By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Ausar Walcott has been given what head coach Mike London called “a new lease on life” in the UVa football program. Walcott also has a new position.
As a redshirt sophomore in 2010, Walcott started 11 games at outside linebacker. He’s now at defensive end, where the Cavaliers unexpectedly lost a returning starter, Zane Parr, who gave up his final season of eligibility to pursue a professional career.
In late January, three UVa football players — Walcott, center Mike Price and cornerback Devin Wallace — were involved in an incident near the James Madison University campus, leading London to suspend them for what he termed “conduct detrimental to the team.”
All charges against Walcott were dropped at an April 5 hearing in Harrisonburg, and UVa announced Wednesday that he had been reinstated to the football team. Price and Wallace remain suspended.
“They still have issues with the school,” London told reporters on a teleconference Wednesday morning.
London said he will have daily conversations with Walcott, whom the University’s judicial system did not discipline, about what is expected of UVa players on the field, in the McCue Center, in the classroom and in the community.
“Ausar’s not out of the woods,” London said, “but he’s back to being involved with football activities again … Maybe it’s a new lease on life for him, or a new chance, but everyone on this team understands the expectations we have with behavior. There are guys that will be with us, and there are guys that won’t be with us.
“I’d love to win with ’em, but we’ll definitely win without ’em, also.”
The 6-4 Walcott, who’s from Hackensack, N.J., came to UVa as a safety. After London replaced Al Groh as coach in December 2009, the Wahoos changed their base defense from the 3-4 to the 4-3, and Walcott moved to weak-side linebacker.
He played at 230 pounds last season but, after missing spring practice, is closer to 240. London would like to see Walcott get up to at least 250 by the fall.
At defensive end, London said, Walcott has been “placed on the bottom of the depth chart and will have to work his way back up. That said, Walcott is an excellent athlete who could fill an important role on a team whose top pass-rusher, end Cam Johnson, will be a senior in the fall.
ONGOING COMPETITION: Late in his teleconference, London was asked about his quarterbacks. Virginia’s 2010 starter, Marc Verica, was a senior. The candidates to succeed him are sophomores Michael Rocco and Ross Metheny, redshirt freshman Michael Strauss and true freshman David Watford, who enrolled at UVa in January.
Rocco and Metheny took more snaps in spring practice, which ended Saturday, than did Strauss and Watford, but London said no decision on a starter has been made.
“Those guys are in a bunch, or in a clump,” London said.
UVa’s coaching staff won’t be able to work with the quarterbacks on the field again until training camp opens in August. Between now and then, though, the QBs will take part in drills and workouts organized by the players. So there will be opportunities for the quarterbacks to progress before practice begins.
“It’ll be interesting to see,” London said. “I’m looking to see who’s going to emerge as a leader for the team, who’s going to try to take this thing and develop their game and improve their game away from coaches staring at you, away from mandatory lifts, away from practice sessions, who’s going to step up and be a leader out of those groups.
“Trust me, whoever does the best job of doing that and can distribute the ball, make the throws and make the plays and run the team, he’ll be the guy that’s starting.”
NEXT GENERATION: Counting Watford and outside linebacker Daquan Romero, who also enrolled at UVa in January, London’s first full recruiting class consists of 26 players.
London said Wednesday that he expects most, if not all, of the recruits to meet NCAA eligibility requirements. For anyone who does not qualify, London said, Fork Union Military Academy or Hargrave Military Academy might be an option.
Asked how many true freshmen are likely to play this season, London said, “Athletically, I think there’s a lot of them that could, particularly skill players … I want to see if they can grasp the system, the calls and adjustments and the speed of the college game. If they show that they can handle those things, then of course I look to try to play the best players.”
Candidates to play as true freshmen figure to include Romero, wide receivers Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell, and cornerbacks Demetrious Nicholson and Brandon Phelps.
SIGNS OF PROGRESS: Like Walcott, LaRoy Reynolds moved from safety to outside linebacker after London was hired. As a sophomore last season, Reynolds led the team in tackles with 66, but his breakdowns often led to big plays by opponents.
Reynolds has shifted from the strong side to weak-side linebacker, and London liked what he saw from No. 9 this spring.
“LaRoy’s been consistent,” London said. “I tell you what, he goes a thousand miles an hour. The hope was this year [Reynolds would] go a thousand miles an hour in the right direction and the right gap.
“His improvement has been [encouraging]. This is his second year now being a linebacker, and he’ll continue to get stronger and get better as we go along.
“I’m pleased with him. He’s an emotional guy, and sometimes you have to gear that emotion in a positive way. It’s easy to beat yourself up and get down when you’re in the wrong gap, but I think his improvement has been understanding the defense a little more. Still play with that emotion, but be in the right gap, so you have a chance to make a play. He’s done that.”
MIDDLE MAN: After starting every game as a redshirt freshman in 2009 — and leading the Cavaliers in tackles — linebacker Steve Greer started only one last year. Yet he still finished second on the team in tackles, with 59.
In the 4-3, Greer plays middle linebacker. He took most of the snaps with the first-team defense this spring, but London is high on redshirt freshman Henry Coley, too.
“I think Henry Coley’s got a chance to be really good,” London said. “He just needs to, again, continue to learn football.”
In Greer, Coley has an ideal role model.
“Smart, tough, knows football, knows how to get lined up, can line the defense up with his calls,” London said of Greer, who’s also in superb physical condition this year.
“He’s lost about 15 pounds,” London said. “He’s always studied the game … He can run sideline to sideline. Very smart player, very instinctive.”