By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The recent injury to Matt Conrath changed Zane Parr’s life in at least two ways.
First and foremost, it meant more playing time at defensive end for Parr, a 6-6, 270-pound redshirt sophomore. But it’s also meant a flurry of requests from media members wanting to talk to Parr, and he’s not used to the spotlight’s glare.
“I love playing, but this interview stuff is so new to me,” Parr said Thursday afternoon. “Sometimes I get stuck on an answer and end up kind of stuttering. But if they keep asking me for interviews, it means I’m playing well, so I can’t be too mad about it.”
The interest in Parr is understandable. He’s emerged as one of the better stories in a program that prides itself on its “next-man-up mentality.”
He began the season as the No. 3 defensive end — behind Nate Collins, who’s a senior, and Conrath, a redshirt sophomore — and played primarily in passing situations, when his job description was simple: Get the quarterback.
By the fourth game, a 16-3 win at North Carolina, he’d started to sparkle in that role, and Parr’s strong play continued a week later in UVa’s 47-7 rout of Indiana.
“He’s probably the best pure pass-rusher on our team,” Collins said. “He has a lot of speed. He sort of has the outside linebacker’s mentality, so that makes pass-rushing come second nature to him.”
In the sixth game, Conrath severely sprained his ankle in the final minute of the second quarter against Maryland, and Parr suddently was no longer a specialist. He played the rest of the game at right end and helped UVa rally for a 20-9 win at College Park.
A week later, Parr made his first start and recorded a career-high 12 tackles in a 34-9 loss to Georgia Tech.
“In the dime” — the defense in which UVa uses six defensive backs — “it’s more of a mindset of get to the quarterback, try to get a sack or a [tackle for loss],” Parr said. “In the regular defense, it’s stop the run, try to knock blockers back and clog up the holes.
“It’s a totally different mindset, but it’s still a make-plays defense.”
No. 92’s performance against the Yellow Jackets prompted Al Groh to say that “if everybody in a Virginia uniform had had the same kind of day as Zane Parr did, we would have liked the looks of things a lot better.”
Conrath is healing, but he won’t be ready to face Duke this weekend, so look for Parr to start again. Fans at Scott Stadium will include the football team from Williamsport Area High School, from which he graduated in 2007.
“It’s even more pressure for me to play well,” Parr said with a smile.
He was born and raised in Williamsport, the Pennsylvania town that hosts the Little League World Series each year.
“It’s huge,” he said. “Everyone goes.”
His father had played baseball, as had his maternal grandfather, so it was natural for Parr to grow up loving the sport. And he was good at it. His fastball, he said, once reached 95 mph.
“I always dreamed of playing in the major leagues,” said Parr, a Yankees fan whose favorite players include C.C. Sabathia.
“I loved football as well, but I was a big lefty who threw hard.”
Alas, an elbow injury ended his baseball career prematurely, but Parr had other athletic options. In addition to playing football, he starred in track and field at Williamsport Area High — he placed second in the shot put at the state Class AAA meet — and as a 12th-grader played basketball for the Millionaires.
Hoops helped him reshape his body. As an 11th-grader, Parr stood 6-4 and weighed about 315 pounds, which he carried well.
“I wasn’t sloppy,” he said. “Just a big guy. I was always faster than the kids who were lighter.”
Even so, Parr dropped to 285 pounds for his senior football season, and he shed more weight that winter after joining the hoops team.
“They said, ‘If you’re going to be running up and down the court, you need to lose weight,'” Parr recalled.
By the time he arrived at UVa, he was down to 255. He’s steadily added muscle since then and would like to get to up 280 without sacrificing any speed.
Had he stayed in the 300-pound range, Parr might have been an offensive lineman. But Groh slotted Parr at defensive end from the start, and that’s where he’s stayed.
“He’s not a monster, but he’s got real good athletic ability,” Groh said.
Parr redshirted in 2007. He showed promise as a pass-rusher in 2008, but a torn meniscus in his right knee required surgery and forced him to miss the final five games.
He did not despair.
“I figured it was still early,” Parr said. “Once I got hurt, I just had the mindset that I was going to come back better and stronger and faster than I was last year and hopefully get on the field and help out the team.”
That’s what he’s done. With two sacks, Parr is second on the team, behind Collins, and he’s broken up a pass. He’s become a better practice player, too, according to Groh.
“He’s prepared for the games and improving his game,” Groh said, “and as you can see by watching him, it’s showing up in terms of production.”
Parr said: “It’s like a snowball effect.”