By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Washington Post’s All-Metro defensive player of the year in 2010, Vincent Croce weighed 265 pounds when he joined the University of Virginia football program last summer.

By February, the 6-foot-4 Croce was down to 250, seriously undersized for a defensive tackle in the ACC, and Evan Marcus was not pleased. There were some extenuating circumstances, including migraine headaches that sidelined Croce for stretches last fall, but Marcus, UVa’s director of strength and conditioning for football, saw other reasons for Croce’s drop in weight.

“He always used to make the excuse, ‘Well, during the season, it’s just the way I am, I just lose weight in-season,’ ” Marcus recalled, “and you have to tell them, it just doesn’t happen. It happens because you allow it to happen. And when you gain weight, it’s because you want to gain weight. You make it a priority. You lose weight because you’re just lazy in your approach to it. So to come in here and tell me, ‘Well, it’s just what it happens every in-season’ — no, you choose to let it happen every in-season. If you choose to keep your weight up, it will.”

In the McCue Center weight room, Marcus made that point, in typically blunt fashion, to Croce early in the spring semester. “So after we had that talk, I just kind of made a conscious decision every day to eat better,” Croce recalled Friday.

Look at him now. A week before the Cavaliers open training camp, Croce weighs nearly 280 pounds, and he’s expected to compete for a spot on the two-deep at defensive tackle.

“He’s certainly done a great job,” Marcus said, “and he really looks good. His strength is outstanding, compared to what it was. Now, like I told him [last week], ‘It’s your decision. Now if you drop back to 255, your strength is going to go right down, and you’re going to get hurt, because you’re still gonna try to work off those numbers that you’ve attained at a higher body weight, and your body won’t be able to handle it. And you’re not going to perform to the best of your abilities because you’ve dropped all this weight. [The coaches] recruited you here to be a certain size, and when you get to that size and you drop back down, you’re always taking one step forward and two steps back. You’re never going to reach your full potential. Now that we got you here, you have to make sure you do everything in your power to stay here.”

Croce, who’s from New Market, Md., outside Frederick, said putting on, and keeping on, pounds wasn’t always easy. But Randy Bird, the athletics department’s nutritionist, got “me set up with a meal plan, and I just stuck to it,” Croce said.

“I’m definitely more dedicated. I’ll get up an hour and a half before the 7 a.m. lift, so I’m up at 5:30 to make sure I can eat and still have time to digest it before the lift. And then I go eat right after the lift, and just pretty much any free time I have, get in a meal.”

That mentality is essential, said Marcus, who returned to UVa in January 2011 after four years as a head strength coach in the NFL.

“You want to tell the guys how important their nutrition is, no matter what,” Marcus said. “It helps them in their strength and power stuff, it helps them in their recovery, it helps them around the board. But when you’re a guy that has to gain weight, it’s got to become a priority in your life, and it’s got to be almost something you think about all the time: your training and your eating.

“It’s got to become almost consuming in your thoughts a little bit: ‘When’s my next meal? When am I gonna eat?’ Almost to the point where at night you have to plan the next day around your eating, a little bit, because you want to know there’s no time you’re going to go without. So whether that means at night preparing a couple sandwiches that you can stick in your bag, or having some protein bars, you’ve kind of got to get your day scheduled around that. I like to call ’em ‘feedings.’ When am I going to get my third feeding, my fourth feeding?”

Croce said he’s come too far to slide back again.

“When I started my weight gain, I was still in school, still had five classes and was still having workouts,” he said. “So if I can gain then, I’m sure that I’ll have no problem keeping the weight on now. I’ve changed my lifestyle to where it’s a conscious decision that I make every day, and I’ll be in Faulkner [Apartments] now, so I’ll have my own kitchen, I can cook my own meals and keep up with my own food.”

In high school, Croce starred for one of the nation’s premier programs. He played defensive end, defensive tackle, linebacker and tight end for Good Counsel, whose alumni presence is growing in Mike London’s program at UVa.

When he arrived at Virginia last summer, Croce was assigned jersey No. 45 and slotted at defensive end. Still, he said, he figured a move to tackle might be imminent, “just because I looked at who was here before me, and the build of who [the coaching staff] liked to play at what position, and I felt like I had a similar build to Nick Jenkins.”

Jenkins, another Good Counsel graduate, was a four-year starter at tackle for the Wahoos, and “I just had a feeling that if it came down to it that I would be the one to move inside,” Croce said.

His instincts were correct. Croce changed positions in the fall. Twelve true freshmen played for the ‘Hoos last season. Croce was among those who redshirted, the first time since he picked up the sport as a boy that he had to be a spectactor during games.

“You definitely kind of feel that sense like, ‘I wish I could be out there with them,’ ” Croce recalled. “But at the same time there was great camaraderie [in the first-year class]. The redshirted guys kind of had our own group, and none of us really felt like we were alone. We kept that type of family, and we were proud for the guys that got to play, like Tra [Nicholson] and Brandon Phelps and Ant Harris. We were happy for them, proud of them.”

Croce suffered from extertional migraines at times last season, but they haven’t bothered him this year, he said, and he’s eager to compete for playing time at a position where UVa must replace its 2011 starters, Jenkins and Matt Conrath.

“I feel like going into camp there’s always opportunities, no matter if you’re just getting here or if you’re been here for three years,” Croce said. “If you can play, if you show what you can do and you perform, if you out-perform the guy ahead of you, it’s an open book.”

Late last week, the team’s veterans concluded their offseason strength-and-conditioning program. Before dismissing them, Marcus advised the players to be smart as training camp approaches.

“He said to listen to your body,” Croce said. “If your hamstrings are bothering you, go to the training room, don’t come in the weight room. If your lower back’s bothering you, take some days off.”

Croce smiled. “But honestly, I don’t know,” he said. “The whole week is a little long to be out of the gym for me.”

WEIGHTY MATTERS: While Croce has been adding pounds, offensive tackle Morgan Moses has been shedding them this offseason, and Marcus couldn’t be happier.

The 6-foot-6 Moses, an All-ACC candidate, is heading into his junior season.

“Big Mo has really bought in,” Marcus said. “It took a little while to convince him that you don’t need to be 340 pounds, not only to play collegiately, but if the next level is in your cards, you don’t want to be that big. When you get in the NFL, you can get labeled as a ‘weight-problem guy,’ and it’s hard to shake that label. You have to prove to them, especially as a big man, that you can keep your weight in check. We’ve seen so many guys that come [into the NFL] and within two or three years they gain weight, gain weight, and then it’s hard for them to get it off, and then they’re out of the league, because they haven’t managed their weight. They become weight problems.

“I think for Mo it was convincing him that you could be 315 and 320, and you can be stronger. He has gained strength, so obviously he didn’t need that weight for any reason, and just from an overall fitness standpoint he’s in better shape now than he’s ever been, and his body looks better.”

NO PAIN, NO GAIN: “That’s part of the cornerstones of our program and what we do in the weight room: We’re going to make you uncomfortable and expand your definition of ‘hard’ so you can get comfortable in that place and you can push yourself harder and you can be better than if you don’t get to that point,” Marcus said.

One of the points of emphasis in his program this year, Marcus said, was “repetitive power. Instead of getting a new one-rep max at the end of summer, we took a percent of their max and asked them to do [reps] like on a play drive, and to show them that whether it’s a six-play drive or a 10-play drive or a 15-play drive, they’ll be able to produce the same amount of force no matter what, time after time after time. And again, that’s got to be something that’s woven into the culture of Virginia. How does Virginia wins game? We’re going to wear people out. We do have smart kids here, and we’re going to be able to focus when we’re tired. Hopefully that translates into fewer penalties, pre-snap penalties, but part of our model has got to be a physical nature and being able to just wear teams out.”

Opponents are “going to have to know,” Marcus said, “that even in the fourth quarter Virginia will keep on coming, keep on coming, keep on coming, and you’re not going to put us away. And hopefully that starts to wear teams out mentally. It’s almost like mental fatigue, like, ‘Jeez, I’m tired, and that guy across from me is just coming over and over again,’ and that’s what we talked to the guys about. It’s got to be part of what we do here. Some other teams can rely on athleticism and big-play striking ability and whatever. We have to make the weight room and what we do here part of the cornerstones of the program. It’s got to come out of here that these guys are better physically and mentally.”

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