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Oct. 23, 2012

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — For four years, Chris Brathwaite’s alarm rang at 5 a.m. on most weekdays. His bed was in his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. His high school, Holy Cross, was in Queens, and that meant a long, complicated commute for Brathwaite.

He left his house at 6 and walked to catch the L train. Then he’d transfer to the J train, which would take Brathwaite and two of his classmates to Queens. There they’d board a bus, the Q76, for a 45-minute ride to Flushing, where Holy Cross is located. By 8 a.m., if all went as scheduled, Brathwaite would arrive at school.

At the University of Virginia, meetings for the football team start at 6:20 a.m. most weekdays, so “actually I get a little extra time to sleep,” Brathwaite said.

If at times early in his college career Brathwaite appeared to be sleepwalking during practices, that’s no longer the case. In a disappointing season for the Cavaliers (2-6), who have lost six straight games, Brathwaite’s development at defensive tackle has emerged as one of most compelling stories.

Chris Brathwaite is starting to really come of age and really play well,” head coach Mike London said.

The 6-1, 292-pound redshirt sophomore has more tackles (29) than the starters at his position, senior Will Hill (19) and junior Brent Urban (eight), have between them. Moreover, with 4.5 tackles for loss, Brathwaite is tied with senior linebacker LaRoy Reynolds and sophomore linebacker Henry Coley for third on the team, behind senior linebacker Steve Greer (6.5) and true freshman end Eli Harold (5).

“I feel like I’ve come pretty far,” Brathwaite said.

What makes Brathwaite so intriguing — and, at times, frustrating — to the coaching staff is that his potential remains largely untapped. Brathwaite has underdone three knee operations and battled mononucleosis since enrolling at UVa in the summer of 2010, but those aren’t the only factors in his fitful progress as a player.

“A lot of my issues have been with consistency,” Brathwaite said. “I’ve got to show the coaches I’m going to consistently give the effort every play.”

That Brathwaite has what Evan Marcus calls “rare power” has long been apparent to the football team’s strength-and-conditioning coach. Just this morning, in fact, Brathwaite power-cleaned 400 pounds, a program record, after which Marcus told him, `This shows what you could do.”

His challenge, Brathwaite knows, is “for me to show the coaches that I can be a consistent contributor every week.”

Not all of the obstacles he’s faced at UVa have been of his own making. Brathwaite, who redshirted in 2010, had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee that November and a similar operation on his left knee in August 2011. After recovering from that setback, he played in only five games (and made only one tackle) as a redshirt freshman last year.

This February, he got mono, and his weight plummeted to 265 pounds. Then came more arthroscopic surgery — in June, this time on his left knee — and that limited his involvement in Marcus’ summer conditioning program.

But Brathwaite worked his way into the rotation at defensive tackle during training camp in August, and his breakthrough as a Cavalier came Oct. 13, when he was in on two tackles for loss, including a sack, against Maryland at Scott Stadium.

“That’s a young man that had an opportunity extended to him, and he made the most of it,” London said the next day.

If he’d expected praise from his strength coach for that performance, however, Brathwaite was disappointed.

“Coach Marcus said, `I’m not going to give you any compliments. This is something I told you you’d be able to do. You just gotta do it every game,’ ” Brathwaite recalled.

“He told me, `I’ve known your potential. You just gotta live up to it every week. You can’t be good one week and not the next week.’ “

In his next game, Brathwaite wreaked more havoc. Against Wake Forest on Saturday, he made a career-high nine tackles, including two for loss, on an afternoon when the defense allowed only 213 yards.

“I feel pretty good about my play,” Brathwaite said after the game. “I worked hard to put myself in a position to make plays for the team. My play really comes off the team having trust in me.”

After spending most of Brathwaite’s childhood in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, his family now lives in Canarsie. Brathwaite has 10 siblings, only two of whom are younger than he is: sisters who are 16 and 12, respectively. His father, 69 years old, is a Vietnam veteran.

Brathwaite, whose wardrobe includes some Brooklyn Nets gear, attended Holy Cross in part, he said, because college recruiters were more likely to spot him there than at high schools closer to his home.

His predecessors at Holy Cross included football player Kevin Ogletree and basketball players Willie Dersch, Greg Lyons and Sylven Landesberg, all of whom went on to become student-athletes at UVa.

Brathwaite has met Ogletree, a wide receiver with the Dallas Cowboys, and talks periodically with Landesberg, who plays professionally in Israel.

Competing for Holy Cross in the Catholic High School Football League of Metropolitan New York, Brathwaite was a three-time all-star selection. “High school was pretty easy for me,” he said. “I was stronger than everyone else, quicker than everyone else.”

When Brathwaite committed to the Wahoos in July 2009, Al Groh was their head coach, and the 3-4 was their base defense. Brathwaite weighed about 250 pounds during his senior season at Holy Cross, and he ran well enough for Virginia to recruit him as an outside linebacker in the 3-4.

“I think I would have grown out of that,” said Brathwaite, who weighed closer to 270 by signing day in February 2010.

He’ll never know for sure, because by time Brathwaite enrolled at UVa, the 3-4 was history. On his way to the airport Nov. 29, 2009, after spending the weekend at Virginia on his official visit, Brathwaite learned that Groh had been dismissed.

Brathwaite could have re-opened his recruitment, but chose not to.

“I wanted to wait it out,” he said, “just to see who was going to be hired and what their plan was for me.”

In December 2009, London took over as head coach. He hired Jim Reid as defensive coordinator, and the Wahoos switched to the 4-3.

Upon his arrival in Charlottesville, Brathwaite was slotted at defensive tackle. He later moved to defensive end before sliding back inside, where, if he doesn’t earn a starting job this fall, he’ll have an opportunity to do so in 2013. That’s one reason the remaining regular-season games are so important for Brathwaite.

“I’d like to finish the season strong,” he said. “I’ve got to make sure the coaches have confidence in putting me in the game.”

In the weight room, Brathwaite may be the strongest player on the team — except, he said, in the bench press, in which such teammates as LaRoy Reynolds, Trent Corney and Morgan Moses have him beat.

“I’ve been lifting weights since the 10th grade, just me and a bunch of my teammates,” Brathwaite said. “We had a weight-lifting program at Holy Cross, but we took it upon ourselves to do extra. After we lifted weights at Holy Cross, we would go to the gym. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but as long as we were lifting, we felt stronger.”

Virginia’s other defensive tackles include the 6-7 Urban, the 6-4 Hill and 6-6 Justin Renfrow. The offensive guards Brathwaite battles often tower over him, too. That doesn’t bother him.

“Everybody likes the height, being taller, but I see it as an advantage for me to be shorter,” Brathwaite said. “I have natural leverage, so it’ll be a lot harder for these guards to get their hands underneath me, and if they do, it’s going to be hard for them to stay on balance. So I feel like it works for me. I guess the only disadvantage would be, I have to be stronger, so I can move `em out of the way to see in the backfield, just to see where the ball is at all times.

“Me being shorter, I have to be better at other things. I have to make sure I’m stronger, make sure I use my pad leverage to my advantage.”

Brathwaite has declared his major — African-American & African Studies. He’s also interested in anthropology, though, and might add that as a double major.

Around Grounds, because of size, stern expression and reluctance to engage in small talk, Brathwaite can be intimidating to people he doesn’t know well. He says he’s trying to change that.

“I’ve been told I have to adjust a little bit by teachers,” Brathwaite said. “Smile a little bit more. I’ve got to talk to people a little bit more. Sometimes when I’m on my own, I stay quiet, I sit there, and I just do whatever I’m doing. But I’ve been adjusting a lot more, talking to teachers.”

His adjustments on the field are starting to pay dividends, too, and much more is expected of Brathwaite.

“He has gradually started to really become a really good football player,” defensive coordinator Jim Reid said.

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