By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
PINEHURST, N.C. — At the end of the 2013 season, his second on the University of Virginia football team, wide receiver Canaan Severin had six career catches for 46 yards.
The odds then that, in the summer of 2015, Severin would be one of the two players representing UVa at the conference’s annual preseason media gathering?
“Slim to none,” Severin said with a smile Monday afternoon at Pinehurst Resort, site of this year’s ACC Football Kickoff. “I wasn’t even a thought probably for this. But thank goodness people that care about me told me I could be much better and I had a much [higher ceiling].”
Severin broke out in 2014, catching 42 passes for 578 yards and five touchdowns and establishing himself as one of the ACC’s top wideouts. This spring, he was named one of the Cavaliers’ captains, along with defensive tackle David Dean, offensive lineman Ross Burbank and fullback Vincent Croce, and he heads into his final college season in terrific shape.
The 6-2 Severin, who weighed 230 pounds early in his UVa career, said Monday that he’s down to 206 or 207. He played at around 210 last season.
“When I was 230, it felt like I couldn’t move,” said Severin, who’s from Marlborough, Mass. “It felt like I was just too overweight, and my body fat was too high. I just didn’t want to be like that anymore. I got lean last year. I saw what worked and what didn’t work.”
Dropping the extra pounds has “helped my route-running,” Severin said. “It’s helped my releases, creating separation, my speed, just being an all-around receiver.”
UVa head coach Mike London will field questions from media members Tuesday. On Monday it was the players’ turn, and Severin and Dean were spotlighted during a long day that included sessions with radio, TV, print and Internet reporters.
More enjoyable for them than the interviews, no doubt, was the time Severin and Dean spent Sunday with players from the other ACC teams.
“All the players that are over here are real good dudes,” Severin said. “I’d never met any of them, but they’re all real good people. I’ve just competed against them, so it’s been good to be around them.”
LEADING FROM THE FRONT: Dean said the captains, all seniors, are not taking their responsibilities lightly. They know UVa hasn’t played in a bowl game since 2011, and they want to end the program’s string of losing seasons.
Virginia finished 4-8 in 2012, 2-10 in ’13, and 5-7 last season.
“It’s my last year,” said Dean, who redshirted as a freshman in 2011. “It’s all I got left. My job as a captain is to make sure I get the most out of each and every player. I have to lead by example. I have to lead by my energy. I have to lead with just my mindset and kind of set the standard for these younger guys … Me, Canaan, Ross and Croce, we have to create the culture that we want.”
The Wahoos’ most vocal leader last season was middle linebacker Henry Coley, whose college eligibility has been exhausted.
Off the field, Dean is more soft-spoken than Coley. Even so, “I feel like I come as close to Henry as you can get,” Dean said.
“Henry was a different kind of guy, but don’t get me wrong: When it comes to football, a switch happens with me. I’m not this quiet, reserved type of guy. I have a different personality when it comes to football.
“I feel like I can be that guy for the defense that was close to what Henry was and bring that passion, that energy, that toughness that we need.”
Dean, who’s from Virginia Beach, enters his senior season with 16.5 career tackles for loss, including six sacks.
To finish the season in a bowl game “would be awesome,” Dean said. “That would be just a testament to our work as a team, what we did all offseason. We all dedicated ourselves, we bought in, and as captains, that’s what we set out to do.”
AND THEN THERE WAS ONE: Redshirt junior Matt Johns came out of spring practice atop the depth chart at quarterback, and his grip on the position grew stronger when Greyson Lambert transferred to Georgia after graduating from UVa this summer.
Lambert started all nine games in which he played last season. Johns started the three games Lambert missed with an ankle injury.
For the season, Johns completed 89 of 162 passes for 1,109 and eight TDs, with five interceptions, and he has the full confidence of his teammates.
Johns has never been the Cavaliers’ full-time starter, but he’s “battle-tested,” Severin said. “He’s ready to go. He’s played in a lot of games … I’m excited to see what he does for a whole year. I work out with him every day. I live with him. I see what he does on a daily basis. I can’t wait to compete with him.”
Severin and Johns arrived at UVa together in 2012, and they’ve been close friends ever since. Severin is convinced the `Hoos will benefit from having a clear No. 1 behind center.
“My high school football coach always said, `If you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks,’ ” Severin said. “I do kind of believe that phrase. It worked somewhat well last year, though obviously not well enough to get the job done. I think it is good that Matt Johns is our guy and we’re going to stick with him no matter what.
“I think that’s key. While I’ve been here, we haven’t really had that to a certain extent, so I’m really excited for this year.”
Competition is healthy, Severin said, but “I think it’s really good that [Johns] doesn’t have to look over his shoulder like, `OK, if I mess up this drive, I’ll come out.’ I think he can just be in his zone, get a good feel for the game, and just play. Just play Matt Johns football. Like I said, this dude competes.”
In last year’s season-opener, UVa fell behind 21-3 against UCLA at Scott Stadium in the second quarter after Lambert had two passes intercepted and returned for touchdowns.
Johns replaced Lambert and led a spirited comeback. The Bruins came away with a 28-20 victory, but Johns completed 13 of 22 passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns, and he wasn’t intercepted.
“I’ll never forget when he came in [against] UCLA,” Severin said Monday. “We’re losing, what, 21-3, and he’s coming in there smiling, like, `Yo, let’s go score, let’s have fun, let’s score, let’s move the ball.’
“I’m like, `Dang, does this guy know what’s going on right now? We’re getting whupped.’ Then two plays later he throws it to me for 30 yards. Then the next play he throws one to Andre Levrone for a touchdown, [and it’s] now 21-10. The next drive he comes back with another touchdown, now we’re down by four.
“He just has that moxie, and it’s kind of crazy. He’s having fun out there. That’s who he is. The dude just flat-out competes. He always says, `I’m a fighter. I’m from Philly.’ ”
UVa opens against UCLA again this season, this time at the Rose Bowl.
“I think the first game of the season is huge for us,” Dean said. “It sets the tone for the whole season.”
AGONY OF DEFEAT: Of UVa’s seven losses last season, only two were by nine points or more. The `Hoos lost by eight points to UCLA and BYU, by seven to Duke, by four to Virginia Tech, and by one to North Carolina.
In the season finale at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, UVa scored a touchdown with 2:55 remaining to take a 20-17 lead over Virginia Tech. The Hokies rallied to win 24-20.
“We were close,” Severin said. “We were right there, 5-7, two minutes away from going to a bowl game. But close gets you beat in this industry. It’s a bottom-line business. Either you’re winning or you’re losing.”
Dean said: “It’s just those one, two, three, few plays that really determine the game, those mistakes, those missed opportunities, that will [decide] the game for us. That’s what was happening in games. We weren’t taking advantage of each and every play. We didn’t cut the silly mistakes. We didn’t score on fourth-and-1. The defense didn’t make the stop on fourth-and-1. It’s one of those things where it’s so small but it’s so important at the same time, and that’s something that we’ve focused on, the little details. Finishing.”
AREA OF STRENGTH: Dave Borbely returned to Charlottesville after the 2014 season for his second stint as the Cavaliers’ offensive line coach. He inherited a veteran group that quickly established a new identity under Borbely, who also has coached at such schools as Notre Dame, Louisville, Stanford, Tulane, Rice, Temple and Colorado.
Borbely has “done a lot of great things,” Dean said. “They’re playing together, they have a bond, they’re working together, they’re smarter, they’re more experienced … They’re all synced in together.”
Virginia returns 10 offensive linemen who have played in college games, including fifth-year senior Jay Whitmire, a 2013 starter who missed last season with a back injury.
“I’m excited for what they have in store,” Severin said.
NOW OR NEVER: Ask UVa’s players to name the best athlete on the team, and defensive end Trent Corney would probably win going away. The 6-3, 250-pound Corney’s production on the field, however, has yet to come close to matching his off-the-charts athleticism.
Heading into his senior season, Corney has 15 career tackles, including two sacks. But with Eli Harold and Max Valles pursuing NFL careers, Corney will have an opportunity to contribute more this fall.
Dean called Corney a “physical freak” who “can rush the passer every down, and he’s capable of making the play every down. He’s just that type of guy.”
Corney, who’s from Ontario, Canada, played in only four games last season, “but this year I think something clicked for him in the spring, something started coming to him where the game slowed down,” Dean said.
“When the game slows down for a player, it’s dangerous, especially for someone of that caliber who has that much athletic ability. I think it’s finally clicking. It’s finally starting to slow down [for Corney]. He doesn’t have to think about the play. He doesn’t have to think about what he’s going to get out of this formation, because he finally realizes in his subconscious. It’s just coming to him.”