It starts up front


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CHARLOTTESVILLE The autograph tables at Virginia’s media and fans day were busy, particularly for the often anonymous offensive linemen.

One young fan approached a table that featured sophomore Mark Farrington. When Farrington noticed the boy’s bulky stature, Farrington wanted to know if the boy was a lineman, which he said he was.

“Good,” said Farrington. “That’s the only way to be.”

Being a Cavalier offensive lineman wasn’t always easy last year. As rushing production slowed halfway through the season, head coach Al Groh revamped the O-line personnel. Heading into this year, graduation has taken three of last year’s starters Jermese Jones, Evan Routzahn and Gar-Field alum Josh Lawson.

That leaves the Cavs’ offensive line in a bit of a rebuilding stage. But that’s nothing new Groh preaches that every year is a rebuilding year.

“Coach Groh says we’re always rebuilding the team, everywhere,” said senior tackle Mike Mullins.

The 2001 shakeup introduced some new faces to the starting lineup like Mullins and guard Elton Brown. Kevin Bailey moved inside from tackle to center. The cohesiveness of the unit was formed quickly: The Cavaliers rushed for at least 100 yards in three of their final four games.

Now, that cohesiveness will be tested again. The loss of Jones and Routzahn means there will be more new faces along the starting offensive line. Most of the returners expect that the unit will gel just as quickly this season.

“Our offensive line will be strong, and we’ll click together,” said Brown, a sophomore from Hampton. “We know what to expect from the person beside us. And the person beside us knows what to expect from us.”

“We’ll be ready to go,” added Bailey. “We’ll have a few younger guys. But we’ve got a strong core and whoever it is, we’ll be ready to go.”

Running the ball is crucial to the success of most offenses. It serves to shorten the game by keeping the clock running, and limiting the time opposing offenses stay on the field. Successfully running the ball also helps open up the passing game.

Groh told reporters he wants to run the ball “with authority” the likely source of that potency is up front, along the line. But without the cohesiveness, their job as a group becomes more difficult.

If preseason polls are to be believed, the Cavs will have enough trouble as it is. They were picked to finish eighth in the nine-team ACC.

But preseason prognostications, like last year’s line upheaval, aren’t causing concern for those involved.

“I don’t think it matters much. You see all kinds of polls,” said Bailey. “What matters is where you are at the end, and hopefully we’re on top.”

“You can’t ignore them,” said Brown. “They picked us eighth in the ACC. But if we run the ball with authority and have a good passing attack, we’ll be up there.”

The younger players who are trying to crack the lineup came in a few days early, making their learning curve a bit shorter. The rookie camp went well, according to Brown, and some of them may challenge for playing time.

“The lineup isn’t set in stone,” explained Farrington.

No matter the makeup of this year’s line, all seem confident that things will be in place for the Cavs’ season opener, on Aug. 22 against Colorado State.

Said Mullins: “We’re going to be all right.”

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