By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Mike Moore’s role on the University of Virginia defense is not easily defined. When the Cavaliers are in their nickel package — which this season has been most of the time — Moore lines up at tackle.
The roster, however, lists him as an end. That’s where he plays on those rare occasions when defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta opts for a traditional 4-3 look, with Moore and Eli Harold outside and David Dean and, usually, Donte Wilkins inside.
“He’s our utility guy,” Jappy Oliver said of Moore, a 6-4, 265-pound junior.
“It’s not easy [switching positions],” said Oliver, who’s in his first year as UVa’s defensive line coach. “Not everybody can do it. Mike’s sharp enough where he can handle it. We’re never going to put more on a young man’s plate than he can handle, but Mike can handle it.”
Whatever his position, Moore said, he’s content. Just call No. 32 a defensive lineman.
“I like playing anything they put me at,” said Moore, who starred in the storied program at DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md. “Either way I just try to use my strengths … No real preference, just anything I can do to help the team.”
In June 2011, Moore chose Virginia over Florida after also considering scholarship offers from such schools as Oregon, Southern California, Ohio State, Penn State and Nebraska.
A year later, Moore enrolled at UVa, where his blue-chip credentials — and his bloodlines — made him anything but a typical freshman.
His mother, the former Kim Duke, was a track and field standout at Virginia. His father, Shawn Moore, ranks among the greatest quarterbacks in UVa history and was an assistant on Mike London’s staff when Mike Moore joined the program in 2012.
Much was expected of the younger Moore, and he had a solid first season, appearing in all 12 games as a true freshman and making 14 tackles, including two for loss.
But in 2013 — the defense’s first season under Tenuta’s direction — Moore failed to take a significant step forward. He finished the season with 16 tackles, including one sack, and was in for only 275 plays as the Cavaliers’ No. 3 defensive end. By comparison, starting ends Harold and Jake Snyder were in for 794 and 780 plays, respectively.
“I think he was a little disenchanted last year,” Tenuta said of Moore in April.
In December 2012, after the Wahoos finished 4-8, London had fired four of his assistant coaches, including Shawn Moore. However, Mike Moore said last week, his father’s dismissal did not affect him on field.
“It definitely didn’t distract me or anything like that,” he said. “It was just a move that UVa had to do, and I saw it as something that just happened, and I had to keep continuing my career.”
Still, Moore acknowledged, his sophomore season “was definitely a little frustrating. For anybody that would be frustrating, not playing as much as they want to. But now that I look back at it, I definitely see it as a learning opportunity and a process, and now that I see it, I’m grateful for it.”
Whatever the explanation for his lackluster play in 2013, Moore entered the new year determined to establish himself as an every-down player.
“You could tell this spring he came in with his guns blazing,” Tenuta said.
In April, Moore received a Rock Weir Award as the defense’s most improved player in spring practice, and his ascent continued in training camp last month.
“I definitely think I changed my mindset a little bit,” Moore said, “trying to be a leader, trying to speak up some more. And definitely working out was a lot different. I lost a little weight and got a little faster, got a little stronger. So I definitely felt the difference.”
Moore has started both games this season for UVa (1-1), which opens ACC play Saturday afternoon against No. 21 Louisville (2-0, 1-0) at Scott Stadium. On a defense that’s already forced nine turnovers, Moore is tied for second with three tackles for loss, including one sack, and he’s also recovered a fumble.
“I’ve been very pleased with Mike Moore’s progress,” Oliver said. “He’s kind of one of those unsung heroes in the front. Mike’s a kid that doesn’t like to stay blocked, so he’s always active.”
That impresses London, a former defensive line coach. So does Moore’s growth off the field and in the locker room.
“Just the whole attitude, the whole buy-in, being an older guy that’s been around, being able to mentor other players now,” London said Sunday night. “I’m very pleased with Mike right now and his development and his whole leadership mindset as well. He’s done a great job with that.”
In the Aug. 30 season-opener against then-No. 7 UCLA, Moore had a career-high two tackles for loss to help Virginia limit an explosive offense to 358 yards. The `Hoos spent most of the game in their nickel package, which includes five defensive backs, and that meant Moore spent most of the game at tackle.
“It definitely had a different type of pace, and I had to get used to it, but I think I did pretty well at it for my first game,” he said. “I haven’t played defensive tackle probably since Pop Warner. But I definitely had fun with it.”
Among those watching at Scott Stadium that afternoon was Shawn Moore, who’s now director of community relations for the College Football Playoff.
“He gave me good reviews,” Mike Moore said. “Obviously there was still some things that need to be worked on, but it was just good to have him there.”
As a sophomore, Moore was listed at 275 pounds. He dropped 10 pounds in the offseason before learning that he’d be used extensively at tackle. Harold told Moore to embrace the challenge.
“I said, `I feel you can do that. You’re a very athletic guy. You can do what other guys can’t do. For the scouts to see that, it helps you for your future [as an NFL prospect],’ ” Harold recalled Saturday night after UVa’s 45-13 rout of Richmond at Scott Stadium.
Oliver is the third position coach Moore has had at Virginia. The first was Jeff Hanson, who was dismissed after the 2012 season, and the second was Vincent Brown, who left UVa in January to become co-defensive coordinator at Connecticut.
“It’s been a little challenging,” Moore said, “just having different coaches with different types of styles. You have to get used to [their] coaching. Coach Hanson was real hard-core. And then Coach Brown was kind of quiet, but he got his point across kind of silently and quietly.
“Coach Jappy, he came in, and he talks so much about the little things, working on the footwork, working on the hands. He’s just been a good coach for us.”
At 265 pounds, Moore is light for a defensive tackle, but that hasn’t deterred him this season.
“That’s where he’s smart,” Oliver said. “Very seldom are we stationary targets inside. We move him enough where he can beat some people, and when we’re running the defense where he’s not moving, he knows he’s got to play lower. He’s got to get down and play lower. If they’re trying to double-team him, he’s got to take out two.”
Coming into the season Moore “knew he had a big role to fill,” Harold said, and his best friend’s emergence is among the reasons UVa’s defense appears much improved from 2013.
“I tell you what, Mike Moore’s come leaps and bounds since when I first came here,” Tenuta said.