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By Jeff White
jwhite@virginia.edu

CHARLOTTESVILLE – The first practice of his final college training camp behind him, outside linebacker Aaron Clark walked toward the locker room, tired but happy this afternoon.

He still wears a brace on his surgically repaired right knee, but that’s more a precaution than anything else. Clark said he’s at full strength.

“Going through spring ball was still tough, because I was just off my injury and I still hadn’t done the first [offseason] workout,” Clark said. “But being able to get a full offseason workout program under my belt and to be playing football again, I feel like a different person.”

Clark, a graduate of Rockbridge County High, earned a starting job in UVa’s 3-4 defense during training camp last year. But in the third quarter of the opener against Southern California, a torn ACL ended Clark’s season. And instead of playing, he found himself cheering for – and tutoring – the player who replaced him in the starting lineup, his close friend and classmate Denzel Burrell.

“He was very supportive, basically as soon as he went down,” Burrell said. “It almost really brought us even closer in a way.”

Sophomore Cameron Johnson figures to challenge for a starting job this season, but Clark and Burrell opened camp as the first-team outside linebackers.

“It’s real good to have him back out here,” said Burrell, who started the final 11 games in 2008. “It was a tremendous loss the way he went down, obviously … Just to hear him out here, he’s one of the biggest vocal leaders on the team. I’m just happy to see him across from me.”

Against USC, Clark made five tackles, including one for loss, before getting hurt. He’d played as a true freshman in 2005, so he had a redshirt year available, but that didn’t immediately occur to Clark.

“My first thought was, ‘Wow, I can’t be out there to help my team out,'” he recalled. “It was hard for me. You train with these guys all offseason, and then to go out in the first game like that, it’s really hard on your psyche.

“But these guys are wonderful. They rallied around me and said, ‘Hey, now you get to play with us again next year.’ That was really the first time I thought about that, when my teammates came and said, ‘Hey, we get another chance to play with you. So it’ll be all right. Just stay with us and be our support.'”

Clark earned his bachelor’s in foreign affairs in May and will compete as a graduate student this fall. Burrell, a fifth-year senior, is finishing work on his sociology degree. They’ve spent much of their college careers battling each other for playing time, but it’s never hurt their friendship.

“We tried to help each other get the spot over one another,” Clark said. “So it was kind of funny, but it was a good deal.”

The players wore helmets today but, because of NCAA rules, were not in pads. This is training camp No. 5 for Clark. What advice does he give to teammates barely out of high school?

“You gotta be ready for the month grind, but it’s one of those things where we all have to come together and help each other through it,” Clark said. “Shoot, even as an older guy, I still get worn down and beat up, so I need those young guys’ energy to help me sometimes. So it’s definitely a team effort when it comes to helping your boys through camp.”

Virginia’s first game is Sept. 5 against William and Mary at Scott Stadium. Much work must be done before the opener.

“Of course we love it, because we’re back out here,” Burrell said. “But there’s definitely a little bit of rust involved, I feel like, with the first practice. And from here, I feel like the only thing we can do is go up and improve.”

To Clark, the best thing about the first practice was “probably just getting back to playing football. It’s been I don’t even know how many months since we last strapped up, and it’s good just to get the team back out here, and all your guys running plays and doing drills. You can work out your whole life, but football’s a whole different [deal].”

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One of the recruits who signed with UVa in February, Cody Wallace, has left the football program and the University for personal reasons.

An offensive lineman from Moorestown, N.J., Wallace took part in a summer program at UVa before leaving. He will not be enrolled at the University this academic year.

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Riko Smalls, a redshirt freshman who worked at quarterback last season, practiced with the wide receivers this afternoon. Also, true freshman Perry Jones, who’s listed on the roster as a defensive back, worked with the running backs.

In five playoff games last season for Chesapeake’s Oscar Smith High, the Group AAA, Division state champion, Jones rushed for 949 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Another newcomer from Tidewater, Javanti Sparrow, practiced with the defensive backs. He’s listed as a WR/DB in the media guide.

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UVa’s first group in its dime defense comprised Ras-I Dowling, Chris Cook, Chase Minnifield, Rodney McLeod, Dom Joseph and Corey Mosley in the secondary, Billy Schautz at linebacker, Cameron Johnson and Aaron Taliaferro at rush end, and Nate Collins and John-Kevin Dolce at tackle.

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