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July 23, 2012

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Saturday found University of Virginia tailback Perry Jones in Suffolk, Va., where he was the best man at the wedding of his older brother, Joseph Jones III.

“I think I gave the best toast ever,” the younger Jones said with a smile Sunday evening.

Seated at a round table at the Grandover Resort, Jones was holding court Sunday some seven hours after flying into Greensboro. He’s here for the ACC Football Kickoff, at which Jones and middle linebacker Steve Greer were UVa’s player representatives at the conference’s annual media gathering.

Never mind that he’d slept about two hours since the wedding. Jones, a senior from Chesapeake, Va., wasn’t complaining.

“It’s been a fun experience,” he told reporters. “First off, I started my day off by talking to some of the guys from the other teams: [Florida State quarterback] EJ Manuel, [FSU defensive end] Brandon Jenkins, [North Carolina linebacker] Kevin Reddick. I was just talking to those guys and getting their perspective on how things go on their teams. They all have been positive, and it’s a good experience, and I’m glad I made this trip.”

A second-team All-ACC selection in 2011, Jones is one of Virginia’s captains for the second year in a row. His fellow captains include Greer, a fifth-year senior who led the Cavaliers in tackles last season with 103.

Jones has figured prominently in the UVa coaching staff’s plans for 2012 since the end of last season. There was less certainty about the role Greer would play, at least initially. After starting all 12 regular-season games last year, Greer tore the ACL in his right knee during a practice for the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and that kept him out of the Wahoos’ first postseason appearance since 2007.

Greer worried at first that the injury that might cause him to miss part of the 2012 season, he acknowledged Sunday, but UVa’s doctors and athletic trainers eased his concerns.

“They kind of told me from the beginning it was going to based off how hard I worked,” Greer said. “I put a lot of extra time in, and it kind of worked out good, because me and Billy Schautz became close this offseason and kind of worked together.”

Schautz, a defensive end, suffered a gruesome injury Nov. 19 — he broke his left tibia and left fibula — in UVa’s win over Florida State in Tallahassee. He had surgery the next day after the team returned to Charlottesville.

Greer had reconstructive surgery Jan. 3. By late May, he had been cleared for full participation in drills, an astonishingly fast recovery from a torn ACL. Schautz, too, returned ahead of schedule.

He and Schautz “were right on track with each other, pretty much doing everything together,” Greer said. “So me and him really kind of took it like a challenge and we worked together.”

In the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Auburn faced a UVa defense that was missing three of its top performers: Greer, Schautz and All-ACC cornerback Chase Minnifield. Not coincidentally, the Tigers rolled up 454 yards in a 43-24 romp at the Georgia Dome.

“It was definitely frustrating being on the sidelines,” Greer recalled Sunday. “There’s nothing you can do about it, and you just want to be out there with the guys you work hard with. It was definitely frustrating, but it makes you appreciate being out there.”

Greer is from Solon, Ohio, about 20 miles from Cleveland. He’s been an integral part of the Cavaliers’ defense since 2009, when as a redshirt freshman he started all 12 games and earned the Bill Dudley Award, given annually to the team’s most outstanding first-year player.

In 2010, UVa’s first season under Mike London, Greer started only one game but still finished second on the team in tackles with 92. Back with the first team on a full-time basis in 2011, Greer anchored a defense that improved dramatically from the previous season.

Now, as his final college season approaches, Greer is one of only four returning starters for defensive coordinator Jim Reid, along with end Jake Snyder, outside linebacker LaRoy Reynolds and cornerback Demetrious Nicholson.

With such players as Minnifield, Matt Conrath, Nick Jenkins, Cam Johnson and Rodney McLeod gone, Greer understands why the defense is widely considered the team’s weak point heading into the season. He didn’t sound concerned Sunday.

It’s “exciting when you look at the guys that are going to be stepping up and what we do have coming back and how guys have been performing,” Greer said. “It’s exciting to see what’s coming.”

On the defensive line, he noted, “we have a lot of guys that played last year. They might not have been starters, but they saw significant time … As far as the secondary, we have a lot of really, really talented young guys that could be really good.”

In the secondary, UVa may well start three sophomores and a junior in the Sept. 1 opener against Richmond. “I have faith in those guys back there,” Greer said. “Those don’t act like underclassmen. They act like upperclassmen, which is what we want and what we need.”

That’s true, too, for Daquan “Da-Da” Romero, a sophomore who’s a candidate to start at outside linebacker. In May, when most of his classmates went home, Romero stayed in Charlottesville to train with the team’s upperclassmen.

“He said, ‘I feel like I have to be here. I feel like I’m a big part of this defense,’ ” Greer recalled Sunday. “So for him to do that on his own, show up in May, that really says something to me. It says something that even the young guys are on board 100 percent and are really hungry, which is a really positive thing.”

A government major, Greer needs only one more class — in politics — to earn his bachelor’s degree. His post-college plans?

“I’m trying not to think about that right now,” he said, smiling.

Greer’s focus is on finishing well in the classrooom and on the football field. The ‘Hoos are coming off their first winning season since 2007, but they staggered into the new year. After a four-game winning streak that included road victories over ACC rivals Miami, Maryland and FSU, UVa fell 38-0 to Virginia Tech in the regular-season finale at Scott Stadium. Then came the one-sided loss to Auburn in Atlanta.

“I definitely think it was a learning experience, and it kind of showed us as a team what we need to do to take the next step,” Greer said. “So we’ve kind of used that going into the offseason and we’re going to use it going into training camp to understand what we need to do to accomplish what we want to accomplish.”

His injury notwithstanding, Greer will remember the 2011 season as “a really positive experience,” he said. “When you work for something that long and you spend so many years trying to get to that point, you appreciate all the hard work you put in. We definitely raised expectations of the program; we’re going to continue to do that in the next season.”

HOT TOPIC: Not surprisingly, Jones and Greer each fielded multiple questions Sunday about quarterback Phillip Sims, who transferred from Alabama to UVa after the 2011-12 academic year ended.

Sims, a redshirt sophomore, is eligible to play for the Cavaliers immediately. He’s a graduate of Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake, where in 2008 his teammates included Jones and wide receiver Tim Smith, now starters at UVa.

The Tigers won the state Group AAA, Division 6 title in 2008. A four-year starter at Oscar Smith, Sims is the Virginia High School League’s career leader in passing yards (10,725) and touchdown passes (119).

Sims appeared in eight games for Alabama last season. He completed 18 of 28 passes for 163 yards and no touchdowns, with two interceptions.

In junior Michael Rocco, Virginia has a quarterback who started every game last season (and passed for 2,671 yards). Also back is sophomore David Watford, who split time with Rocco for the first half of last season.

“I think it’s a good problem to have,” Jones said. “You have a bunch of guys who are more than capable of getting the job done, so I think they’re going to push each other to get better.”

His friendship with Sims aside, Jones said, “I’m not pulling for anybody. I just want the person on the field who gives us the best chance to win, because that’s what it’s all about. I think they realize this too. The coaches don’t have any favorites either. They’re not going to put the person on the field who doesn’t give us the best chance [to win].”

Jones said he doesn’t worry that the addition of Sims will hurt team chemistry.

“I don’t think it’s going to split us at all,” he said. “I know this, because if it was, it would have happened already when he first arrived on campus. Michael Rocco has embraced him. He’s been trying to help [Sims] become better, and once you have that on the team, you know that you have a bunch of guys that only want one thing: to win football games.”

In 2011, on an option play against Miami, Jones threw a touchdown pass to Smith. Which means, among other things, that Jones has thrown more TD passes as a collegian than Sims has.

“I’ve definitely let him know about that,” Jones said, laughing.

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