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What team is ready for a breakout year?


Considering that LSU, ranked 14th in the 2003 preseason, rode a stifling, exceptionally athletic defense to a share of the national championship, hopes are high at No. 15 Virginia, whose similarly constructed defense wreaked havoc on Temple in last Saturday's season opener. Indeed, there were times during the 44-14 rout when it must have seemed to the beleaguered Owls that Lincoln Financial Field had been overrun by Cavaliers linebackers. They spent most of their time in the Temple backfield, but they were also on the kickoff and punt coverage units--and even blocked on offense and returned kicks. Sophomore linebacker Kai Parham played fullback in goal line situations, and his 6'4", 249-pound classmate, Ahmad Brooks, returned the opening kickoff 40 yards before being dragged out-of-bounds. "When was the last time you saw a linebacker do that?" asked Virginia coach Al Groh with a smile. "You need big, fast, versatile guys to play our defense. Those characteristics allow them to play other roles."

The linebacker crew of Brooks, Parham, junior Darryl Blackstock and senior Dennis Haley are the playmakers in Groh's 3-4 scheme and the heart of one of the best defenses in the country. While the graduation of record-setting quarterback Matt Schaub makes for some uncertainty on offense, Virginia believes its defense can carry the load. Since Groh took over the program in 2001, he has landed several of the most prized linebackers in the country and quickly got them playing; Blackstock, Brooks and Parham started as freshmen. What's more, Haley is the only newcomer to the front seven, which features 6'7", 290-pound senior defensive end Chris Canty, an All-America candidate who had nine tackles (two for loss) and a sack on Saturday. "It took some time for us to grow together," says Blackstock. "Now we're doing all the little things right. I'm the player now that I wanted to be when I got here, and the team is what I always expected."

The front seven will be counted on to compensate for an inexperienced secondary that could be a weak link when ACC play heats up next month. Temple, after all, is no Miami. Or Florida State. Or even Clemson. "We're going to see an awful lot of really good quarterbacks," says Groh of those three opponents. From what he saw on Saturday, the coach is confident his team is on track to challenge for the conference title. "The defense is starting to look a lot closer to what the model was from the start," he says. "Now we've got to move beyond being a pretty good team, and try to find the formula for being a special team." --M.B.




Haley (45) and the rest of the Cavaliers linebackers thrive on speed and versatility.