By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On UVa’s depth chart, you’ll find Max Milien at fullback. He’s embraced the position, even if it wasn’t his first choice.
“It allowed me to start last year and allowed me to start this year, so the move, I don’t mind it,” Milien said. “I like blocking. I kind of like hitting people again.”
Even so, the fifth-year senior from Arlington hasn’t forgotten his glory days at Yorktown High School, where as a tailback he would routinely touch the ball a dozen times a game, if not more.
“I always love getting the ball,” Milien said. “Blocking’s fun, but getting the ball once in a while is not too bad, either. I just feel like a little bit comes back from the olden days when I get the ball.”
At Yorktown, he ran track, played basketball, even played lacrosse. He was a “pretty decent” long-stick midfielder, Milien said Wednesday.
“My football coach asked me to come out. He was also a lacrosse coach. So I came out my freshman year, fell in love with it and played all four years. It was great.”
Lacrosse became his second-favorite sport. His first was football, and that paid his way to college when he accepted a scholarship offer to play tailback for the Cavaliers. Once he arrived at Virginia, however, Milien found himself an afterthought in the offense.
He redshirted in 2007 and did not get into any games in ’08. As a redshirt sophomore in ’09, he appeared in four games, mostly on special teams. His prospects for playing time at tailback appeared bleak, but Milien said he never considered transferring to another school.
“I loved this place from this start,” said Milien, a psychology major who will graduate in December. “It’s one of the reasons why I came here, and getting a degree from the University of Virginia is like no other. I told my mom, ‘I made a commitment. I’m not going to change, I’m not going to leave. I’m going to get my degree here,’ and it turned out for the best, I think.”
A coaching change can alter the course of a player’s career, and so it was with Milien. After the 2009 season, UVa dismissed Al Groh and hired Mike London, who had been the team’s defensive coordinator during Milien’s first year in the program.
“I feel like any time you’re not doing well or succeeding in something you feel like you should, a little bit of frustration sinks in,” Milien said. “But when Coach London came, there was a new atmosphere around the team. He brought a lot of energy in, and he basically just told everybody the best players will play and that he was going to start everyone on a clean slate, give everyone a shot, and I feel like that’s what he did.”
The new coaching staff, looking to fill the void left by the departure of Rashawn Jackson, came to Milien with a question: Would he be interested in moving to fullback?
Absolutely, said Milien. “I hadn’t played that much at tailback, and I just told Coach, ‘Sure, I’d love to do anything I can do to get on the field as soon as I possibly can to help the team.’
“The only concern I had with the move was that I hadn’t really had to run-block in a long time. I mean, in high school I didn’t really have to block that much anyway. I just really ran the ball.”
Sure enough, learning to successfully take on defenders proved to be his biggest challenge. “When I was a running back, sometimes I would get on my linemen and say, ‘How did you not get them?’ ” Milien recalled with a laugh. “Now, doing it myself, I can see it’s a lot harder when they move.”
As a tailback, Milien carried about 205 pounds on his 6-foot frame. He’s up to 220. That’s light for a major-college fullback, but the coaches don’t want him any heavier.
“They use me for blocking, catching, a lot of things,” he said. “I just enjoy doing it all.”
In 2010, Milien started seven of the eight games in which UVa opened its first series with a fullback, and he’s a clear No. 1 on the depth chart this season. Moreover, he’s still an option at tailback.
“The beauty about Max is he can play both positions,” running backs coach Mike Faragalli said. “Especially, Max can be a tailback in the pass-protection part when we get against some bigger linebackers. He’s definitely big enough to be the short-yardage running back.”
As a redshirt junior, Milien caught eight passes for 75 yards. He also scored for the first time as a college player, bursting through the middle of the Georgia Tech line for a 37-yard touchdown run, the Wahoos’ longest of the season.
“Once I got the ball, I saw the hole, and I guess it just took me back to my old high school days,” Milien said. “I went as fast as I could, and I scored. It was one of the best moments of my life.”
In all, he carried four times in 2010. This season? None so far.
“Yeah, I’m still waiting,” Milien said with a smile Wednesday, “but as long as we keep winning, I don’t mind.”
Virginia, which opens ACC play Saturday at North Carolina, is 2-0 for the first time since 2005. This will be the conference opener for the Tar Heels (2-0 overall), too.
In UVa’s season-opening rout of William and Mary, Milien had three catches for 32 yards. His highlight was a second-quarter play on which he caught a short pass from sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco and then tightroped along the sideline for a 15-yard gain.
“I wasn’t sure if I still had it,” Milien said. “I gained a little bit more weight, but I guess I had a little nimbleness still left in my system.”
In Virginia’s second game, he didn’t touch the ball until late in the fourth quarter. On the 77-yard drive that touchdown drive ended with 1:36 left and pulled the Wahoos to 31-31, Milien caught a 9-yard pass from Rocco.
Expect to see more of that from Milien as his final college season progresses.
“He’s definitely more comfortable now that he has a year of fullback under his belt,” Faragalli said.
In his first year at UVa, Milien shared a room with defensive back Dom Joseph in Lile dorm. They’re living together again this school year, along with teammates Rodney McLeod and Kris Burd.
“He’ll make you laugh,” Joseph said of Milien. “He’s a good guy to have in the house.”
Milien’s position coach can vouch for that. In their conversations, Faragalli said, Milien comes across as “fairly quiet and unassuming, but it seems when we get in that meeting room, he’s a little bit of an instigator, a jokester. He’ll put pictures of Kevin Parks on the wall and things like that and get everybody chuckling, or he’ll put a Superman cape on Perry Jones’ picture and put it up.
“He kind of keeps things a little bit lively in the meeting room, but the beauty about Max is when it’s time to get between the white lines, when it’s time to focus and do what we need to do, he’s all business. So he’s a refreshing kid.”
Milien’s circle of friends at the University extends beyond the football program. “Sometimes life’s also about who you know, not just what you know,” he said, “so I try to make it a point to take advantage of the great people here and try to branch myself out, because you have to find a life after football.”
Ultimately, Milien said, he hopes to pursue a career in business, and he has friends at UVa whose “parents told me to give them a call after football’s over. They said they’d help me out and definitely start me on the right path.”
For now, though, his focus is football. To become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2007, the ‘Hoos must win at least six games. They’re one-third of the way there.
“We came into this season saying we can’t accept anything less than at least a bowl game,” Milien said. “The ACC championship is what we’re striving for, but we can’t accept anything less than a bowl game.”
Milien and the other freshmen who redshirted in 2007 traveled with the team to Jacksonville, Fla., for the Gator Bowl that year, but “we felt like we didn’t really contribute that much,” he said. “I guess on the scout team we helped, but being a part of a bowl team when you play or you start is definitely what we’re striving to do.”