By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Mention Anthony “Ant” Harris to a football coach at the University of Virginia, and the response is unfailingly positive.
Head man Mike London raves about Harris’ potential, as does safeties coach Anthony Poindexter. Strength-and-conditioning coach Evan Marcus loves Harris’ work ethic and sense of responsibility.
“If Anthony missed a workout, I would be absolutely shocked,” Marcus said Wednesday morning during the Cavaliers’ second practice of the spring.
The 6-1, 180-pound Harris appeared in all 13 games as a UVa true freshman last season, mostly on special teams. Some 2½ months after the Chick-fil-A Bowl, a game in which the Wahoos started two seniors at safety, Harris’ role on the team has increased dramatically.
He started spring practice this week as Rodney McLeod’s successor at strong safety, and Harris is looking to lock down the job. Don’t bet against him.
“You look at his physical attributes, with his height, his weight, he played on special teams, he’s a smart player,” London said before practice Wednesday morning. “He knows the coverages. He can watch film and call out formations and plays by just by having been around guys like Rodney and Corey [Mosley]. He’s got a chance to be really good, so we’re excited about his development.”
At L.C. Bird High School in Chesterfield County, Harris played wide receiver as a sophomore. During his junior and senior seasons, his primary positions were quarterback and cornerback, though he occasionally lined up at safety.
To accelerate Harris’ development at his new position, UVa’s coaches had him room with McLeod during training camp last summer.
“I just watched the way he communicated to everybody on the team and made sure everybody knew what was going on,” Harris said after practice Wednesday. “I tried to get with him in my spare time just to get tips on what he was looking at, what he was reading [from the offense]. That way I can get a better feel for things and actually know what I’m looking at out there.”
Poindexter said: “The kid works hard. He’s a very intelligent kid. He kind of reminds you of Rod, just in a different body. They got different games, but the kid can hold a lot of information.
“We’re putting a lot on him. To be the strong safety in this defense you gotta make the calls and you gotta get people lined up. He started handling it last year, though, so it’s something that we saw from him last season as a true freshman.”
Harris, who wears jersey No. 28, finished with 14 tackles last season. He rarely played from scrimmage, but that had more to do with McLeod’s value to the team, Poindexter said.
“I wasn’t looking to take Rod out. That’s just the bottom line,” Poindexter said. “I thought Rod was just one of the best, if not the best player, on our team, a guy we couldn’t do without.”
With Harris, Poindexter said, what “we really wanted to do was let him learn under Rod, see how he prepares, see how he practices, see how he does things, see how he makes the reads, and I think the kid did a good job with it.”
Harris said: “Last year I tried to focus hard, take practice seriously, learn the plays. That way I stayed ready to go in the game. This year the team’s been needing somebody to step up, and I’m just trying to fill that role and do the best I can.”
Of playing strong safety in UVa’s defense, Harris said: “It takes a lot of focus. You’ve got to be aware of what’s going on around you: personnel, formations and a lot of other tendencies. But I think just focusing on getting into your playbook, knowing the defense and then where everybody fits in, it allows you to do the job much easier.”
UVa has one of the nation’s least experienced secondaries. Four of the Cavaliers’ top five defensive backs in 2011 were seniors: McLeod, Mosley, Dom Joseph and All-ACC selection Chase Minnifield.
The starting cornerbacks this fall figure to be sophomores: Demetrious Nicholson on one side, Drequan Hoskey or Brandon Phelps on the other. Options at safety include sophomores Harris, Kameron Mack and Pablo Alvarez, junior Rijo Walker, and redshirt freshmen Darius Lee, Mason Thomas and Kyrrel Latimer.
London said he has faith in the team’s next generation of DBs.
“I think they had great leaders and models, with Rodney being there and Cory and Chase back there,” London said. “They’ve been around the leadership of those guys that have been very positive. And so they’ve come in with an understanding of the position, of the requirements, and now it’s up to them physically to do what has to be done, now that you’re stepping into the position to be the guy.”
When he arrived at UVa, Harris knew McLeod and Mosley would be leaving after the 2011 season. Still, Harris said, he didn’t dwell on the opportunity he would have this year.
“I just tried to work hard, not really pay attention to the depth chart too much,” Harris said. “Just go out there and give it all I had and play as fast as I could, and it just turned out that way, that I’m in this position.”
EXTRA POINTS: The Cavaliers’ next two practices are open to the public. The first is Friday at UVa, starting at 8:30 a.m., on the fields behind the McCue Center and University Hall.
The second is Saturday, from 1 to 3 p.m., at Fairfax High in Northern Virginia. The first 1,000 fans in attendance will receive a free Virginia Football t-shirt.
A food drive to benefit the Arlington Food Assistance Center will be held in conjunction with Saturday’s practice. The AFAC especially needs cereal and other breakfast items, as well as pasta and peanut butter.
Virginia’s spring game is scheduled for Saturday, April 14 at Scott Stadium.