawn Jackson remains on the roster, ready to serve as the lead blocker in short yardage situations. I actually think there's a role for Jackson in this offense, as he offers a good set of hands out of the backfield, and more true *pop* as a power runner than Keith Payne. We could see him in some situational one-back looks out of the shotgun. Sophomore walk-on Curt Orshoski backs up Jackson, and is said to be a better in-line blocker.
Prediction: Jackson steals whatever carries Keith Payne would have gotten this season.
Position Grade: C
The tight end position, once a major strength of the old UVA pro form / West Coast offense, is now a bit of a mystery in the new offense. Are the TEs going to play as big wide receivers? Or will Brandon mix in some regular TE-heavy Ace formation stuff like we've seen since 2001? The tea leaves started yielding some info when Rod Wheeler and Pat Devlin left the team to transfer to more "tight end friendly" offenses. Remaining on the team, junior Joe Torchia was in line to become UVA's "next great tight end," inheriting that distinction from John Phillips. Torchia is a big dude (6-5, 250) and by all accounts a very solid receiver. He saw a lot of action split wide in the Spring Game, and his size and strength could pose interesting matchup problems for linebackers or safeties trying to cover the slot. Athletic redshirt freshman Colter Phillips (no relation to John) will likely be Torchia's backup.
Prediction: At times, we'll mourn the passing of the tight end position here at UVA, especially when we fail to convert on a few tough perimeter runs or clutch short yardage receptions. Breaking the tight end and fullback eggs to make the spread offense omelet, we're trading a good deal of power and ball control ability for more big plays in the passing game... in 2009, I think we'll look at that tradeoff as being a wash as Torchia and Phillips' roles are systematically minimalized in order to get more of our fleet-footed wideouts on the field. Joe Torchia's loss could be a guy like Tim Smith's gain... but will it ultimately prove to be the best thing for the offense?
Position Grade: Incomplete
Last year, Matt Conrath emerged as an ascending player with star potential. This year, he needs to take the next step forward. Just a sophomore, Conrath is the kind of player you love to watch play defense. He still needs to add strength, but he's an explosive playmaker at the DE position. Starting at the other end spot will be converted nose tackle Nate Collins. Collins is surprisingly athletic and agile, and has all of the requisite strength for his position. I'm excited to see what he can accomplish during his senior season on the d-line. Behind the two starters, the depth is perilously thin. We really need Conrath and Collins to stay healthy this season. Sophomore Zane Parr, redshirt freshman Tory Allen, and true freshman Will Hill are the backups. Of the three, only Parr seems ready to take on significant playing time.
Prediction: Doing his best Chris Long impersonation, Matt Conrath will lead the team in sacks this season.
Position Grade: B-
Al Groh's most decorated defensive tackle recruit ever, sophomore Nick Jenkins is starting to really come into his own at the nose. It's hard to notice, but the 3-4 nose tackle's play is absolutely key to the success of the defense. With a rock like Jenkins in place, the entire defense benefits. As Jenkins continues to improve, the defense will be free to become more and more aggressive with the linebackers. More blitzing out of the 3-4 is always a good thing. Working behind Jenkins is redshirt freshman Buddy Ruff, a player whose forward progress is really exciting the coaching staff. Also, don't forget about explosive interior pass rush specialist John-Kevin Dolce, who finally found a role after bouncing around the ILB, OLB, and DE positions. Dolce (a 6-2, 245 lb. junior), is small for an interior lineman... or for any lineman for that matter. But he's deceptively strong, and has a freakish instinctual understanding of how to use leverage to beat his blocker. He'll be a staple as the interior pass rusher in the nickel and dime defenses.
Prediction: Keep your eyes on #59 when he's in the game. John-Kevin Dolce is one of those guys who just makes plays. He's found a comfort zone as a role player, and this season he should build on the five sacks he totalled in 2008.
Position Grade: A
Up next: I'll wrap up the lightning round with a look at the secondary... the area that should unequivocally prove to be the biggest strength of the team.