By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — If he’s not the tallest fullback in major-college football, 6-6, 255-pound Zachary Swanson is certainly the tallest fullback with a bushy brown beard, a passion for farming and an interest in joining the military after college.
Swanson, who’s in his third year at UVa, is classified as a redshirt sophomore for football, and he’s in his first season as a starter. He was among the players who stopped by John Paul Jones Arena for the weekly question-and-answer session with the media Monday, in part because he scored his first touchdown as a college player over the weekend, and also because he’s from Texas.
Next up for Virginia (2-1) is TCU (2-0), which is ranked No. 17 in the latest Associated Press poll. In a game that ESPN will televise, they’ll meet at noon Saturday (Eastern) at 45,000-seat Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth. The Horned Frogs have won 27 of their past 28 home games.
Swanson is from Katy, Texas, which is about 30 miles outside Houston and 250 from Fort Worth. But he attended a TCU football camp held in Houston before his senior year at Katy High and knows several TCU players. He’s well aware of what the Horned Frogs have done under Gary Patterson, whose record as their head coach is 111-30.
“When you really look at them, they’re a great team,” Swanson said. “Their reputation is that they fight, they’ve been underdogs …. and I admire them, because they’re a hard-working team. I like their coaching staff, and I like the way that their players play the game.”
Swanson, who originally planned to attend Stanford, later considered the U.S. Military Academy before a late scholarship offer from UVa came through. He was slotted at tight end, his high school position, when he arrived at Virginia in 2010, but switched to fullback in training camp last summer.
His first two years at UVa, Swanson was in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, but he decided to take 2012-13 off to focus on football. When his football career ends, Swanson said, we might see him in the Army.
“I want to serve this country, and that’s always just been something, even before football got going for me in high school, that I wanted to do,” he said.
“I’ve always had a great respect for men and women that serve our country … It’s not easy. It’s a sacrifice, and a lot of people, in your day-to-day lives, you don’t realize there’s a reason that we have all the freedoms we have.”
With no ROTC obligations, Swanson began growing a beard in May, and he hasn’t cut it. At first, he said, tight end Jake McGee offered to pay him if he grew his beard for the whole year, “but I don’t think that’s going to be worth it,” Swanson said.
Ultimately, Swanson’s girlfriend may make the call. “I’ve told her, `When you want me to cut it, I’ll cut it,’ and she hasn’t said anything yet,” Swanson said with a smile.
Swanson may never carry the ball for the Wahoos, but he’s an option in the passing game and has four catches for 10 yards this season. Virginia is coming off a 56-20 loss at Georgia Tech, a game that ended with backup quarterback Phillip Sims’ 1-yard touchdown pass to Swanson.
“I guess points are points,” Swanson said of his TD.
Most college fullbacks are closer to 6-0 than to 6-8, but Swanson doesn’t believe his height is a disadvantage for him. “I feel like I can play fullback. I think it’s just more the mental thing. You’ve got to be able to just line up and want to hit somebody.”
He’s majoring in environmental science. “I’m not really sure exactly what I want to do afterwards, but I tell people I just want to be a farmer,” said Swanson. “I just like being outside and working with my hands. So environmental science is a great thing.”
Swanson isn’t the first graduate of Katy High School to become a student-athlete at UVa. The Cavaliers’ basketball standouts in the `90s included high-flying guard Adam Hall.
“I was friends with his younger sister, and she told me when I committed here, `Yeah, my brother played basketball there,’ ” Swanson said. “I never knew Adam, but I knew his younger sister.”
MIXED EMOTIONS: Swanson wasn’t the only player to score his first touchdown as a Cavalier against the Yellow Jackets. Wideout E.J. Scott, a redshirt sophomore from Ellicott City, Md., caught a 22-yard TD pass from Sims in the fourth quarter.
“It was good just to be out there contributing to the offense,” Scott said Monday, “but when we’re down like that, it’s never a good taste in your mouth, so we’re just looking to bounce back this week.”
STATUS QUO: Sims, a redshirt sophomore who transferred to UVa from Alabama after the 2011-12 school year, replaced starter Michael Rocco in the fourth quarter Saturday and finished 6-of-8 passing for 56 yards and two TDs.
Rocco, meanwhile, struggled against Georgia Tech, throwing two interceptions. But head coach Mike London answered emphatically Monday when asked about Rocco and Sims.
“There’s no quarterback controversy with us,” London said. “It is what it is. Michael is our starting quarterback … We’ll continue in this fashion. It’s important that Michael plays well. It’s important that Sean Cascarano plays well so Sean Karl doesn’t have to play. I mean, everybody has to play well. We’ve got to coach better and then help these guys be successful. ”
ANOTHER OPTION: Cascarano, a redshirt junior, is the starting left guard on an offensive line that has struggled to open holes in the running game this season. Karl, a 6-6, 290-pound true freshman, is listed as Cascarano’s backup on the depth chart released Monday. That marked his first appearance on the two-deep this season.
In practice, London said, Karl has shown “that he’s very tough, very aggressive. I’ve always said that the hardest thing for linemen to do is to play at such a young age because you haven’t had the benefit of being in the weight room. But his toughness, and he’s a big kid, big, thick kid, that has put him in a position because of the need there to help us.”
Nine true freshmen have played for the `Hoos this season. That group does not include C.J. Moore, who has been listed as a second-team cornerback on the depth chart.
London said it “looks like it’s more and more likely that I’d like to be able to redshirt him. I wouldn’t come out and say it right now as we’re going into the fourth game with still several games to play, but I think he’ll make the trips, he’ll be there if needed because of our numbers back there. He may play, but if not, if I can hang onto his redshirt, I’d like to be able to do that.”
Clifton Richardson was one of the 12 true freshmen to play for UVa in 2011. A hamstring injury has kept Richardson out of two games this season, however, and if the 6-0, 215-pound tailback from Newport News doesn’t get healthy soon, the Cavaliers may look to redshirt him, London said Monday.
SLOW START: Tailback Perry Jones, a second-team All-ACC pick in 2011, hasn’t been nearly as effective this season. The senior from Chesapeake has rushed 27 times for 81 yards and one TD, and he has seven catches for 54 yards.
London said UVa’s coaches “know that we have to find creative ways to get him the ball. If the running game is not working then we have to do something to get him the ball, whether it’s put him in the slot, flare him out, go do draws or go do screens or whatever it is. That’s a conscious effort that we have to make: to get him in the game, on the field, and get him the touches. And that’s something that’s going to be done and has to be done.”
Virginia’s leading rusher is sophomore tailback Kevin Parks. He’s carried 36 times for 128 yards and two TDs.
ON THE MARK: TCU quarterback Casey Pachall, a 6-5, 226-pound junior, leads the nation in passing efficiency. He has completed 33 of 39 passes for 536 yards and five TDs, with no interceptions.
“We know he’s a talented guy, but we’ve got to go out there and just show we’re ready,” UVa safety Anthony Harris said Monday.
Against Georgia Tech’s trademark triple-option offense, Virginia gave up nearly 600 yards Saturday. The Cavaliers are happy to be preparing for a more conventional offense this week.
“We feel more comfortable in the calls that we’ve been making all through spring and [training] camp and in different situations,” said Harris, a sophomore who leads UVa in tackles with 25.
“I feel like it’s a great opportunity. We just want to show everybody that we can compete at a high level. I think it’ll be a good opportunity to bounce back from this week.”
Virginia had few defensive highlights against Georgia Tech, but fifth-year senior Ausar Walcott provided one of them. In the first quarter, the 6-4, 240-pound end saved a touchdown by chasing down Yellow Jackets quarterback Tevin Washington and tackling him after a 60-yard run.
“They were up on us by a couple touchdowns, and [defensive coordinator Jim Reid] always tells us never to give up, no matter if we’re losing by a hundred points,” Walcott said. “You still want to go out there and fight and show courage, and things like that. I felt like the play wasn’t over, and I’m supposed to run to the ball, so that’s what I did.”
With classmate Bill Schautz out with an injury, Walcott, a converted outside linebacker, made his first start at defensive end Saturday. Schautz is listed as a starter on the two-deep released Monday.
“Billy’s one of my close, close friends, so I just want him back as soon as possible, because he’s one of the big players on our defense,” Walcott said. “So as soon as he can get back, we need him.”