By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Inside the McCue Center locker room, with mirth in their voices, his teammates told Matt Fortin that he was wanted outside, that a reporter was waiting there to talk to him. At first, Fortin ignored them.
“I thought they were joking,” he said later. After all, Fortin thought, why would anyone want to interview him?
Here’s why: This redshirt freshman from West Chester, Pa., is the leading candidate to start at one of the most important positions on a football team. For the past four seasons, Danny Aiken took the drama out of long-snapping for UVa, but he’s now in training camp with the Buffalo Bills, and that means Anthony Poindexter’s life is more stressful.
“I’ve been losing sleep over losing Danny Aiken,” Poindexter, Virginia’s special-teams coordinator, told reporters last week.
If casual fans were not always familiar with Aiken, that was because he rarely drew attention to himself with a poor snap.
“That’s part of the game you never really had to worry about,” Poindexter said.
As a senior, Aiken was listed at 6-4, 255 pounds. On UVa’s training-camp roster this summer, Fortin is listed at 5-11, 195. And that’s after an offseason in which he noticeably bulked up.
“He’s done a really nice job,” said Evan Marcus, UVa’s strength-and-conditioning coach for football. “He’s put on some muscle mass.”
Marcus smiled. “He looks like he went from puberty to manhood a little bit.”
Fortin may not be blessed with an abundance of athletic ability, Marcus said, but the “kid’s willing to work. The kid’s willing to do anything that it takes to be better, and you can’t ask for more than that. You can’t change what God gave you, but there’s been a lot of talented kids that never panned out, and there’s a lot of kids with less talent that do lots of great things with themselves, because they’re willing to do whatever it takes.”
Aiken was essentially a self-taught snapper. Fortin has worked with snapping guru Chris Rubio for several years and in high school attended camps devoted to the various aspects of the kicking game.
“He can tell you anything about long-snapping, bless his heart,” Poindexter said with a smile.
Fortin needs to be technically proficient, because no matter how much he lifts or eats, he’ll never come close to matching Aiken in stature.
“And so being undersized, I have to really concentrate on my form, using a lot of legs and full-body movement, whereas Danny was really strong and able to muscle the ball back there,” Fortin said. “We have very different types of form. I have to use my legs a little more than Danny does. And just being small, on the field-goal block, a lot of coaches want to test me there.”
That’s a concern for UVa’s staff. Fortin “can spin it back there, so the way we do punts, it won’t really affect us,” Poindexter said on media day. “We just gotta see how his size is going to affect us on field goals and how people rush us.”
On field goals, mammoth linemen Austin Pasztor and Morgan Moses are on either side of the long-snapper, but for the operation to click, Fortin will have to be able to hold off rushers himself.
“In practice, we have hard A-gap rushes to see if they can penetrate through our guards, through me,” Fortin said. “But I have a lot of faith in Austin and Mo, who are next to me. They did a great job all spring keeping me safe and allowing me to focus on the snap. They pick up the majority of the block, but I know I have to pull my weight on the block as well.”
Before enrolling at UVa, where he’s likely to major in history or foreign affairs, Fortin also played center and linebacker. He lettered four times at the Haverford School outside Philadelphia, then spent a postgraduate year at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts.
He walked on to the team at Virginia last year, knowing he would have a chance to compete for playing time once Aiken moved on.
“I learned a lot from Danny,” Fortin said. “He was a great mentor. So I’m trying to use what he taught me and apply that out on the field.”
Kickers Robert Randolph and Chris Hinkebein are back from the 2010 team. So are punter Jimmy Howell and holder Jacob Hodges. Fortin trained with each of them throughout the summer.
Asked to compare Fortin and Aiken, Hodges said, “As far as the snaps, it’s basically exactly the same: right on the money every time. One hundred percent reliable. I’m never worried about where the snap’s going to be. I’m just worried about doing my job, so it’s great to have him.”
UVa’s other options at long-snapper include Charlie Richards, a freshman walk-on from Virginia Beach, and senior fullback Terence Fells-Danzer has been taking some turns there too, Fortin said.
Fortin worked primarily with the first team during spring practice. UVa opens the season Sept. 3 against William and Mary at Scott Stadium, and Fortin’s dream is to be in the starting lineup that day.
‘I’ve been working for it for a long time, and I’m hoping for my number to be called,” he said. “I’m just hoping to have a great camp.”
Aiken contributed more than precise snapping during his college career. In his four seasons, he made 12 tackles, and he was often the first Cavalier up the middle of the field on punts, forcing the returner to one side or the other.
“It’s a bonus” if the long-snapper can also help on coverage, Poindexter said. But his expectations are not especially high for players at that position.
“The long-snapper, he’s better than putting an orange cone out there,” Poindexter said on media day, eliciting laughter from his audience. “And if they get in the way, and they can push [the punt-returner] to the right, push him to the left, push him into the coverage, that’s great. If he trips and falls and the dude falls on top of him, that’s great too.”
EXTRA POINTS: Today’s practice — the team’s first in full pads — is the last open to the public this month. It’s scheduled to start around 3:45 p.m. The Cavaliers practice on the fields behind University Hall and the McCue Center.
Virginia’s annual Meet the Team Day is Sunday 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.