Class will be judged on the field


With the recently renovated and undoubtedly big-time Scott Stadium as the backdrop, a line of eager fans and autograph-seekers wrapped around the north end of the field at Wednesday’s meet the team/media day.

Second-year head coach Al Groh spoke with the press, at the same time hoisting a young girl dressed in a U.Va. cheerleader outfit for an autograph.

Fans from all backgrounds black and white, young and old, dressed in T-shirts or dress shirts with ties kept Virginia’s players busy with giddy conversation and encouragement for the coming season.

The Cavalier mascot, complete with feathered hat, sword and horse, rode by the two radio stations broadcasting live in the shadow cast by the scoreboard.

And the only thing higher than Wednesday’s temperatures in Charlottesville were the expectations for this coming season.

Despite the Cavaliers 5-7 record in 2001, excitement around the program is high for Groh’s second year, partly because of his heralded recruiting class.

Though they have yet to run through a full college practice with pads on, the freshman class, ranked as high as No. 2 and among the nation’s top 10 by 14 of 15 major recruiting analysts, made its first foray into big-time football. And everybody noticed.

“It’s a big adjustment coming here from high school,” said Kai Parham, one of the most heralded recruits in a class that included quarterback Anthony Martinez of Montpelier and running back Michael Johnson of Newport News.

Parham, a 6-foot-3, 233-pound linebacker from Virginia Beach, was supposed to be joined by another all-American linebacker recruit, Hylton’s 6-foot-4, 242-pound Ahmad Brooks.

But Brooks, like defensive tackle Keenan Carter of Potomac, failed to meet academic standards necessary to play at U.Va. this year, and both will spend the 2002-03 year at Fork Union Military Academy. Brooks and Carter have said they still plan to re-sign with Virginia.

But Parham, who became friends with Brooks throughout the recruiting process, said not having Brooks present doesn’t necessarily ruin their future as a potentially powerful pair of linebackers.

“It’s not like he’s completely out of the picture,” said the well-spoken Parham, who thanked God for placing him at Virginia. “I’d still like us to be [a dynamic duo].”

Both Brooks and Parham were among several Cavalier recruits expected to compete for playing time. Brooks’ Fork Union detour must have come as a surprise to the U.Va. staff, as his biography is still included in the team’s 2002 media guide.

Realistic expectations for this year’s Cavaliers are for them to improve on last year’s record, which will be difficult enough with nine bowl teams plus perennial power Penn State on the 13-game schedule. But the class is a source of enthusiasm for more than just the fans.

“I think it gets us excited,” said projected starting quarterback Matt Schaub, expected to be a team leader this season. “This season is going to be a challenge.”

Parham said the group is already coming together.

Stefan Orange, a defensive back from Culpeper, agreed.

“We all get along,” he said. “If we stick together, we have a chance to do some really special things at U.Va.”

As for what they may accomplish this year, Orange said only game-time will tell.

“Nobody will really know until the 22nd of August,” he said.

Orange, raised in a small but tight-knit community in football-happy Culpeper, said his first exposure to the Division-I college football atmosphere as a player, was more fun than fearsome. Although all-Americans like Brooks, Parham and defensive end Kwakou Robinson may have attracted all of the attention, both Parham and Orange said there was no animosity between members of the class. The expectations, they said, are for the success of the group, not individuals.

“I’m lucky to have been placed around a group of guys who I can see becoming a family,” Parham said.

For all the accolades this class has received, no one pretends that they won’t ultimately be judged by their on-field performance.

“Personally, I don’t think [recruiting analysts’ rankings] really matter,” said Parham.

“We’re only going to get better,” said Orange. “But the bottom line is we have to come out and win some games.”

Groh, who has set the national championship as his goal and has worked to recruit better players and raise the profile of Virginia football in- and out-of-state, figures his work is only partially complete.

“I think ultimately, profile in any program is based on championships,” Groh said. “So I think that’s how the highest profile is created.”

There is reason to be excited about this season’s edition of the Cavaliers. But it’s a safe bet that it will take more than just this recruiting class to get Virginia truly competing with the Florida States of the college football world.

And so Groh embarks on his second season with his focus on recruiting for down the road as much as it is on winning right now.

Keith McMillan is a staff writer for the Potomac News & Manassas Journal Messenger. Reach him at (703) 878-8053 or e-mail him at [email protected]

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