Cavs rely on fearsome LB foursome

Their disparate football history aside, something will look oddly out of place on Saturday afternoon when Virginia puts its BCS bowl hopes on the line against Miami.

The Hurricanes, who have produced more first-round NFL draft picks in the last three years (15) than Virginia has since Thomas Jefferson hired the school's first professor in 1819, will be in rare position to covet.

Wouldn't those Virginia linebackers, after all, look great in green and orange? You might think so if you were UM defensive coordinator Randy Shannon, whose unit has been shoved around, and off the BCS title map, by North Carolina and Clemson the last two weeks.

That's just enough to have the Cavaliers back in a strangely familiar situation. Less than a month ago, Virginia sought to prove itself worthy of a top-10 ranking and the ACC lead in a game at Florida State.

The resulting 36-3 embarrassment still lingers around Charlottesville, where the hollow pre-FSU bravado has been replaced by cautious optimism.

Here we go, again.

Virginia's fate may rest with how well its defense can slow suddenly splendid quarterback Brock Berlin and neutralize Miami's offensive speed. To that end, Virginia's linebackers are thankful for a second chance.

Darryl Blackstock, Ahmad Brooks, Dennis Haley and Kai Parham might be the best foursome at their position in the country, and not just because the Cavaliers choose a 3-4 alignment.

Only, you wouldn't have known it on Oct. 16, when Florida State rolled to 470 yards of total offense and averaged 7.1 yards a play. Tailbacks Lorenzo Booker and Leon Washington combined to run for 191 yards and three touchdowns.

"We have another opportunity, a chance to show people we're better than that,'' said Haley, a graduate student in his first full season as a starter at outside linebacker.

The other three linebackers had a combined 48 starts among them before this season, even though Brooks and Parham are sophomores and Blackstock is a junior.

As they've grown, so has Virginia, from a 9-5 season in '02 to this year's 7-1 mark (4-1 in the ACC, tied with Virginia Tech for the league lead).

At 6-foot-1, 247 pounds, Haley is the shortest of the group. Brooks (6-4, 260), Blackstock (6-4, 240) and Parham (6-3, 250) fit the mold Coach Al Groh was looking for when he quit his job as New York Jets coach to return to his alma mater and replace George Welsh in 2001.

"Those are the kind of players we're trying to fit into the system,'' Groh said recently. "We're trying to recruit NFL-type linebackers here. ... They look like it, and they're playing pretty well.''

Brooks gets the most attention, and not only because he has the athleticism and speed to be a kick returner (he lined up deep and awed his teammates with a 40-yard return against Temple in the season opener).

Lately, Brooks' play only has accelerated talk that he might leave for the NFL after this season.

In last week's 16-0 victory over Maryland, Brooks had two interceptions, including one in which his fully outstretched frame was all that separated the Terrapins from a long-range hookup that might have helped get them back into the game.

Groh said the Cavaliers might not have chosen that pass coverage if not for Brooks' combination of size and ability. He leads the team in tackles (8.0 a game), tackles for a loss (seven) and quarterback pressures (nine), and shares the lead for sacks (5½) with Blackstock.

"Ahmad is a player of significant talent,'' Groh said, in what for him amounts to wild hyperbole.

Haley said Brooks shares a common disposition with his position mates. One that is suited for games such as Saturday's against Miami.

"There's a lot of personality in our linebackers. A lot of energy and a lot of excitement on the football field,'' Haley said. "We didn't get the job done at Florida State, but here we are. We're 7-1, we have another big game and it's going to be fun.

"We're all excited about it, and we'll be up for it.''

Doug Carlson covers the ACC for the Tampa Tribune.