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March 21, 2008
Virginia getting focus back to the field
Some offseason turbulence has halted the positive momentum created by a surprising 9-4 record and Gator Bowl appearance last season. Defensive end Jeffrey Fitzgerald has left school, and quarterback Jameel Sewell and cornerback Chris Cook have been sidelined for the 2008 season because of academic concerns. That leaves Virginia with a few more holes to fill as it heads into spring practice.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH
Clint Sintim, a senior who has started every game in his career, leads a group of three returning starters at linebacker. Eugene Monroe, an All-America candidate, and Barker are returning starters at offensive tackle.
HELP IS NEEDED
Although Virginia looks solid at offensive tackle, the rest of the offensive line is much less certain. There really aren't any clear-cut favorites for any of the three open positions at guard and center. Virginia has serious holes to fill at defensive end now that potential No. 1 overall draft pick Chris Long has headed to the NFL and Jeffrey Fitzgerald has left school.
KEEP AN EYE ON
DE Sean Gottschalk: This former four-star prospect almost certainly will move into the starting lineup now that the Cavaliers must replace both starting defensive ends.
QB Peter Lalich: The starting job is his to lose now that Sewell is out for the season. Lalich, a drop-back passer, went 35-for-61 while backing up Sewell (who's much more of a running threat) last season.
TE John Phillips: Virginia has loved to throw the ball to the tight end during Al Groh's coaching tenure. Jonathan Stupar and Tom Santi completed their senior seasons last year, so Phillips is going to be the Cavaliers' main tight end. Phillips caught 17 passes for 193 yards last year. Don't be surprised if he triples those numbers this season.
HIS TIME IS NOW
Although strong safety Brandon Woods, who will be a third-year sophomore this fall, consistently has performed well in practice, he hasn't had many opportunities to translate that success to the playing field. The departure of Nate Lyles leaves plenty of openings for playing time, so perhaps Woods will have a breakthrough season.
New defensive coordinator Bob Pruett, the former coach at Marshall, faces the challenge of trying to replace Long and Fitzgerald at defensive end. However, Lalich figures to garner most of the attention this spring. Virginia's chances of earning a bowl bid and competing for a Coastal Division title depend on how well Lalich takes control of the offense.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.