By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At the first team meeting of training camp, UVa’s head coach stood in front of his players Thursday night at the McCue Center and issued a directive.
“Stand up, John,” Mike London told one of the Cavaliers’ offensive linemen.
John Pond complied, and he didn’t have to wait long to learn why he’d been singled out.
“John, we’re putting you on scholarship right now,” London said, an announcement that elicited a roar of approval from the rest of the team.
Did Pond know what was coming when he entered the meeting?
“Not really,” he said Saturday afternoon after practice. “I knew that there was a possibility of it. I’d talked to Coach London about it. But as soon as he started the meeting, he couldn’t stop making eye contact with me every time he looked over my way, so I thought something may have been in the works.”
The moment was not one Pond is likely to forget.
“It’s an unreal feeling to see other guys get so excited over something they’ve had for three, four years, however long they’ve been here,” he said. “It’s nice to see that they recognize what you’ve put into everything, and they understand the struggles you’ve had to go through moving forward.
“My best friend Ross [Burbank] was sitting five seats from me, and I’ve never seen him get that excited, no matter what game we’ve been at.”
Pond’s mother was excited, too, though it took him a while to reach her Thursday night.
“I think I called her about eight times,” he said. “I get a call back from her, and she goes, ‘I’m in Home Depot. It’s pouring down rain. Let me call you when I get back home.’ She didn’t call me back for another 30 minutes or so.
“And then when she called back, I patched in my grandma on the other line, since they’ve been the ones that have been helping me out with everything.”
Pond, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in history, joined the football team as a recruited walk-on in 2011, and he redshirted that fall. He said his family never balked at his spending a fifth year at UVa, even without a scholarship.
“They told me to do what I wanted to do, and I’ve always wanted to get a master’s and stay at the University as long as I can,” said Pond, a graduate of Matoaca High School in Chesterfield County.
“So to come back and get my master’s in athletic administration [from the Curry School of Education] was a pretty easy decision. I knew that they’d do everything they could to help.”
Pond has appeared in only five games during his UVa career, but he’s been an influential behind-the-scenes figure on the line for years. In 2011, he and several other freshmen who were redshirting, including Ross Burbank, Jay Whitmire, Tim Cwalina and Vincent Croce, formed a weightlifting group that Evan Marcus, then the team’s strength and conditioning coach, fondly dubbed the “Pond Scum.”
“We’d lift on Saturdays and then we’d lift on Mondays,” Pond recalled. “Those were the two off days. There’s still a Facebook group floating around somewhere for us.”
Pond starts on UVa’s field-goal unit and is a backup lineman on the punt team. He’s the third walk-on London has put on scholarship this year, along with kicker Dylan Sims and long-snapper Tyler Shirley.
“It’s nice to be able to take the [financial] pressure off my family,” Pond said.
HONORARY TEAMMATE: At the end of practice Saturday, with his players gathered around them near midfield, London introduced them to a special guest: 4-year-old Caleb Gibson, who was recently diagnosed with cancer.
With Caleb were his brother, Colin, and their parents, Lee and Blair. Lee Gibson is a detective with the Charlottesville Police Department.
During Caleb’s recent stay in the hospital, London reached out to the family. On Saturday, London told his players how the family is battling to help Caleb.
“And now he’s got a new family,” London said, to applause from the players, who broke their huddle with a rousing cheer for Caleb.
BIG TARGET: Near the end of practice Saturday, big No. 86 hauled in a long pass down the middle of the field, and his teammates on the sideline couldn’t contain their enthusiasm.
“What up, Charlie?” shouted senior wide receiver Canaan Severin.
That would be 6-6, 255-pound Charlie Hopkins, who transferred to UVa after graduating from Stanford in June with a bachelor’s degree in science, technology and society. At Virginia, Hopkins has enrolled in a master’s program — research, statistics and evaluation — in the Curry School of Education.
He’s enjoying life at UVa, Hopkins said Saturday after practice.
“All the guys on the team have been very friendly, very open, especially to a transfer like me,” said Hopkins, who lives with offensive linemen Michael Mooney and Jake Fieler. “I had no idea what to expect.”
Hopkins, who redshirted in 2011, began his career at Stanford as a defensive lineman. He moved to tight end in 2013 and played in 14 games that season. As a redshirt junior last year, Hopkins was slowed by a hip injury and played in only three games.
Stanford is known for its powerful running game, and Hopkins was used mostly as a blocking tight end. He arrived at UVa with career totals of two receptions for 10 yards.
After two practices with his new team, it appears likely that Hopkins will catch many more passes as a Wahoo than he did as a Cardinal.
“That’s what I’m hoping for,” Hopkins said. “That’s what I was training all spring and summer for. I hope to be used, obviously, as a blocking tight end, but I also am wanting to catch passes. But I’m just willing to help the team in any way.”
The quarterback who threw the long pass that Hopkins caught Saturday was another transfer, junior Connor Brewer. In all, Virginia has added four transfers this year, all of whom arrived with undergraduate degrees: Hopkins, Brewer (Arizona), wide receiver T.J. Thorpe (North Carolina) and tailback Albert Reid (Maryland).
“We’re all in the same boat,” Hopkins said. “We all kind of have a funny look on our faces when new stuff gets introduced. But we’ve helped each other out, if any of us have questions. I was the second one here after T.J., so I definitely asked him a couple questions, and then Albert and Connor have jumped in a lot better than I feel like I did. They’ve acclimated themselves very well.”
Hopkins, who grew up in Spokane, Wash., is still adjusting to the summer conditions in Charlottesville.
“The first time I worked out here, I hadn’t worked out in probably two weeks,” he recalled, smiling. “I came out here and almost passed out from the humidity. It was definitely something I was not used to at all.”
AHEAD OF SCHEDULE: Wide receiver Doni Dowling continues to participate in non-contact drills, and he’s moving remarkably well for a player who had reconstructive surgery Feb. 24 to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Dowling, who caught 17 passes for 141 yards as a true freshman last year, would happily do more in practice if UVa’s medical staff would let him.
“He’s hard-headed,” London said Saturday, laughing. “He’s a guy that wants to play.”
When Dowling will be cleared to play is unclear, but London said the former Varina High star might be available next month.
INSTANT IMPACT: Virginia has 10 offensive linemen with game experience, including junior Eric Smith, who has started 20 games at right tackle. But Smith has been with the second team since the start of training camp, with redshirt freshman Jake Fieler working as the No. 1 right tackle.
The 6-5, 295-pound Fieler, who played for the Fork Union Military Academy postgraduate team in 2013, is from an athletically inclined family. His mother played volleyball at Ohio University, and his father played football and rugby there.
Fieler’s brother, Chase, starred on the Florida Gulf Coast basketball team that advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen in 2013.
“He’s done a nice job,” London said of the younger Fieler, who’s from Parkersburg, W.Va. “He’s a tough, gritty kind of guy. When you think of offensive linemen, you want guys that line up every play. They don’t get any credit and they don’t want any credit. They just want to get their jobs done.”
Competition continues on the line and at other positions, and Smith is battling to win the starting job back. After each of the first two practices this weekend, he was among the players who remained on the field for extra work.
EXPANDED ROLE: Fieler isn’t the only UVa football player with a sibling who has distinguished himself in hoops. Linebacker Mark Hall’s younger brother, Devon, is a redshirt sophomore guard on the Virginia basketball team.
Through two practices this weekend, the Cavaliers’ first-team linebackers have been Stalker, junior Zach Bradshaw and redshirt sophomore Micah Kiser. Hall has been working with the second team at middle linebacker.
“The more positions Mark can play us for us, the better off we’ll be, and the [more] he’ll have an opportunity to play in games,” London said. “He’s a big guy that can hold up on the tight end, but he’s also a guy that can play in the middle and play between the tackles.”
AND THEN THERE WAS ONE: The final open practice of the summer is Sunday, starting at 3 p.m. The Cavaliers practice on the fields behind the McCue Center and University Hall.
Parking is free in the McCue Center and U-Hall lots.
The annual Meet the Team Day is Sunday, Aug. 16, at John Paul Jones Arena. Members of the football team will be available for photos and autographs from 1 to 2:30 p.m.
Fans may start entering JPJ at 12:30 p.m. Free parking will be available in the JPJ and U-Hall surface lots.