By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — If Brent Urban’s ankle holds up in practice this week, the senior defensive tackle, who has missed the past three games, might be available Saturday when UVa meets North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
That’s good news for the Cavaliers, whose defense has struggled since Urban, who had emerged as an All-ACC candidate, went down Oct. 12 with a high-ankle sprain early in the second quarter against Maryland.
Junior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson’s season, however, is over. That was the word Monday from Virginia’s head coach, Mike London. Nicholson, a three-year starter, suffered a toe injury Oct. 5 against Ball State.
Nicholson won’t require surgery on his toe, London said, “but it’s in his best interest right now not to play … It’s unfortunate. Tra has started 30 games for us since his true freshman year. He wanted to come back.”
In four games without Nicholson this season, UVa is 0-4. If he’s not Virginia’s most talented cornerback, then that distinction belongs to sophomore Maurice Canady. Canady, however, has missed the past two games with an undisclosed medical problem. The Wahoos are off Nov. 16, but Canady might be able to play Nov. 23 against ACC rival Miami.
With Nicholson and Canady out, what was one of Virginia’s deepest positions when the season started has become one of its thinnest. The Cavaliers’ starting corners are junior DreQuan Hoskey and true freshman Tim Harris, who was beat several times Saturday in a 59-10 loss to then-No. 9 Clemson at Scott Stadium.
“It is kind of crazy, but now it’s just me and Tim,” Hoskey said Monday. “We’re just going to try to stay strong as long as we can and help the team.”
The second-team cornerbacks on the depth chart released Monday are redshirt freshman Divante Walker and junior Brandon Phelps. Walker has been used almost exclusively on special teams this season, and Phelps started the first six games at free safety, where he’s listed as a co-starter this week.
“We’ll move on,” London said. “We’ll move forward.”
UVa (2-7 overall, 0-5 ACC) and UNC (3-5, 2-3) will meet at 12:30 p.m. Saturday. Virginia last won in Chapel Hill in 2009.
BACK TO EARTH: In his first start for UVa — and only his second college game — strongside linebacker Max Valles turned in a dazzling performance Sept. 28. The 6-5, 240-pound true freshman finished with five tackles, including 2.5 sacks, in Virginia’s 14-3 loss at Pittsburgh.
For the season, Valles has 17 tackles, including 3.5 for loss, and has broken up three passes and recovered a fumble. Used mainly in passing situations, Valles has split time between linebacker and defensive end.
His play last month was not nearly as spectacular as it was against Pitt, but Valles has immense potential.
“He will be as good as he will allow himself to be,” London said.
Valles needs to get bigger and stronger and learn the nuances of his position. As that happens, London said, “I think he’s another guy that’s going to be a really, really good player.”
CHANGE OF PLANS: Kwontie Moore, who was used mostly on special teams as a true freshman in 2012, played in Virginia’s first two games this season. Moore hasn’t played since then, however, and has an injury that might allow him to receive a hardship waiver, London said.
Moore, a graduate of Norfolk Christian, began his college career at middle linebacker before moving to defensive tackle early this season. He has also worked at fullback on the scout team in practice.
Daniel Hamm may also be a candidate for a hardship waiver. Hamm, a true freshman, rushed 21 times for 136 yards and two touchdowns Sept. 21 against VMI in his college debut. A shoulder injury limited him to a brief appearance against Pitt, however, and Hamm hasn’t played since then.
BIG TARGET: Of the 12 true freshmen to play for the Cavaliers this season, Keeon Johnson has been among the most impressive. A 6-3, 200-pound wide receiver, Johnson has started every game he’s played — five in all — and has 12 catches for 167 yards.
He made his college debut Oct. 5 against Ball State after working with the first team in practice in the days leading up to the game.
That first week, Johnson said, “I was kind of out there like a chicken with his head cut off, not really knowing what I was supposed to do. But I’ve studied the plays a lot more and actually know how it feels like in game-type situations. I’m more calm and collected on the field, so it makes it a lot easier.”
Against Clemson, Johnson had five catches for 77 yards, both career highs.
Johnson is from Kannapolis, N.C., and was a UNC basketball fan growing up. Kannapolis is about a two-hour drive from Chapel Hill, and Johnson is scrambling to line up tickets for all the friends and relatives who want to see him play Saturday at Kenan Stadium.
A season ago, when these longtime rivals met at Scott Stadium, wideout Quinshad Davis dominated in the Tar Heels’ 37-13 victory. Davis, then a true freshman, caught 16 passes for 178 yards.
“I did watch some of the stuff he did,” Johnson said. “When I watched him do it, I said, `If he can do it, why can’t it?’ So that’s the goal I kind of went after.”
When Johnson was a sophomore at A.L. Brown High in Kannapolis, N.C., his football teammates included a senior wide receiver named Teven Jones. That’s the same Teven Jones who’s now a redshirt sophomore on the UVa basketball team.
“He’s like my brother to me,” Johnson said, “and on the field I’d be on one side, he’d be on the other … He was a pretty good football player.”
They also played basketball together.
Jones “was one of the guys, you get the ball, you give it right back to him and let him do what he can,” Johnson said.
Kannapolis is about 20 miles from Salisbury, N.C., where Kevin Parks, now Virginia’s leading rusher, was a record-setting tailback for West Rowan High. Parks, who’s generously listed at 5-8, also was a hoops standout in high school.
“He’s like a stronger Chris Paul on the court,” Jones said last month at John Paul Jones Arena. “I’m telling you, K.P.’s pretty good in basketball.”
PLAYING TO WIN: At 2-7, Virginia cannot become bowl-eligible. That doesn’t mean the Cavaliers will look past their final three regular-season games and start auditioning players for next season, London said.
The `Hoos are looking to “go on the road and play North Carolina and win that game by any means necessary by using the best players in that specific position,” London said.
For Virginia, the bowl season is “these next three games coming up, and the most important game is this game against Carolina,” London said.
However, he noted, the team’s underclassmen and reserves will get extensive work during the upcoming bye week.
For the 6-5, 295-pound Smith, it was his fifth consecutive start, but, because of the caliber of UVa’s opponent, it was a unique experience.
“I can honestly tell this — and you can ask Keeon Johnson — this is the first time I’ve cried before the game,” Smith told reporters Monday. “I was in a whole `nother mindset. Running out of the tunnel, through the smoke, there was tears coming out of my eyes, the emotion coming out.
“I was so ready. I felt like blood was going to burst out of me. Excitement, passion, emotion, everything, all came out of me.”
Moses watches film with Smith and Olanrewaju at the McCue Center after practices.
“He teaches us everything he knows,” Smith said, “what he’s learned in the four years he’s been here.”
LEARNING CURVE: Coming off a game in which he made a career-high seven tackles against Georgia Tech, Wilkins had three stops against Clemson. Wilkins, who did not play Sept. 7 against No. 2 Oregon, said the Tigers’ offensive line was the best he has faced.
“It was good being able to go against that type of talent,” he said Monday.
At Scott Stadium, the lockers of Wilkins, Valles, Johnson and Smith are near each other. Before the game Saturday, Wilkins said, “we were like, `We’re not freshmen anymore. It’s almost the end of the season. We can’t play like freshmen. We can’t make freshman mistakes. The team obviously needs us.’ ”
The depth chart for the UNC game includes only six seniors: Moses, center Luke Bowanko, wideout/punt-returner Tim Smith, fullback Billy Skrobacz, defensive end Jake Snyder and safety Rijo Walker. Urban is the only other senior who has played for the Cavaliers this season.