By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Before he headed home for the holidays in December, Vincent Croce approached UVa football coach Mike London with a proposal. After two seasons on the defensive line, Croce wanted to switch positions. He wanted to play fullback.
London was receptive to the idea, which was not surprising. London had asked Croce for feedback after the 2012 season ended.
“He said, `Come talk to me with any ideas you have, if you want to leave the program, if you want to change positions, anything,’ so I went to him,” Croce recalled last week.
“I thought I would have a good opportunity. We weren’t as deep at fullback, and I just thought it would be the right switch. I didn’t feel comfortable at D-line.”
In the ultra-successful program at Good Counsel High School in Olney, Md., the 6-foot-4 Croce played defensive end, defensive tackle, linebacker and tight end. He was a coveted recruit who also had scholarship offers from such schools as Michigan, Wisconsin, Louisville, North Carolina and Stanford, and The Washington Post named him its All-Metro defensive player of the year as a senior in 2010.
He weighed 265 pounds when he arrived at UVa and was slotted initially at defensive end. Croce soon moved inside to tackle. After redshirting in 2011, he bulked up in the offseason but couldn’t crack the two-deep last year. He appeared in only four games in 2012, all on special teams.
“I got up to 285 by the time the season started, and then I wasn’t as quick, wasn’t as fast, so I had to start cutting weight,” he said. “It just didn’t feel right. It felt too complicated. It wasn’t working. It should have been easier than that. So I felt like I needed a switch.”
He weighed about 275 when he went home for the holidays and returned 10 pounds lighter in January. Now closer to 250, Croce is one of four Cavaliers working at fullback this spring, along with senior Billy Skrobacz, sophomore Sammy MacFarlane and redshirt freshman Israel Vaughan. Of the four, only Croce came to Virginia as a scholarship recruit.
In 2012, Zachary Swanson was the Cavaliers’ No. 1 fullback, with LoVanté Battle and Skrobacz in reserve. The 6-6, 255-pound Swanson, who caught passes for 88 yards and one TD last season, has shifted back to tight end, the position at which he began his college career, and Battle is out of eligibility. So the timing of Croce’s move appears good.
It doesn’t hurt his chances, either, that UVa has a new offensive coordinator, Steve Fairchild, a new running backs coach, Larry Lewis, and a new associate head coach for offense, Tom O’Brien. The other players on offense are learning a new scheme, too.
“I’m not as far behind as I thought I was going to be, but regardless I would have been starting from scratch,” Croce said. “So for me personally it’s the same as if the old staff was still here. But it is nice that I’m not as far behind. Some of the terminology, the guys that played last year picked up a little faster. But I’m caught up with all that.”
Can Croce make a successful switch from defense to offense?
“I think so,” Lewis said Saturday at Scott Stadium. “He gives us the size and the physical part of that position that we need. As you take a look at guys that were linebackers or possible defensive end-type guys, they make really, really good fullbacks, because he can run, he can change direction, he’s physical. So those are the kind of things we’re looking for.”
Croce caught passes but never ran the ball from scrimmage at Good Counsel. Still, he said, “some of the motions across the line, I’ve done that. I’ve been in the open field with the ball. I just haven’t taken it from the backfield.”
That doesn’t concern Lewis. “I think it’s a role that he can do,” he said. “If you’re a tight end, you can run the ball. And again, for the things that we’re going to ask, he athletically can do those things, no doubt.”
In 2012, only once did a UVa fullback carry the ball from scrimmage. Little more than a week into spring practice, it’s unclear exactly how — or how often — fullbacks will be used in Fairchild’s offense.
“I’d have to kill you if I told you that, wouldn’t I?” Lewis said, laughing.
It’s common in today’s game for teams to line up without fullbacks, and it’s not a position UVa has targeted often in recent recruiting classes. (Though one of the players who signed with Virginia in February, 6-3, 220-pound Connor Wingo-Reeves, could end up at fullback.)
Still, Lewis said, fullback “is going to be part of our offense, and the more that position can do, the more they’re on the field. So between them and an extra tight end, they do the same things. So whoever’s the better player is going to play that position.”
Croce also has switched jersey numbers. He’s no longer No. 45. He’s now wearing No. 47, and his enthusiasm for his new role is palpable.
“It’s nice,” he said. “I feel more comfortable. There’s definitely a lot of learning still to be done, but I’m just trying to take it day by day and improve on the things that I need to each day.”
His college career has not unfolded the way he envisioned, but Croce is still a young player, with time to write a happier story.
“It’s funny you say that,” he said after a recent practice. “I just thought about that as we were breaking down the huddle from our position groups. I have three years to really hone my skills and lock in this position, and hopefully leave a mark.”