By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Khalek Shepherd attends the University of Virginia on a football scholarship, and there’s no question which sport is his top priority. The same is true for Drequan Hoskey and Trent Corney.
Once spring practice ends April 12, though, don’t be surprised to see them trade their football uniforms for different gear. In January, each joined Virginia’s track and field team for the latter part of the indoor season, and Bryan Fetzer is eager to have them compete again this spring.
“I think it’s a relationship that could really turn into some positive things for both sports down the line,” said Fetzer, who’s in his second year as UVa’s director of track and field/cross country.
“It’s been beneficial for both of us,” football coach Mike London said.
Fetzer, a former football player and coach who remains passionate about the sport, has formed a good working relationship with London.
“Mike has been unbelievably supportive of it,” Fetzer said. “I just mentioned to him the schools that have a lot of guys that have done both [sports], and obviously it comes from a willingness by the football program to say, `Hey, we support this.’ ”
London encourages his players to put themselves in competitive situations, whether they be on the football field or on the track. “That’s the biggest thing,” he said.
Corney, a 6-3, 235-pound reserve defensive end, was among the nine true freshmen who saw time for the Cavaliers in 2012. Shepherd (5-8, 185) and Hoskey (6-0, 180) were redshirt sophomores last season.
Shepherd led the Cavaliers in punt returns and kickoff returns and in all-purpose yards (1,269). As a reserve tailback, he averaged 6.4 yards per carry last season and against Louisiana Tech had a 73-yard touchdown reception. Hoskey started 10 games at cornerback.
In indoor track, Corney focused on the weight throw, a new event for him, but his specialty is the javelin, and he’ll compete in that, along with the discus, in outdoor track. Shepherd is a sprinter and Hoskey a hurdler.
In many of the nation’s premier football programs, Fetzer said, players commonly compete in track, too. Two of Fetzer’s assistants, Todd Morgan and Mario Wilson, previously worked at Florida and Clemson, respectively, schools where the bond between the football and track programs is strong. Moreover, when Fetzer coached at California, three of the school’s best football players — Marshawn Lynch, Justin Forsett and Brandon Hampton — starred on the 4×100 relay team.
In the ACC, tailback David Wilson ran track at Virginia Tech before heading to the NFL, and Florida State’s Marvin Bracy and Miami’s Duke Johnson and Phillip Dorsett compete in both sports.
“I go talk to other coaches,” London said, “and I know the skill guys from Florida State, from Miami, from other places, are running as well. Fast guys can get faster, and outside of our strength coach, who better to get them faster and train them than a track coach?”
When London’s players returned to school in January, they began strength coach Evan Marcus’ winter program. Shepherd, Hoskey and Corney trained with their football teammates in the morning and then with the track team in the afternoon.
“I think it works well because Coach London is supportive of it for those kids,” Marcus said. “I think it works well because Coach Fetzer is very good to work with from our standpoint. He gives you a heads up when the kids are competing. We might tailor just the last workout before they compete, but other than that they’re full-bore into the football program. They know that’s their responsibility. But again, we want them to be successful in [the track] aspect too, so we’ll taper just a tad. They come in here, do their lift, and then they go on to their meet.”
Such experiences can only benefit the players, Marcus believes.
“Without being a competitor, what’s the purpose of being an athlete?” he said. “So I think it’s great that they can compete. We try to do that in here, too, with our drills and stuff, but they get it at a whole new level [in track].”
Also, Marcus said, they “see other athletes from different schools. I know Khalek came back from a meet and talked about the two running backs from Georgia and how physical-looking they were. So they get a different perspective. Maybe that makes them look at themselves a little bit more, and they say, `Hey, I need to put on a little bit of size,’ or `This is how I stack up against some of the guys from the SEC.’ ”
Fetzer, who works with UVa’s sprinters and hurdlers, doesn’t require football players to adhere to the same training schedule as his full-time track athletes.
“For a football player that’s going through an offseason, track is an enhancement, not a hindrance,” Fetzer said. “It’s working on speed, it’s working on technical things. We don’t need to do a lot of conditioning with them, because they’re doing it in football. So they don’t need to be out there every single day doing the same workouts the track team is.”
Shepherd, Hoskey and Corney all have backgrounds in track. Shepherd, whose father, Leslie, played wide receiver in the NFL, ran the 55, 200 and 400 indoors, and the 100, 200 and 400 outdoors for Gwynn Park High School in Maryland.
At Henrico High in the Richmond area, Hoskey won the 55-meter hurdles at the state Group AAA indoor meet and placed fifth in the 60-meter hurdles at the National Scholastic Indoor Championships.
Hoskey arrived at UVa in 2010 to run track but, not long after beginning practice with London’s team, was awarded a football scholarship. He redshirted during the 2010 football season, then joined the track team in the spring of 2011. Hoskey competed in the 110 hurdles in three meets, including the ACC outdoor championships, where he placed ninth.
In the summer of 2011, however, Hoskey decided to focus on football, and he didn’t rejoin the track team until this winter. In his indoor debut as a Cavalier, Feb. 2 in a meet at Penn State, Hoskey ran the 60-meter hurdles in 8.06 seconds — the fifth-fastest time in school history.
“The ACC is one of the best conferences in the country for hurdles, on both the men’s and women’s sides,” Fetzer said, “and he’s got a real shot at being All-ACC in track.”
Corney, who’s from Brockville, Ontario, was one of Canada’s elite juniors in the javelin. He’s an exceptional athlete who routinely dazzles his football teammates with his strength and speed.
“He’s an animal,” Fetzer said. “He’s a special kid.”
Shepherd decided to join the track team after meeting with London in December.
“When I first got here, I really wasn’t thinking about track,” Shepherd recalled. “I was thinking about getting bigger and stuff like that. But I guess I found my weight that I’m comfortable at” — 185 pounds — “and I just felt the need to get faster and explosive. So Coach London brought up the idea [of track], and I thought about it for a minute. I took that as an opportunity just to enhance my skills and my explosiveness for next year.”
Corney trained separately during the indoor season, with the throwers, but Shepherd often worked out with Hoskey. Shepherd said his times in the 60-meter dash steadily dropped.
“So that’s another reason why I wanted to continue doing it, because times won’t lie, and that means your performance is getting better and better,” Shepherd said. “And then I’m feeling more explosive, too, when we go out there and do agilities [for football] and things like that. I just appreciate Coach London for allowing me to better myself by running track. It’s been a good experience for me, because I feel myself improving and getting better.”
Shepherd’s longest carry in 2012 went for 26 yards; his longest reception, for 73; his longest kickoff return, for 72; his longest punt return, for 25. He scored twice: on a 1-yard run against Richmond and on his 73-yard catch against Louisiana Tech.
“One of my main things I wanted to change from last year was, I had a lot of big plays, but I feel like I should have had way more touchdowns than I had,” Shepherd said. “I would explode through for the first part [of a run or return] and be strong, but then at the end I’d kind of wear off. Coach Fetzer’s trying to teach me something called `speed endurance,’ where you’ll be able to hold your 100 percent for longer, and just basically changing the way I run, my form, how I picked my feet up and legs up too. It’s all for a good outcome in the long run.”
Fetzer hopes other football players will come out for track, too. To do so, he noted, requires special dedication.
“This is their offseason,” he said. “To me it says a lot about them as individuals, because during their offseason they’re going to do extra to make themselves better, and that’s a big statement just for them as individuals, and I would say for anybody that chooses to do two sports in college. It’s a time commitment, but you’re choosing to get better.”