By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the fifth game of the season, Richard Burney made his college debut, becoming the seventh true freshman to play for the University of Virginia football team this year.
With seven regular-season games remaining for the Cavaliers, look for Burney’s role to grow at tight end and on special teams, assistant coach Larry Lewis said.
Burney, who wears jersey No. 87, stands 6-4 and weighs 245 pounds, 10 more than his listed weight on the UVA roster.
“He’s a young man that I think has a bright future,” said Lewis, who coaches Virginia’s tight ends and coordinates its special teams. “He runs well, catches well, blocks well. He’s one of those tight ends that has all three, and that’s why he’s valuable to me on special teams.
“If he wasn’t able to run, then I couldn’t put him on the teams. But he can. So I think that just opens up a whole world for us. And I’ve been working towards this, to where last week I finally thought he was ready to go.”
Burney, whose father played football at Wisconsin, was used exclusively on special teams last weekend in UVA’s 26-19 loss to ACC foe Pittsburgh at Heinz Field.
At his weekly press conference Monday, head coach Mike London praised Burney’s ability to run and said upgrading the Wahoos’ special teams “is something that was critical.”
Virginia (1-4 overall, 0-1 ACC) hosts Syracuse (3-2, 1-0) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Scott Stadium.
Burney, who also competed in track & field and played basketball at Hickory High in Chesapeake, is one of two tight ends in the first-year class. The other is 6-4, 225-pound Tanner Cowley, who’s from Manasquan, N.J., and also is the son of a former college football player.
Cowley suffered an injury during training camp that sidelined him for several weeks, but he’s played well since returning to practice last month. Cowley is likely to redshirt this year.
“I think strength-wise, he has some things to accomplish during the offseason,” Lewis said. “Starting off with that injury early kind of held him back. But he’s a young man who I think has a lot of opportunity ahead of him. I just don’t know if he’s ready yet.”
Redshirt freshman Evan Butts (six catches, 63 yards, one touchdown) and graduate student Charlie Hopkins (three catches, 27 yards), a transfer from Stanford, have played by far of the most of UVA’s tight ends this season.
Other options at that position for Lewis include graduate student Rob Burns and redshirt sophomore Brendan Marshall, though the 6-7, 260-pound Burns recently began practicing at offensive tackle, where injuries have left the Cavaliers perilously thin.
“I think it could be really good for Rob,” Lewis said, “because that was the thing that we were using him for as a tight end, his ability to block.”
The 6-5, 245-pound Marshall, a converted quarterback, impressed during spring drills but has yet to play this season. Lewis remains high on Marshall’s potential.
“There’s a lot of good things that he can do for us,” Lewis said. “Again, it just depends on the personnel groups that we have in, because he has a lot of strengths, and our goal is to utilize some of those as we get going.”
INTO THE MIX: Besides Burney, true freshmen who played for the `Hoos this season are wide receivers Olamide Zaccheaus and David Eldridge, linebackers C.J. Stalker and Eric Gallon, cornerback Myles Robinson, and safety Juan Thornhill.
Of the newcomers, Zaccheaus has had the biggest impact. He’s caught two passes for 39 yards, rushed six times for 35 yards, returned a punt 30 yards, and run back 13 kickoffs for 274 yards.
Eldridge, who has played in three games, has one reception for 43 yards. Stalker has played in two games and has made one tackle. Gallon has played in three games, Thornhill in two, and Robinson in one.
NOWHERE TO RUN: In UVA’s 56-14 loss to Boise State on Sept. 25, Zaccheaus returned nine kickoffs for a school-record 231 yards.
In the Cavaliers’ next game, last weekend at Pitt, they totaled only 48 yards on four kickoff returns. Graduate student T.J. Thorpe had one return for 18 yards, and Zaccheaus gained 30 yards on three returns.
At North Carolina, from which he transferred to UVA in January, Thorpe returned 59 kickoffs for 1,448 yards and one TD. So he’s a proven talent, and Zaccheaus has big-play ability, too.
“They gotta have help,” Lewis said. “They can’t do it on their own. I don’t care who’s back there. They gotta have help from those front guys, and again, that’s where our focus has been since we got started. You saw where O got it going a couple weeks ago [against Boise State]. That was because of the help up front.”
SUCCESS STORY: As a redshirt freshman in 2013, Andre Miles-Redmond played in four games. He appeared in only two last season and came out of spring practice this year as UVA’s No. 4 defensive tackle, behind David Dean, Donte Wilkins and Andrew Brown.
That didn’t deter the 6-4, 280-pound Miles-Redmond, a graduate of Hermitage High in the Richmond area. He’s played four games this fall, with starts against Notre Dame and Pitt.
“It’s definitely been a process,” he said of his rise on the depth chart. “It’s really just sticking with it, and not giving up on yourself and not giving up on your team. Really just sticking it out and grinding and working as hard as I can to show these coaches that I can contribute to the team.”
Miles-Redmond, who starred at offensive guard for Hermitage, moved to defense at UVA. He’s improved steadily, even if that progress wasn’t always evident on the depth chart.
“Even when I wasn’t on the field,” Miles-Redmond said, “I was putting in the time, watching film. I was going to all the meetings, I was traveling [with the team] … Just being on the field is really the newest part.”
“You look up to a guy like that,” Matteo said.
The ever-engaging Bowanko started every game at center for the Cavaliers in 2012. In `13, he started the first four games at left guard and the final eight at center.
“He’s a Northern Virginia dude as well,” said Matteo, a redshirt junior. “He went to Centreville and I went to Broad Run. So we’re right around the corner from each other.”
When Matteo made his first career start, against Ball State in 2013, Bowanko was next to him at guard.
“I like to say that I did follow after him, because that’s a guy you admire and you look up to so much,” Matteo said. “He’s just a student of the game, smart, he’s athletic, he knows things before they’re going to happen.”
GIVING PEACE A CHANCE: London said Monday that the Cavaliers plan to start using more defensive linemen, which could mean an expanded role for Chris Peace, among others.
“There’s guys that … have to be be able to do that in order for us to sustain the level of intensity that’s needed,” London said.
A 6-1, 240-pound redshirt freshman from Newport News, Peace is listed as the backup to senior Kwontie Moore at one defensive end. Peace, who graduated from Denbigh High, has seven tackles this season.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: At the other end, Trent Corney has started every game. Corney, a 6-3, 255-pound senior from Canada, has made 14 tackles this season, but he’s not happy with his performance.
“This is how I would sum up my season: Every single game, I’m leaving two or three plays on the field that, if I was a great player, I’d make them,” Corney told reporters Monday at JPJ.
“Eli [Harold] would make some of those plays. It’s not a physical thing, it’s not because I’m [not] working hard or anything like that. It’s more mental, having experience and being able to react to make these plays.
“If I want to give the defense a better chance at succeeding, I need to make these two or three plays in order for our defense to be the best they can be. Going forward, I need to continue to learn from my mistakes and watch more film so I can make these two or three plays and help win games.”
Corney, who never redshirted at Virginia, appeared in only four games last season and was used primarily on special teams in 2013.
“I feel like I’m almost like a freshman,” he said. “I played some special teams the last three years, but everything is so new to me on the field. You can’t translate practice to games, really. I feel like I just need to play more games.
“Everything is with your eyes. You got to be able to see things and react. And I’m just not seeing things fast enough to react to make some of these big-time plays. I just need more experience and I just need to watch more film.”
NOTHING TO IT: Nicholas Conte ranks No. 1 in the ACC and No. 6 nationally with an average of 46.8 yards per punt. Not bad for a guy who taught himself to punt by watching YouTube videos.
“So far everything seems to be going pretty well,” said Conte, a 6-3, 225-pound redshirt junior from Roanoke. “I’m out here trying to flip the field for our team and trying to put our defense in a position where they’re not backed up against a wall [and] really have to fight to try to keep a team out of the end zone, and we can go three-and-out and force a punt from the other side.”
In 2012, ’13 and ’14, Alec Vozenilek handled the punting for the `Hoos, and Conte watched closely.
“He just was so comfortable and poised back there,” Conte said of Vozenilek. “That’s one of the main things I’ve learned. You’ve got to zone everything out and just focus on what you need to get done. You have one play, and you’ve really gotta be perfect and perform on that one play.”
Vozenilek was a regular “in the weight room, always working hard and doing extra stuff to make sure that when it came down to the ball being in his hands, that he knew that he could perform well,” Conte said. “And I’ve just adopted that mindset and philosophy and learned that from him.”
Conte earned three letters in lacrosse and one in swimming at Patrick Henry High School, where he didn’t play football until his senior year. He came to UVA in 2012 as a recruited walk-on.