By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Some of them arrived at UVa in 2006, the others a year later. None of them has won as many games as he hoped.
Still, the seniors who Saturday will play at Scott Stadium for the final time say college football has been a rewarding experience, especially this season, their first with Mike London as their head coach.
London was hired in December to rebuild a program that had faded into irrelevance, and he made sure to let his senior class know it had a pivotal part to play in the process.
Among the seniors to be recognized Saturday afternoon before Virginia’s home finale against Maryland are several who have resurrected their careers this year, including quarterback Marc Verica, tailbacks Keith Payne and Raynard Horne, wideout Dontrelle Inman, safety Trey Womack and linebacker Darnell Carter.
“A lot of us seniors have been through it all,” Verica said. “We came in together and we’re still together.
“I think we were all very excited and happy to get the chance to play with each other one last year. And these are guys that not only have been contributing on the field but throughout this whole year have been contributing off the field and in the community and buying into Coach London’s system of how we wants us to conduct ourselves in the classroom and away from the football office.
“I think the fifth-year guys have done truly a great job of just being ambassadors for Coach London’s culture and also contributing on the field.”
It helped that London knew them. Before leaving in January 2008 to become head coach at the University of Richmond, his alma mater, London spent two seasons as UVa’s defensive coordinator. (That, in fact, was his second stint as an assistant under Al Groh at Virginia.) When London returned to the University, one of his first projects was to ensure his seniors shared his vision for Virginia football.
“When you come into a new situation, you always want the senior leadership to buy in, because they’re the ones that set the tone and the pace for some of the young guys that are in the program,” London said.
“For the most part, aside from the guys that are no longer with the team because of disciplinary actions or academics or whatever it may be, the ones that stayed helped provide some of that, ‘Hey, this is what we’re going to do. This is what we’re going to do in the classroom and the community and what we’re trying to do on the field.’
“So it’s helped, and I’m very appreciative of those guys, because in turning the program around, you need that type of leadership, and then when leadership leaves, you need that type of imprint they’ve left on younger players.”
Cornerback Ras-I Dowling, perhaps the Wahoos’ most talented senior, has played little this season because of hamstring and knee injuries, though he may see action against Maryland. But many of his classmates have produced memorable moments.
“When you give another person new life and new energy and you give them a chance to perhaps sometimes redeem themselves,” London said, “then they go out and they give you everything they’ve got.”
Payne has scored 15 touchdowns this season, the most of any ACC player.
Verica set a school record with 417 yards passing against Duke last weekend.
Inman had 10 catches for 239 yards — both career highs — against the Blue Devils. UVa’s record for receiving yards in a game is 241.
Horne returned a kickoff 87 yards for a touchdown against VMI.
Womack had a 56-yard touchdown reception on a fake punt against Eastern Michigan.
Carter has climbed to the top of the depth chart at middle linebacker and is starting for the first time in his college career.
Defensive tackle John-Kevin Dolce delivered a game-changing hit in UVa’s upset of the then-No. 22 Miami Hurricanes.
“It’s gratifying that you see as they end their careers that they’ve had a chance to contribute significantly,” London said. “Everyone wants their college experience to be positive before they’re all done, and hopefully this year, although the record itself doesn’t indicate it, maybe the overall experience for this year will be gratifying for them.”
A victory over the Terrapins (3-2 ACC, 6-3 overall) would enhance that experience for UVa’s departing players. Virginia (1-4, 4-5) is seeking its fourth straight win over Maryland.
“It’s real big for me,” Dolce said, “and for a lot of the guys who are on their way out, it’s on their mind. We kind of don’t discuss it, but it’s on everyone’s mind. It’s even on the young guys’ minds, because we’ve built a good relationship with some of the newer guys in the program, and they want to send the older guys out with a win.”
It’s no doubt related to the schools’ promixity to each other. Whatever the reason, Maryland cares little for UVa, and the feeling is mutual.
“Just something that gets under our skin about them, I guess,” Virginia center Anthony Mihota said.
Inman said: “From the past three years, I have grown not to like them either. It’s just one of those feelings where you dislike someone but you don’t know why.”
Sometime around 7:30 on Saturday night, UVa’s seniors will leave the home locker room at Scott Stadium for the final time as players. For many of them, it seems like only yesterday that they ran out of the tunnel for the first time.
“It definitely went too fast,” long-snapper Danny Aiken said. “I didn’t expect it to come this fast, but it is here, and it’s been an honor playing for this program and this team, for the school. It’s definitely an experience, something I’ll never forget and it’s going to be exciting to do it.”
Horne said: “It went by fast, but we had a good trip together.”
Verica said: “It’s kind of mixed emotions, now that we’re all going to play our last game together at Scott Stadium. But it’s been a great experience for all of us, and we’re happy to have had it together.”