As the Virginia football team begins the 2009 campaign, it’s anything but business as usual. Entering his ninth season at UVA, head coach Al Groh has made sweeping changes to his coaching staff after last year’s 5-7 record. Five fresh faces have joined the assistant coaching ranks, including spread-offense guru Gregg Brandon, the team’s new offensive coordinator.
Junior cornerback Ras-I Dowling was the lone Cavalier named to the 2009 ACC Preseason Football Team.
Senior quarterback Jameel Sewell also returns to the fold after a one-year hiatus from the University. Sewell offers the Cavaliers an experienced option at quarterback and a proven leader in and out of the huddle.
With Sewell, senior Vic Hall and junior Marc Verica on the roster, Virginia has more depth at quarterback than any other team in the Atlantic Coast Conference. All eyes are on Sewell and whether he will return to his 2007 form, when he led the Cavaliers to the Gator Bowl and a nine-win season.
Hall, a starter at cornerback last season, provides the coaching staff an intriguing, jack-of-all-trades option, especially in a spread offense where Hall’s explosiveness and playmaking ability promise big dividends.
Verica showed moxie at times in 2008, especially when plays broke down, but he will need to be more consistent to see starter’s minutes in 2009. Expect Sewell and Hall to contend for the No. 1 job. Both will likely see action as game situations and defensive alignments change.
Meet Gregg Brandon
Brandon was head football coach at Bowling Green for six seasons, leading the Falcons to three bowl appearances and a share of two division titles.
Under Brandon’s watch, Bowling Green averaged more than 400 yards of total offense per game in four of his six years, including an epic run in 2004 when the Falcons finished second in the nation in total yards per contest (506.3 yards per game) and fourth in scoring (44.3 points per game). Brandon worked as an assistant coach and offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer (current head coach at the University of Florida and a two-time national champion) while the two were at Bowling Green.
Defensive Break-Out Performer
Sophomore Matt Conrath has all the makings of a dominating defensive end. At 6-foot-7 and 269 pounds, Conrath made an impact in 2008 with 35 tackles, including eight tackles for a loss and four sacks.
After a productive summer in the weight room, Conrath will likely command more double-team attention. That should open rushing lanes for fellow defensive linemen and help a young linebacking corps make plays at the point of attack.
Offensive Break-Out Performer
Senior tailback Mikell Simpson burst on the scene in 2007 with eight touchdowns and 570 yards, including a two-touchdown, 13-catch performance in an impressive victory against Maryland in College Park.
Simpson battled a shoulder injury last year and closed with just 262 rushing yards and three touchdowns in nine games. When healthy, Simpson offers the Virginia staff a dynamic, versatile option out of the backfield. Simpson’s pass-catching abilities—he has 59 career receptions—will serve him well in Brandon’s spread offense.
Is a Bowl Berth a Possibility?
The good news: Virginia plays seven of its 12 games at Scott Stadium this season. The bad news: The ACC’s Coastal Division is the more difficult of the two, with Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and North Carolina each eyeing a division title.
Virginia’s late-season schedule looks tough, with a game at the University of Miami, a home matchup against Boston College, a trip into Death Valley to face always-tough Clemson and the season finale against Virginia Tech in Charlottesville.
Victories in the first half of the season will be critical in generating confidence and unity on a team that has young players in key positions. If the Cavaliers achieve success in their four nonconference games—William and Mary, Texas Christian University, Southern Mississippi and Indiana—then a bowl berth may be on the horizon.