By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake, Tim Smith set a school record with 10 returns for touchdowns during his illustrious career there.
Until Saturday, however, Smith had never returned a punt or kickoff for UVa, where he’s a fifth-year senior. He made an impressive debut, returning Ball State’s first punt 36 yards. Smith, the Cavaliers’ most experienced wide receiver, made a slick over-the-shoulder catch on the other punt he fielded but gained no yards on the return.
Expect to see more of Smith on special teams Saturday, especially given Dominique Terrell’s inconsistency as a punt-returner. In the final ACC game between these longtime rivals, Virginia (2-3, 0-1) meets Maryland (4-1, 0-1) at Byrd Stadium in College Park. ESPNU will televise the 3:30 p.m. game.
“In an attempt to make sure that we are doing everything we can to put the right people in the right places, I think Tim’s audition, he did a nice job,” UVa head coach Mike London told reporters Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.
“He’s a dynamic threat back there. When you evaluate your players and evaluate your team, we went with the decision to put him back there, and I think he will be a tremendous asset for us as we move forward.”
Smith also had a 46-yard catch against Ball State, the longest reception by a UVa wideout this season. Through five games, four of which he started, Smith has 11 receptions for 142 yards and one touchdown.
EXPANDED ROLE: Redshirt freshman Kyle Dockins replaced Smith in the starting lineup at wideout against Ball State. Dockins also played on three special teams units: punt, punt return and kickoff.
Like tight end Jake McGee before him, Dockins found a way to contribute to the team before cracking the rotation on offense.
“Special teams, when you’re not a starting guy, is the way to definitely get on the bus,” Dockins said Monday. “Early in training camp, I realized that. It’s definitely a way to get on the field and be seen.”
As a wideout, “I’m definitely a bigger guy,” said Dockins, a graduate of Virginia Beach’s Landstown High. “I’m not a speedy Darius Jennings, I’m not Dominique Terrell. I’m Kyle Dockins, a 6-3 wide receiver that’s 210 [pounds], and I just go out there and try to play my game.”
Dockins, who did not have any catches against Ball State, is listed as a starting receiver for the Maryland game.
ANOTHER OPTION: Redshirt junior Conner Davis, who missed the past three games with a hamstring injury after starting the first two at right offensive guard, may be healthy enough to play Saturday in College Park.
If so, London said, UVa might shake up its offensive line for the second straight week. Davis would move to left guard, and fifth-year senior Luke Bowanko would slide one spot to his right and play center, the position at which he started last season.
The 6-5, 295-pound Smith made his first college start against Ball State and “did an admirable job,” London said Sunday night.
When he saw the flag, Eric Smith said Monday, “I knew it was [on] me. I let my team know, the offensive line, `It’s my fault, guys.’ I think Luke came up to me the next play, and he was like, `It’s all right. We know you’re going to be all right. That’s just one play. Let’s get `em next time.’ ”
Sophomore defensive end Eli Harold was another player who met with media members Monday at JPJ, and he was asked about Smith.
“I’m all for Eric,” Harold said. “I’m Team Eric. I’m happy he’s starting to help our team out. He’s growing. He’s maturing.
“He had a penalty that cost us a touchdown, but those are the growing pains, being a freshman, and his job’s a lot harder than what mine is. He’s starting on the offensive line. You’re out there on the island by yourself, going against some pretty good guys. But I’m psyched for him. I wish him the best, and I’m going to do whatever I can to make him the best tackle he can be.”
STAY THE COURSE: After pounding VMI 49-0 on Sept. 21, Virginia has lost two games in a row, 14-3 to Pittsburgh and 48-27 to Ball State.
In 2012, when the Cavaliers finished 4-8, they dropped six straight during one stretch, and memories of that painful period have not disappeared.
When the players convened Sunday afternoon to lift weights, strength and conditioning coach Evan Marcus addressed them, as he does every week.
“He was telling us, we don’t want what happened last year to happen this year,” Harold said. “Just stay up, be accountable, and do what we came to do, and don’t let all that work that we put in in the offseason go to waste. Don’t quit, keep fighting, and things will turn around.”
Harold, frustrated after a game in which he twice was penalized for personal fouls, got similar encouragement from a UVa football legend.
“Chris Long texted me on Saturday and I kind of vented to him,” Harold recalled, “told him how I felt, and he just told me, `Things will change, man. Patience is a virtue. Keep going after it and you’ll see the results.’ ”
Inside the McCue Center, Harold said, “Jake Snyder and David Watford are doing a good job of keeping everybody’s spirits high, and [Marcus is] doing a real good job. Coach London’s doing a very good job holding himself together. He believes in his staff. We all believe in his staff. The game plan’s there. You just have to execute.”
HEADLINE: This is London’s fourth season as head coach at Virginia, where his record is 18-24. The Ball State game drew fewer than 40,000 fans to Scott Stadium, and many UVa supporters are unhappy with the state of the football program.
London overhauled his staff after the 2012 season, hiring new coordinators for offense (Steve Fairchild), defense (Jon Tenuta) and special teams (Larry Lewis). He remains confident those changes will pay dividends for a team that has few seniors in leading roles.
“Obviously we want to win,” London said Monday. “We want to win now. I believe in the coaches. I believe in the players. I believe in the young players that are playing. But there is a process to that, and we want to do everything we can to make sure that we develop and bring these guys along to have a chance to be competitive in games. We want to show improvement from week to week, and that’s my job. That’s what I have to make sure gets done, and that’s the main focal point right now.”
END OF THE LINE? Maryland moves to the Big Ten in 2014, and a football series that started in 1919 will be interrupted, if not ended, after Saturday’s game.
Virginia is 32-43-2 against Maryland. In recent years, however, the `Hoos have enjoyed their visits to Byrd Stadium. UVa won 18-17 there in 2007, 20-9 in ’09 and 31-13 in ’11.
The Terps, meanwhile, won at Scott Stadium at 2010 and ’12. In last year’s game, Maryland’s Stefon Diggs, then a true freshman, stunned Virginia by returning the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.
The Terrapins stretched their lead to 17-0 before the Cavaliers rallied. Virginia had an opportunity to pull even late in the fourth quarter, but quarterback Michael Rocco overthrew tailback Khalek Shepherd on a play that might well have gone for a touchdown. The game ended with Maryland ahead 27-20.
“That game is in the past,” Shepherd said Monday. “I don’t really need that game to psych me up. It’s just the fact that I’m going back home to play in front of my family and friends. That’s all I really need in order for me to get ready for this game. That was a tough game last year, but now this is a new year, a new opportunity for us to do something different.”
Shepherd (Upper Marlboro) is one of 15 UVa players from the state of Maryland.