By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — As holiday gifts go, this one qualifies as extra-special for Mike London. Ras-I Dowling has decided to return to UVa for his senior year.

“I thought about it a lot,” Dowling said Wednesday morning. “I think it’ll be in my best interest to get my degree, work on my game and be at my maximum when it’s time for me to go to the NFL.”

A 6-2, 200-pound cornerback, Dowling was named to the all-ACC second team as a sophomore and again as a junior. In 2010, he’ll anchor a secondary that also returns such players as cornerbacks Chase Minnifield and Dom Joseph and safeties Corey Mosley and Rodney McLeod.

Obviously that’s probably the biggest recruit we’ll get this year,” said UVa assistant coach Anthony Poindexter, who was an All-America safety for George Welsh in the ’90s.

“I’m happy to have him back. I know it was a tough decision for the kid, and it’s the same decision I had to make, but obviously our program is going to benefit from him being back, not only on the field, but off the field, too. He’s a class act.”

Dowling played as a true freshman in 2007, when London was UVa’s defensive coordinator. London left in January ’08 to become head coach at the University of Richmond. He returned to UVa early this month to replace Al Groh.

“It helps a lot, knowing the coach that’s coming in,” said Dowling, who’s from Chesapeake. “I know what kind of coach he is.”

Some mock drafts for 2010 projected Dowling as a first-round pick, but he said his family never pressured him to turn pro early.

“They’re going to be behind me 100 percent, so they’re very supportive of any decision that I make,” he said.

The same is true for Poindexter, the Wahoos’ secondary coach this season.

“Dex basically is just like my mom and dad,” Dowling said. “Any decision that I make, he’s behind me 100 percent. Dex has been there from Day One.”

Poindexter knows first-hand the risk a talented player runs by returning to school. In the seventh game of his senior season at UVa, Poindexter suffered extensive ligament damage in his left knee, and he never fully recovered from that catastrophic injury.

Had he left UVa after his junior season, Poindexter probably would have been a first-round draft choice. He plummeted to the seventh round after his senior year and then had a brief NFL career.

Of Dowling’s options, Poindexter said, “All I want to do is help him get all the right information so he can make a good, sound decision. After he got the information, he said he wanted to come back, but I would have supported him either way it went.”

As a junior, Dowling had three interceptions, broke up a team-high eight passes, forced two fumbles and recovered a fumble. He averaged 4.8 tackles per game and had 2.5 tackles for loss, including a sack. He struggled in the regular-season finale against Virginia Tech, though, and sees several areas in which he can improve.

“It wasn’t the season that I wanted it to be. It could have been a lot better,” Dowling said. “I have a lot to work on this offseason … I can get better on my tackling and my reaction time, reacting more to the receivers. My whole game basically. And I can be more of a leader out there.”

Dowling, 21, needs to “just keep playing,” Poindexter said. “Obviously, the kid’s got a lot of upside. He’s big, he’s tall, he’s long.

“There are certain things that, if he keeps maturing as a player, he’ll get better at. Basically all he’s got to do is hone some things. He’s got a lot of God-given gifts you can’t teach.”

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