Thursday, December 3, 2009

requiem for an era: The Players That Made It Happen, part 2

Last of the series. At some point we'll actually have to stop reminiscing and act like there's present-day stuff going on. Today's lists continue the five-player format. First, we have five that, for whatever reason, never lived up to their potential or their hype. Again, these count down from five to one. There's a darker theme to this list. The last four involve some veiled criticism of some aspect of our program - there are things, some of which are the head coach himself and some of which have nothing to do with him, that hold this program back. For the most part, these players failed to live up because of it.

#33 - Wali Lundy

Here's the one that doesn't involve any sideswipes at anything. You might even be surprised to see him on the list. Lundy had by any account an excellent career. If I'd done a top ten list the other day instead of five, Lundy would be a shoo-in. In his four years here, he played a starring role.

And yet, it felt like it could have been so much more than just a "role." Lundy's star shone brightest early on. It dimmed as time passed, and Alvin Pearman gradually moved into the lead part. As a freshman in 2002, Lundy was the primary running back and kick returner and second-leading receiver, too, and made national headlines with his four-touchdown effort in the bowl game. At that point, the sky was the limit. 1900 all-purpose yards as a freshman is the sort of thing that launches Heisman campaigns two or three years later.

But the next season, though Lundy was still the primary running back and thisdamnclose to a 1,000-yard campaign, Pearman and not Lundy was the first receiving option out of the backfield; in Lundy's junior year, Pearman overshadowed him entirely and crossed the 1,000 yard mark that Lundy couldn't. By 2005, Pearman had graduated and Lundy returned to his role as primary running back, but couldn't even top 600 yards, even with a line populated by future NFLers. (By comparison, the O-line of 2008, infamous for its lack of runblocking skills especially early in the season, helped Cedric Peerman to 200 more rushing yards than Lundy had in '05.)

It's tough to include Wali Lundy on a list like this, but it's also a bit disappointing to think of the difference between the reality and what we had in our imaginations as the clock ticked away on a 24-point win over West Virginia in 2002.

#4 - Anthony Martinez

The blow is cushioned here, because Marques Hagans turned out to be a pretty damn good player, and a decent answer to the argument that Groh couldn't develop quarterbacks. But Martinez is why that argument exists. Martinez was the it guy when he committed. The future. Especially since, at the time he committed, Matt Schaub and Bryson Spinner were busy playing hot potato with the quarterback job, and a few days later, Florida State would paste the Hoos in Charlottesville.

Martinez sat on the bench for most of two years, coming in for a little backup duty in 2003. No biggie; Schaub was busy rewriting record books. But when 2004 rolled around and he found himself fourth on the depth chart, he vamoosed. Normally the transfer of your fourth-string quarterback doesn't make many waves, but the potential alone that he had when he came in would have landed him even higher on this list. That is, if not for the probability that had he played, he would have basically been Marques Hagans anyway.

#95 - Jeffrey Fitzgerald

ARGH. Fitzgerald was a freshman All-American in 2006. A beast. That year, he outshone junior Chris Long - Fitzgerald led the team in sacks, TFL, and fumbles recovered, and actually even managed to be second in interceptions too. He was similarly spectacular in 2007 as a sophomore. This season, he was a beast for Kansas State instead. Fitzgerald left the team for academic reasons - not because the NCAA said he was ineligible, but because UVA did.

We have a pretty good defensive line right now, but we're thin at DE and surely Fitzgerald would look pretty good there this year. He picked up at K-State right where he left off and led the team in sacks, TFL, fumbles forced - you know, all the stuff. Even returned an INT for a touchdown, just as he once did here. UVA fans will not soon forget what might have been here - though Fitzgerald did indeed pick up where he left off, missing a season couldn't have helped his development. What if he didn't have to leave off?

#32 - Keith Payne

"No Payne, no gain." That was the clever refrain occasionally heard when UVA fans would discuss Payne and what he'd bring to the program in the future. It seems like ages and ages ago, but once upon a time, Payne had UVA fans acting like schoolgirls who just made eye contact with a Jonas Brother. It reached a fever pitch after Payne's high school team won a state championship, in large part because of his four touchdowns, against Percy Harvin's high school team. Big things were expected, despite Payne's lack of offers outside the state and mediocre guru ratings. Big, big, big things. This was the guy who was going to put the team on his shoulders and carry it back to prominence.

Unfortunately, we tend to overrate our talent, sometimes egregiously. Payne turned out to be slow, and not particularly bruising. He fell further and further down the depth chart as time went on, and finally called it quits earlier this fall. It's not his fault, really, that he didn't live up to the hype; it just turned out that the hype didn't match the actuality.

#7 - Peter Lalich

The number says it all. Lalich was another big-time quarterback recruit. Highly rated by everyone, and UVA fans were positively thrilled when Lalich made an early commitment to Virginia. Though the offers kept rolling in all summer, he didn't budge. We had our quarterback of the future, and that is really one of the most comforting thoughts a fan can have.

But we didn't account for stupidity. Despite being on probation for underage drinking and having some pretty easy probation terms (DON'T DRINK), this proved too difficult. Lalich admitted to the judge he had continued to drink, while also expressing that he was under the impression he was only supposed to not get arrested. This was such a serious crime that the judge came down and.....extended his probation. Whoop-de-doo.

Grownups can be pretty stupid too, though. Sometimes more. Al Groh was perfectly happy to keep his starting quarterback on the team, given that Lalich's crime was nothing more than the same shit that happens in five hundred places every Friday and Saturday night in Charlottesville.....and then telling the judge the truth about it. Craig Littlepage saw things differently, and stepped in to remove Lalich from the team. And he wonders why the football team is 3-9.

OK, so enough reminiscing. Not all of Al Groh's players are no longer on the team. Many of them even have talent. Next year, some new coach will be trying to take Al Groh's players and do something better than 3-9 with them. The next list will look at next year's building blocks. This isn't necessarily a list of the best players. You won't find Matt Conrath or Ras-I Dowling. This is: who has the talent and needs to make use of it?

#18 - Kris Burd

The receiving corps was - let's see, how can I put this delicately? - horrendous this year. Damn it when Heather Dinich is right. Burd will be a junior next year, and given that he was the only receiver to show consistent competence for a full 12 games, he'll be looked at to continue his improvement and step up to catch a few more balls next season. Burd is not the fastest or the flashiest, but he is the best route-runner and the only receiver this year who showed the ability to get open both inside and outside.

#63 - Austin Pasztor

Last year, Pasztor stepped in as a true freshman and you could see the difference right away. The impact on the run-blocking was measurable, even to the layman's eye. He had his share of struggles this year along with the rest of the line, but when the pass rush reached Sewell, Pasztor generally wasn't the guy looking backward apologetically at his quarterback with his hands on his hips after the whistle. There will be more senior players than Pasztor on the line next year, but Big Canada should bring the combination of experience and talent that will desperately be needed to help anchor a faltering unit.

#56 - Cam Johnson

Johnson has been a little bit of a tweener so far. Too small to play DE in the 3-4 and not really quick enough to take on all the responsibilities of the OLB. But a new coach might mean a new defense. If we switch to a 4-3, Johnson would make a terrific defensive end. If not, Johnson still has some terrifying pass-rush skills that can be made use of. He may or may not become a three-down player - more power to us if he does - but at the very least his ability to rush off the edge is a big asset.

#28 - Rodney McLeod and #40 - Corey Mosley

I'm cheating here and stuffing two players into one category. Mosley lost his starting job midway through the season to Brandon Woods, who was a fine player other than his annoying tendency to bite on play-fakes. Woods won't be around next year, so the safety position belongs to these two, and if I never see either one ever again try to tackle someone with their shoulder it'll be a blessing. They're rightfully highly regarded and I expect them to have the middle of the field on lockdown next year. Just - please tackle with your arms.

#53 - Steve Greer

Greer is good. Very good. He even (for the most part) held his own and didn't get blasted into the secondary by fullbacks with thirty pounds on him. He has a chance to be special, and next year would be a great time to start.

That list was written with next year in mind; this one, with the two or three after that. Here are the players who will hopefully be the long-term difference-makers: Al Groh's final legacy. This is a lot more speculative and highly based on my own opinion rather than anything concrete.

#39 - Tucker Windle

Windle, as a true freshman, played his way from the bench all the way to the starting lineup this year. He wasn't by any stretch an every-down player, nor did he rack up the tackles, but there he was, leapfrogging older players and starting the Virginia Tech game in place of an injured Darren Childs. Having spent this season proving his talent as compared to the competition, Windle could be penciled in as a starter as soon as next year if the 3-4 sticks around, and though Greer has a head start, Windle might very well catch up when all's said and done.

#?? - Kevin Parks

Ladies and gentlemen, the best high school running back in North Carolina history. Parks puts up eye-popping stats on a powerhouse team. His running style has been described as similar to a bowling ball, and he's about that tall, too. While it's perfectly fair and legitimate to warn against falling into the Keith Payne trap, Parks nevertheless is a determined runner who appears to compare favorably in style to Mike Hart - only the leading rusher in Michigan's history.

#21 - Dominique Wallace

To be honest, I hardly even know why. Wallace's season was cut short due to injury, and he should be eligible for a medical redshirt. And he was only averaging three and a half yards per carry. But Wallace has always struck me as a guy with shoulders wide enough to carry a program and knock linebackers over in the process. Running back is my favorite position and Wallace is my favorite kind of running back. I think if he's healthy next year and ready to go and the offense is right, Wallace has a great shot at a feature role.

#99 - Brent Urban

To my mind, the defensive end of the future. Urban took a redshirt year this year but Groh thought highly enough of him to bring him on all the road trips. There are a couple pretty talented players ahead of him on the depth chart, but he should be able to work his way into the picture and be a major impact player when his turn comes.

#?? - Morgan Moses

Maybe? As likely as not, Moses is a candidate for the next coach's version of the first list. What might have been. But if he qualifies, and if he maintains his commitment despite all his favorite coaches getting fired, and if he stays eligible at UVA, the mammoth offensive tackle is just what the doctor ordered to fix the offensive line.

With that, we wrap up the series. There's soccer and basketball to get up into, not to mention a coaching search and all the nuttiness that surrounds it. And before you know it, it'll be lacrosse and baseball season. Time does fly.

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