By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On their first day in full pads this summer, UVa’s football players practiced in suffocating heat and humidity Tuesday. Sweat poured off them under a merciless sun.
All those early-morning sprints, all those runs up Observatory Hill, all those workouts in the sandpit? They were to prepare the players for days like this.
“You definitely feel [the heat],” Matt Conrath said, “but you’ve got to have the mentality that you’ve just got to push through it.”
Conrath, a 6-7, 270-pound redshirt junior, welcomes the discomfort. It beats standing around watching his teammates practice, which is what he did in the spring while recovering from ankle surgery.
“It feels great to be back,” Conrath said.
He started at defensive end and made five tackles Nov. 28 against Virginia Tech in UVa’s regular-season finale. By the time Conrath was cleared to play again, the Wahoos’ defense had been transformed.
Mike London had replaced Al Groh as head coach, and Jim Reid had replaced Groh as defensive coordinator. The defensive-line coach, Jeff Hanson, was new, too. Groh’s trademark’s 3-4 defense had been scrapped in favor of the 4-3. And Conrath had a new position.
Does that mean Conrath’s days as an end are over? Not necessarily, Hanson said after practice Tuesday. But Conrath is likely to spend most of his time at tackle, where he’s impressed thus far in training camp.
“Matt’s done very well,” Hanson said. “Really, when you’re out of it for a spring, it takes you awhile to get back as far as the fundamental things, and he’s done really well the first five days of practice.
“I think Matt is a veteran guy and a very intelligent football player, and he could play any one of the four positions [on the line]. But we’re going to probably play him at defensive tackle and use him some at defensive end.”
Conrath started all 12 games as a redshirt freshman in 2008. He missed two games with a high-ankle sprain last year but started all the others and, after the season, received the Frank McCue Award as Virginia’s outstanding interior lineman.
Clearly, he was comfortable in the 3-4, a scheme that’s not especially popular at the college level. But Conrath admits that he doesn’t miss being responsible for two gaps, a requirement for a 3-4 lineman.
“No,” he said, smiling. “It was fun, and I learned a lot from Coach Groh, but I’m excited to get in this new defense.”
At Saint Rita High School in Chicago, Conrath played tackle in a 4-3, so he’s not unfamiliar with the scheme. “But I’m still having to learn a lot,” he said. “Coach Hanson’s a great coach, and he’s helping with me that.”
Virginia’s top three defensive tackles are juniors Nick Jenkins and Conrath, who are roommates, and senior John-Kevin Dolce. Hanson considers all of them starters.
Dolce, a reserve for most of his college career, is a team captain who appears poised for a big season. “He had a great spring,” Hanson said, “and he’s come out here now and he’s having a terrific summer camp.”
At 250 pounds, the 6-2 Dolce is light for a major-college tackle, but he’s one of the strongest players on the team. At 6-3, 275, Jenkins is more of a prototypical defensive tackle.
Conrath is unusually tall for the position, as is Hunter Steward, a 6-7, 285-pound redshirt freshman who recently moved from offensive tackle to defensive tackle.
The key, Conrath said, is “to focus on staying low and keeping my leverage. Because if I don’t, and I stand up, then I’m going to be driven back.”
Asked about Conrath’s and Steward’s height, Hanson said that for “some [tall] guys that aren’t athletic, it’s very hard to stay low. But for those two guys, they’re athletic guys, and they can bend, and therefore they can keep their pads down.”
Another towering defensive lineman, 6-7, 280-pound Brent Urban, is recovering from knee surgery, but he’s expected to be cleared for practice next month. Hanson said Urban will work at end.
“There’s a lot of advantages to height,” Hanson said. “We look for height, both inside and outside, because of the fact that it’s hard to throw over those guys. They get their hands up in the throwing lanes and knock a lot of balls down.”
The second-team defensive tackles have been sophomore Will Hill (6-4, 265) and redshirt freshman Justin Renfrow (6-6, 280), who like Sean Singletary and Sammy Zeglinski before him graduated from Penn Charter in Philadelphia.
The ends include starters Zane Parr and Cameron Johnson and backups Jeremiah Mathis, Jake Snyder and Billy Schautz. Parr and Johnson are juniors, Schautz is a sophomore, and Mathis and Snyder are redshirt freshmen.
So Hanson is working with a young group. Dolce, in fact, is the only D-lineman who won’t have eligibility left after this season.
“We’re progressing,” Hanson said. “We’ve got some things we’ve got to keep working on, each individual guy does, but they’re working hard. They’re focused, and that’s the main thing. And they’re hungry. And as long as that happens, we got a chance.”
MAY THE BEST MAN WIN: Virginia has seven scholarship tailbacks in training camp: fifth-year seniors Keith Payne and Raynard Horne, sophomores Torrey Mack and Perry Jones, redshirt freshman Dominique Wallace and true freshmen Kevin Parks and Khalek Shepherd.
At some point soon, London said Tuesday, the coaching staff will have to decide who’s in line to play Sept. 4 in the season-opener against Richmond. For now, though, the competition at tailback is helping the team — and the players.
“I tell you, from taking the right steps to the way you catch the ball, to landmarks, they’re all on point, because they’re all being evaluated,” London said. “It’s really neat to sit in a meeting and hear them talk to each other about their landmarks, about how they receive the ball and different things. Because they’re all rooting for one another, but obviously I know deep down inside they want to be the guy, or the next guy, in the game.”
INDIVIDUAL ATTENTION: Near the end of most practices in training camp, London divides his team into two groups. The veterans go to the far field to run gassers, under the direction of strength-and-conditioning coach Brandon Hourigan, and the first-year players stay on the field closest to the McCue Center.
“It’s an opportunity to get them some one-on-one time with their position coaches,” London said, without the vets around.
“Because right now [during regular practice] there’s line of eight, lines of 15,” London said, “so they’re getting work, but they’re not getting the hands-on work that they need.”
The concept isn’t new, London said. “We did that at Richmond, and we did it when I was here before. I thought it was a great idea, and we’re going to continue to do it. It’s part of their development. With some of [the freshmen] we’re deciding here pretty soon whether or not they’re going to be in the mix to play this year.”
OPEN HOUSE: The Cavaliers’ annual “Meet the Team Day” is Sunday at Scott Stadium. Gates open at 1:30 p.m., and players will be available for photographs and autographs from 2 to 3:30.
Parking is free in the stadium’s East and West lots.