By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — After arriving at the University of Virginia in the summer of 2013, Max Valles trained alongside tight ends Zachary Swanson, Jake McGee and Rob Burns during offseason workouts.
Valles caught a lot of passes as a wide receiver at St. Joseph High School in Hammonton, N.J., and he expected to catch a lot more at UVa. On the first day of training camp that August, however, Valles found himself on defense.
Jon Tenuta got his man. Other members of the coaching staff might have seen Valles as a tight end, but “for me he wasn’t,” said Tenuta, the Cavaliers’ defensive coordinator, and for a simple reason.
“Because of John Shuman, who I’ve known for over 40 years,” Tenuta said. “He said Max is skilled enough to be a tight end, but he’s a defensive player.”
Shuman is the longtime coach of the Fork Union Military Academy postgraduate team, many of whose alumni have gone on to have stellar careers at UVa, among them Marques Hagans, Billy McMullen, Darryl Blackstock, Almondo Curry, Merrill Robertson, Jon Copper, Zac Yarbrough, Danny Aiken and Austin Pasztor.
Valles, who’s from Sicklerville, N.J., enrolled at FUMA in the summer of 2012 planning to hone his skills at tight end. And so he wasn’t thrilled when Shuman broached the subject of a position change.
“We said, `We’re going to put you over here on defense. We need you to rush the passer,’ ” Shuman recalled. “I wouldn’t say he fought us, but he was a little stubborn.”
Valles laughed when apprised of Shuman’s comment.
“I wouldn’t say stubborn, but I didn’t really want to play defense that much,” Valles said. “In high school I was [South Jersey] defensive player of the year, but I like getting the ball.”
Now, though, he understands why Shuman and Tenuta believed he belonged on defense. In his second college season, the 6-5, 240-pound Valles regularly contributes game-changing plays for a fast, aggressive defense.
“He’s a very versatile player who’s got outstanding feet,” said Tenuta, who also oversees the Wahoos’ linebackers.
For Virginia (4-2, 2-0), which leads the ACC’s Coastal Division, Valles has a team-high seven pass breakups. He’s third on the team in sacks, with five, and tied for third in tackles for loss, with five.
Valles also has one fumble recovery, one forced fumble and one interception, which he returned 35 yards for a touchdown Oct. 4 against Pittsburgh at Scott Stadium.
“That was great,” Valles said of his pick-six. “All my high school teammates were texting me and calling me and saying, `Yeah, it looked like the old days. You still got the speed.’ ”
On Virginia’s depth chart, Valles is listed as the starting strong-side linebacker, and his position coach is Tenuta. But the Cavaliers’ primary defense is the nickel, and in that scheme Valles lines up at end.
“Coach Tenuta puts everybody in position to make plays for the team,” Valles said. “Either at D-end or Sam linebacker, I have a great chance to make plays for the rest of the guys.”
Valles originally signed with Virginia in February 2012. But he didn’t meet NCAA standards for freshman eligibility until late in his senior year at St. Joseph, and UVa asked him to spend a year at prep school before coming to Charlottesville.
Once Valles enrolled at Fork Union, his letter of intent with Virginia was no longer binding, and he was free to choose another college. But he was impressed with head coach Mike London’s loyalty to him, and Valles signed again with the `Hoos in February 2013.
His close relationship with Tenuta also made UVa appealing to Valles, 20.
“He reminded me of my high school coaches,” Valles said of Tenuta. “He’s hard on you, but he means it in a great way, and he’s really sarcastic. I love that about him, because I’m a pretty sarcastic person too. So I love his sense of humor and the way he coaches.”
Born and raised in South Jersey, not far from Philadelphia, Valles has two older brothers, one of whom, Hakeem, plays tight end at Monmouth University. Their parents, Paul and Pamela, starred in football and track, respectively, in high school, and “they’re still actually really athletic and fit,” Max said. “I couldn’t beat my parents in a race till like my sophomore year in high school.”
At St. Joseph, Valles was a two-way standout for a football team that won three state championships during his career. Yet he wasn’t a heralded recruit coming out of high school, which makes his play at UVa even more impressive.
“He came out of nowhere,” middle linebacker Henry Coley said.
As a true freshman last year, Valles announced his arrival with 2.5 sacks against Pitt, and he ended up starting four games. He finished the season with four sacks to tie tackle David Dean for second on the team.
“It really didn’t take Max long to get adjusted, just because he’s so athletic and he plays so aggressive,” Dean told reporters Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.
So why wasn’t there more recruiting buzz about Valles, who has the size and speed of an NFL linebacker? He believes it was because he never attended any of the summer camps at which recruiting analysts rate young players.
“I just played high school football,” Valles said. “I played travel baseball all year around, so I really had no time for camps. I played baseball all summer, every weekend.”
He pitched and played in the outfield for the South Jersey Bulldogs, and baseball remains a passion for Valles. He’s a regular at Davenport Field, and his friends include UVa baseball players Connor Jones and Alec Bettinger.
Football, though, is his No. 1 focus athletically, and he’s helped the Cavaliers, who finished 2-10 last year, get off to a strong start this season.
“The seniors were great last year,” Valles said, “but I feel like once we got on that losing streak, everybody was just down on themselves. I feel like people weren’t playing for each other last year. We had a bunch of individuals, but this year there’s definitely a team bond.”
At 12:30 p.m. Saturday, in a game to be shown on the ACC Network, Virginia meets Coastal Division rival Duke (5-1, 1-1) in Durham, N.C. A victory would move the `Hoos to the brink of bowl eligibility with five regular-season games left.
“It feels great just to get back to winning again,” Valles said. “Coming from my high school, where we won three state championships in a row, I was used to the winning. Last year I didn’t get that feeling like we had [at St. Joseph], but I always thought about it. I wanted that same feeling I had with my high school teammates and that same bond we had, and I feel it with this team definitely. I feel like we can go very far and do big things.”
The same is true for Valles, who weighed around 230 pounds at the end of last season.
“Obviously he’s got to get a little more physical, but that comes with maturity,” Tenuta said. “You can see the growth and the weight from one year to the next, and where he is now.”