By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – After carrying four times for all of 5 yards against the Miami Hurricanes, Mikell Simpson came off the field in obvious pain. He did not return.
His left collarbone was broken, and his junior season at UVa was over. Somehow, the injury seemed a fitting end to a forgettable season for the tailback from Harrisburg, Pa.
“Pretty much,” Simpson said after a recent practice. “Everything was going downhill. It just finished it off.”
One of the more compelling stories in college football in 2007 was the emergence of Simpson, known to his teammates as “Juice.” He’d been lost in the depths of the depth chart, but pressed into service because of injuries to Virginia’s other tailbacks, Simpson responded with a performance for the ages. He totaled 271 all-purpose yards – 152 receiving and 119 rushing – and scored two touchdowns, including the game-winner, as UVa rallied to edge Maryland at Byrd Stadium on Oct. 20, 2007.
No one-game wonder was Simpson. He rushed 20 times for 170 yards against Texas Tech in the Gator Bowl that season – his most memorable carry was a 96-yard TD run – and UVa players, coaches and fans expected more of the same from Simpson in 2008.
In the opener, however, Simpson gained only 18 yards on six carries against Southern California. Unfortunately for the ‘Hoos, that wasn’t an aberration. Only once last season – against Maryland, naturally – did Simpson rush for more than 38 yards. After averaging 5 yards per carry as a sophomore, Simpson saw his average plummet to 3 per carry in 2008.
“I just came out and put too much pressure on myself,” he said. “I wanted to make big plays instead of just letting the game come to me. And it worked out for the negative for me. I gotta take that and learn from it.”
Once his collarbone healed, Simpson focused, as Cedric Peerman had after a disappointing 2006 season, on limiting himself to one cut on runs. Simpson’s 2009 reviews have been encouraging. In UVa’s spring game, he had a 48-yard TD run, and he’s done well in training camp this month.
Simpson has shown “very good focus and a real high level of consistency,” Al Groh said this morning.
His confidence, which once was lost, has steadily returned, said Simpson. “After the season I sat down and realized why I didn’t have a successful season out there last year, and once I got into practices, I started applying that, and things started happening the way they did in ’07.”
How much the 6-1, 200-pound Simpson is able to contribute, Groh told reporters last month in Greensboro, N.C., will “be a very significant thing, clearly, and for all the other issues that we’ve addressed here, questions that people have asked about different spots, that’s probably one of the bigger questions on the team.
“If we have the Mikell Simpson that did just a terrific job for us the second half of ’07, then we’ll have the type of back that any team would like to have. If it’s the way it started out last season – I mean, you watched it, it was painful sometimes.
“He lost his way along in there somehow, his style of running, but the same thing had happened to Cedric a couple years before, and he got back on track with it, so we’re hoping that the same thing happens here.”
Simpson’s struggles in some ways mirrored those of the team. Virginia, which won nine games in 2007, dropped to 5-7 last year.
“It was a big disappointment last year, especially coming off the season I had and the season that the team had,” Simpson said. “But we learned from that and are using it as motivation coming into this season.”
Simpson is the Cavaliers’ most experienced tailback. The most talented is probably Torrey Mack, a 6-0, 190-pound redshirt freshman. Other candidates for playing time at that position include senior Rashawn Jackson, junior Keith Payne and sophomore Max Milien.
History suggests that UVa will need more than one tailback this fall. As Groh heads into his ninth season as coach at his alma mater, he knows all too well the toll that injuries have taken on his top tailbacks, from Antwoine Womack to Alvin Pearman to Wali Lundy to Jason Snelling to Peerman to Simpson.
“It is a position where durability’s an issue,” Groh said. “If you have two players, say as Clemson was able to have with [James] Davis and [C.J.] Spiller, over the course of the season, it’s probably advantageous for your team in a lot of respects.
“You really have to have three put-in-the-game players in order to always have two available. So while we do have in Mikell and Mack two players who have good open-field skills and long-range speed, they’re not necessarily of the big-back variety, so the durability issue there is certainly one that has the possibility of coming back.
“We’d like to say that in a perfect world you could give the ball to one guy 25 times a game for 12 weeks, but there are not many guys who can hold up to that.”