By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — His 2014 debut for UVa’s football team did not go as smoothly as Sadiq Olanrewaju hoped.
After missing Virginia’s first two games while recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, Olanrewaju started at left offensive tackle Sept. 13 against then-No. 21 Louisville at Scott Stadium.
“It was awesome to be out there, but I was definitely nervous,” Olanrewaju, a 6-6, 300-pound sophomore, said after practice Tuesday.
Not only was the Louisville game his first start as a college player, Olanrewaju had missed spring practice (shoulder) and training camp (knee).
His rust showed. Olanrewaju, who appeared in five games as a true freshman last season, was called for two false starts and a holding penalty against Louisville. His second false start came on a pivotal fourth-quarter drive that ended with a 42-yard field goal by Ian Frye, whose kick lifted UVa to a 23-21 victory.
“I almost hurt the whole team with that penalty in the fourth quarter,” Olanrewaju said. “I should take Ian Frye out to lunch, to be honest, because he really saved me on that.”
Although the game was his first since Nov. 13, 2013, there “was still no excuse to have gotten those penalties,” Olanrewaju said. “But I made sure I fixed that … I went in the team room and just kind of cut up all the plays and said, `Listen, if you want to play and you want to help this team, penalties are going to hurt us.’ I understood that if I wanted the team to progress, I can’t be the one to commit penalties like that.”
Olanrewaju did not start Saturday at then-No. 21 BYU — sophomore Michael Mooney got the call — but he played extensively in UVa’s 41-33 loss, and he performed better than he had against Louisville.
“Substantially,” said Olanrewaju, who lives in Montgomery County, Md., but graduated from the Salisbury School in Connecticut.
In general, his return from injury has “been better than I thought it would be, just because I prepared so much while I was out,” Olanrewaju said. “I knew that I had to get into the playbook, I had to pay attention in the meeting room. I knew I couldn’t use it as an excuse to just loaf.”
He had surgery on his shoulder in February, and by “May I was working out pretty hard,” Olanrewaju said. “Our workouts started in June, but I made sure I stayed for May session [of summer school], so I could get in as much work as possible, because I couldn’t use it as an excuse. So when we came out here for sprints and we were working out, I had to be on pace with everybody else if I wanted to get any playing time at all.”
Virginia (2-2), which hosts Kent State (0-3) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, has been playing nine offensive linemen regularly: Olanrewaju, Mooney and Eric Smith at tackle; Conner Davis, Ryan Doull, Cody Wallace and Jack McDonald at guard; and Ross Burbank and Jackson Matteo at center.
At left tackle, Olanrewaju said, he and Mooney are “just competing. We’re working hard every day at practice. Whoever gets the start one week is whoever practiced harder that week. Because we know there’s no superstars on this line, everybody works that much harder. You’re constantly fighting for your job, and I think that brings out the best in everybody on the O-line.”
LONG TIME COMING: Miles Gooch entered his fifth year at UVa with modest career statistics as a wide receiver: three catches for 32 yards and one touchdown.
Through four games this season, the 6-3, 210-pound Gooch has 13 catches for 163 yards and one TD, and he has been any reliable as any member of a large and talented corps of receivers.
Against BYU, Gooch had a career-high six receptions for 65 yards.
“I think it was always a goal of mine,” Gooch said Wednesday morning of his expanded role in the offense. “I always wanted to be a big contributor to our team winning football games.”
Gooch, who earned his bachelor’s degree in anthropology in May, came to UVa as a quarterback, his position at Towers High in Decatur, Ga. In the spring of his first year at Virginia, however, he moved to wideout, where he did not crack the rotation until last season, when he was used primarily as a blocker.
“As an athlete, you always want to be out there and competing,” Gooch said. “But you have to just learn to focus on the next step in your progression and none of the negative things that may make you take a step backwards. It was definitely tough, but you just gotta put your nose down and keep grinding.
“Nothing is ever promised, but I think it’s something that everyone goes through. As athletes, everybody has those times. You just gotta keep working, and something good will happen eventually. It always does.”
MULTI-DIMENSIONAL: Gooch’s fellow receivers include senior Darius Jennings, who also returns kickoffs for the Cavaliers. At Gilman School in Baltimore, Jennings played quarterback at a senior, but he ran more than he passed, rushing for 1,592 yards and 19 touchdowns.
At UVa, offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild is looking for ways to get Jennings the ball this season. As a wideout, Jennings has 11 catches for 184 yards and one TD, and he’s also carried five times for 15 yards on jet sweeps.
On those plays, Jennings lines up outside, goes in motion and then, in full stride, takes a handoff an instant after the ball is snapped to the quarterback.
Jennings has yet to break a sweep this season — his longest gain is 6 yards — but he’s a fan of the play.
“It’s another way to get the ball in my hands,” Jennings said Monday. “And also, when they fake [the handoff to] me, it kind of opens up seams for the backs as well. I think it adds a different dimension to our offense that we haven’t had in previous years, just a receiver pushing the ball on the edge like that. So hopefully we can perfect that as well and kind of add that to our offense.”
On kickoffs, Jennings leads the ACC with an average of 28.2 yards per returns.
“I think I’m just kind of trusting the return [team] more,” he said. “I feel as though I’ve done that in years past, but this year I’m just kind of trusting the guys in front of me and just hitting it full go and anticipating the seam being there.”
For his career, Jennings has returned 65 kickoffs for 1,416 yards, which ranks fourth all-time at UVa. His longest return, a 68-yarder, came against Richmond on Sept. 6.
WAITING GAME: Among punt returners in the ACC, Virginia senior Khalek Shepherd ranks fifth, with an average of 5.5 yards. The longest punt return of his college career went for 25 yards in 2012.
Still, Shepherd hasn’t stopped dreaming of becoming the first Cavalier since Alvin Pearman in 2004 to return a punt for a TD.
“That’s definitely a goal,” Shepherd said Monday at John Paul Jones Area.
And if he realizes that goal, Shepherd added, the “first thing I’m going to do is just congratulate the 10 guys that helped me, because I have outstanding trust in those guys protecting me. Whenever it does happen, they’ll be the first guys I run to, give a big hug to.”
He has yet to come close to breaking a punt return for a touchdown, Shepherd acknowledged, but it’s “going to break soon, I can feel it. We just got to keep working. It starts in practice, with all the drills and stuff that [special teams coordinator Larry] Lewis has us go through. Sooner or later, it’s going to pop. We’re working hard to make sure that happens.”
Should that moment come, Jennings will be among those cheering loudest for Shepherd.
“He definitely deserves it,” Jennings said. “He works hard every day. Day in and day out, he’s always giving it his best effort. I think I’d be more excited to see him break one, especially because I’m out there blocking for him on punt return. I think I’d be more excited if he broke one first.”
Shepherd has been the Cavaliers’ No. 3 tailback for much this season, behind senior Kevin Parks and sophomore Taquan Mizzell. Against BYU, however, Shepherd rushed 14 times for 73 yards — both career highs — and a touchdown.
“He’s another selfless player,” Jennings said. “He adds a different dynamic to our team as well. He’s a guy who tries to bring guys along with him, trying to get them fired up before games, trying to get us pumped up. He’s always in someone else’s corner. He definitely puts the team first, before himself.”
Shepherd said: “Whenever Coach Fairchild or Coach Lewis need me to come in the game, that’s what I’m here for, to help the team. So it doesn’t matter how many times I touch the ball. Whenever I do touch it, I have to produce for the offense as a whole. I don’t really worry too much about how many times I get the ball. It’s just when I do, I just want to produce to the best of my abilities.”
To the surprise of no one who knows him, Shepherd credited his linemen for his career performance against BYU.
“It all starts with the five guys up front,” he said. “They’ve been busting their tails all week, all season, all summer, to make sure that they can be the best O-line that they can be, and it started with them. They had a great game, so whenever they have a great game, I have to capitalize and make sure I hit the right holes and read their blocks well … Those guys had an excellent game. It was all their work.”
BACK IN TOWN: The UVa-Kent State game will be shown on ESPN3, whose crew at Scott Stadium will include play-by-play announcer Shawn Kenney and analyst Al Groh.
Groh, of course, preceded Mike London as the Cavaliers’ head coach. London had two stints as a UVa assistant coach under Groh, who was dismissed after the 2009 season.
“I have a profound amount of respect for him,” London said Monday at JPJ. “He hired me here and promoted me here, so there is always that deep respect for Coach. His knowledge of football, his love for the game, is unmatched.”