Tuesday, December 1, 2009

requiem for an era: The Players Who Made It Happen

As Al Groh himself will tell you, a lot, whether or not you asked about them, it's all about the players. This is a two-parter. The look-back lists of the decade:

- Five best offensive players - today
- Five best defensive players - today
- Five players who I wish had lived up to the hype and/or potential - Thursday
- Five short-term building blocks - Thursday
- Five potential long-term building blocks - Thursday

First, the offense. This is slanted heavily toward the beginning of the decade. Offensive production trended downward, culminating in the total disaster of 2009. This is due, I think, to a combination of less talent and worse coaching - Al was never an offensive guy and left that to his OC, and none of the OCs we hired was an improvement over the last. This, and all lists, are in order from 5 to 1.

#75 - Eugene Monroe

Monroe was the last really tremendous, super-national-level recruit Groh landed. Declared the best offensive tackle in the nation by many services and a consensus top-five recruit overall, Monroe took a little bit of time to get up to speed, but when he did, he lived up to the billing. He was a very good run blocker but his true strength was as a pass-blocker, protecting what would have been the blind side of UVA quarterbacks if Jameel Sewell wasn't left-handed. During his junior year (2007), he didn't allow a single regular-season sack, and eventually was drafted 8th overall in the NFL Draft.

#11 - Billy McMullen

Penalized somewhat because only his last two years were in the Groh era, McMullen is nevertheless the decade's best wide receiver. The sign seen at Scott Stadium one fine day said it all: "Oh Thank Heaven For 7 to 11." McMullen led the team in receiving four years running, and was the only player in the decade to post a 1,000-yard receiving season: his junior year of 2001, when he caught 83 passes for 1,060 yards and 12 touchdowns.

#66 - D'Brickashaw Ferguson

Maybe we've gotten spoiled. When Monroe stepped into the left tackle job, this is whose shoes he was filling. That's a long time to be this good at left tackle. D'Brick, despite his relatively small stature for an offensive lineman, was actually a better run-blocker than pass protector. Not that he was any slouch there, either, but he was an absolute bulldozer when we ran the ball. Ferguson's skills were good enough to get him taken fourth overall in the draft.

#89 - Heath Miller

Set pretty much every school and conference tight end record and ended up way up near the top of all the UVA receiving lists, position be damned. Miller was as reliable a target as you'll ever see, with quickness and speed rivaling a wide receiver's, and a great blocker to boot. Third and nine? Chances were the ball was headed Miller's way. Miller earned the John Mackey Award for the nation's top tight end in 2004, and it's no stretch at all to claim he's the best tight end the conference has ever seen.

#7 - Matt Schaub

Another record-setter. Schaub remains the ACC's career leader in completion percentage at 66.978%. (Why the extreme decimal? Because Wake's Riley Skinner finished his season - and thus, his career - at 66.938%.) Besides that, Schaub is far and away the best quarterback the school has ever had. He sits atop every list: passing yards, touchdowns, completion percentage, completions, 300-yard games, you name it, Schaub owns the record. As with other names on the list here, his best year was his junior campaign, when he fell just shy of 3,000 yards and threw 28 touchdowns against just 7 picks. Not bad for a guy who was third-string his redshirt freshman season and spent his sophomore year platooning with Bryson Spinner.

Next, Groh's hallmark: the defense. And as you'd expect from Groh, the list is loaded with linebackers. It's almost worth having a separate list for them.

#55 - Angelo Crowell

It's kind of easy to forget that Crowell was really that good, because he wasn't all Groh-era and was overshadowed eventually by bigger, more exciting names. But he was an absolute tackle machine from the inside in Groh's 3-4, posting 144 tackles in his junior year and following it up with 155 the next. Much well-deserved praise is heaped on Jon Copper for his own tackling numbers, but Crowell was the original beast ILB.

#3 - Marcus Hamilton

We need a member of the secondary on here. Hamilton shines the brightest, with 15 interceptions over three years as a starter. From 2004-2006 he had 4, 6, and 5, respectively - numbers that have only been matched once each by three separate players in the Groh era. Hamilton was also third on the team in tackles in 2005.

#44 - Kai Parham

Parham formed one-half of a duo with Ahmad Brooks that got UVA fans positively salivating when they both announced their commitments to Virginia. Brooks was the more heralded of the two and probably would sit in this spot if he hadn't flamed out due to injury and eventually being booted from the team, but the duo lived up to its reputation in '03 and '04. Parham's production was slightly less than Brooks' during the two full years they were starters together, but only slightly. Parham stuck around for all of 2005 and registered 103 tackles, 14.5 TFL, and 8.5 sacks, all team-leading numbers.

#91 - Chris Long

Story time. A player I knew, who graduated in 2004, told me this. Sometime early in the '03 season, a visitor showed up to visit the facilities. The visitor was built. Just ripped. He was so big and strong-looking, with such a mature build, that most of the players assumed he was an alum. No, the coaches told them. That's a recruit. Recruit? Yes, recruit. That's Howie Long's boy, he committed to us not too long ago.

If this was about single-season performances, Long would be #1 without any doubt. It took a little bit of time for the brilliance to shine through, but when it did, holy shit. Long registered a whopping 14 sacks and 19 TFL in 2007, and for good measure threw in an interception and 79 tackles - unheard-of numbers for a lineman in a 3-4. Without Long, I think that 9-4 season in 2007 becomes 5-7. Seriously. Long became the highest-picked Virginia player in the draft at 2nd overall since Bill Dudley in 1942.

#56 - Darryl Blackstock

This sort of surprised even me - I expected I'd be naming Long to the #1 spot. But the stats don't lie, and neither do the memories. The man we called "Sackstock" blasted onto the scene in 2002 and immediately made himself at home in opposing backfields. He would rack up a whopping 27 sacks in three seasons - double digits in two of them - and in each of those seasons, 14 TFL. Clint Sintim was a helluva player, but basically Blackstock Lite. Blackstock was, simply put, a terror, and perfectly suited for Groh's 3-4 defense. Brooks and Parham excited people based on potential alone, and did a pretty respectable job of living up to it on the field. But only two players this decade - and this isn't a slam on the decade because it's extremely hard for a defensive player to accomplish this - truly electrified a crowd. Long was one, but he only managed it for one season. Blackstock captured our attention for three full years.

So: programming note. Tomorrow (which is basically "today" at this point - that is, Wednesday) I'll interrupt the look-backs for the same look-forwards I've been doing: another look into the bio of a potential replacement coach. That will be Troy Calhoun this week. On Thursday I'll pick up again with the other three lists I promised. After that.....I'll think of something. I always do.


www.hoosfootball.com said...

Schaub is far and away the best quarterback the school has ever had.

Blasphemy! I love Schaub, but Shawn Moore was the shizzle. Also, I wanted to argue that Lundy or Pearman should be in your top-5, but there's no one on your list I'd bump for either of them.

Anonymous said...

Chris Canty?
Kevin Ogletree?

Brendan said...

Ogletree - absolutely not. Lundy, Pearman, and Hagans - at least - would get the nod over him. If he'd stayed he could have been great, but as it was he was merely good. Borderline top ten player, but then he'd also have to compete with Albert, Elton Brown, maybe Peerman - even Deyon Williams had a better season than Ogletree ever did.

Canty was a lot tougher to leave off, but Crowell's and Hamilton's production stood so far out from the pack for so long I had a hard time justifying leaving them off.

Deane said...

I basically agree with www.hoosfootball.com. Shawn Moore was so good that there's no way that "Schaub is far and away the best quarterback the school has ever had." No slight toward Schaub intended, but Moore was great, too. I wish UVA would create a highlight DVD from '89-90. They were two of the most awesome offenses ever. UVA was literally a threat to score from anywhere on the field.