By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He’s on crutches, his left leg encased in a protective walking boot. He can’t practice and won’t play again this year.
If defensive end Billy Schautz wanted to set aside football for the holidays, his coaches at UVa wouldn’t blame him. But Schautz has no intention of doing so.
After finishing final exams Monday, Schautz headed home Tuesday to see his family in Bloomfield, N.J. But he’ll return to Charlottesville this weekend, “just to stay here with the team and go to meetings as much as I can,” Schautz said, and then he’ll join the Cavaliers in Atlanta after Christmas.
“It was my decision,” said Schautz, a 6-4, 250-pound redshirt junior. “They told me I don’t have to be here, but I feel like if I wasn’t here, I wouldn’t feel like I was part of the team any more, you know? So I’d rather stay here and get treatment and recover faster. I’ll probably do better here, doing treatment with [UVa’s medical staff], than I would at home anyway.”
Schautz, a graduate of Bergen Catholic High School, started only one of the 11 games in which he appeared this season. But that statistic is misleading. He played about the same number of snaps as the Cavaliers’ starting ends, sophomore Jake Snyder and senior Cam Johnson.
Moreover, Schautz ended the regular season with 6.5 tackles for loss (to two for Snyder) and 28 tackles (to 27 for Johnson). He also broke up two passes, caused two fumbles and recovered two fumbles for a UVa team that will face Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year’s Eve in Atlanta.
“There’s no one on our entire defensive team that improved from last spring through the Florida State game more than Billy,” defensive coordinator Jim Reid said Tuesday.
“We were looking at Billy as perhaps a No. 3 to give us some reps, maybe to spell Jake and to spell Cam, and he ended up being a regular rotation player. Two out of every three series he was in the game.”
“Billy’s definitely an emotional leader on this team,” said middle linebacker Steve Greer, UVa’s leading tackler. “Billy’s a warrior.”
He’s not indestructible, though. A gruesome injury ended Schautz’s season Nov. 19 in Tallahassee, Fla.
In the game’s final minute, with UVa leading FSU 14-13, he dropped back into pass coverage on a third-and-1 play from midfield. “I remember looking right at the quarterback, and I was like, ‘All right, he’s about to throw it right to me,’ ” Schautz recalled Tuesday.
E.J. Manuel’s target was wide receiver Bert Reed, running a crossing route. Schautz went to plant his left foot. He stepped on Reed’s foot, and Reed hit Schautz’s left knee.
In the first quarter, Schautz had sacked Manuel, forcing a fumble that UVa linebacker LaRoy Reynolds recovered. This time, Schautz managed to knock down Manuel’s pass before falling to the turf in agony, his left tibia and left fibula broken.
“Freak accident,” Schautz said. “I really don’t know how it just broke like that. It was loud, too. Everybody heard it. It was like a crack of thunder.”
More than a half-hour passed before Schautz learned that the Wahoos had held on to win a game whose final minute seemed to grow more bizarre by the second.
“It was incredible,” said Schautz, who’s seen the sequence that ended with a missed field-goal attempt by FSU. He has also watched the ESPN video clip of the play on which he was injured, and he’s heard the announcer advise viewers with queasy stomachs to turn away.
“It looked pretty bad,” Schautz said. “Luckily it wasn’t a compound fracture.”
He suffered a high-ankle sprain in his first year at UVa and tore a ligament in his knee during training camp in 2010. Neither injury was as painful as what he experienced at Doak Campbell Stadium.
“It was rough,” Schautz said.
On the field, Dr. David Diduch, one of the Cavaliers’ orthopedic surgeons, tried to straighten the leg “as much as he could, because it was crooked,” said Schautz, who wears jersey No. 47. Schautz left the field on a cart and was moved to an ambulance in one of the stadium’s tunnels.
Kelli Pugh, the team’s head athletic trainer, and Kostas Economopoulos, another of UVa’s orthopedic surgeons, rode with Schautz to a Tallahassee hospital, where X-rays were taken and doctors “basically just pushed [the leg] back into place and splinted it up,” Schautz said.
On the flight back to Charlottesville, Schautz sat near the front of the plane with Reid, head coach Mike London and defensive line coach Jeff Hanson, and “they gave me the whole row so I could elevate my leg with a bunch of pillows. It wasn’t that bad.”
The plane landed at Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport around 3:30 a.m. on Nov. 20. Waiting there was an ambulance that rushed Schautz to the UVa Medical Center, and he was soon on the operating table.
He had a titanium rod inserted in his tibia, Schautz said, as well as two screws near his knee and two screws near his ankle. When his leg heals, his doctors told him, it may well be stronger than before.
He’s expected to fully recover, and Schautz said he could be cleared for contact by the middle of spring practice. The coaching staff knows what he can do, though, and Schautz plans to sit out spring drills as a precaution.
Schautz watched helplessly as UVa closed the regular season with a 38-0 loss to Virginia Tech on Nov. 26, and the transition from player to spectator hasn’t been easy for him. Not until this season did Schautz become a major contributor for the ‘Hoos, and now his career is on hold.
“It was real difficult, because the coaches kept telling me how much I was improving over the year and how much better I’ve gotten,” Schautz said.
In high school, Schautz played quarterback, running back, wide receiver and safety, and he also returned punts and kickoffs. At UVa, he was slotted initially at tight end before shifting to linebacker in then-head coach Al Groh’s 3-4 defense.
When London replaced Groh after the 2009 season, the Cavaliers scrapped the 3-4 in favor of the 4-3, and Shautz switched to defensive end. The knee injury he suffered in August 2010 slowed his progress, and he was in for only 63 plays as a redshirt sophomore.
“The one thing you sensed was, he wanted to be good,” Reid said, “and when you want to be good and you’re not afraid of hard work, you have an opportunity to improve, and that’s exactly what he did.”
It took time, Schautz said, for him to “get a feel for the position,” especially as a pass-rusher. His breakthrough came Oct. 22 against NC State, “even though we lost,” he said.
“I was always pretty good at run defense, but my pass rush wasn’t always as strong as I wanted it to be. Once the NC State game came around, I changed up my stance, with Cam helping me, and I started to really explode off the ball well and rush the passer a lot. Even though I missed two sacks in that game, I was there.”
Schautz played well the next week in Virginia’s win over ACC rival Miami and again Nov. 5 in a rout of Maryland in College Park. He was in on a tackle for loss Nov. 12 against Duke — the Cavaliers’ third straight victory — and then wreaked more havoc at FSU.
“Pass rush is hard,” Reid said. “It’s an easy thing to teach, but it’s very difficult for the players to learn what you’re teaching.”
With Johnson leaving, Schautz’s role figures to grow in 2012. So he doesn’t lack motivation as he looks ahead to his final season at UVa.
“This is extremely frustrating with this injury,” Schautz said. “I would love to play in this bowl game. However, I’m really excited about next year and our team next year. I’m really excited to build off what I’ve done this season and what our team has done this season.”
For now, he’s focused on his rehab. “I’m doing leg raises to build back my quad muscle,” Schautz said. “I’m doing ankle mobility [exercises]. I’m also stretching my calf a lot, because my calf got really messed up in the injury. My whole leg was twisted.”
At home in Jersey, Schautz plans to reply to each of the 40-some letters of encouragement he’s received from fans since his injury. That “wonderful feedback” has helped him deal with his disappointment, Schautz said. So has the support he’s received on Grounds.
Immediately after his operation, Schautz said, his mother came to Charlottesville to assist him, and then his girlfriend took over. “And then she left, and my friends helped me for about a week straight.”
He shares a house with teammates Austin Pasztor, Morgan Moses and Johnson. “They’ve been wonderful,” Schautz said. “They’ve helped me do my wash. They helped me clean up my room. They’ve thrown away my trash.
“Now I can do a lot more, but those few first weeks, I couldn’t do anything. They’ve been great.”