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July 21, 2014

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the UVa football team, training camp starts Aug. 4, and today brings you Part 1 of a series examining the 2014 Cavaliers by position.

We’ll start with the linebackers, where Virginia returns, among others, seniors Henry Coley and Daquan Romero. Coley and Romero finished first and second, respectively, on the team in tackles last season.

“Expectations are very high,” Coley, a team captain, said Thursday when asked about the linebacking corps.

Jon Tenuta, who coaches the linebackers, is also the Cavaliers’ defensive coordinator. This is Tenuta’s second year in that role at his alma mater, and his players have a much better understanding of his philosophy than at this time last summer.

“I’m pleased with how it went last year,” Coley said, “but we can make more plays, definitely. We need to be more mentally sound in the schemes of the defense, but I feel like we’ve come full circle in [grasping] the schemes of Tenuta and his mindset.”

Virginia, coming off a 2-10 season, has 11 linebackers on scholarship: seniors Coley, Romero and D.J. Hill, junior Darius Lee, sophomores Max Valles, Zach Bradshaw and Mark Hall, redshirt freshman Micah Kiser, and true freshmen Caanan Brown, Cory Jones and Chris Peace.

Of the returning linebackers, Coley and Kiser play in the middle. Romero, Hill, Bradshaw and Lee line up on the weak side, Valles and Hall on the strong side.

In 2013, Tenuta often used a nickel package that included only two linebackers, usually Coley and Romero. Coley finished the season with 91 tackles, including 10 for loss. Romero, playing with a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery, totaled 89 tackles, including 7.5 for loss.

Romero “showed a lot of heart and tenacity,” Coley said. “He stuck it out. He’s definitely one of those guys where we complement each other. Whenever I’m slacking mentally he picks me up, whenever he’s slacking mentally I pick him up.”

Valles, who started four games as a true freshman in 2013, is listed at 6-5, 240 pounds, and his size and athleticism allow Tenuta to get creative with him. Valles is often used as a defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid in passing situations. In 10 games last year, he tied for second on the team in sacks, with four.

“He was thrown out there in some physical games,” Coley said. “Yeah, he’s a big guy, but being a first-year, he didn’t have the same mass that he could have if he would have redshirted. But he definitely got stronger, got bigger, over the course of this spring and over the offseason.

“He had a great spring, great spring game. He has stuff that he can build on, but he’s definitely set the bar pretty high for himself.”

Bradshaw, one of Valles’ classmates, missed the first seven games last season with a broken hand. In the spring, however, with Romero sidelined, Bradshaw worked extensively with the first-team defense.

“He became more comfortable over spring ball, especially since he was running with the [starters],” Coley said, “especially being the guy that was right next to me. Everything that I called, he was able to make the same calls and make the same adjustments that I was making.”

It was also an important spring for Kiser, the leading candidate to succeed Coley as the starting middle linebacker in 2015.

“He’s a strong kid,” Coley said. “He’s a striker. He’s definitely mentally sound. We’ll see how he works under the lights, but he’s definitely one of those guys that’s well beyond their years. The young guys, all of them had good spring balls and good spring games. They just have to continue to come around on their learning curve.”

Hall, who’s listed at 6-2, 245, played primarily on special teams last season, but his role could grow this fall.

“He’s like another Max,” Coley said. “He’s one of those hybrid guys, probably going to play D-end and linebacker. He’s gotten better. His physique has gotten a lot better over the offseason. He’s at a more comfortable weight, so I see him playing a lot more this year.”

A look at the Cavaliers’ linebackers:

* No. 44, Henry Coley (6-2, 230-pound senior, Virginia Beach). Coley has started 21 games at Virginia and enters his senior season with 146 career tackles, including 17 for loss.

* No. 13, Daquan Romero (6-1, 235-pound senior, Hampton). Romero, known to his teammates as Da-Da, has started 15 games as a Cavalier. Like Coley, he’s made 146 career tackles. Twelve of those tackles have been for loss.

* No. 29, D.J. Hill (6-0, 230-pound senior, Covington, Ga.). Hill, who started two games in 2012 when LaRoy Reynolds was injured, played primarily on special teams last season. He enters his senior season with 24 career tackles and one caused fumble.

* No. 40, Darius Lee (6-1, 215-pound junior, Alexandria). Lee, whose 240 plays all were on special teams last year, led the `Hoos with nine special-teams tackles. Eight came on kickoffs.

* No. 88, Max Valles (6-5, 240-pound sophomore, Sicklerville, N.J). One of the Cavaliers’ most physically gifted players, Valles made 23 tackles, broke up four passes, caused a fumble and recovered a fumble as a true freshman. He finished with 5.5 tackles for loss.

* No. 51, Zach Bradshaw (6-3, 220-pound sophomore, Damascus, Md.). Limited to five games because of a hand injury, Bradshaw made 10 tackles as a true freshman, including two for loss. He also broke up a pass.

* No. 59, Mark Hall (6-2, 245-pound sophomore, Virginia Beach). UVa men’s basketball player Devon Hall’s older brother, Hall appeared in nine games and recorded four tackles last season. He came out of the spring listed as Valles’ backup at strong-side linebacker.

* No. 53, Micah Kiser (6-2, 225-pound redshirt freshman, Baltimore). At Gilman School in Baltimore, where UVa wide receiver Darius Jennings preceded him, Kiser earned three varsity letters as a linebacker and tight end. As a senior, he returned two interceptions for touchdowns.

* No. 52, Caanan Brown (6-3, 235-pound true freshman, Clearwater, Fla.). Brown played linebacker and fullback at Clearwater Central Catholic, also the alma mater of former UVa tight end Paul Freedman. Brown totaled 274 tackles in three seasons on the varsity.

* No. 54, Cory Jones (6-5, 220-pound true freshman, Washington, D.C.). A one-time Toledo commitment, Jones switched to Virginia in late January, and he’s an intriguing prospect. In his only season of high school football, he was spectacular, making 150 tackles and 26 sacks for Archbishop Carroll last year. Jones also caught 17 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns at tight end.

* No. 94, Chris Peace (6-3, 225-pound true freshman, Newport News). After playing for Chesapeake’s Indian River High in 2010 and ’11 and for Newport News’ Warwick High in ’12, Peace starred for another Newport News school, Denbigh, in 2013. He had 19 sacks, as well as a 55-yard fumble return for a touchdown, to help Denbigh advance to the playoffs.

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