By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In one press conference, Raynard Horne was the subject of more public discussion by his teammates and coaches at UVa than in the previous four seasons combined.
Sophomore Perry Jones may be the first running back to carry the football for the Cavaliers this weekend at Scott Stadium, but Horne, a 6-0, 210-pound fifth-year senior from Baltimore, isn’t likely to be a spectator for long.
UVa hosts Richmond at 6 p.m. Saturday in the season-opener for both teams. On the depth chart released Monday, Jones and Horne share the top line at tailback. Jones and Horne are also the top return men on kickoffs.
As stories go, this is an improbable one. Had UVa retained Al Groh after last season, Horne might well have not been invited back in 2010. He failed to crack the rotation at tailback during Groh’s tenure, and the ’09 season found Horne at a new position, wide receiver.
But the University fired Groh after a 3-9 season, and his successor, Mike London, gave Horne a chance to win the new coaching staff over. Horne didn’t squander his opportunity.
“Raynard has done a great job of doing the things that I’ve asked him to do over the summer — you know, academically, socially, from a football standpoint — and he’s moved himself and put himself in a position where he warrants [a] close look,” London said at the first of his weekly Monday sessions with reporters.
“He’s done things in practice and in scrimmages that have made you do a double take.”
In 2007, Horne appeared in only one game and didn’t carry the ball. A year later, he rushed 5 times for 12 yards. Horne had a greater impact on special teams as a redshirt sophomore, playing on four of the six units. For his work, he received the George Welsh Special Teams award.
Then came 2009, and Horne slipped back into the shadows. Still, quarterback Marc Verica isn’t shocked that Horne, as a fifth-year senior, is contending for a starting job.
“Because for anyone who’s been in this program, especially guys in Raynard’s class, like myself, it was never a secret as to what Raynard’s ability was,” Verica said. “There’s no doubt about it, ever since he’s been here, he’s unquestionably always been arguably the most athletic, talented person on the team as far as raw athletic ability, natural speed and strength and size.
“It was just a matter of him kind of fitting in and buying in and really just living up to his potential. But he’s really done a tremendous job this offseason, and now he finds himself in a great position. He has a great opportunity this season. He’s definitely going to get a lot of carries, and we’re really going to count on him to be productive.”
Another fifth-year senior, defensive tackle John-Kevin Dolce, is renowned for his prowess in the weight room. But he was quick to praise Horne.
“Pound for pound, he might be the strongest guy I know and possibly the fastest guy I know,” Dolce said. “I’m really excited to see him get an opportunity to get out on the field and do what he does, and that’s run, and that’s run hard.”
Other candidates to see time at tailback include sophomore Dominique Wallace and fifth-year senior Keith Payne. London said he’s inclined to redshirt Kevin Parks, a heralded true freshman from Salisbury, N.C., but has “not made a definitive decision about it. Kevin may even travel with us, just to get used to that and just to be with us. But we’ll see how that goes as the season goes along.”
DIFFERENT APPROACH: In his final season at UVa, Groh played 14 true freshmen. London hopes to redshirt most of his first-year class.
Offensive tackle Morgan Moses and cornerback Rijo Walker are likely to play against UR, and Drequan Hoskey could see some action on special teams Saturday night, but “that’s probably about it,” London said.
Another true freshman who might play this fall is Michael Rocco, who is listed along with redshirt freshman Ross Metheny at No. 2 quarterback behind Verica.
“He’s a very humble kid,” Verica said of Rocco, a nephew of Liberty University coach Danny Rocco, a former UVa assistant.
“He conducts himself in a manner that I think you would expect from your quarterback. He’s a mature kid, and he’s talented, and he’s a competitive kid. And so is Ross, and so [are true freshmen Michael Strauss and Miles Gooch]. They’re all good kids, and they’re good athletes. They want to get better, and they’re willing to do the things necessary to get better.”
Walker, like London, is a graduate of Hampton’s Bethel High. Walker’s mentors at UVa include senior cornerback Ras-I Dowling, an All-America candidate.
Dowling said he’s been trying to teach Walker that “you’re going to get beat sometimes, but just keep on fighting. Don’t ever give up … and just compete every down, and that’s one thing he has been doing since camp.”
TROUBLING TREND: Sure to be mentioned a few thousand times this week is the fact that the Wahoos haven’t won an opener — at home or on the road — since beating Western Michigan 31-19 in 2005.
That means no player in the program has been part of a season-opening victory, as was pointed out multiple times Monday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena.
“Honestly, I couldn’t tell you” why UVa has struggled in openers recently, said defensive tackle Nick Jenkins, a redshirt junior.
“It’s not like we go out there and try to lose, but for the last three years, it’s been a little bit rough for us, and we’re excited to change things around here.”
London said: “It’s a new opportunity to change the way things have been going for a while, in particular with these fourth- and fifth-year guys.”
UVa leads its series with Richmond 25-2-1. In their most recent meeting, on Sept. 6, 2008, the ‘Hoos beat the Spiders 16-0 at Scott Stadium.
That was London’s first game as Richmond’s head coach, but he didn’t lose many games at his alma mater. He went 24-5 in two seasons with the Spiders. UR won the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision national championship in 2008 and advanced to the FCS quarterfinals in ’09.
Not since 1961 has UVa won its first game under a new head coach. Under Bill Elias, Virginia beat William and Mary 21-6 that season.
REVOLVING DOOR: This is Jenkins’ fourth year at UVa, and he’s on his fourth defensive line coach. The first was London, followed by Levern Belin, Chad Wilt and, now, Jeff Hanson.
“It’s been a little bit of a journey,” Jenkins said, “but they’re all good guys, all great coaches. It’s just a matter of learning their terminology and putting in on the field.”
Until this year, Jenkins had played nose tackle in a 3-4 defense. London has installed the 4-3, and Hanson has been teaching Jenkins the finer points of tackle play in that scheme.
“He’s a great guy,” Jenkins said. “As far as a coach, he’s a great coach, but he cares about you off the field, and I think that’s one of the best things, especially for the D-line, that we get a chance to go in there with meetings every night, and he’s just a very down-to-earth, easy-to-get-to-know guy.
“He’s a friend. He’s a friend to us off the field. I couldn’t really put it into words for you, but you can just tell, the more you hang around with him, the better you know him.”
Jenkins is thrilled to have London back as head coach. They talked occasionally when London was at UR.
“Not too much,” Jenkins said. “He was busy doing his thing, and we were busy doing ours.”
HIGH STANDARDS: Virginia’s captains this season are Verica, Dowling, Dolce, Jenkins and tight end Joe Torchia.
Dolce was asked what that leadership position entailed.
“Not even necessarily being a captain, but just being a member of the football team, you have to go around on Grounds and within the McCue Center, just go around treating people with respect,” Dolce said. “You’ve got to carry yourself in a manner where you understand that people are watching you and that you are going to be a role model.”
Since his hiring in December, London has reached out to students, fans, alumni, UVa officials and faculty members, community groups and, especially, former Cavaliers.
Often during training camp, London brought in former players to speak to the team, and many football alumni attended the Cavaliers’ scrimmages at Scott Stadium.
“It’s good for us as well as them, knowing that they’re behind us and we’re right with them,” Dolce said. “It’s been a great opportunity that Coach London has given us, and I’m glad to see some of the faces that you get to walk by and look at in [McCue Center displays].”