Sept. 15, 2016
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Had the University of Virginia not offered him a football scholarship at the 11th hour — about 10 days before signing day in 2014 — who knows where Chris Peace might have ended up?
Several other FCS schools were interested in Peace, but as signing day neared the list of college programs that had extended him scholarship offers — most notably, Norfolk State and The Citadel — was a short one.
The lack of interest didn’t shock Peace, who had begun high school in Chesapeake, at Indian River, and then moved to Newport News, where he attended Warwick as a junior and Denbigh as a senior.
“I had a pretty mediocre junior year,” Peace recalled. “I was 170 pounds then, playing receiver and safety, and I didn’t really go to any camps to get my name out there. I didn’t really start dedicating myself to the sport until my senior year.”
At Denbigh, he played safety on defense until a coach decided to try Peace at defensive end. The move paid serious dividends for both player and team. Peace finished the 2013 season with nearly 20 sacks and helped Denbigh advance to the playoffs for the first time in school history.
“Right after my junior season ended, I was like 170 pounds,” Peace said. “I just started getting into the weight room and eating a lot. Next thing you know, 170 turned into 220 real quick.”
Peace’s production piqued the interest of then-UVA head coach Mike London, and a scholarship offer followed in late January 2014. Peace committed, and for that the Cavaliers can be thankful.
Now a 6-1, 230-pound redshirt sophomore, Peace is the most experienced outside linebacker — which, admittedly, isn’t saying much — on the defense overseen by the UVA’s new head coach, Bronco Mendenhall.
Kelly Poppinga, who played outside linebacker for Mendenhall at BYU, now coaches that position at Virginia. Poppinga followed Mendenhall to Charlottesville in December, and Peace stood out when the new coaching staff reviewed videotape of the Wahoos’ returning players.
A reserve defensive end in 2015, when UVA’s base defense was a 4-3, Peace moved to outside linebacker in the 3-4 that Mendenhall installed this year.
“He definitely has been a guy that’s been all in from Day One, and he’s our type of guy,” Poppinga said. “He goes a hundred million miles an hour, and he’s a guy that I’m always having to try to pull back, and that’s the guy that you want. You don’t want a guy that you always have to tell, `Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!’ With Chris, it’s like, `Let’s slow down, let’s take it back a notch.’ He just knows one speed, which is going as hard as he can go, which I love. Now it’s just about being able to get him to do his job more consistently, play in and play out.”
Through two games, Peace has nine tackles, including one of the Cavaliers’ two sacks. He dropped Richmond quarterback Kyle Lauletta for a 7-yard loss in Virginia’s Sept. 3 opener at Scott Stadium.
A week later, against then-No. 24 Oregon at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Peace nearly recorded a second sack.
“It was a play I probably should have come away with,” he said. “Opportunities like that, they only knock once, so you’ve got to take advantage of them.”
On third-and-10 from the Oregon 44, with the teams tied 6-6, quarterback Dakota Prukop slipped out of Peace’s grasp in the backfield and completed a pass for a 22-yard gain. Three plays later, the Ducks scored their second touchdown, and by halftime they led 30-6.
“I guess a lot of that has to do with experience on the field, too,” Peace said. “Those close plays, they’re going to come with just a little more practice.”
Each game brings fresh opportunities, and Peace’s focus has shifted to the Connecticut Huskies, whose coaching staff includes several former Virginia assistants. UVA (0-2) meets UConn (1-1) at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn.
On an inexperienced defense still adjusting to the 3-4, breakdowns have been common for Virginia this season. Between them, Richmond and Oregon totaled 1,156 yards against the `Hoos, who have been especially vulnerable on third down.
“We have some growing pains that were apparent for everyone to see,” Mendenhall said. “Usually our system is phenomenal on third down, not only in pressuring the quarterback but [in] the amount of turnovers we create and different things.”
With little experience at cornerback, however, Mendenhall has been reluctant to gamble in passing situations, opting instead to try to apply pressure with four players. Peace and defensive end Andrew Brown have been particularly effective in those situations.
“So it is sequential,” Mendenhall said. “We’re starting with just the basics.”
For the foreseeable future, the Cavaliers are likely to rely on four-man pressure “while we shore up the secondary assignments and position mastery back there,” Mendenhall said. “Which is probably a slower process than any of us would want it to be, but that’s where we currently are.”
With junior Malcolm Cook sidelined for medical reasons, Poppinga’s position group includes three sophomores (Peace, Cory Jones and Eric Gallon), a redshirt freshman (Gladimir Paul) and two true freshmen (Jordan Mack and Matt Terrell). Peace has been starting on the weak side and Mack on the strong side.
An outside linebacker in the 3-4 “has to be able to do a lot of different things,” Poppinga said. “He has to be able to rush off the edge. He has to be able to set the edge and play run, and he also has to be able to drop into coverage. So it’s a guy that’s very athletic. With Chris and Malcolm and Jordan Mack and even Matt Terrell and Cory Jones, there’s some guys that we’ve inherited that can do that. Now it’s just getting them experience in the scheme, getting them comfortable with each rep and each read that they have with their keys.
“Once they get that, it’s going to become second nature for them and they’ll be able to play faster. Right now there’s a little hesitation, because they don’t know exactly how to react to certain things. And so with repetition after repetition after repetition, they’re going to get more comfortable, they’re going to play faster, they’re going to make more plays, and then we’re going to make more plays as a defense.”
Peace suffered a shoulder injury last season that kept him out of contact drills during spring practice this year. But the coaches had noticed on film that Peace “played really, really hard,” Poppinga said, and his drive was apparent when they worked with him.
“Unfortunately for him he was hurt and wasn’t able to go through spring ball, but the little reps that he did get in spring ball, I could tell that there was something inside that kid that he could be a really good player,” Poppinga said.
“He has a long way to go, but I’m proud of the way he’s been able to develop through fall camp, with all the reps that he missed in spring ball. He’s done some good things in the first two games.
“As the season goes on, I know he’s just going to get better and better and better and better, and by the end of the season he’s going to be just as good as some of the guys I’ve coached in the past.”
Playing alongside Brown, a 6-4, 290-pound junior, has been a thrill for Peace. They’ve known each other since their middle school days in Chesapeake.
“That’s my brother,” Peace said. “Blood can’t make us any closer.”
He’s tight, too, with roommate Jordan Ellis, a redshirt sophomore running back renowned for his work ethic. During the offseason, Ellis earned the right to be the first Cavalier to select his jersey number at the end of training camp last month.
Ellis has been a positive influence on him, Peace said. “Whenever he goes in the indoor [facility to train], like in the summer for example, I go with him. We wake up early, do extra, whatever it takes.”
An American Studies major, Peace has applied himself more in the classroom at UVA than in high school, he said. Mendenhall demands much from his players on and off the field, and Peace is thriving under the new coaching staff.
“I just believe in what we’re doing,” Peace said. “Never in my life have I worked so hard and had as fun as I’ve been having since Coach Mendenhall and his staff got here. It doesn’t reflect on the scoreboard just yet, but I definitely see a big improvement, and I know [the breakthrough is] coming, the way we’ve been working, the way they’ve been coaching … I just can’t wait for that moment.”
Their 0-2 start has not demoralized the Cavaliers, Peace said. “If anything, it makes us go that much harder.”
He played primarily on special teams in 2015, which Peace calls a “frustrating season.” That’s one of the reasons why, given an opportunity last month to change jersey numbers, he did so.
Good-bye, No. 31. Hello, No. 13.
“I just didn’t want to be 31 anymore,” Peace said. “It’s a new era with these coaches. Last year I felt like I didn’t do much with 31, so I decided to flip it.”