By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — UVa football coach Mike London was talking with Andrew Brown outside the McCue Center on a recent morning when Brown looked up and saw a University Transit Service bus about to pull away from the stop.
The conversation ended abruptly, as Brown, all 6-foot-4, 302 pounds of him, sprinted off in pursuit of the bus that would take him to Grounds for class.
Brown, who graduated in December from Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake, began classes at Virginia on Jan. 13. So did another new member of the football team, Jake Fieler, who spent the fall semester at Fork Union Military Academy. They’re rooming together in an Alderman Road dorm and learning more about life at the University every day.
“Both of them are trying to get into that flow of being a college student,” London said Friday. “It’s not always easy, but they’re getting there.”
This marks the sixth consecutive year that UVa’s football team has added at least one midyear recruit in January. The first during this span was defensive lineman Will Hill in 2009. Then came quarterback Michael Strauss in 2010, quarterback David Watford and linebacker Daquan Romero in 2011, quarterback Greyson Lambert in 2012, running back LaChaston Smith last year and, now, Brown and Fieler.
Fieler, a 6-5, 293-pound offensive lineman from West Virginia, met NCAA academic standards for freshman eligibility when he graduated from Parkersburg South High last year. He enrolled in FUMA’s postgraduate program hoping to earn scholarship offers from major-college programs. The offers came, and Fieler was eager to begin college in January.
So was Brown, a defensive tackle who was named the Gatorade national player of the year in 2013. He opted to graduate early from Oscar Smith.
“I wanted to go ahead and get adjusted early to the program, the course work, so that it won’t be a big struggle,” Brown said.
Once the season begins, “everything is in your face,” Brown said. “You got football practice and then you got schoolwork. I want to be able to learn how to gain the skill of time management before I actually start the season.”
Spring practice starts next month at UVa. That Fieler and Brown can train alongside Virginia’s returning players is “huge,” London said. “They’re in the early mix, particularly two guys that are talented like that. It’s significant when they have the talent to contribute right away.”
Fieler and Brown are each taking five classes this semester, and they’re in the group that meets in the McCue Center weight room for 7 a.m. sessions with strength-and-conditioning coach Evan Marcus. Fieler and Brown had never met before last month, but they’re already close friends.
“That’s one of the coolest dudes I know,” Brown said.
Fieler, 18, comes from a family of athletes. His sister, Ryan, is a former college volleyball player. His brother, Chase, is a 6-8 forward for the Florida Gulf Coast basketball team, which as a No. 15 seed advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen last year before falling to Florida.
Chase Fieler, the Eagles’ all-time leader in blocked shots, was nicknamed the “Mayor of Dunk City” for his leaping ability, and ESPN regularly featured his slams during the NCAA tourney.
“It was crazy,” Jake Fieler recalled. “We were at all the NCAA tournament games. The real crazy part of it was afterwards, sitting in the hotel room and seeing them blowing up on ESPN. I was sitting there with my brother just watching it and thinking, `That’s him on there.’ ”
Jake Fieler played basketball in high school until senior year. “I’m a 300-pound version [of Chase],” he said with a smile, “but I can still dunk.”
The Fieler siblings’ parents are Ohio University graduates. Their mother played volleyball at the Mid-American Conference school, and their father, who stands 6-7, played football and rugby. But the Bobcats showed little interest in Chase or Jake when each was at Parkersburg South.
“Honestly, if they would have offered either of us out of high school, we probably would have gone there,” Jake said.
Late in his junior year, Fieler broke his right foot, a significant setback. The injury kept him from participating in the camps and combines at which he had hoped to attract the interest of college recruiters.
“By the time I was healthy, right before football season, nobody knew who I was,” Fieler said. “Towards the end of football season my senior year, I had some invited walk-ons to some bigger schools, because they didn’t have scholarships left, but I didn’t want to walk on anywhere. I knew I could get a scholarship.”
And so he enrolled at Fork Union, where he played for legendary coach John Shuman’s postgraduate team.
FUMA “did everything I needed it to do for me,” said Fieler, who’s expected to line up at offensive tackle this spring. “I came in with zero Division I scholarships and left with 17 or something like that. It was really good for me.”
After evaluating Fieler at a combine at Fork Union, Virginia’s coaches offered him a scholarship. It wasn’t clear then, though, if UVa would allow him to enroll in January, so he continued to consider other options.
“I had [scheduled official visits] to some other schools, because honestly at that point I wasn’t going to come here,” Fieler said, “because I wanted to get in midyear and get that extra jump.”
Fieler was at Southern Mississippi when he learned that UVa would let him enroll midyear. He visited Virginia the next day and committed soon thereafter. Other schools that courted him at FUMA included Cincinnati, Marshall, Penn State, Ohio and West Virginia.
Brown’s recruiting experience was much different. Virtually every school in the country would have happily taken him. That he chose UVa, which has had two straight losing seasons, shocked many who follow recruiting. It delighted the Cavaliers.
“It means a lot,” London said. “You always want to have the guy in the class who not only comes, but comes midyear because he believes that he can make a difference.”
That’s an apt description of Brown, whom London called a “very humble, hard-working kid.”
Brown played on powerful teams at Oscar Smith, which won a state title in 2011 and was runner-up in 2013, and he wants to help the Wahoos compete for championships, too. He communicates regularly with many of the players who will sign letters of intent with UVa on Wednesday.
“I want to be able to come into this program and make an impact,” Brown said. “It’s not an individual effort, it’s a team effort, but sometimes it takes that one individual, or many individuals, to uplift an entire team and raise the bar. I’m praying to God that he gives the strength to be able to do that and be able to help.”
Marcus, the team’s strength coach, hasn’t worked with Brown and Fieler for long, but they’ve made a positive impression on him.
“They seem like good kids,” Marcus said. “What we want to see right now as a staff in the weight room is if they’re trying to do the things we’re asking them to do. Technique-wise, are you trying to do it the way we ask? If we correct you from set to set, can you make the adaptation from set to set? If you can do that, we know you’re paying attention to what we’re teaching, you’re trying to do better, and right now that’s all we need from them.
“You’re teaching them technique and you’re teaching them culture, work ethic, the way we do things, the way we talk about our body language, the way we talk about accountability, the way we invest in our teammates. So they’re learning a ton right now.”
College life is “very different,” said Brown, who recently turned 18. “It’s definitely a big adjustment going from being at home, being told what to do, being confined to the house rules, and now pretty much you have all the freedom in the world to do what you want to do. It’s your life decisions from here on. But overall it’s pretty cool.”