By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In uniform, with helmet, shoulder pads, jersey, pants and cleats on, No. 38 looks a lot like any other University of Virginia defensive back.
Out of uniform, at least on special occasions, safety Kelvin Rainey likes to embrace his Lone Star State roots.
“I do have some cowboy boots,” Rainey said with a smile after a recent practice. “If I’m going out to dinner, I’ll strap my cowboy boots up, put `em on, put a nice little button-down [shirt] on, put my Wrangler jeans on.”
A graduate of Stratford High School in Houston, Rainey is in his fourth year at UVa, where he’s majoring in foreign affairs.
He redshirted after arriving at Virginia in 2012 and then played mostly on special teams in ’13 and ’14, his most memorable contribution a game-changing fumble recovery against Louisville last season at Scott Stadium. But much has changed since the end of last season.
“We lost five very good football players off of last year’s defense that really were the catalysts of what we did and how we did things,” defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta said.
One of those players, of course, was strong safety Anthony Harris, now a rookie with the Minnesota Vikings. Harris’ departure created an opening in the secondary, and Rainey grabbed the opportunity.
“I figured it was now or never,” Rainey recalled. “I’m going into my fourth year, and I don’t have much playing time left here, so it was one of those now-or-never moments for me.”
Rainey, a punishing tackler, came out of spring practice No. 1 on the depth chart at strong safety. Through the first five practices of training camp, the 6-1, 195-pound redshirt junior continues to work with the first-team defense, alongside sophomore free safety Quin Blanding.
“The two of them back there together, they’ve looked good thus far,” head coach Mike London said.
Rainey is “continuing to learn the defense,” London said, “but he’s very confident as well, and it helps that Quin’s kind of taken the role of being Anthony now, being the guy that’s lining everybody up.”
Blanding, who led the Wahoos in tackles last season, said he and Rainey “just work together. That’s the biggest thing. We work together as one. If we don’t know something, we both converse with each other first and see if I can help him or he can help me.”
Tenuta, who coached the Cavaliers’ linebackers in 2013 and `14, switched assignments with Mike Archer after last season. Archer is now with the linebackers and Tenuta, a former UVa defensive back, with the safeties.
“I don’t think there’s a big difference at all,” Rainey said of the coaching styles of Tenuta and Archer, who are close friends whose banter often amuses their charges. “They work together very well, so I think it’s the same.”
Having the defensive coordinator as their position coach benefits the safeties, Rainey said. “We’re kind of the eyes behind everything, and having [Tenuta] back there telling us what to look for, when it’s coming, is really nice. It helps us out a lot.”
Sunday marked the first time this summer the players practiced in shoulder pads, and the intensity level rose Sunday afternoon.
“Come on, Rain Man: Wake up!” Tenuta barked at one point.
Rainey isn’t perfect, as Tenuta does not hesitate to remind him, but he ended practice Sunday with a stellar play. With the first-team offense running the two-minute drill against the first-team defense, Rainey intercepted a deflected pass from Matt Johns that was intended for tight end Evan Butts. Rainey then sprinted down the sideline for what, in a game, would have been a touchdown.
Would Rainey have made such a play early in his UVa career? Perhaps. But he’s not the same person he was when he arrived in Charlottesville.
“I’ve just matured as a player, as a student, as an athlete,” Rainey said. “Once you mature yourself, then you can buy into a program like this and fully put forth your best effort.”
Strength and conditioning coach Ryan Tedford has seen Rainey evolve.
“His leadership has really developed, in the last year even,” Tedford said. “He has taken it upon himself to be a little bit more outgoing and not wrapped up in just his own little world.
“He did a good job of taking over the reins without any direction from anybody and leading some warmup activities this summer, which I encouraged the guys to do, to put them in some leadership roles. He took that upon himself and actually did a really good job of directing that. And it was good to see him step into that role without pushing on my part.”
For players entering their fourth year in the program, such transformations are not uncommon.
“It becomes one of those points where either this is going to happen or it’s not, and they realize that something’s gotta change,” Tedford said.
“He’s really done a good job of recognizing that on his own instead of having to have someone say, `Hey, Kelvin, your time’s running out.’ He’s recognized that on his own and taken those steps on his own terms and done a really good job with it.”
In the weight room, Tedford said, Rainey has “grown up in the sense that he trains the way that he plays now, too. It’s no longer just come in and check it off the list. There’s a purpose to his training now as well.”
Rainey has two older brothers, each of whom played college football: Johnathan at New Mexico and Derrick at Arizona.
“They played a little, got hurt a little, so they knew the true workings of how college football really works,” Rainey said.
And so when their kid brother was deciding which college to attend, Johnathan and Derrick “encouraged me to go somewhere where if I possibly didn’t play, I could come out with a great education and still be able to find a job, whether I play or not,” Rainey said.
From Harris, Rainey said, he learned valuable lessons, too. Harris, a three-year starter, finished his Virginia career with 289 tackles and 11 interceptions. His work ethic and attention to detail were as impressive as his on-the-field contributions.
“I kind of watched him from afar, just because I didn’t want to be a burden to him,” Rainey said. “But what I learned from him is, he knows when it’s joking time, and then he knows when to cut that switch on.
“Whenever it was hanging-out time, he hung out, but on this field, it was business for him, and that’s one thing I really learned from him.”
Early in his college career, Rainey said, “I wasn’t business at all. I was a knucklehead.”
“It’s been a great feeling being back there with him,” Blanding said of Rainey. “I’m confident in him, along with my other safeties back there as well. We just gotta grow together, and that’s the biggest thing we’ve been working on.”