By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the UVa football program, they’re trailblazers of sorts.
Defensive lineman Will Hill enrolled at the University in January 2009, and quarterback Michael Strauss followed 12 months later.
“As I told these guys, ‘You’re kind of the model,’ ” said Mike London, the Cavaliers’ first-year coach. “Without a doubt, they know they carry the opportunities of any future midyear candidates on their shoulders.”
At many schools in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, it’s not uncommon to see multiple recruits enroll in the middle of an academic year. That allows them to go through spring practice, accelerates their development as college players and, in most cases, strengthens their new teams.
At UVa, Hill was the first football recruit to start classes midyear since linebacker Ahmad Brooks in 2003.
Moreover, there was little precedent for the practice at UVa when Brooks was allowed to begin classes that January. With very few exceptions, first-year students at Virginia have enrolled in the summer, and Brooks’ troubled college career didn’t help the football staff build a convincing argument in favor of midyear admissions.
UVa continued to consider candidates on a case-by-case basis, though, and then-football coach Al Groh was allowed to add Hill in January 2009.
Hill handled the transition to college life well last spring, which helped clear the way for Strauss’ admission in January. Strauss’ experience at UVa has been positive, too, and that increases the likelihood that more midyear recruits will follow.
“At least there’s a track record,” London said. “If you present a student-athlete with the right profile, there’s a chance it can get done.”
Hill graduated in December 2008 from Lafayette High in Williamsburg, then moved into a room in Hancock dorm the next month.
“I would say it wasn’t that difficult,” Hill said. “Probably after the first two days I found my way around pretty well, and I just pretty much integrated in with everybody else. Classes weren’t too hard.”
For Hill, who’s interested in biology, the biggest challenge his first semester was time management.
“In the school day [in high school], you go from 7:30 [a.m.] to 2 [p.m.] and then you go to practice, and then after that you just have time for homework,” said Hill, who lived in the Faulkner apartments this year.
“But here, you have class and then you’re off and then you have class. You have to know when to study, when to eat, when to take a nap, and then you’re juggling football with all of that.”
On the field, Hill proved a quick study. He played in all 12 games as a true freshman last season and was in for 84 snaps in all: 19 on defense and 65 on special teams.
An end in Groh’s trademark 3-4 scheme, the 6-4, 265-pound Hill is a tackle in the 4-3 defense that London installed. He emerged from spring practice as a second-teamer.
“It’s fun,” Hill said of the position change. “Something new. I’m still learning.”
On the depth chart released at the end of the spring practice, Strauss is listed as a co-No. 2 at QB, along with Ross Metheny. Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and strength-and-conditioning coach Brandon Hourigan deserve much of the credit for Strauss’ strides.
The 6-2 Strauss has gained about 15 pounds since arriving on Grounds and now weighs around 215. He’s also lowered his 40-yard dash time.
“I felt I got a lot better from Day One,” Strauss said. “Coach Lazor really helped me out a lot, and I definitely progressed a lot in the weight room with Coach Hourigan.”
In December, Strauss graduated from Gulliver Prep in Miami. When he enrolled at UVa the next month, he was assigned a room in Hereford Residential College. Hill had a roommate last spring. Strauss lives alone.
“I’ve kind of adapted to it,” he said.
It helps that some of his closest friends on the team, including quarterback Marc Verica, defensive tackle Nick Jenkins and offensive lineman Landon Bradley, live within walking distance of Hereford.
“I’m always over there,” Strauss said, “so it’s kind of worked out OK for me that way.”
If he’d come in with another football recruit, that might have eased his adjustment, Strauss said. But there are advantages to being thrust into an unfamiliar environment.
“It’s definitely helped me be a lot more independent,” Strauss said. “When I first got here, I had to make friends. Now I’ve got my group of friends, and it definitely helps you out a lot. At the beginning, you’ve kind of got to do a lot of things on your own.
“[Defensive lineman] Justin Renfrow, when I first got here, he helped me out a lot, walked me around, showed me how to do things. Same thing with Verica.”
“When I first got here,” Strauss recalled, “he just kept asking, ‘How’s everything going?’ Making sure everything was all right, just letting me know everything will get easier, and it did.”
He’s something of a veteran now. When he first arrived at UVa, though, “I felt lower than a first-year student,” Strauss recalled.
“Because [other] first-years all come in as a group, and it’s a lot easier to learn things and how things are done. But I come in here midyear, and I’m asking these questions, and they look at me like, ‘What do you mean you don’t know? It’s halfway through the year.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I just got here.’ “
Strauss said he hopes to finish the semester with a 3.0 grade-point average. He’s young for his class — Strauss won’t turn 18 until July — and won’t be upset if he redshirts in the fall.
“I’m just going to do whatever I can to help this team,” he said.
Whatever happens, Strauss believes that, having gone through spring practice, he has a significant jump on the other members of his recruiting class.
“I’m trying to lead this class and want to try to show them how to do it, show all of them how it’s supposed to be done,” said Strauss, who plans to live with Renfrow at Lambeth Field in 2010-11.
“As a quarterback, you gotta be able to lead, and that’s one way to start, being able to lead your class. If you can do that, that’s a good step.”
Final exams end this week at UVa, and Strauss will be back in South Florida in time for the senior prom at Gulliver Prep. He’ll take part in graduation exercises there May 28. He admits he misses his friends, misses his family, misses all that Miami has to offer.
“There’s a big change when you come up here, but I did it for a reason,” Strauss said. “It’s definitely paid off. If I could do it again, I’d do it the same way. I don’t have any regrets. It’s been the best decision for me.”
London calls them the wave of the future: football recruits who want to graduate from high school early and enroll in college midyear.
Like Strauss, Hill has no regrets about his decision to follow that path.
“I would do it again,” Hill said. “I really haven’t come up with any cons. They’re all pros.”