By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For Ausar Walcott, training camp has been a humbling experience in some ways, but he’s looking at the positive: He’s back playing the game he loves and back with his teammates at the University of Virginia.
A year ago, Walcott started 11 games at outside linebacker and finished third on the team in tackles, with 56. This week? He worked with the third-team defense in practice. But that’s OK, the redshirt junior from Hackensack, N.J., said Thursday morning.
“To be honest, I’m just happy to be out here,” Walcott said, “happy to be running around and having fun again.”
In late January, three UVa football players — Walcott, center Mike Price and cornerback Devin Wallace — were involved in an incident near James Madison University’s campus, and London suspended them for what he called “conduct detrimental to the team.”
None of the three participated in spring practice, but all charges against Walcott were dropped on April 5, and he was reinstated to the team a week later. (Price and Wallace are no longer enrolled at UVa.)
When Walcott rejoined the team, his starting job was not handed back to him. Far from it. He was moved to defensive end and placed at the bottom of the depth chart at his new position.
“I wanted him to be uncomfortable,” Mike London said Thursday. The Cavaliers’ second-year coach also wanted to see how Walcott would react to the changes.
“He was a first-team guy, played in a lot of games,” London said. “Well, you know what? He was a brief moment away from not playing any games. So I wanted to see, was he going to sit and sulk, or was he going to work, regardless of whether I put him at kicker or wide receiver, and he’s responded in a way that says, ‘I understand. I learned my lesson. I’m ready to contribute to this team in any way necessary.’ “
Of his suspension, Walcott said, “I’ve definitely learned some things from it. I don’t feel like I’m a different person, but I’ve learned some things from it. Everybody makes mistakes, and I was just happy that the coaches gave me another opportunity, and now they’re putting more trust in me and allowing me to come back out here with my teammates.”
Virginia was thin at outside linebacker to begin with, and a couple of training-camp injuries led the coaching staff to move Walcott back to his former position.
“He was making very good progress at defensive end, but the situation is such where we’ve got to make sure we’re solidified at linebacker,” defensive coordinator Jim Reid said this week.
Walcott, a safety in the 3-4 defense favored by London’s predecessor, Al Groh, said he enjoyed learning to play with a hand on the ground. Walcott’s primary position this fall will be linebacker, but don’t be surprised to see him lining up at end in third-and-long situations.
At 6-4, 240 pounds, he has excellent size, and he’s one of the team’s better athletes.
“We’re going to try to utilize some of the things he can do,” London said.
In the end, London said, how much Walcott plays will be up to Walcott. He must continue to put the team first, continue to avoid off-the-field problems, continue to win back the coaches’ trust.
“And so far during camp, it’s been a positive that he is doing that,” London said. “So when he does that, and he buys in from all other areas, then the opportunity for him to go in the game will increase.”
Walcott has learned, London said, what “it feels like to almost lose something. And I’m talking about his ability to play football, to be around his teammates and get a great degree from this university. And there’s a series of things he had to do to show me that he was serious about becoming the player and the person that he could be.”
If he wants to keep playing for the Wahoos, Walcott knows, he has to live with the conditions London set. He said he’s happy to do so.
“It just feels good,” Walcott said. “It’s good to be back with my teammates and running around and doing the things I love.”
GAME-BREAKERS: On offense, UVa’s two most heralded recruits for 2011 were Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell. Both have already earned spots in the rotation at wide receiver, and they figure to play prominent roles on special teams, too.
It’s been a while, London noted Friday, since Virginia has had return specialists with the explosiveness of Jennings and Terrell.
“I feel good about it,” London said. “They’re athletic, they can run, and hopefully they’ll flip the field for us and give us an advantage.”
CHECKING OUT: Since the start of training camp early this month, UVa’s players have been staying at the Cavalier Inn hotel.
They’ll sleep there again Friday night, but after the team’s scrimmage Saturday at Scott Stadium, the players will head to the dorms, apartments and houses they’ll occupy during the coming school year.
This was the fifth training camp for defensive tackle Matt Conrath, who shared a Cavalier Inn room with classmate Nick Jenkins.
“It’s kind of nice to have someone clean up after you,” Conrath said of hotel life, and with most UVa students out of town in early August “it’s a great time to bond with your teammates. It’s always fun. But it’s always nice to get back in your own bed.”
Classes start Tuesday at the University. That will pose a challenge for the first-year players, Conrath knows.
“Because right now it’s just football, and that’s all they have to worry about,” he said. “When school comes around, now you gotta balance both.”
STILL UNDER REVIEW: In practice this week, sophomore Michael Rocco took most of the snaps with the first-team offense. The No. 2 quarterback was David Watford, but London said Friday that the coaching staff has not decided whether the true freshman from Hampton will play this season.
“That’s the million-dollar question remaining to be answered as we go through practice,” London said.
“If he can do things that help us win, and we can develop him as a quarterback, then he’ll play. If he can’t do those things to help us win, and his development becomes impeded because he just can’t grasp the whole offense, then he won’t play.”
Virginia’s other scholarship quarterbacks are sophomore Ross Metheny and redshirt freshman Michael Strauss. UVa opens the season Sept. 3 against William and Mary at Scott Stadium.
FRESH START: On a teleconference with reporters, London was asked Friday about reserve fullback Ryan Cobb’s decision to leave the team. Cobb, a redshirt freshman, plans to continue his career at another school.
“Ryan just decided that it was in his best interest to leave,” London said. “I met with him. Nothing negative about football, about the players, about anything going on. He’s got his own personal reasons, I believe, as to why he made the decision to leave, supported by his parents, and there’s no hard feelings on either side. Sometimes things happen like that, and I wish Ryan well in whatever he’s doing to do.”
POSITION CHANGE: Vincent Croce, a 6-4, 260-pound true freshman who began training camp at defensive end, recently moved inside to tackle.
Croce starred at several positions during his career at Good Counsel High in Olney, Md., including defensive tackle, linebacker and tight end. He was The Washington Post’s defensive player of the year as a linebacker in 2010.
TROUBLING TIMES: London said he has been following reports about the NCAA scandal brewing at the University of Miami. He worked with Miami’s first-year coach, Al Golden, at Boston College and at UVa.
“It’s all over the place, and Al Golden is a personal friend of mine, a good friend of mine,” London said. “I know it’s a difficult situation for him.
“When you hear stuff like that, you’re [concerned about] making sure that you do enough, that you say enough, that you educate your own players [about] these things that you hear that continually keep happening. And so we spend a lot of our evenings bringing in guest speakers. We’ve had the commonwealth’s attorney here, we’ve had a narcotics detective here, we’ve had a guy that deals with the school and alcohol and drug awareness. We’ve had the fire chief here. We’ve had the dean of student affairs here. I could go on and on about the different speakers.
“We had an NCAA representative here that was an assistant director of enforcement. I just keep trying to tell these guys about making good decisions and being surrounded by good people and, if you feel uncomfortable about something, about letting someone know. We’re trying to do as much as we can to educate our guys about the things that are going on.”