Oct. 12, 2012

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — At Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach, he dominated on offense and defense, a lethal blend of size and speed who earned acclaim as one of the nation’s most sought-after recruits.

At the University of Virginia, Eli Harold confronted the reality of major-college football, a game in which large, fast, experienced players abound.

“It’s just so crazy how a bunch of great athletes are on the field at one time,” Harold said this week.

And so his first college season has been a learning experience for Harold, a 6-4 defensive end whose weight, he said, is “floating around 225,” down from the 230 pounds he carried when he arrived at UVa in July.

One of nine true freshmen to play this year for Virginia, Harold now battles offensive tackles who weigh close to — if not more than — 300 pounds. Keeping weight on is difficult for him, Harold said, because of his high metabolism, but, after an offseason training with strength coach Evan Marcus, he hopes to be up to 240 by next summer.

He needs to be.

“Playing against those big guys every day, in practice and in games, it just takes a toll on your body,” Harold said.

From Day One, Harold has been in the Cavaliers’ rotation at defensive end, along with his classmate Mike Moore, junior Jake Snyder and seniors Bill Schautz and Ausar Walcott. With Schautz sidelined by an injury, Harold’s playing time has increased recently, and at the regular season’s midpoint he has 12 tackles, including one for loss.

The biggest challenge for Harold, line coach Jeff Hanson said, has been “just learning our defense. We do a bunch of different things, and being a true freshman and having the academic load that he’s got, and then being in a playing situation, it’s kind of overwhelmed him at times. But I think he’s played really well for a freshman.

“He’s made some mental mistakes on game day, but those things are going to happen with freshmen. Overall I’m very happy with what he’s done so far.”

Harold said he’s learned that, at this level, “everybody’s good, everybody’s fast. And the little stuff matters so much.”

Case in point: a play in the first quarter of UVa’s Sept. 8 game against Penn State at Scott Stadium. On second-and-goal from the 8 for the Nittany Lions, pressure from Harold forced quarterback Matt McGloin into an incompletion.

“But I actually was late off the ball,” Harold said, “so if I come off the ball on time, I probably had that sack when I hit McGloin. It’s just the little things that matter. In high school they don’t have enough time with us to really critique us on our first step, as they do here. I just never knew how much the little things counted.”

This is Homecomings weekend at the University, and UVa (2-4, 0-2 ACC) hosts Maryland (3-2, 1-0) at 3 p.m. Saturday at Scott Stadium. The Wahoos have lost four straight since edging Penn State 17-16, and in each of the past two games Harold has been penalized for a personal foul.

Against Louisiana Tech, he was called for roughing the passer after running into quarterback Colby Cameron, who “acted a little,” Harold said. Then last weekend, with the outcome long since settled, Harold ran into Duke’s punter late in the fourth quarter, and another flag flew.

“The one against Duke, it was kind of out of frustration,” Harold said. “It’s something that you can’t do. It was a big rookie mistake on my part.”

When he returned to the sideline, Harold apologized to head coach Mike London for the penalty.

“I really don’t want people to look at me as a guy that always loses his temper and does things to hurt the team,” Harold said this week. “I want to be looked at as a guy that you can count on in any point in the game.”

The Duke game fell in the middle of UVa’s fall break. The team practiced Sunday, after which Harold went home to Virginia Beach to see his brother, Walter Ray, and other relatives.

Walter Ray Harold, a pastor in Virginia Beach, is the primary parental figure in Eli’s life. That’s been the case since Jan. 2, 2011, when the brothers’ mother, Sheila Korvette Harold, died after a three-year fight with pancreatic cancer.

Seven months later, on the eve of his senior year at Ocean Lakes, Harold committed to UVa, turning down scholarship offers from such schools as LSU, Florida, Ohio State, Tennessee, Virginia Tech and West Virginia. He chose Virginia partly because of the bond he’d formed with London.

That Harold was a rare talent was evident to anyone who saw him play for Ocean Lakes. That’s not all that impressed Virginia’s coaching staff.

“We all know that he lost his mother,” London said, “and I’ll just say that the young man has a desire to do well in school, become an educated man, to represent his family and her memory in terms of what he does in life.”

On the field, London said, Harold has “God-given ability and talent that he’s working on every day to continue to develop, gaining strength, gaining knowledge of how to play the position.”

But Harold has the “intangibles” too, London said.

“He is driven to be as good as he can be,” London said, and that becomes clear “when you meet him and you talk to him, and then you sit down and you try to talk about his goals, what he wants to do, where he wants to be, how he sees himself five, 10 years from now.

“He’s got a plan, and I think that’s borne out of the things that have happened early on in his life.”

Hanson echoed his boss’ comments on Harold. “He’s one of the best kids I’ve ever been around in my life,” Hanson said. “He’s humble. He takes to coaching and teaching. He doesn’t mind the criticism and the corrections that you make with him.

“He’s eager to learn, and he just needs to keep understanding where he fits in the scheme of our defense, and as long as he does that, he’ll get better and better, and he is getting better.”

Harold said he tries to emulate Brian Orakpo, who played defensive end at the University of Texas before moving to outside linebacker in the Washington Redskins’ 3-4 scheme. Like Harold, Orakpo was lean coming out of high school, but he now carries nearly 260 pounds on his 6-4 frame.

“He’s a big guy,” Harold said, “and he’s a fast guy. He can play in space, and I see myself doing that.”

Harold said he’s eagerly awaiting the day “when things click. It starts in the weight room. I’ll get my size up. I think I’ve got pretty good speed right now. But when I get that size, it’ll help me getting to the passer and playing the run.”

During Harold’s three seasons on the varsity, Ocean Lakes won many more games than it lost. Now he finds himself on a UVa team that must win four of its final six regular-season games to become bowl-eligible.

“I always say I hate to lose more than others love to win,” Harold said, “but it’s like life. Like I lose my mom, and how am I going to respond? It’s how you respond to adversity. You just gotta bounce back. You gotta go watch film, you gotta see what you’re doing wrong. You can’t win `em all, but obviously we want to be better than what we are right now.

“It just happens. We’ve got a young team. I don’t want to use that as an excuse why we’re not winning, but others have kind of made me realize that we’re still rebuilding. They had a lot of guys like Corey Mosley and Rodney McLeod last year, Cam Johnson, Matt Conrath, Nick Jenkins, Kris Burd, all those guys. Those are playmakers. Those guys were the backbone of Virginia football the past few years, and we lost all those seniors, and we’ve got young receivers and and a young secondary and young defensive linemen going in, and Phillip [Sims] transferring in and just learning the offense.”

Harold rooms with Anthony Cooper, a safety who starred at Bayside, another Virginia Beach high school. Harold said the first-year class is a tight group that’s determined “to do what we can do to help Virginia football be like what it was back in the day.”

A Redskins knit hat on his head, Harold smiled when asked about his first semester at UVa.

“The football part, we’re not where we want to be, but I’m still enjoying myself,” he said. “I’m just trying to give it all I’ve got on the field, and I’m also working hard in the classroom.

“I’m loving it. I just couldn’t be in a better situation right now — a true freshman being called on to play — and I’m just loving my teammates and coaches.”

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