Wednesday, August 27, 2008

season preview: offense

As promised. The first of two. Tomorrow, we'll "tackle" (HAHA) the defense.


OK, we all know the drill. And we don’t know who’ll win the three-way derby between Peter Lalich (#7), Scott Deke (#15), and Marc Verica (#6). Some are excited about the possibility of Riko Smalls (#3) seeing some time, but if that ever happens in any capacity other than to throw the defense off their rhythm, and very, very occasionally, we are frankly dead meat. Verica is said to have the strongest arm; Deke is the fifth-year senior who has already graduated; Lalich is the golden recruit. Here’s the deal, though. If you buy that recruiting rankings are a good judge of raw talent, then Lalich has far and away the most, and if so then it’s a disconcerting sign that he didn’t blow away the coaches and seize the job in spring practice. Deke is a career clipboard stand who has never had even a sniff at the job until this, his fifth and final year in the program; that does not say “big-time talent.” He is in the hunt because he’s the most experienced and theoretically the most familiar with the offense, but as he’s never been in the hunt before, expectations would not be high if the job is his.

The prevailing opinion, both here and elsewhere, is that Lalich will be the starter when USC kicks off. He has too much talent not to be. The contrarian opinion floating aroud is that, Lalich being the only quarterback that Pete Carroll has any tape on, Groh will pull an ol’ switcheroo and put Deke in there, then eventually replace him with Lalich. My feeling is that it doesn’t matter what tape Carroll has, both of them are going to take their three and five step drops and not scoot around, and until they actually let go of the ball you could switch the numbers and nobody would notice, at least not as far as a defensive coordinator is concerned with trying to put together a plan of attack. Whether Deke plays or not, his presence can hopefully have a positive impact on Lalich; without him, there would be no quarterback more senior than Verica on the roster.

Bottom line, then. Lalich did not have a stellar year in 2007. Freshman quarterbacks rarely blow you away with their play, and Lalich had his good times and his struggles like you’d expect from any freshman. But the struggles seem to have continued through spring and fall practice, because he hasn’t separated himself from a guy who has never been higher than third on the depth chart. Like 2006, there will be growing pains at this position.

Rating: 2 out of 5, and only Lalich would have the ability to make this go any higher, which is why he’s the one who I think will start.


You know the drill up and down here, too. Cedric Peerman (#37) and Mikell Simpson (#5) make one of the best tandems in the conference. By their powers combined they rushed for over 1,000 yards last year, with Peerman taking the first half of the season and Simpson taking over in the Maryland game after Peerman’s injury the week prior. It’s unlikely that Simpson can be counted on for 25-30 carries a game, but he is faster, more explosive, and a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield. Peerman runs mostly straight ahead and through people instead of around them. The running game is going to be fun to watch.

Just behind the terrible two is Raynard Horne (#44), who we should expect to see as the first option off the bench, though probably not a lot. Groh was asked earlier this summer if the rotation would include a third tailback; his answer, though not in so few words, was “not bloody likely.”

What of Keith Payne (#32), he of so much (probably a bit overstated) potential? Payne is listed on the depth chart as a fullback – the second fullback. Rashawn Jackson (#31) is the guy we can expect to see leading the way for the tailbacks. Rather surprisingly, Jackson was given 14 carries in the Gator Bowl and did pretty good, but don’t expect that to carry over to this season. Groh knows where his gravy train is, and there aren’t going to be a lot of carries to go around after Peerman and Simpson get theirs.

Rating: 4 out of 5. Peerman and Simpson aren’t quite Knowshon Moreno good, but they’re right there with the best in the conference.


‘Tree...whee!(?) Is he going to save the passing game by himself now that he‘s back from a pretty bad knee injury? Unlikely. The fly pattern is not on the front page of Al Groh’s playbook, and the last time a wide receiver played more than a supporting role in the offense, Matt Schaub was throwing to Billy McMullen. But Kevin Ogletree (#20) is also the best chance we’ve had at seeing a big-play receiver since the aforementioned #11. Wide receiver play, and not just that of Ogletree, will go a long way toward making this offense bigger and better than one dimension. Ogletree will need help, and in your humble blogger’s opinion he is most likely to get it from either Dontrelle Inman (#81) or Cary Koch (#26).

Inman came in well-rated by the recruiting services and had a decent campaign for a freshman wide receiver in an offense which de-emphasized the position. Inman should be a good one to watch in the future. Koch transferred in from Tulane after Hurricane Katrina wiped out his major, and immediately found himself derailed with various annoying injuries. Koch’s freshman year was actually pretty good, with 23 catches for 308 yards, and his lack of notable production since then can be chalked up to a hamstring and an MCL. With health comes the chance to be a real sleeper in the ACC.

Koch and Inman, though, are actually listed second on the two-deep behind Ogletree and Maurice Covington (#80) respectively. Covington is a senior and we probably will not see very much from him that we haven’t already. He’ll be steady, and the numbers should rise from last year since he missed four games with a broken hand, but if there’s going to be a real breakthrough in the receiving corps, it likely will be from a lesser-known quantity. We’ve seen what Covington can do, and he’s not a game-breaker.

This is not to forget about Staton Jobe (#22). Jobe walked on to the team last year and walked his way right on to the field. He caught 17 passes last year and is definitely part of the rotation, if not exactly the two-deep. Kris Burd (#18) is another to watch for. Burd impressed the coaches in the offseason and we should expect to see them find a way to get him on the field this year. In a three-receiver set, Burd would be second on the depth chart behind Koch, in the slot.

What’s going to have to happen for the wide receivers to make a real impression on the offense is that someone will have to show they can consistently get open. Ogletree alone will make this offense more receiver-oriented than last year; 2007 was an anomaly even for Groh. He has the skills to beat single coverage, which means he’ll probably be seeing consistent doubles probably as soon as Game Number One. When that happens, someone - anyone, anyone at all - will need to show they can get open on the other side and keep the defenses honest. If they do it will make the offense exponentially better.

Rating: 2 out of 5, but with enough potential and depth to go as high as 4 by season’s end if all works out just right.


The moneymaker. My first year as a UVA fan was 2000, when Billy Baber was catching passes from Dan Ellis. Since then the only years in which a UVA tight end was not drafted into the NFL were the years when none of them were seniors. The player du jour at the position this year is John Phillips (#85), who caught 17 balls in 2007. Many offenses don’t even use their first tight end that much let alone their third. Little needs to be said - he proved dependable last year and will, as usual, be a big part of the offense this year. Behind him on the depth chart is Joe Torchia (#83). Torchia saw the field in goal-line situations last year when Groh felt like three or four tight ends would make a good blocking formation. No reason to believe that Torchia won’t simply ride the TE conveyor belt and make himself more than useful in the offense this year. Andrew Devlin (#87) will likely jump into Torchia’s old role.

Rating: 4 out of 5. The default setting for Al Groh tight ends. I’m convinced he could find a way to make Muggsy Bogues a good player at this position.


This is the lineup that will take the field against USC: Eugene Monroe (#75) and Will Barker (#61) are the tackles. This is the part of the line that’s in great shape, as long as Barker doesn’t take any more late-late-late night trips to the cooler at certain downtown bars. Both have loads of starting experience, and Monroe was Rivals’ #3 overall recruit in 2005 and is getting that kind of hype again as he enters his senior year. At guard we have Zak Stair (#76) on the left side and B.J. Cabbell (#65) on the right, and Jack Shields (#64) is the starting center. So what we have is progressively less and less experience as you move inward; Stair and Cabbell have seen the field mostly as part of the kick protection team, and Shields has played in exactly one game his whole career.

The backups are mostly freshman, so, ouch. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. The only one who isn’t is the backup RG, Isaac Cain (#78) and he’s got just as much experience as Shields does. Stuck back there somewhere is junior Patrick Slebonick, who has just as much experience as Shields and Cain. (See a trend here? The “one game” here is Pittsburgh for all three. You got it – scrub time in a blowout.) Slebonick, though, doesn’t appear in the two-deep thanks to true freshman Austin Pasztor (#63) who’s going to see his share of the field this year. Pasztor is listed as the backup to Zak Stair.

Rating: 3 out of 5. I’m actually pretty bullish on this group. The tackles are very good. The rest of the line is woefully inexperienced, but I think Dave Borbely has that covered. Branden Albert went from a middling three-star recruit to a top-ten pick in the NFL draft under Borbely’s tutelage. His awesomely massive mustache alone is worth some confidence points, and I think he’ll have this group ready to go.


Yannick Reyering (#10) will be the kicker for at least the first game this year, having won the camp competition. Yannick Reyering is a former UVA soccer player; Yannick Reyering walked on to the football team after his soccer eligibility expired and now Yannick Reyering is the starter. If Groh had said, screw it, whoever has the coolest name gets to be the kicker, Yannick Reyering would still have won, hands down. But his backup would have been Zach Mendez-Zfass.

Rating: 2 out of 5. The guy is used to aiming for a much much bigger target with only one guy trying to block. He's done nicely in practice, especially for a German dude who not that long ago knew as much about football American-style as you do about Sepak Takraw. But games are another thing entirely. Keeping fingers crossed.


G Austin Pasztor (true)
WR Kris Burd (redshirt)
TE Andrew Devlin (redshirt)


Forget quarterback. Lalich will probably get most of the starts and most of the snaps this year. And you can probably peg how good he’ll be – simply expect a natural progression from last year’s ups and downs, and don’t bet on a sudden out-of-nowhere banner season. The offense is going to hinge on two things: the interior linemen, and every wide receiver except for Kevin Ogletree. If Stair, Shields, and Cabbell are at least adequate, the running game will go places. Places like the end zone. The receivers need to take pressure off of Ogletree. He’s gonna get double-teamed all the damn time until somebody makes the defense pay for doing so. Phillips doesn’t count, he’s a tight end and therefore will be busy showing someone else’s defensive coordinator that linebackers can’t be trusted in pass coverage. It’s the safeties that have to stay off of Ogletree if he’s going to be any kind of a big-play threat at all, and they’re just going to blanket him if they know that whoever else is across from him can’t shake the single cornerback coverage.

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