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VIRGINIA: Strong recruiting plays off

It’s finally starting to come together for head coach Al Groh and the Virginia Cavaliers.

Despite a spate of off-the-field problems, including the dismissal of freshman tailback Ahmad Bradshaw, the fruits of previous top-notch recruiting classes are beginning to mature and pay off. Entering the season, Groh’s Cavaliers, ranked 16th in the nation and third in the ACC preseason poll, are in position to compete for the ACC crown.

The Cavalier offense has a number of potential stars, including senior right guard Elton Brown. The 6-foot-6, 338-pound behemoth is on the Lombardi Award watch list and anchors a strong offensive line that also features highly regarded offensive tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson.

Although the Cavs do not feature a marquee big-play receiver, they have one of the nation’s top tight ends in Heath Miller. Another potential Lombardi award recipient, Miller caught 70 passes for an ACC-record 835 receiving yards last season. Also a powerful blocker, Miller helps pave the way for All-ACC second-teamer Wali Lundy, the team’s starter at tailback, one of its deepest positions.

The offense’s biggest question, however, lies at quarterback, where converted wideout Marques Hagans has the onerous task of replacing 2002 ACC Player of the Year Matt Schaub. At 5-foot-10, Hagans is a bit undersized, but he is a strong runner and performed well in one start last year while Schaub was injured.

On the defensive side of the ball, end Chris Canty anchors a front seven that returns all but one starter. Canty, is a second team All-ACC performer who led the conference’s linemen in tackles last season, but he might not even be the team’s best defensive player. That honor could go to one of the team’s top-notch linebackers.

Darryl Blackstock and Ahmad Brooks are also both named on the Lombardi Award Watch List. Blackstock, a Butkus Award candidate, is one of the nation’s top pass-rushing outside linebackers, while NFL scouts are already drooling over sophomore Brooks, the team’s leading tackler last season.

If there is a relative weakness in the Cavaliers’ defense, however, it is their defensive backfield, which does not feature a starter taller than 5-foot-11. Additionally, the team loses two starters from last season and starts a pair of sophomores, Marcus Hamilton and Tony Franklin, at cornerback.

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