July 21, 2014

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Less than an hour’s drive from his hometown of Salisbury, N.C., the ACC’s only returning 1,000-yard rusher fielded questions from reporters Sunday afternoon at the Grandover Resort, in the same room as Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston.

The crowd around UVa tailback Kevin Parks wasn’t nearly as large as the one around Winston, but that was no surprise. Winston, after all, won the Heisman Trophy and led the Seminoles to the national championship last season. Parks made the All-ACC second team, but the Cavaliers finished 2-10, their second consecutive losing season.

“It’s hard, when you’re giving everything you got and things don’t the way you wanted them to go,” Parks said Sunday afternoon at ACC Kickoff, the conference’s annual preseason media gathering.

“It’s really hard. But you keep fighting, man, and you keep trusting in your teammates.”

A 5-8, 205-pound tailback who rushed for a North Carolina-record 10,895 yards during his storied career at West Rowan High School, Parks has one college season left, and he’d like nothing more than to help the Wahoos recapture the form they showed in 2011, when they advanced to the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Virginia opens Aug. 30 against UCLA, which figures to start the season ranked in the top 10, at Scott Stadium.

The 2012 and ’13 seasons were disappointing for Virginia, but that’s “just like life,” Parks said. “You have bad times, you have your good times. It’s just how you take them as a man. But you always work toward being successful, and the offseason’s been really good. Everybody’s coming along. We focused on the little things more, just trying to do the right things.”

When the media’s preseason ACC poll is released Monday, UVa almost certainly will be picked to finish last in the Coastal Division. That won’t diminish Parks’ optimism.

“We have the right guys, the right guys for this team to win,” he said. “We’ll take the backseat. We deserve to take the backseat. We went 2-10. We’ll take that, and we’ll use that as motivation.”

Virginia head coach Mike London meets with the media Monday at the Grandover. Parks and UVa’s other representative, All-America safety Anthony Harris, arrived in Greensboro on Saturday and attended forums and panel discussions designed to improve players’ leadership and life skills.

Panelists included four former standouts from ACC schools: Wake Forest’s Riley Skinner, Virginia Tech’s Kevin Jones, North Carolina’s Michael Dulaney and Miami’s Clinton Portis.

“I learned a lot from it,” said Parks, an anthropology major. “Those guys have been in the NFL, so they talk about life in the league and after football. They gave us great words about that.”

Parks and Harris are two of the Cavaliers’ captains. (Quarterback Greyson Lambert and linebacker Henry Coley are the others.) That’s a responsibility Parks takes seriously.

“I’ve got to do the little things right, off the field and on the field, because everybody’s looking up to me,” Parks said. “The young pups, they’re looking at me like, `KP’s doing this, KP’s doing that.’ So I have to try to do things the right way.”

His high school accomplishments notwithstanding, Parks did not receive a scholarship offer from any of his home state’s four ACC schools. But any doubts about his ability to compete at this level have long since been erased.

Parks ranks eighth at UVa with 2,474 career rushing yards, and another 1,000-yard season would move him into second place, behind Thomas Jones (3,998).

“It means a lot,” he said. “People always doubted me, and that’s something I’m used to. I always use it as motivation when I’m working out.”

Pound for pound, he’s one of the strongest Cavaliers. But Parks, who has dyed a section of his hair a shade he calls “honey blond,” said his focus this offseason has been on speed training. The longest run of his career, 61 yards, came last season against VMI.

“Those 20-yard gains, I’m trying to break them to 40-yard gains,” he said, “hopefully breaking them to 60, 80. That was my mindset this year: speed in the open field.”

He carried 152 times in 2011 and 160 times in ’12, splitting time at tailback with Perry Jones both seasons. In 2013, Parks ran the ball 227 times. Assuming his backups, Taquan Mizzell and Khalek Shepherd, stay healthy, Parks may not carry as much this season, but he’ll happily shoulder a heavy workload again if necessary.

“You go into the offseason and train, and that’s what you train for,” he said. “You train to be the last person standing, and that’s how I train. You gotta take care of your body during the season. That’s getting in the ice tub and treating the little things. A whole lot of stretching.”

Parks acknowledged that he and his teammates have heard the talk about their head coach’s job security. In four seasons under London, the ‘Hoos are 18-31, and they lost their final nine games in 2013.

“So our job is to get back to winning and help Coach London out,” Parks said. “Coach London’s a great guy, and personally I look up to him. I want to win to help him out. I’m going to do anything in my will to help him win.”

That may put added pressure on the players, especially the team’s veterans, but “pressure, it makes diamonds,” Parks said.

“It’s going to be a good thing. Like I said, we gotta step up our game up. We gotta bring our A game, because you see the teams we play this year, there’s no time for slacking, or you will get run through.”

Ten of the 12 teams on UVa’s schedule advanced to bowl games last season. One of the other two, the University of Richmond, is expected to contend for a playoff spot in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision.

With that schedule, Parks said, “either we go north or we go south … Me, personally, I enjoy it. I enjoy playing those big teams. That’s what you look forward to. That’s what you go play college football for. You come to school to play those type of teams, those big-time teams, and then maybe upsetting them and showing the world what you can do.”

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