By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Aaron Taliaferro has exhausted his football eligibility at UVa. Ausar Walcott has another season to play, but he’s now at defensive end.
For rising sophomore Daquan “Da-Da” Romero, those developments have created a tremendous opportunity. In 2011, Walcott started seven games and Taliaferro six at strongside linebacker, which is known as the Sam in the Cavaliers’ 4-3 defense.
Virginia opened spring practice Monday morning, and with Taliaferro and Walcott elsewhere, Romero lined up at Sam with the first-team defense.
“The good thing about it is, he’s excited about it,” said Vincent Brown, who coaches Virginia’s linebackers. “He’s been in every day for the past few weeks to meet with me and just make sure he has a good understanding of what we’re trying to do. It’ll be valuable, valuable work for him.”
At Phoebus High School in Hampton, Romero was a four-year member of the varsity football team. As a havoc-wreaking defensive end — he had 30 sacks as a junior — Romero helped the Phantoms capture three state Group AAA, Division 5 titles and win the final 45 games of his high school career.
After graduating early from Phoebus, he enrolled at UVa in January 2011 and went through spring practice last year. His first semester of college wasn’t easy, Romero recalled Monday.
“When I first got here, it felt like everything was being thrown at me at one time, with school and football and everything like that,” he said.
The head start helped Romero get on the field as a true freshman last fall, but his contribution was modest. He missed three games with a hamstring injury. In the 10 in which he played, Romero made 13 tackles, including one for loss, and broke up a pass. Most of his work came on special teams.
“It was tough to take a backseat,” said Romero, who stands 6-1 and weighs about 235 pounds, “but I know the coaches did it for the better of the team. I accepted that, and I just took it as a learning experience and [a challenge] to stay humble, stay level-headed. I feel like it made me better and how I am today.”
Brown said: “Any time a guy gets an opportunity to experience live game action, whether it be on special teams or as a back-up, it benefits him in the long run. The game at some point will slow down for him. Not only did [Romero] get that experience, but now he’s more motivated, because he wants to play.”
From a team that finished 8-5 after losing to Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, UVa returns two starting linebackers: rising seniors Steve Greer (middle), who is recovering from a knee injury, and LaRoy Reynolds (weakside). Romero considers them two of his mentors.
“I’m still learning every day, still learning from Roy and Greer,” Romero said. “Every day I’m still trying to learn as much as I can, talking to my coaches and trying to be the best I can be right now to help the team. But it feels a lot different than my first spring.”
That he was at a new position made Romero’s adjustment to the college game more difficult.
“I didn’t think it was going to be as a hard learning linebacker as it is,” he said. “It’s very much of a change, because playing [with a hand] in the dirt, you really don’t have that much responsibility. But playing linebacker, you’re the coach of the whole defense. So I have to just keep learning every day, keep going to meetings, keep talking to my coaches, keep talking to people on the team, Greer and Roy, and keep trying to get better every day.”
Brown has seen other players struggle with the transition from defensive end to linebacker. “The biggest hurdle,” he said, “is just being able to key and recognize the multiple schemes you can see at linebacker.”
At end, “everything’s coming from the inside,” Brown said. “When you’re a ‘backer, you get blocking schemes from the outside, inside, wide receivers, tight ends. It’s just the multiplicity of seeing that and just kind of developing some discipline in keying. And he’s doing a good job at that.”
Brown knew last season that Romero wanted to be playing more. But Romero, who wears jersey No. 30, never put his goals before those of the team.
“He was a great kid throughout the whole process,” Brown said. “He wants to play and he wants to be good, so he’s putting in the work right now to make that happen. We’ll see what happens, but I’m excited about what he brings. He’s tough. He’s playing faster, and that’s the one thing we’re looking for.”
To open spring practice as the No. 1 Sam is satisfying, Romero said, “but there’s nothing set in stone. I’m still learning. Everybody’s still learning right now. I’m just trying to get better.”
A season ago, Walcott and Taliaferro each had one sack. The Wahoos want to put more pressure on quarterbacks from that position this season, and Romero has shown great promise as a pass-rusher.
“I think it’s his tenacity, his will, his want-to,” Brown said. “Rushing the passer is a lot of technique, but a lot of it is want-to, and he’s got that, and that’s going to help him be a good player.”
EXTRA POINTS: UVa’s remaining practices this week are open to the public, too. The ‘Hoos will practice Wednesday (8 to 10 a.m.) and Friday (8 to 10 a.m.) on the fields behind University Hall and the McCue Center. The team’s practice Saturday, from 1 to 3 p.m., is at Fairfax High School in Northern Virginia.
Virginia’s spring game is scheduled for Saturday, April 14 at Scott Stadium.