By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the University of Virginia football program, the Weenie Bowl is a rite of fall, a full-contact scrimmage whose participants are walk-ons, freshmen who are redshirting, and underclassmen who rarely, if ever, see the field during games.
This year’s Weenie Bowl took place last Friday morning, and the most outstanding player might have been Wilfred Wahee. The first-year safety from Norfolk intercepted two passes, one of which he returned for a touchdown.
To those who’ve watched him in practice this fall, Wahee’s performance was not surprising.
“The ball just seems to find the kid,” and Anthony Poindexter, a former All-America safety at UVa who now coaches that position at his alma mater.
Of the 25 scholarship players who enrolled at UVa this year, 16 are redshirting this season: Wahee, wide receivers Jamall Brown and Kyle Dockins, quarterbacks Matt Johns and Greyson Lambert, offensive linemen Ryan Doull, Sean Karl and Michael Mooney, tight end Mario Nixon, tailback Kye Morgan, defensive end Courtnye Wynn, defensive tackle Andre Miles-Redmond, linebacker Mark Hall, and cornerbacks C.J. Moore, Kelvin Rainey and Divante Walker.
True freshmen who have played for the Cavaliers this season include middle linebacker Kwontie Moore, who, like Wahee, Wynn and Nixon, graduated from Norfolk Christian School last spring. Of that group, Wahee was the least heralded as a recruit. He was also the first to commit to the Wahoos.
When Wahee did so, fans of other teams claimed on Internet message boards that Virginia had offered him a scholarship only to improve its chances of landing the other three. Wahee knew what the skeptics were saying, and so did UVa coach Mike London. Neither worried much about the criticism.
London lights up when asked about the 5-10, 185-pound Wahee. Of the recruits from Norfolk Christian, London said Monday, Wahee “might be the guy that’ll have the most dynamic skill impact on our team before it’s all said and done.”
Wahee, whose parents grew up in Liberia, played more linebacker than defensive back at Norfolk Christian, one reason he drew little interest from Football Bowl Subdivision programs. The contrast between Wahee and the 6-2, 250-pound Moore on the field was striking.
“Me playing linebacker at 5-10, 175, next to Kwontie Moore is not going to [impress many recruiters],” Wahee said. “But I was just doing whatever I could to help my team.”
At various times during his high school career, Wahee lined up on the defensive line, at linebacker and at tight end, positions for which he’s especially ill-suited at the FBS level.
UVa’s coaches weren’t deterred. They saw Wahee’s attributes — his speed, his football IQ, his aggressiveness — and “felt that he could play DB here,” Poindexter said. “And right now he’s proving us right.”
Wahee was slotted at safety during training camp, and he’s proven to be a natural at that position. He’s like former UVa safety Rodney McLeod, now a rookie with the St. Louis Rams, “in that football is easy to him,” London said.
“He does a great job understanding what’s being asked of him. On special teams on the scout team, he’s the first one running down on kickoffs, making things happen, knocking people over, and he doesn’t say boo. When he goes on the scout team, he’s noticeable. Significantly noticeable.”
Poindexter said: “He’s been doing great. The kid comes out here with high energy. He’s got a good skill set. He can run. With him, we just don’t want to mess him up.”
During the season, the players who are redshirting generally spend more time than the rest of the team in the McCue Center weight room with Evan Marcus, UVa’s strength-and-conditioning coach for football.
“Obviously, you’d like to redshirt everybody,” Marcus said. “The year you gain at the end makes a big difference, because you’re getting a whole year of development. And then when you make that up, when they’re in the fifth year, you’re really dealing with a man at that point. He’s probably 21 or 22, as opposed to a kid that’s playing right away at 18 and is just not physically mature enough yet.”
Marcus, who’s in his second stint at UVa, said he’s found that, among players who are redshirting, linemen often are more enthusiastic initially about his in-season program than defensive backs, wideouts and running backs.
Linemen arrive at college knowing that “from a strength standpoint, they’re not ready yet,” Marcus said. “But the skill guys, they seem to think they have a unique skill set, that they can play right away. They don’t quite see strength and power as something that’s as important to them as linemen do. But I think once they get into the program and see themselves develop, see themselves get stronger and more explosive and faster, then they realize, `Hey, this is going to help me down the road.’ ”
Wahee bought in immediately.
“He’s an intelligent kid,” Marcus said. “I don’t know how [heavily] recruited he was or what kind of ranking he had, so I don’t know if he came in with any preconceived notions of what he was going to do here right away. I think he came in and embraced the idea of, `Whatever they decide is fine, and I’m going to make the most out of it. They decided to redshirt me, so I’m going to come in here and take advantage of it.’
“And that’s what you hope. You hope the guy says, `Listen, this is the hand I’ve been dealt. I’m going to make the absolute most of it and try to get as good as I can.’ And as we tell them, our goal for them is to be able to compete for a starting spot [the next] spring, and maybe that development you got in the season now helps you get there.”
Does Wahee want to prove wrong those who questioned his ability to play at UVa? “Yes, sir,” he said. Still, that’s not what drives him.
“I’ve always been pretty self-motivated,” Wahee said. “I just want to make the most of every day that I have here, because I know that it’ll go by fast. I don’t want to look back and say that I didn’t give everything I had every day that I was here.”
Four regular-season games remain for UVa (2-6 overall, 0-4 ACC), starting with its Saturday afternoon visit to NC State (5-3, 2-2). Wahee typically does not travel with the team to road games, but he’ll be on the trip to Raleigh this weekend.
The coaching staff tries to take all of the players who are redshirting on at least one road trip apiece, Poindexter said, “just so they know how it goes, so next year won’t be the first time that they do something like that.”
For Wahee, this is the first fall since he began playing football that he’s been a spectator on game day. Sitting out hasn’t been easy, Wahee said, but he reminds himself “that patience is a virtue, that my time will come eventually, and when it does I want be ready to help this team in whatever ways the coaches ask me to.”