Oct. 7, 2015

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — On one of the final plays at practice Wednesday morning, University of Virginia wide receiver Doni Dowling ran a smooth route, caught a pass from quarterback Connor Brewer and then turned upfield.

“Attaboy, 1-9!” one of Dowling’s teammates yelled from the sideline.

In 2014, it was common to see such catches from Dowling, who wears jersey No. 19, during practices and in games. In mid February, though, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, an injury that required reconstructive surgery late that month.

Dowling missed spring practice but rehabbed diligently and was on track to be cleared in late August or early September. During training camp, however, he tore the meniscus in his right knee and had arthroscopic surgery to repair that injury.

And so the 6-0, 215-pound sophomore remained a spectator during the non-conference portion of the Cavaliers’ schedule, from which they emerged with a 1-3 record.

“It eats you up, just knowing that you could have contributed somehow,” Dowling said this week. “A lot of games haven’t gone our way, so maybe I could have made a play that would have given us positive yards or positive energy.

“So far I’ve just been trying to be the cheerleader, keeping the sideline up and doing what I could do for my team.”

To be back at practice “feels good,” Dowling said, though he’d prefer to be getting more reps each day.

“It’s a little frustrating when you get held back every now and then,” he said. “Just let me play. I just want to get out there.”

Happily for Dowling, his workload figures to steadily increase in the coming weeks. He was cleared for full contact last week and is likely to make his 2015 debut Saturday against Pittsburgh in Virginia’s ACC opener.

At 12:30 p.m., in a game the ACC Network will televise, the Wahoos meet the Panthers (3-1, 1-0) at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

UVA is coming off a bye week in which three injured wideouts — Dowling, redshirt freshman Umar Muhammad-Wyatt and true freshman Warren Craft — returned to practice. Another receiver, graduate student T.J. Thorpe, returned last month after missing Virginia’s first two games while recovering from a broken right clavicle.

Thorpe, a transfer from North Carolina, was in for only five plays in Virginia’s Sept. 19 win over William & Mary, but he had a 75-yard touchdown six days later against Boise State and is expected to figure prominently in the offense during ACC play.

“It’s exciting to have all the weapons back,” UVA quarterback Matt Johns said Wednesday. “We really need to put the ball in playmakers’ hands, and also get the run game going, so that’ll be very important this weekend.”

A graduate of Varina High School in the Richmond area, Dowling caught 17 passes for 141 yards and appeared in all 12 games as a true freshman last season.

“He can really do it all,” Johns said. “He’s an elusive guy, and he’s very athletic, and he’s a physical wide receiver. It’s just a matter of easing him back in … We’re just going to build him up and get him back in the game plan.”

That may take a little longer than Dowling would like. But Marques Hagans, Virginia’s wide receivers coach, can empathize with Dowling’s impatience.

“There’s guys who play football, there’s guys who like football, and then there’s guys who love everything about football,” Hagans said. “Doni’s one of those guys who love everything about football.”

Among the Cavaliers’ wideouts, only senior Canaan Severin (23) and true freshman Olamide Zaccheaus (five) have more than four receptions this season, so Dowling will be a welcome addition to the receiving corps. But his role in the offense may be minimal at first.

“We’ll start him slowly and go from there,” Hagans said.

For Thorpe, his clavicle injury did not affect his ability to run, and so he was able to get back up to game speed quickly. Dowling’s situation “is a little bit different, because his is a lower-leg extremity,” Hagans said.

“A few times I’ve told him he looks like a baby deer out there. He’s getting his legs back against competition.”

Dowling, who has a redshirt year available, was eager to play this season. And now, with eight regular-season games left, his opportunity is almost at hand.

He’s dealing with “a little tendinitis” in his left knee, Dowling said, but “nothing much. Nothing I can’t handle.”

And that’s good news for the ‘Hoos.

“I am excited to see 19 running around on the field again,” Hagans said.

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