By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Injuries to veterans could change the coaching staff’s thinking, but for now wide receivers Olamide Zaccheaus and David Eldridge are the true freshmen most likely to play on offense for the UVa football team this season.
That was the word Wednesday morning from offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild.
“Both of those guys look like they’re going to help us, especially O on special teams as a return guy,” Fairchild said after practice.
The 5-8, 190-pound Zaccheaus, a graduate of St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia, opened training camp at tailback early this month but moved to wideout after injuries to several players at that position.
He caught 29 passes for 388 yards and four TDs for St. Joseph’s as a tailback in 2014, and he’s made a seamless transition to the college game.
“It wasn’t too big for him,” Fairchild said.
The 6-1, 170-pound Eldridge starred at Kettle Run High in Fauquier County, where he set 16 school records, among them most career receptions (91), most receiving yards (1,655) and most receiving touchdowns (15). He also excelled as a return specialist.
Injuries have depleted Virginia’s depth at wide receiver, but the recent return of several players to practice has bolstered that unit. One who’s still awaiting clearance is sophomore Doni Dowling, who had surgery Feb. 24 to repair the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
“He’s still on schedule to get back here,” Fairchild said. “It’s just going to be a matter of weeks.”
Hopkins, a graduate student, is a transfer from Stanford. Marshall, a redshirt sophomore, switched from quarterback to tight end before spring practice this year. Butts is a redshirt freshman, and Burney and Cowley are true freshmen.
Overseeing the group is Larry Lewis, who coached the Cavaliers’ running backs in 2013 and ’14.
“No. 1, it’s been fun learning a new position,” Lewis said after a recent practice. “I like that group of guys. I really do. And every one of them has something that they can do for us, and right now I’m just in the process of trying to find out for each of them, what are their strengths and how can I use them? What can they do to help us win this year?”
Hopkins, who stands 6-6 and weighs 255 pounds, has impressed in his short time in Charlottesville.
“I like what I see,” said Lewis, also Virginia’s special teams coordinator. “He’s one of those tight ends that I think can do both. I think he has value in the run game and the pass game.”
The 6-7, 260-pound Burns, who’s competing as a graduate student this fall, caught only two passes (for 11 yards) last season, when he was used primarily as a blocker.
The 6-5, 245-pound Marshall, whose nickname is Whitey, is a gifted receiver who’s still trying to become an every-down tight end.
“It’s never easy,” Lewis said. “The biggest thing with Whitey is just the learning curve of being physical. You go from a quarterback to a tight end, it’s a little bit different game now. He has the pass game. It’s the run game we’re working on with him now.”
The 6-4, 240-pound Butts has made excellent progress since enrolling at UVa last summer.
“With him,” Lewis said, “it’s just a matter of getting bigger and stronger. I think he’s one of those guys like Charlie that has value in both the run and the pass game.”
STEADY PROGRESS: Before arriving in Charlottesville last month, tailback Albert Reid had been working out on his own in the D.C. area while finishing the requirements for his bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland.
Reid, who’s listed on the UVa roster at 5-9, 210 pounds, thought he was in good physical condition. He learned otherwise once training camp began.
“It’s a big difference between working out on your own” and participating in a structured strength and conditioning program, Reid acknowledged.
Now, though, after about three weeks of practice, “I’m in better shape,” Reid said. “I’ve lost weight, so I feel I’m a little lighter. I’ve still got a little ways to go, but I’m pushing.”
Reid, 21, has enrolled in the Curry School of Education and has two seasons of eligibility left. At Maryland, from which he graduated in three years, he played in 28 games, with four starts, and rushed 122 times for 447 yards and three touchdowns. Reid caught 12 passes for 129 yards and a TD.
His longest run as a Terrapin, coincidentally, came against Virginia in October 2013. Reid had a 38-yard gain in Maryland’s 27-26 win at Byrd Stadium.
At UVa, he’s competing for a starting job, and he’s growing more comfortable by the day as he becomes more familiar with the playbook and his new teammates.
“I’m more confident now than I’ve been since I got here,” said Reid, who was among the standouts in a recent intrasquad scrimmage at the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility.
“It felt good,” Reid said of his performance. “It just made me feel more confident that right now I’m really getting it. So let’s turn it on now. Let’s push it a little bit more. Before I was just like, ‘All right, I think I know it, but I’m not that confident.’ Now that I’ve got that confidence, everything is downhill now.”
GROWING PAINS: Mike Archer, who coached UVa’s safeties in 2014, took over the linebackers this year, and the new assignment has added some gray hairs to his head.
“That’s an understatement,” Archer said after a recent practice.
At no position are the Wahoos less experienced than at linebacker, where they lost all three starters from last season: Henry Coley, Daquan Romero and Max Valles. (Romero is now a graduate assistant at UVa.)
The leading candidates to start on the strong side are redshirt junior Mark Hall (6-2, 245), whose brother Devon plays basketball at UVa; redshirt sophomore Malcolm Cook (6-1, 205), who’s a converted safety; and C.J. Stalker (6-2, 225), who enrolled in January after graduating early from high school.
Stalker is one of three true freshmen Archer expects to use at linebacker this season, along with 6-2, 240-pound Dominic Sheppard and 6-2, 215-pound Eric Gallon. The first-year class includes two other linebackers: Jahvoni Simmons and Gladimir Paul.
Hall, who played primarily on special teams last season, recently returned to practice after missing time for health reasons, “but right now the young linebackers, they’re struggling,” said Archer, also UVa’s associate head coach.
“That’s part of the transition [from high school to college], but it’s frustrating for all of us, because when you make the same mistakes day in and day out, that’s not acceptable.”
The newcomers are “talented athletes,” Archer said. “The biggest thing is, obviously, the playbook is a little bit more complex here than what they’re used to in high school. The pace of it is fast: no-huddle, multiple formations. They’re finding out it’s not high school.
“You gotta be patient. We’ve gotten better in some things, but then there’s other things where we make the same mistakes, and I just shake my head.”
Virginia opens the season Sept. 5 at 13th-ranked UCLA. Archer’s priorities include settling on a strong-side linebacker, also known as the Sam.
“We probably won’t use one much against UCLA, because of all the [Bruins’] multiple wide-receiver sets,” Archer said, “but Notre Dame will come in here the second week, and they’ll have two or three tight ends, so we have to find a Sam.”
UVa’s home opener is Sept. 12 against 11th-ranked Notre Dame at Scott Stadium.
AVOIDING THE SPOTLIGHT: Virginia’s top players include free safety Quin Blanding, who as a true freshman led the team in tackles last season. Much is expected of Blanding this fall, and that’s fine with him. But he’d rather not do interviews in which he’s asked to talk about length about himself.
“Me, I’m the type of person that with the media, the social media and all that stuff, I just tend to stay back,” Blanding said. “When we get on the field, that’s when I gotta play, and that’s when I do all my talking.”
Blanding was named a Freshman All-American in 2014 after making 123 tackles, intercepting three passes, and breaking up six others.