By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Whenever Richard Burney has touched the football this season, good things have happened for the Virginia Cavaliers.
A redshirt freshman from Chesapeake, Burney snaps the ball on punts, and his target, Nicholas Conte, ranks second in the ACC with an average of 45.2 yards per punt.
The 6-4, 275-pound Burney also is a promising tight end who’s made an impact in each of the Wahoos’ past two games. After scoring a touchdown Sept. 24 against Central Michigan at Scott Stadium, Virginia lined up in an unbalanced formation. Zach Bradshaw snapped the ball directly to Burney, who bulled forward for the 2-point conversation.
UVA went on to beat the Chippewas 49-35 for its first victory under head coach Bronco Mendenhall.
A week later, at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C., Burney’s first reception as a Wahoo went for a 3-yard touchdown late in the third quarter. Virginia went on to defeat Duke 34-20 that afternoon, ending a 17-game road losing streak.
“That first catch, it just felt good,” Burney said after practice Tuesday morning. [Offensive coordinator Robert Anae] drew up a good plan and the ball came my way.”
Tyler Shirley, who handled Virginia’s long-snapping duties in 2014 and ’15, is not eligible this season, and so the coaching staff had to look for alternatives. Bradshaw, a starter at inside linebacker, took over on field goals and extra points, and Burney comes on for punts.
Burney’s father, Richard, helped prepare him for such a situation.
“When I was little, my dad wanted me to learn how to do something extra,” Burney recalled. “So I started long-snapping when I was in the eighth grade, and I kept working on it.”
In addition to playing tight end and defensive end at Hickory High School, Burney was his team’s long-snapper. At UVA, he did not practice at that position last season, but he was eager to help out when the need arose this year.
“I want to work on that and maybe get a chance to go to the NFL and snap,” Burney said. “I definitely told the coaches that I was available if they needed me, and my time came.”
Burney, a 2015 graduate of Hickory, appeared in three games for the `Hoos last season before suffering a severe ankle sprain that ended his season prematurely. He was granted a hardship waiver and so entered this year with four years of eligibility left.
“It was fortunate,” Burney said. “I would have liked to have played last year, but I’m also happy that I got the opportunity to get a medical redshirt.”
His father, who starred in football at Lake Taylor High School in Norfolk, later played at Wisconsin, and that’s the college team for which Burney grew up rooting. With his son in Charlottesville, the elder Burney is happy to cheer for the Cavaliers, too.
“He’s a Virginia guy,” Richard said.
In its ACC home opener, UVA (2-3 overall, 1-0 conference) meets Pitt (4-2, 1-1) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Scott Stadium. That’s the first of three consecutive home games for Virginia, which hosts North Carolina at 3 p.m. on Oct. 22 and No. 7 Louisville on Oct. 29.
Like his teammates, Burney raved about the culture Mendenhall and his staff are building at Virginia.
“I love it,” Burney said. “It’s completely new. I just love the enthusiasm these coaches bring to the team.”
FINE LINE: In its season-opening loss to Richmond, Virginia was not penalized. Since then, however, the Cavaliers have averaged 74.3 yards in penalties per game.
Infractions that come “after the play or late, those are the ones, to me, [that are] not acceptable at this point,” Mendenhall said Monday.
When the Cavaliers reconvened for a meeting Monday morning, Mendenhall talked about how penalties can hurt a team’s chances for success.
“This team does well when they understand the why,” he said. “And so that’s the best way that I could frame it to them: I love the aggression and the improvement in that area. Now let’s talk about where those boundaries are.”
On a teleconference with reporters Tuesday morning, senior safety Kelvin Rainey echoed Mendenhall’s philosophy.
“We play everything by the rules, but we’re still going to be aggressive,” Rainey said. “We’re going to go right to that line. We’re not going to cross that line, but we’re going to be as close as possible to that line as we can get within the rules.”
Video of Mack’s punishing hit went viral on Twitter, and the play drew the attention of ESPN, too. The Cavaliers like what the 6-4 Mack has been giving them this season, and they’re eager see what he does when he fills out.
Mack, a true freshman, is listed at only 205 pounds, which is light for a college safety, let alone a linebacker. Mendenhall expects Mack to play at about 230 pounds before his college career is done.
“For a first-year player, he’s really doing a nice job in terms of maturity and consistency,” Mendenhall said. “And what’s fun about Jordan is he rarely makes the same mistake twice. He’s very intent and conscientious. So the long ball he gave up against Oregon versus the Olympic sprinter, I don’t think that will ever happen again, because he’s so clear now what his assignment is and how fast it can get upside down on you. It’s just helped his urgency.”
FAST LEARNER: Mack’s classmates include Bryce Hall, a 6-3, 200-pound cornerback who replaced starter Kareem Gibson in the first quarter at Wallace Wade Stadium. Hall finished with two interceptions, neither of which was routine.
“He’s long,” junior safety Quin Blanding said of Hall, who was lightly recruited coming out of high school. “He has a lot of range to him, and that’s really good for a corner that can play press and then can play off … He has a long way to go, but he’s improving each and every day.”
Rainey said he’s been impressed with Hall’s “willingness to get better. He’s a young guy, and this is his first time getting a lot of play. He does make his mistakes, being a young guy, but he’s always eager to improve every day. And he’s also about 6-3 at corner. That helps too. It doesn’t hurt.”
BUSINESS AS USUAL: Virginia, which was off last weekend, will play on each of the next seven Saturdays. The Cavaliers’ focus during their bye week was on development, not rest.
“It felt like a regular work week,” senior nose tackle Donte Wilkins said. “We actually went harder. It was three days of full pads. We usually have one day of full pads. So it was a work week, it was a grind. Honestly, I think that’s what we need to keep getting better, to not take anything lightly. We’ve got two wins. We need way more than two wins this season.
“I’m happy with how we practiced. Saturday was one of the best practices that we’ve had. It was fun. Everybody was flying around, talking smack to each other.”
Mendenhall said the `Hoos entered the bye week with “plenty of work to do and plenty of momentum to gain. And certainly there’s an argument for rest and rejuvenation, which I think we balanced appropriately. But we’re gaining momentum and improving because of the volume of work we’re putting in.”
ON THE MEND: A nagging leg injury has limited Blanding’s practice reps for the much of the season, but he said Monday that he’s “back in full force. I’m back out there every day in practice, no matter what period it is.”
Having to sit out parts of practice “was pretty tough,” Blanding said. “I’m a very competitive guy. I love being out there with my team and just going at it with those guys. But I had to take my time and let my body do its thing and just get ready for the season.”
Blanding said his time on the sidelines — or, more accurately, behind the secondary — “was a better way to prepare myself for the week, just getting mental reps throughout the week, just seeing the formations, seeing the plays and just acting upon in my little area I had in the back of the end zone, just seeing everything play out.”
Blanding’s absences from practice have “been difficult for not only Quin but for us,” Mendenhall said. “From fall camp on Quin has practiced one day a week. That’s on Thursdays. His injury has been more significant, longer lasting than any of us had hoped or expected. He’s not played yet to full speed, nor full potential. And I think the bye week, if it will benefit any player, Quin is probably the one that will have benefited most from that in a little bit of additional time. And we monitor his volume a little bit more than the other players.”
IMPROVISATION: In each of the past two games, UVA quarterback Kurt Benkert has thrown a long pass that resulted in a completion of at least 82 yards. Both came on plays on which Benkert rolled out of the pocket.
“With Kurt the play’s never over,” sophomore wide receiver David Eldridge, who had an 84-yard reception against Duke.
“We do a lot of scrambling drills, so if he goes out of the pocket each receiver has a certain responsibility … to go to a certain alley and stuff like that. Just always be ready for the ball, because it can always come to you, and the one time that you don’t expect the ball could be the time that it’s coming, and so you don’t want an excuse.”
Eldridge also caught a 28-yard TD pass from Benkert against Duke. For the season, he has four receptions for 133 yards and one touchdown.
“I didn’t have a whole lot of plays in the first four games,” Eldridge said, “but like I said we all have a role on the team, so if that’s on the sideline cheering everyone on, or practicing hard to give the defense a good look or whatever it is, you take your role, and I was happy to be a part of the team and know my role.
“You just practice hard each day, and if you’re doing stuff right and the coaches see it and you get a chance, then you just go make a play.”