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April 21, 2015

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — At halftime of the Orange-Blue spring football game at Scott Stadium, the recipients of several awards were announced Saturday night. The names of Vincent Croce and David Dean were called more than once.

Croce, a fullback from Olney, Md., and Dean, a defensive tackle from Virginia Beach, will serve as team captains this season, along with offensive lineman Ross Burbank (Virginia Beach) and wide receiver Canaan Severin (Marlborough, Mass.). All four are rising seniors.

The Rock Weir awards, which honor the players who improve most during spring drills, went to Croce and linebacker Micah Kiser, a rising sophomore from Baltimore.

Croce also picked up an Iron Cavalier award, as did Dean, for performance and dedication in the weight room.

“It boiled down to the leadership that they showed,” said Ryan Tedford, UVa’s head strength and conditioning coach for football. “They were very demanding of their team. They brought their energy and their effort every day. Really, you can argue that nobody outworked those two.”

They distinguished themselves in other ways, too. The 6-1, 292-pound Dean squatted 600 pounds, bench-pressed 414 and power-cleaned 363, Tedford said. The 6-4, 265-pound Croce squatted 572, benched 372 and power-cleaned 341.

Both players improved in each of those lifts. Overall, though, Croce and Dean “stood out as much for their leadership as for the work production that they had,” Tedford said.

“It was one of those deals where if we had any disciplinary issues in the weight room, those guys handled it. I didn’t have to take care take of it this year. They stepped up and said, `Coach, we’ll take care of it,’ and those are the things that really stand out and epitomize what we’re looking for in the Iron Cavalier. It’s more than just strength. It’s the team mentality of it.”

Among the players who also received consideration for Iron Cavalier honors, Tedford said, were Kiser and Burbank.

STEPPING FORWARD: Dean is heading into his third year as a starter. Croce, who began his college career at defensive tackle, has played mostly on special teams at Virginia. But offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild used his fullbacks more this spring than in 2013 or ’14, which meant larger roles for Croce and Connor Wingo-Reeves, a 6-3, 235-pound rising junior.

“It’s awesome,” Croce said Saturday. “That’s been my goal, because fullback is not a position that’s an every-down position. But if Connor and I were able to force the coaches into putting us on the field [because of] our productivity — which we’ve done, which is why you see the increase in reps — that was our goal at the beginning of spring.

“The commitment to it that you see by putting the fullbacks on the field comes from our productivity. We’ve stepped our game up and we’ve shown that we can carry the load. In the past we’ve done a good job, but both Connor and I have gotten better and are earning it.”

The Wahoos want to be known as a power-running team this fall, and the “fullbacks have been very productive in getting on their blocks, moving their feet and opening holes for the running backs,” quarterback Matt Johns said Saturday night.

In Wingo-Reeves and Croce, the `Hoos have two big fullbacks who “can block linebackers or defensive ends,” head coach Mike London said.

“They’re willing. They’re willing to put their face in there, and they seek a high level of contact. When you have the approach of wanting to establish a running identity, it’s great when you have players like that. This is where we are. This is kind of our identity right now.”

Croce, who can also fill in at tight end as needed, was in for 26 offensive plays last year. Expect that to total to increase dramatically this fall.

“I just think my mindset went to a whole different level this spring,” said Croce, who’s well aware he has only once season of college football left.

“That’s definitely a big part of it,” he said. “This is all I have.”

The team captains were selected in voting among the UVa players.

“To earn one of those four spots in my last season is great,” Croce said. “I’m incredibly honored to represent the team.”

COLLECTIVE EFFORT: Quarterback Greyson Lambert, one of the Cavaliers’ captains as a redshirt sophomore in 2014, was among the 14 players chosen to serve on the team’s leadership council this season.

The others: Burbank, Croce, Dean, Severin, Johns, Kiser, Jay Whitmire, Taquan Mizzell, Demetrious Nicholson, Mike Moore, Wilfred Wahee, Quin Blanding and Ian Frye.

Not being named a team captain doesn’t “stop anybody from still being a leader,” London said, “because I utilize the leadership council on a lot of things.”

TIME TO SHINE? Virginia lost its starting linebackers from 2014 — Henry Coley, Daquan Romero and Max Valles — and candidates to replace them include Mark Hall, a 6-2, 240-pound rising junior from Virginia Beach.

Hall, whose brother, Devon, is a guard on the UVa men’s basketball team, made eight tackles last season, six of which came on special teams.

The Cavaliers are inexperienced and have little depth at linebacker, and Hall practiced this spring on the strong side (Sam), on the weak side (Will) and in the middle (Mike) at times.

In the Orange-Blue game, Hall recovered a fumble and returned it 35 yards, at which point, rather than get tackled, he lateraled the ball to defensive end Trent Corney, who sprinted the final 35 yards to the end zone.

Mark Hall did a good job of scooping, running and being aware of where Trent was,” London said.

Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta was asked after the game about Hall, who starred in basketball and football at Green Run High School.

Hall “struggled a lot in the spring, and he’s up and down,” Tenuta said. “And then obviously due to injuries, he’s the guy that’s had to move from Sam to Mike to Will, and move around, and I think that’s slowed down his progress. But again, here’s a kid that’s been here three years, so he better step up to the plate and get it going. Which I think he has, but we gotta settle him in on one thing and one thing only.”

Hall said Tenuta “always preaches you have to learn the Sam, the Mike and the Will. So when he gives you an opportunity, you have to take it and just take advantage of it. Like he says, play hard, play fast and leave the last play behind.”

PLAYING CATCH-UP: Virginia’s top three cornerbacks, Tenuta said, are Tim Harris, Maurice Canady and Demetrious Nicholson. A rising senior from Virginia Beach, Nicholson started the first 30 games of his UVa career before a toe injury prematurely ended his 2013 season.

Because of the injury, he played in only five games that season and only one game in 2014.

Nicholson “is working to understand the concepts of what I want … [and] working to be a better player,” Tenuta said. “He has a lot of deficiencies, but his deficiencies to me are because he only played in [six] games in two years.”

Defensive tackle Andrew Brown is in a similar situation. Injuries limited Brown’s availability last year, and he played in only six games as a true freshman, making four tackles.

With Donte Wilkins recovering from offseason surgery, and Dean slowed by an injury that forced him to miss the Orange-Blue game, the 6-4, 290-pound Brown got all the reps at tackle he missed last spring. That was fine with him.

“Never too much work,” Brown said. “I enjoyed it. Just taking advantage of my opportunities.”

In what he called a “very productive” spring, Brown was able “to hone in on my skills, focus on the little things that I didn’t really get to focus on last year, because I was injured during spring ball,” he said. “By the time the season came, they already had the starters, the second team, third team, and I didn’t really have a chance to get accustomed to college ball like I needed to. So now that I’m back and up to speed, I had the time and patience to be able to work those skills like I needed.”

MULTI-TALENTED: Burbank started 11 games at center as a redshirt junior in 2014. In the spring game Saturday, however, Burbank played right guard for the first-team offensive line, and Jackson Matteo started at center.

Four offensive linemen sat out the game with injuries — Whitmire, Eric Tetlow, Sadiq Olanrewaju and Grant Polk — and Burbank isn’t sure where he’ll play when they return.

“I’ve been rolling through center and guard all spring,” he said. “Wherever they need me, I’m going to slide in there and play and do the best I can. It doesn’t matter to me.”

This is Fairchild’s third year as Virginia’s offensive coordinator. Among ACC teams, UVa ranked 11th in total offense and 11th in scoring offense last season. Burbank expects significant improvement this fall.

“I love the offense,” he said. “We’re doing a lot of new stuff. We couldn’t show it all today, obviously. With the spring game, you can’t show everything. But I love our backs, I love the O-line, I love what the quarterbacks are doing. The receivers had a couple drops today, but they’ve been playing really well all spring. I’m excited about our offense.”

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