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Debriefing: Virginia inches ahead on glimmers of hope

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

The least you should know about the 2011 Cavaliers. Part of ACC Week.

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First, something nice. On paper, the offensive one-eighty under first-year coordinator/quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor was the most dramatic of any attack in America, beginning with the quarterback himself. Riding the arm of senior Marc Verica, the Cavs rocketed from dead last in the ACC in total offense in 2008 and 2009 to third in the conference in 2010, improving production by 135 yards per game — fully 50 percent of their entire output a year earlier. Only Oklahoma State made a bigger leap, and Virginia did it with just five returning starters from the '09 debacle.

This time, Lazor has ten regulars back, a number that doesn't include the leading rusher (Keith Payne), receiver (Dontrelle Inman) or anything resembling a seasoned quarterback. But Verica was far from an inspiring athlete (especially against competent defenses; see below), and every member of the trio vying for his job in the spring is a tall, prototypical pocket passer who fits Lazor's pro-style passing scheme.

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Now, the reality. It should be acknowledged that a good percentage of the offensive gains came against FCS patsies Richmond and Virginia Military and FBS bottom dwellers Duke and Eastern Michigan, easily two of the worst defenses in the country. Outside of those four games, the results remained fairly pedestrian against real competition.

But the Cavs were also persistently unlucky, in the way that merely-bad-not-horrible teams usually are. They lost 34 starts to injury and suspension, most in the ACC outside of the chaotic attrition at North Carolina. They had one of worst turnover margins in the conference, finishing in the red in five of their eight losses. They blew second half leads in consecutive defeats to Duke, Maryland and Boston College in November, after pushing USC to the brink in a 17-14 loss in September. In that game alone, they missed two field goals, threw an end zone interception with the ball at the Trojan 4-yard line and had a big gain on a fake punt negated by a penalty the Pac-10 later admitted should not have been called.

Usually, that level of misfortune combined with a boatload of returning starters is a recipe for moderately good things to come. Just how good, though, depends on finding some consistency at quarterback and a legitimate playmaker somewhere among the skill positions, roles that have been vacant here since they were occupied by Matt Schaub and Billy McMullen, respectively, almost a decade ago.{YSP:MORE}

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Family tradition. Virginia has had at least one player go in the first or second round in six of the last seven NFL drafts, a streak that should continue next year with All-ACC cornerback Chase Minnifield, who has two legacies to uphold: Genetically, he's the spawn of longtime Cleveland Browns corner Frank Minniefield, a four-time Pro Bowler named to the NFL's 1980s All-Decade Team by Hall of Fame voters; positionally, he follows second-round corners Chris Cook (2010) and Ras-I Dowling (2011) as the Cavaliers' only hope to place anyone in one of the early rounds.

Besides cornerback, Virginia has also produced three first-round offensive linemen since 2006 — D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Branden Albert and Eugene Monroe — a tradition that could be revived by massive Morgan Moses, a 6-foot-6, 350-pound sophomore who found his way into the starting lineup midway through last season after transferring from Hargrave Military Academy. Before the prep school detour, Moses was one of the most coveted linemen in the 2009 recruiting class, and obviously has the size to put scouts into a coma with any hints of improved technique, mobility and/or work ethic.

There's good news and there's bad news. Minnifield is one of ten starters back on the defense, ostensibly a good thing, even though those same starters yielded an embarrassing 35 points per game in ACC play. That was up by more than a touchdown from 2009, and by more than two touchdowns from Virginia's last winning team in 2007, despite head coach Mike London's background as a defensive coordinator. That number should come up with experience, but the overall talent level isn't going to let it move very far.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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