By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — During a question-and-answer session with media members Oct. 12 at John Paul Jones Arena, defensive end Trent Corney spoke candidly about his first season as a starter for the University of Virginia football team.
“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.
“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.”
Since then, however, the 6-3, 255-pound senior from Canada has been making plays more regularly for Virginia, which has won two of its past three games. Last weekend at Scott Stadium, Corney had four tackles, including two for loss, and forced a fumble in UVA’s 27-21 victory over Georgia Tech.
For the season, Corney has made 23 tackles, four of them for loss.
“Our system is finally sinking in a little bit [with Corney],” defensive line coach Jappy Oliver said. “Hopefully by making plays, he’ll keep gaining more confidence, because each week it’s a different offense, so he’s still gotta adjust to the offense that we’re playing.”
Four regular-season games remain for Virginia (3-5 overall, 2-2 ACC), which plays at Miami (5-3, 2-2) at 3 p.m. Saturday. The key for Corney, who graded out well against Georgia Tech, is to continue improving, Oliver said.
“Sometimes a game like that for a kid like that triggers confidence and he says, `OK, I can play this game at this level,’ ” Oliver said. “And hopefully his confidence is high, and he’ll just go out and ball out these next few games.”
ROAD WOES: On Nov. 3, 2012, cornerback Maurice Canady made his first college start and, with seven tackles and an interception, helped Virginia hammer NC State 33-6 at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh.
Had you told him then that three years later the Cavaliers would still be seeking their next road victory, “I would not have believed you at all,” Canady said Monday. “It’s kind of crazy, but we’re looking forward to this challenge going to Miami.
UVA has dropped 13 consecutive road games since that 2012 win in Raleigh.
“I was talking about it with some guys in the locker room,” junior quarterback Matt Johns said Monday. “It’s weird, you don’t really think of losing all those games on the road and winning them all at home. That’s not something that really comes to mind. So I don’t really know what exactly it is. But it’s just a matter of staying focused, being locked-down and sticking to what we do and going from there and coming home with a victory.”
Under head coach Mike London, the Wahoos are 4-1 against the Hurricanes. London went 3-1 against former UVA defensive coordinator Al Golden, whom Miami dismissed as its head coach late last month after a 58-0 loss to Clemson.
Thanks to a controversial kickoff return for a touchdown last weekend at Duke, the `Canes are 1-0 under interim coach Larry Scott.
London showed UVA’s players video of Miami’s game-winning touchdown.
“The message is,” London said, “you play until the very end, and this will be two games in a row that we’ve played a team that won on the last play: Georgia Tech [over Florida State] and then this one. Obviously it’s never over until it’s over, and those two games heighten your awareness about what you have to do until the whistle blows.”
FINISHING STRONG: Jay Whitmire, a starting offensive lineman for Virginia in 2013, missed last season with a back injury. Healthy again, he’s started the past four games at right guard for a steadily improving offense.
Playing alongside his close friend and roommate Whitmire again has been “awesome,” offensive guard Ross Burbank said.
“Just having another fifth-year guy, a guy who’s played in so many games, that experience, the leadership aspect of it, having him back in the [offensive line] room is just great. It’s kind of tough when you’re out for a full season. You’re kind of away from the team, and it’s tough on both parties. But having him back is just great, and he’s playing really well for us at guard.”
Johns agreed. “I’m really happy for [Whitmire]. He’s playing really well, and I expect him to do that moving forward.”
Of that group, which Larry Lewis coaches, redshirt freshman Evan Butts has been the most productive this season, with 10 catches for 111 yards and one touchdown.
“It’s crazy to think he has three more years when I’m almost done,” Hopkins said. “It’s going to be fun to watch him improve over the course of his college career.”
The 6-4 Butts weighs 240 pounds, and he doesn’t expect that to change much during his college career.
“”When I talk to Coach Lewis about weight, he doesn’t necessarily say I need to get bigger, but definitely stronger,” Butts said Monday, “and I agree with that. A lot of people have the mentality that `All right, I need to put on more weight,’ but if I put on more weight, yeah, I’ll be bigger, but maybe I’m more slow and I can’t run routes as well and get out of my breaks as fast.”
Hopkins, a graduate student, transferred to UVA from Stanford after the 2014-15 academic year. He has seven receptions for 65 yards and two touchdowns. Coming from one of the Pac-12’s top program, Hopkins has been a positive influence on his new teammates at Virginia.
“When I look at myself as a leader, I’ve never considered myself a vocal leader,” Hopkins said. “That being said, ever since I’ve been here in the summer I’ve tried to put my head down and work, just [to] show both the younger guys and the guys my age that in order for you win and be successful, you’ve got to put in time and do stuff that you don’t want to do at the time to be successful.
“And so that’s my mentality, both in the weight room and on the field. There’s always times when you don’t want to work your hardest, but that’s when it’s going to pay off, say, like [in] a triple-overtime game.”
TRENDING UPWARD: In each of the past four games, UVA has set a season high in rushing, running for 139 yards against Pitt, 159 against Syracuse, 205 against Syracuse and 233 against Georgia Tech.
Johns, who was not sacked against the Yellow Jackets, praised his offensive linemen.
“Those are my guys,” he said, “and they take really good care of me, and I have nothing but love for those guys.”
After struggling for most of September, the Cavaliers showed marked improvement in October.
“It’s something that our coaches really harp on: The good teams get better as the year goes along,” Johns said. “We had some bumps and bruises in the beginning of the year. Notre Dame, that’s a heartbreaker. Pitt is a one-score game. UNC is a two-possession game. We had opportunities to close it out and unfortunately we didn’t.
“It’s one of those things where as the season moves on, you need to take those learning experiences and take away the positives and move forward and get better as the year goes on. And I think that was a big step in our game against Georgia Tech … I would say those are the best four quarters we’ve put together all year, and we need to continue that momentum into November.”
NEW PERSPECTIVE: For most of his three seasons as UVA’s defensive coordinator, Jon Tenuta has coached from the press box during games. But Tenuta came down to the sideline during Virginia’s Sept. 25 game against Boise State, and he hasn’t returned to the box.
Junior safety Kelvin Rainey said Tenuta’s presence on the sideline has had a “very positive impact on us. With him on the field, it allows us to kind of see what he’s seeing, rather than it being spoken through the headset.
“With him there, it just flows a little better, because it’s his defense, and he knows what he sees, and when he sees it out there, he’s able to let you know in person.”
After the Boise State game, Canady said, Tenuta asked the leaders of the defense where they wanted him during games, and “we all agreed that he should stay on the sideline. It feels like he gives us that extra energy or that extra push that we need.”
In its past four games, UVA has forced eight turnovers and scored two defensive touchdowns: the first on a 15-yard fumble recovery by lineman Kwontie Moore against Pitt, the second on a 32-yard fumble recovery by another Norfolk Christian graduate, safety Wilfred Wahee.