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By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE – If he’s not the most talented player on the University of Virginia football team, he’s on the short list. He made the all-ACC second team as a sophomore last year and was the only Cavalier named to the preseason all-ACC team last month.

But cornerback Ras-I Dowling, his distinctive given name notwithstanding, has kept a low profile since enrolling at UVa. He plays a position often associated with players whose confidence borders on – and occasionally crosses into – cockiness, but comes across as a soft-spoken and unassuming. No Deion Sanders is he.

“I’m all about the team,” Dowling said after practice this afternoon, “not really about myself.”

A few minutes earlier, Al Groh had stopped to talk about Dowling, a potential star at a position where UVa has struggled to produce playmakers in recent years.

“He’s not a brash guy,” Groh said, “but as his skills develop and he can see that he’s able to handle a lot of different deals, his picture of what he can become is getting bigger and clearer, and so that’s given him the confidence. With him, it’s more a confidence of, ‘If I really aim high I’ve got a chance to get there,’ rather than the type of confidence where he says, ‘I’m The Man.'”

Virginia’s projected starters at cornerback – fifth-year senior Chris Cook and Dowling – might be the ACC’s top tandem. They’re definitely among the league’s biggest.

Cook is listed at 6-2, 210 pounds; Dowling, at 6-2, 200. That’s part of what makes Dowling special, according to Groh, who cited such former NFL greats as Rod Woodson, Mike Haynes and Willie Brown.

“I wouldn’t compare him to Hall of Fame corners, but those are guys who were able to go beyond being good and distinguish themselves as being really superior,” Groh said.

“They have size to go with athletic ability … He’s got that multiplicity to his game.”

A graduate of Deep Creek High in Chesapeake, Dowling spent the 2006-07 academic year at Hargrave Military Academy. As a true freshman in 2007, he played in the Wahoos’ final 12 games and led the team with nine pass break-ups. He also had two interceptions to tie for the team lead.

As a sophomore, Dowling led UVa in both categories, breaking up 11 passes and picking off three. He also had five tackles for loss. Two of his interceptions came at Duke, where he also made a career-high eight tackles despite missing a significant portion of the game with cramps.

“He’s got a sense of where the ball’s going,” Groh said. “Some guys, they’ve just got a sense for it. Like in basketball, some guys just get steals. They just have a sense of how to play the passing lanes.”

So, how can Dowling elevate his game this season?

“Well,” Groh said, “one thing is to stay out there all year, which he didn’t and which dramatically affected him last year.”

A hamstring injury slowed Dowling during training camp, and he missed the opener against Southern California. He cramped up at Duke and, three weeks later, hurt his back against North Carolina.

“It is frustrating when you’re not playing,” Dowling said, “because you practice all year-round to get ready for the games.”

Could those health problems have been avoided? Maybe so, Dowling said, if he’d kept himself more hydrated and taken better care of his body. To that end, he met with Rob Skinner, UVa’s director of sports nutrition, and set up a plan that has Dowling eating better.

Groh said he’s seen other changes in No. 19, including increased self-confidence.

“Part of it is just the maturity of the player, but in his particular case it’s also a demonstrated performance to go with that maturity,” Groh said. “It really started in the spring when his work became purposefulness or every play, and he was really outstanding in the summer program.”

Dowling said: “I’m playing with more urgency now, playing hard and not taking stuff for granted. Not coming out here lazy and not wanting to practice. I come here and practice hard every day.”

Cornerback might be the Cavaliers’ deepest position. New secondary coach Anthony Poindexter’s options at that spot include Chase Minnifield, Mike Parker, Dom Joseph and, of course, all-ACC candidates Cook and Dowling.

“We’re just trying to make the team better,” Dowling said when asked about the duo’s goals. “If both of us make plays, then that’ll make the team better.”

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