Thursday, April 17, 2008
Conrath could make 94 another jersey to remember
QB battle more competitive than anticipated
Doug Doughty's UVa Insider is exclusive to roanoke.com and is posted by 5 p.m. Thursdays in season.
See Doug and Randy talk sports every week with the Sports edition of the TimesCast
For a split second, it appeared that the long arm that snatched the ball out of the air belonged to No. 91.
But, it couldn’t have been No. 91. That number has been retired.
Actually, it was Chris Long’s jersey that was retired and not his number. But, Virginia couldn’t have handed over his number to another football player. Not this soon, anyway.
On second thought, it was only my failing eyesight. The defensive lineman who had come up with a one-handed interception of Peter Lalich’s short pass was No. 94, Matt Conrath, a 6-foot-7, 269-pound redshirt freshman.
It was a play that was worthy of comparison to Long, and that’s the big thing.
“That’s a big comparison to make here,” UVa coach Al Groh said, “but I understand what you’re saying.”
Presumably, sophomore Sean Gottschalk would have working with the first-team defensive line if not for offseason shoulder surgery, but Conrath has the appearances of a player who could have an impact.
“He’s a very athletic player,” Groh said. “All three of those young defensive linemen have done a very nice job. They’re very promising.”
The reference was to Conrath and two other 2007 signees who were redshirted this past fall – Nick Jenkins (6-3, 285) and Zane Parr (6-6, 267).
“We’ve been positively impressed with all of them throughout,” Groh said. “You can see, he’s [Conrath] a long player. He’s up 12, 14 pounds since he came and there’s a lot more to come.
“He’s a very determined kid. He’s fun to be around. He makes progress all the time, as [do] Nick and Zane.”
Virginia needs to replace its starting front three of Long, fellow defensive end Jeffrey Fitzgerald and nose tackle Allen Billyk.
Long and Billyk were seniors in 2007 and could not have come back under any circumstances. However, the February dismissal of Fitzgerald, who would have been a junior, increases the pressure on a cast of returning tackles headed by fifth-year senior Alex Field.
The most experienced member of that group will be Nate Collins, a 6-2, 280-pound junior who frequently spelled Billyk last year and had a huge deflection late in the Cavaliers’ 22-20 victory at North Carolina.
PRIOR TO the spring game, it struck me that the alleged three-man battle for the starting quarterback position was merely window dressing and that sophomore Peter Lalich was the only possible choice.
Now, I’m not so sure.
Fifth-year senior Scott Deke had the best numbers, redshirt sophomore Marc Verica seemed to have the strongest arm and quickest feet and Lalich didn’t show much.
Lalich’s numbers (6-for-18 and three interceptions) were horrible but misleading. Conrath made a great play on the one interception, one was tipped before it was picked off by Trey Womack and the third – actually, the first – could have been ruled a fumble because it appeared Dontrelle Inman had the ball before it was taken away by safety Matt Leemhuis.
“They ran their team well, they made good decisions with what was unfolding in front of them and each one made some throws up the field that have to be made,” Groh said. “I felt they were all pretty much in the same circumstance.”
(I’ll stop here to say that I’ve never known anybody who uses the word “circumstance” as much as Groh does).
“If you look at numbers, you can’t get the picture from that in the spring game,” Groh continued. “You don’t know what [offensive] line they were with. You don’t know the receivers that were in. OK? If you’re trying to base any conclusions based on that, you’re fooling yourself.”
VIRGINIA HASN’T SAID anything about the status of troubled Harrisonburg High School running back Alex Owah and the Cavaliers couldn’t if they wanted.
Owah committed to Virginia in December, but he was only a junior and schools can’t comment about recruits until they sign. Theoretically, Virginia can’t say anything about Owah and it won’t.
Right now, Owah has been named in an affidavit detailing the use of prescription pain-killers on the Harrisonburg team, and he also has been linked to a Halloween robbery that some have portrayed as a prank. How much UVa knew or did not know at the time of Owah’s commitment is unknown, but his meeting with police took place almost a month (Jan. 23) after his commitment.
Some Internet posters have urged Virginia to cut ties with Owah, citing the string of events that resulted in the arrest of two players, Mike Brown and J’Courtney Williams, on unrelated theft charges. Williams actually was arrested twice, the first time for possession of marijuana, and marijuana possession was one of several charges lodged against Brown at the time that his larceny charge came to light.
Williams, a true freshman, already has been dropped from the program. Brown has been suspended from team activities but is still listed on the roster that appears on the UVa sports website.
If Brown is convicted of larceny, presumably that would also constitute a violation of the school’s honor code, which has a single sanction, expulsion. Of course, that would require an honor trial, but Brown may be working at finishing the school year, which would expedite the transfer process. Leaving in February put a crimp in Fitzgerald’s plans from that perspective.
I disagree with Roanoke talk-show host Greg Roberts, who has chosen to paint Owah with the same broad brush as Williams and Brown, not to mention former UVa running back Wali Lundy, arrested for smoking pot in New Jersey. I can see holding Groh accountable for players who are in his program now – Williams, Brown, Fitzgerald, the four January casualties – but not a Lundy and certainly not an Owah. One’s been gone for two years; the other isn’t due to arrive for nearly 18 months, if then.
“Being the coach of a team on a major level, whether it’s college sports or professional sports, is about perpetual problem solving,” Groh said. “There is no smooth road. That’s Utopian thinking. It’s about dealing with the circumstances that come up in the best way possible.
“There’s a bump in every game. There’s a bump in every season. Without being pollyanish about it, you take them on directly, solve the circumstances and you move forward. This team is hopefully taking on the united sense of purpose that last year’s did.”