By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE – If all goes as planned, Patrick Slebonick will start law school next summer. His future does not include the NFL, and he’s fine with that.
That doesn’t mean Slebonick, who graduated from UVa in December with a bachelor’s in government, has lost his passion for football. The offensive guard from Stafford County received an unexpected extension on his college career this year, and he feels blessed.
“This is actually the most excited I’ve been for a training camp,” Slebonick said today at University Hall. “After you’ve been away from the team for two or three months, like I was, you really appreciate being part of a team and being a Division I athlete.”
In 2008, Slebonick was a vital part of UVa’s blocking schemes on punts and field-goal attempts. The Cavaliers switched to a spread protection package on punts after the 2007 regular season, with Slebonick lining up in front of punter Jimmy Howell, and they had none blocked last year.
After the season, however, Virginia coach Al Groh, citing a lack of scholarships, said Slebonick would not be invited back for a fifth year.
“That was a little bit of a blow, I’m not going to lie,” said Slebonick, who’d redshirted in 2005.
His football career was over, Slebonik thought, but his scholarship was good through the end of the 2008-09 academic year, so he enrolled in UVa’s Curry School of Education for the second semester and began work on a master’s degree.
Then, on the eve of spring practice, Slebonick got a call from special-teams coordinator Ron Prince. Stop by the McCue Center and let’s talk, Prince told Slebonick.
A former offensive coordinator and offensive-line coach at UVa, Prince had spent the previous three seasons as head man at Kansas State. But he was back at Virginia in a new role and liked what he’d seen of Slebonick on tape.
“He asked me if I wanted to come back as a special-teams guy,” recalled Slebonick.
Prince, who’d recruited and coached Slebonick before leaving for K-State, proved persuasive. “We already had that connection,” said Slebonick, who accepted Prince’s invitation and rejoined the team in the spring.
UVa’s coaching staff couldn’t promise Slebonick a scholarship for the 2009 season, and he’s still not sure how that will play out. Either way, Slebonick said, it “would be hard to get out of it at this point. I might be scrambling to come up with money to pay my tuition check, but I think it’s safe to say I’ll be around [this season].”
Howell said: “It’s great to have another experienced person coming back, especially with him probably being the most important person on the punt team, along with the snapper.”
Slebonick, who turns 22 on Thursday, hopes to earn his master’s from UVa next spring before embarking on another academic journey. He did well on the LSAT and is in the process of applying to law schools, including those at William and Mary, Washington and Lee, Richmond, George Mason and, not surprisingly, Virginia.
“I could definitely do three more years here,” Slebonick said. “I love Charlottesville. It’s enough of the city, with a little country atmosphere.”
As a schoolboy at North Stafford High, Slebonick chose UVa over Virginia Tech, West Virginia and N.C. State. He’s distinguished himself academically in college but never has cracked the rotation on the O-line. That’s one reason he so appreciates his role on special teams.
Even when he wasn’t playing, Slebonick said, he felt like a full-fledged member of the team, “but you definitely feel completely different when you’re out there basically running the punt team, which can make or break a game. I just took the job: that was my job and my contribution.”
Slebonick, who stands 6-5, enters training camp in superb condition. He’s down to 280 pounds, “the lightest I’ve been since I was a freshman in high school.” In addition to his blocking duties, he’ll provide depth at long-snapper, where Danny Aiken returns as the starter.
One last training camp awaits big No. 74. Friday can’t arrive too soon for Slebonick.
“Now it’s not really a burden,” he said. “It’s what I’m doing to experience one of the greatest things I could do at this stage.”