By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Barring an unforeseen turn of events, by the time the 2015 NFL draft concludes Saturday, a UVa player will have been selected for the 32nd consecutive year.
The first Cavalier picked figures to be Eli Harold, a pass-rush specialist who could be taken late in the first round Thursday night.
Next is likely to be Anthony Harris, who was a three-year starter at safety for Virginia, followed, perhaps, by Max Valles, an outside linebacker who passed up his final two seasons of college eligibility to pursue a pro career.
Harris, who graduated from the University in December, three-and-a-half years after enrolling, will watch the draft with his family at home in Chesterfield County. He’s not sure when he’ll be picked: Friday (rounds 2-3) or Saturday (rounds 4-7).
“It’s pretty wide open,” Harris said Tuesday. “There’s some teams talking second, third round. Early on it was second round, now more so third round. And there’s some teams talking later rounds. So there’s a bigger margin for me.”
Had the 6-1 Harris entered 2015 healthy, he’d have a better read on his NFL stock. But he played most of his senior season with a shoulder injury that required surgery Dec. 30.
In February, he attended the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Still recovering from surgery, Harris wasn’t able to work out there or, a week later, at UVa’s pro day in Charlottesville.
He played at about 195 pounds last season, and NFL teams would like Harris to be closer to 200. After his surgery, though, he dropped below 190.
“It’s steadily going back up, but I haven’t been full-time lifting yet,” said Harris, who’s back up to around 190 pounds. “I’ve done lower body a little bit, and upper body, but they haven’t been intense workouts where I’m gaining muscle mass back from what I’ve lost.”
Harris, an All-American in 2013, hurt his right shoulder against BYU last fall in UVa’s fourth game. He played through the injury for the rest of the season and was named to the All-ACC third team.
His rehab is going well, Harris said, and by the time training camp starts this summer “I’ll be fully cleared to tackle. I expect to be fully cleared in the weight room as well, and doing more bench stuff.”
He’s been working out this spring at UVa with Ryan Tedford, the football team’s strength and conditioning coach, and meeting regularly with the athletic training staff.
“Right now we’re starting to phase out of the precautionary and getting back into the regular schedule of lifting and doing all the running and cutting,” Harris said, “but I haven’t been fully cleared to do all that.”
In Indianapolis, Harris met with representatives of the Broncos, Buccaneers and Vikings, whose strength coach, Evan Marcus, previously worked at UVa. Four teams later brought Harris in for visits: the Ravens, Vikings, Lions and Giants.
“I’ve had my fair share of teams who’ve called me in,” he said, “and I’ve had my fair share of conversations.”
In a recent mock draft in which ESPN analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay alternated picks, Harold went 47th (to the Dolphins) and Harris 87th (to the Steelers).
Harris, who’ll walk the Lawn during graduation at UVa next month, said he hasn’t wasted time worrying about how the shoulder injury hurt his NFL stock.
“I just kind of let things go with the flow and do what I can in any situation,” he said. “I haven’t been able to do much and display my talents, but I’ve been working hard over the past four seasons … so I kind of look at it as a chance for me to give my body a little bit of a break and get my legs back and then continue to get back in it and go back out there and show my talent and maybe earn [more money on a second contract].
“I’m looking for the positives in the situation. All I ever wanted was an opportunity to play in the NFL, and I think I’ll get a chance to do that. And then from there, once I get my shot, it’s just up to me what I do with it.”
DIFFERENT LOOK: On a teleconference last week, offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild discussed the coaching staff’s decision to place Matt Johns atop the post-spring practice depth chart at quarterback.
Greyson Lambert, who like Johns will be a redshirt junior in the fall, is No. 2. Lambert, who missed three games with an ankle injury in 2014, started the nine games in which he played.
“It’s definitely a fluid situation,” said Fairchild, also UVa’s quarterbacks coach. “This reflects if we were playing a game tomorrow, which we’re not. Just like any other position, the guy that’s most productive is going to play, and we’ve still got a long summer [ahead] and obviously our two-a-day practices as well before we play.”
Asked when he would name the starting quarterback for the Sept. 5 opener at UCLA, Fairchild said, “You’d like to have it done as soon as possible. But again, nothing’s in granite. The guy’s going to have to not only win the job, he’s going to have to keep it. And that’s at every spot. Not just quarterback. Right now, Matt’s No. 1 on the depth chart. He’ll go in running with the 1s when we start practice in August, and we’ll again evaluate every practice.”
A more effective runner than Lambert, Johns rushed 22 times last season for 107 yards, an average of 4.9 per carry.
“I do think he’s got mobility,” Fairchild, “and he’s got the ability to extend plays, and even create something when the primary play breaks down. But there’s also something to be said for getting through a progression and being able to find your third guy, be it a checkdown to a back or whatever.
“So that’s what he’s got to be able to do: decide when it’s time to give up on a play and ad-lib and when it’s time to get through his progression. I think he’s done a nice job [at that] — Greyson has as well — and the more you play the better that aspect of your game becomes.”
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Alec Vozenilek’s three-year run as Virginia’s starting punter ended with the 2014 regular-season finale. Candidates to replace Vozenilek include brothers James Coleman and Lester Coleman and Nicholas Conte.
Conte, a 6-3, 225-pound rising junior who has yet to appear in a UVa game, came out of spring practice No. 1 on the depth chart.
“He’s a good player,” London said last week. “He’s got a strong leg, a very strong leg, but obviously like every player that wants to be competitive and win a starting spot, he’s got to be consistent.”
Some of Conte’s punts this spring, London said, “really flipped the field for us in practice … If he can continue to do those type of things, he will definitely be a weapon for us.”
Conte also played lacrosse and swam at Patrick Henry High School in Roanoke.
“I thought we got better with each practice, not just at the tailback spot, but at the downhill-run part of the game that we were trying to establish,” Fairchild said. “I thought we did a nice job throughout the spring of building on that part, and I think that part of the game helped everybody, helped our quarterbacks, helped our pass protection. It was a good foundation to start the installation of our offense.
“I thought the backs, all three of them, got better with each practice. I think we like the way we’re headed with our run game. We were able to establish the rotation in the offensive line that we think’s the right thing to do right now.”
Hamm, a former walk-on, and Mizzell are listed as co-starters on the post-spring depth chart. Mizzell, who came to UVa as a much-hyped recruit out of Virginia Beach’s Bayside High, has rushed for a modest 464 yards and three touchdowns in his two college seasons.
From a player who picked up the nickname “Smoke” as a boy because of his elusiveness as a runner, more was expected. But Fairchild sees progress.
“Smoke, as the spring went on, again got better and better at just pulling the trigger and doing the one cut and getting going north and south,” Fairchild said.
It’s important that a tailback not try “to hit a home run with every run,” Fairchild said. “Sometimes a 4-yarder is a good run, and just putting your foot in the ground and getting north-south as opposed to trying to make the home run every time you touch the ball [is the correct decision].”
Mizzell “got better with each practice,” Fairchild said. “I was really pleased with the direction he was going.”
The same was true for the offense overall, said Fairchild, who’s in his third year as coordinator at UVa. The Cavaliers ranked 85th nationally in scoring offense and 87th in total offense last season.
“We should be better,” Fairchild said. “We’ve got more guys that have played. There’s fewer holes, a little more depth, and obviously having an experienced quarterback, a guy that’s played a little bit there, helps toward the productivity going up offensively.”
Not listed on the depth chart were three offensive linemen who are likely to crack the two-deep in the fall: Jay Whitmire, Sadiq Olanrewaju and Eric Tetlow. They’re recovering from injuries, and none was a full participant this spring.
“Before we slot them anywhere,” Fairchild said, he wanted to let new offensive line coach Dave Borbely “work with them and see where he thinks they fit best.
“I think it would be just speculation right now to just throw them in there. But we do have some pieces of the puzzle that are out. Who comes back, when they come back, how well they come back and where they fit, remains to be seen.”
“That was kind of our message going into spring football: You are what you put on tape, and if you want to get on the field, then show us,” Fairchild said.
The 6-3, 235-pound Wingo-Reeves will be a junior in the fall. Croce (6-4, 265) will be a fifth-year senior.
“I thought those two guys made it really hard to not want to be in what we call `21 personnel,’ where we have a fullback in the game,” Fairchild said, “because they both played very well the entire spring, and along with our offensive line probably led the charge in our attempt to gain that identity of a downhill-run team.”