By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As his 240-some Twitter followers know, Dom Joseph loves his hometown Phillies. Given his passion for baseball — Joseph played center field on the team at Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia — it’s fitting that he’s something of a utility player in his primary sport.
“He gives us some flexibility,” UVa football coach Mike London said. “He can do multiple things, and he’s such a savvy player.”
The 6-1, 195-pound Joseph has played cornerback, safety and special teams for the Cavaliers. He’s back at corner after playing safety in 2010 but feels comfortable at both positions.
Whatever the coaching staff needs, Joseph will try to deliver.
“The main thing is just to help the team win as best as possible,” he said after practice Saturday night.
Joseph, who in May earned his bachelor’s degree in history, will compete as a graduate student this fall. He started three games at safety last season. The Wahoos faced a scholarship crunch heading into 2011, however, and Joseph began spring practice knowing he might not be invited back for a fifth year.
“When Coach tells you there’s not a guaranteed spot, you’ve always got to carry a chip on your shoulder,” Joseph said.
By the end of spring practice, Joseph felt confident he had earned a place on the 2011 roster. But he didn’t let up. He ratcheted up his offseason training, working out religiously with his close friend Chase Minnifield, an all-ACC cornerback for Virginia. They were part of a group that met on Saturday nights during the summer for a variety of workouts, including grueling runs up the Scott Stadium stairs.
“Just to put our dedication to the test,” Joseph said. “Eight o’clock at night in the summertime, a lot of people have started their Saturday night routine, partying or just hanging out. We thought it was a good idea to do something like that to separate ourselves, to do something above and beyond.”
Would he have embraced such a regimen early in his college career?
“Most likely not,” Joseph said. “The past couple of years, I’ve definitely matured and grown, and I know what it takes now to be where I want to be. So my work ethic has definitely increased.”
Joseph, who redshirted in 2007, missed most of the ’08 season with a shoulder injury. He lettered in 2009, a season in which he intercepted a pass and forced a fumble, and then again in ’10, when he was in on 34 tackles.
As a fifth-year senior, he’s part of a class that includes Minnifield, wide receivers Kris Burd and Matt Snyder, fullbacks Max Milien and Terence Fells-Danzer, center Anthony Mihota, defensive tackles Nick Jenkins and Matt Conrath, linebacker Aaron Taliaferro and safety Corey Mosley.
The Cavaliers haven’t finished above .500 since 2007, when they played in the Gator Bowl, and the team’s seniors are approaching this season with a palpable sense of urgency.
“This is their last go-around,” cornerbacks coach Chip West said, “and everybody wants to go out on a great note.”
Joseph said: “This is my last year. I want to be here, I want to have fun with my teammates, and I want to help the team win as best as possible. So I definitely worked harder than I ever have, and I’m just excited to get the season going. I just want to take this fifth year and use it to my advantage.”
London said last month at ACC Football Kickoff that he made sure, before inviting them back, that the team’s fifth-year seniors understood “that the best players have to play, and that because you’re a fifth-year senior doesn’t mean that you’re entitled to be the starter … Whatever role you might have, that you contribute to that role.”
Joseph said: “That’s all about being a team. At the end of the day, we all have the same goal: We just want to win. I trust that he’ll make the best decision to put our team in the best position to win.”
He’s one of six corners in training camp, along with Minnifield, sophomore Rijo Walker, redshirt freshman Drequan Hoskey and true freshmen Demetrious Nicholson and Brandon Phelps. Nicholson already has been taking turns with the first team in practice, and Phelps was a heralded recruit as well.
Virginia, which lacks veterans throughout its secondary, is especially inexperienced at cornerback. That’s a major reason why the coaching staff, before spring ball, moved Joseph moved back to corner, his position at UVa in 2007, ’08 and ’09.
“It’s fun, you know?” said Joseph, who had a 65-yard interception return for a touchdown in Virginia’s spring game. “Fun to be back at a position that’s familiar.”
At 23, Joseph is among the older players on the team. In that position, he said, a “lot of the younger guys look up to you. I didn’t realize it until I was a fifth-year and I looked back when I was a freshman and how I looked at the fifth-years. And now the freshmen are starting to look at me like that. Although I’m not a captain, I still get a lot of questions, and they look to me for leadership, so I just try to do that to the best of my ability.””
Joseph may never become a full-time starter at UVa, but you can expect to see No. 23 on the field this fall. On special teams, he’s been a regular on the punt, punt return, kickoff and kickoff return units.
“I think Dom just brings great value to our team,” special-teams coordinator Anthony Poindexter, who’s also in charge of the safeties, said last week.
“He’s a guy that can play corner, he can play safety, he plays all four phases of the special teams. So until we see what some of these young kids can do coming in, who knows where Dom might end up? Or he might end up playing both. That’s the great value of having a kid like that, with that kind of athletic ability.”
West said: “For a secondary, it’s always very important to have guys that have been around and have kind of been in the fire and have some type of playing experience, at corner and safety.”
Joseph’s parents are Temple alumni, and he grew up rooting for the Owls. He’s Philly through and through, as is evident from his Twitter page.
This time of the year, the Phillies are his favorite team, but “the Eagles tweets are coming, and then the Sixers tweets are gonna be after that,” Joseph said with a smile. “Flyers too. Philly everything.”
EXTRA POINTS: A thunderstorm halted UVa’s practice at 4:40 p.m. Sunday and the team moved across the street to John Paul Jones Arena about a half-hour later. The Cavaliers were limited in what they could do on the arena floor, where the basketball court had been taken up, and London ended practice around 6 p.m.
Two more practices — Monday’s and Tuesday’s — are open to the public this month. Each is scheduled to start at 3:50 p.m. Weather permitting, the ‘Hoos practice on the fields behind University Hall and the McCue Center.
Virginia’s annual Meet the Team Day is Aug. 14 at Scott Stadium. The gates open at 1:30 p.m., and the team is expected to arrive at 2 p.m. Admission is free.