“If I didn’t love the game I would have not played against N.C. State,” Blizzard said. “I am still having problems with headaches, but I went out there and played about 50 snaps. I probably didn’t play that well, but I played. If I feel like I can play, I will.”
Blizzard caught one pass for five yards against the Wolfpack and caught just three passes for 29 yards in the season opener versus Florida State. Ranked as the No. 11 tight end in the nation by The Sporting News in the preseason, Blizzard said he is anxious to return to the form that made him an All-
ACC candidate coming into the season.
“I am still trying to put some weight back on and I still feel weak,” he said. “[Tuesday] was my second day of lifting, so I am trying to get back to full strength, including my speed and stamina. I was at 265 [pounds] and I lost down to 240. Now I am up to about 250.”
Blizzard also said he looks forward to the challenge of sharing the field this Saturday with another of the league’s top tight ends. Virginia’s Heath Miller earned freshman All-America honors and set an Atlantic Coast Conference record with nine touchdown receptions in 2002. And forget about a sophomore jinx. Miller has helped the Cavaliers absorb the losses of graduated superstar Billy McMullen and Micheal McGrew, the team’s leading returning receiver who will miss the entire season due to a broken leg.
Miller has taken over as UVA’s top receiver this season and is coming off his a career-high seven catches for 94 yards against Wake Forest last Saturday.
“He’s tall, he’s plenty fast enough and he has good hands,” UNC head coach John Bunting said.
The Tar Heels have caught very few breaks this season, and it appears they will not catch the Cavaliers with last year’s league leading passer Matt Schaub showing any lingering effects from a shoulder injury.
“He’s back,” Bunting said. “He’s throwing the deep out from the opposite sideline. He’s got all the throws and good touch. What he did to us last year is similar to what [Philip] Rivers did to us. He’s smart, a playmaker and he’s very similar to Rivers.”
The reigning ACC Player of the Year took a shot to his shoulder in the first series in the opener versus Duke. He did not return until last week at Wake Forest, but did so in triumphant fashion by hitting on his first five passes en route to a 203-yard day and leading the Cavs in a come-from-behind rally to win.
“He was much more ready than I had expected going into the week,” Virginia head coach Al Groh said. “He was in good rhythm and had good timing. He missed some looks that might have gotten us some more yards, and he had a couple of interceptions that probably wouldn’t happen later in the year. But overall, it was pretty obvious that we couldn’t have won the game without him and that’s all that counts.”
While Bunting continues to toil with the idea of getting his freshmen more and more playing time, Virginia is reaping the benefits of starting as many as nine newcomers last season and has already played six this season. Duke is the only ACC team to return more starters in 2003.
“One of the reasons was that the players we utilized last year had a very high talent level,”
Groh said. “They all had a high resume level of success – individually and on teams for most of their careers. They didn’t really understand the whole deal of why freshmen aren’t supposed to be good players. They were like, ‘Hey, I’ve always been a good player and I expect to be a good player again.’”
Along with Melik Brown, another true freshman will start at linebacker against Virginia, Bunting said on Wednesday. Although he stopped short of naming the player, the most likely choice is Larry Edwards.
“That’s helpful in the long run,” Bunting said. “Melik Brown is going to be a lot better next year, and he’s getting better as the season progresses because he’s playing more and getting those reps. Larry Edwards and Fred Sparkman have played and they’ll play more this week.”
Common ground is not difficult to find between Groh and Bunting. Both have coached football in Chapel Hill, and both have spent many concurrent years around the National Football League. On a few occasions, their paths have crossed. But the closest contact likely came when Bunting, then a NFL assistant, was being considered for a position on Groh’s staff.
“Al has his way, and I don’t know a lot about that,” Bunting said. “I do know that every place Al’s been, he’s been very successful. I’ve known him for quite sometime. I’ve got a lot of respect for the way he does things.”
Groh’s feelings are reciprocated. But neither coach believes that the similarities in their backgrounds will aid the other in this week’s strategy planning; or at least they’re not letting that be known publicly.
“All I really know [about Carolina] is the team I see on the field,” said Groh, the 2002 ACC Coach of the Year. “I can’t speak from a program standpoint what goes on or what their thoughts are. There was a common exposure, while we were never in the same organizations through the years [in the NFL], and there are many things that are common traits throughout all the teams.”
The Cavaliers have won 12 of the last 16 meetings against UNC and one of the keys to their success has been keeping the Tar Heel offense in check. Since 1979, Carolina has scored more than 27 pints just twice. In the last 20 years, UNC has averaged 250.3 yards in its wins, but just 132.2 yards in the losses.
However, this season the Tar Heels must put up a bunch of points to be competitive, which should bode well for a team desperately in need of a win.
“We need to make improvement this week against a fine Virginia team,” Bunting said. “We hope to continue to play good on offense. Darian Durant is doing some great things, and our receivers are doing some good things, some of the backs…tight ends…Bobby Blizzard is back. That’s good, but we need to get a lot better on defense and we all know that.”
In last season’s match-up in Charlottesville, Carolina skated out to a 21-0 halftime lead behind three touchdown passes by Durant. He rang up 226 yards, completing 14 of 18 passes before suffering torn ligaments in the thumb on his throwing hand.
But much like Jerricho Cotchery did on the first play of the second half last week, Marquis Weeks opened the third quarter with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and sparked the Cavaliers to a 37-point scoring outburst to comeback and defeat the Tar Heels 37-27. Of Carolina’s 451 yards of total offense, only 98 came by way of the rush.