By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — College life can overwhelm first-year students. Mike London knows that, and UVa’s second-year football coach is trying to help his newcomers through the acclimation process.
Each of the freshman football players who enrolled at the University this year — David Watford and Daquan Romero arrived in January, the rest this summer — was assigned a mentor.
That’s not all. During training camp this month, the Cavaliers are staying at the Cavalier Inn, and each freshman is rooming with a veteran. In most cases, it’s not the freshman’s mentor.
“It’s an opportunity for a younger guy to get to know an older guy,” London said in his McCue Center office.
It’s also an opportunity for veterans to help first-year players who may be struggling with football or school or other aspects of their lives.
“Sometimes they talk about being homesick,” London said, “and you can say, ‘Hey, I was there, too.’
“I wanted to make sure that our younger players had an idea, as camp was going on and as we led up into school, of how to prepare themselves for two-a-day practices and what to expect [academically when the semester begins]. It causes the mentors to have lunch or dinner with them or, walking off the field or in the locker room, to have a conversation with them.”
Wide receiver Darius Jennings is one of the jewels of the first-year class, a game-breaking talent who was the best high school player in Baltimore last year. Jennings’ hotel roommate this month is also his mentor — wideout Matt Snyder, a fifth-year senior who’s a team captain.
“It’s good for me,” Jennings said. “I’m able to talk with him at night. We go over the playbook, break down routes and everything we have to do, and that’s always good.”
Snyder, who’s from the Richmond area, recalled his initial reaction to the room assignments for training camp.
“You’re like, ‘Oh, here we go, a freshman, a young kid. I’ve been here five years. What’s that going to do for me?’ ” Snyder said with a smile. “But the more I sit down and think about it, the more I’m really glad Coach London’s doing this, because I really think it brings these kids along.
“With a young man like Darius, he’s easy to talk to. He’s a great kid, he’s a tremendous talent, and he’s really willing to learn. He’s in there asking questions about things that I didn’t get for months [as a freshman]. We just read over our playbook every night and hang out and talk about his life before college and my life, my experiences. We’ve actually become very good friends, so it’s been cool.”
Freshman Vincent Croce’s mentor is fifth-year senior Nick Jenkins. Both play on the defensive line, and both graduated from Good Counsel High School in Olney, Md.
“We’ve really gotten to know each other, obviously, through camp and the mentor program and everything,” said Croce, who rooms at the Cavalier Inn with Jake Snyder, a redshirt sophomore defensive end.
When he announced the pairings for the mentoring program, London said, “I told the freshmen, ‘I want you to find out some things about this guy that maybe even his teammates wouldn’t know.’
“That’s going to cause them to have those type of conversations about where they’re from, where they’ve been, what they do, what they like, and it’s interesting to find out, as they share it with the rest of the team, some of the things that these guys have done or are doing.”
At team meetings, London occasionally will call on a freshman and ask him to tell the rest of the team about his mentor. Or sometimes he’ll reverse field, as when London asked junior defensive end Connor McCartin to tell his teammates a thing or two about freshman Rob Burns.
“So now everybody knows: OK, he’s not just going to ask the young guys,” London said. “But Connor was right on target. He’s like, ‘Robert Burns, he’s an accomplished juggler.’ So now everybody will probably get Robert to juggle eggs or baseballs or footballs or whatever it is. That’s the kind of stuff that takes a little edge off of things and makes it light, but it also gets guys talking to each other.”
Freshman defensive end Thompson Brown’s mentor is Jake Snyder (one of Matt Snyder’s younger brothers). Both grew up in the Richmond area.
“He told me he was an amateur magician, but he hasn’t done any tricks for me,” Brown said, smiling.
Fifth-year senior Dom Joseph mentors freshman Brandon Phelps. Both play in the secondary.
“I talk with him, and I walk with him to the lunch room,” Joseph said. “If he has any questions, he can ask me. I just make sure he’s good, make sure he’s got a good head on his shoulders, and make sure he’s staying positive. Especially as a freshman, it’s real easy to get down on yourself.”
Freshman cornerback Demetrious Nicholson’s mentor is fifth-year senior Chase Minnifield, an all-ACC selection at that position last season.
Minnifield’s legendary work ethic has impressed Nicholson, who’s already practicing with the first-team defense.
“I worked hard in high school, but this is a different type of hard work here,” said Nicholson, who’s from Virginia Beach. “He took me under his wing as soon as I got here. He would text me, like, ‘I’m working out at 7 in the morning.’ Then, the same day, ‘I’m working out at 4 this afternoon.’ Each time I had spare time out of my class [schedule] to go work with Chase, I’d go work with him. Out here, anytime I have a question, he’s there for me to ask him.”
The demands on major-college football players today are intense, on and off the field, London noted. That’s one reason UVa is adding Ray Roberts to a support system that already includes sports nutritionist Randy Bird, sports psychologist Jim Bauman and Steve Atkinson, the director of player development for football. Roberts, a former UVa great, will be director of life skills for the football program.
Problems and challenges are “always there, and they’re prevalent,” London said. “So what you try to do, you try to address them by surrounding the players with people that can help them.
“I talk about how iron sharpens iron so as one man sharpens another. It’s the people that you surround [the players] with that give them an opportunity.”