By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — When he joined the University of Virginia football team in September, kicker Sam Hayward assumed he’d be one-and-done, so to speak. Hayward was delighted, then, to learn he would be eligible to play for the Cavaliers in 2017 too.

“I did not think I would, because I played three years of soccer,” Hayward said after a recent practice.

Under NCAA rules, an athlete has five years in which to complete four years of eligibility. This is the fourth year of college for Hayward, who transferred to UVA from the University of Pennsylvania in the summer of 2014, but only his first season of football. And so he could return next year.

He’s been a welcome addition to a team that came into the season without a proven placekicker. Hayward, who’s from Dallas, is 8 for 8 on extra points and 1 of 1 on field goals, having kicked a 36-yarder last weekend in UVA’s lost to ACC rival Pitt.

“I was pretty nervous about kicking in my first game at Scott Stadium,” Hayward said. “So I was thinking about it a little bit on that first kick, but after that one went in I felt pretty good.”

Hayward is “becoming someone our team is counting on, which is good,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said.

In practice, Hayward’s accuracy has improved markedly.

“When I started off, I was missing one or two during the field-goal period, it seemed like every time, until last week I hit five in a row,” said Hayward, who’s confident his range is at least 50 yards. “It felt good, and I’m just a lot more comfortable now.”

After playing soccer at Penn in 2013, Hayward joined the team at UVA in 2014. That season ended in dramatic fashion for the Cavaliers, who ousted UCLA to win their seventh NCAA championship.

The nationally televised title game came down to a penalty kick shootout, and Hayward was among the players who converted for the Wahoos. He played soccer again for Virginia in 2015 but then took the spring semester off from school.

He returned to Dallas and worked in real estate his with father. To stay active, Hayward played several times a week with a local soccer team.

A history major who hopes to graduate in December 2017, Hayward returned to UVA this summer. He gave up soccer, but the team’s head coach, George Gelnovatch, passed along Hayward’s name to the football staff. With little depth at kicker, the Cavaliers invited Hayward to try out, and by the end of the season’s first month he’d taken over on extra points and field goals.

Of playing a sport for which he’s had a lifelong passion, Hayward said, “I love it. It’s as fun as it gets.”

Senior Dylan Sims has handled most of the kickoffs for UVA this season, but Hayward is also an option in that role, “because he can place the ball exactly where we want it,” Mendenhall said Monday.

“And that, absolutely, is something that will be considered, especially as the quality of opponent in conference play continues to increase and climb [along with] the volatility of who is returning it against us and their explosive nature.”

SOUTH’S OLDEST RIVALRY: At 3 p.m. Saturday, in a Coastal Division game, Virginia (2-4 overall, 1-1 ACC) hosts North Carolina (5-2, 3-1) at Scott Stadium. This will be the 121st game in a series that dates to 1892.

The Tar Heels have won six straight over the `Hoos.

Against Pitt, UVA gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown, and UNC senior T.J. Logan averages 27.2 yards per return, third-most in the ACC. Virginia, meanwhile, ranks last in the league in kickoff coverage, having allowed an average of 34.7 yards per return.

More starters are likely to be used on kickoff coverage, Mendenhall said. “The real issue now is just work capacity, how much can each player do in terms of the volume and number of snaps, and so we’re trying to manage that at the same time.”

The coaching staff is proceeding with urgency. “The sooner we get this corrected,” Mendenhall said, “the better chance our team has to move forward and win and help control field position, which really has a significant outcome or effect on the game.”

SHORTHANDED: In its win over ACC foe Miami last weekend, Carolina lost senior wide receiver Mack Hollins to a season-ending injury.

Hollins, a 6-4, 210-pound senior, was the Heels’ top deep threat. He caught 16 passes for 309 yards and a team-high four touchdowns before getting hurt. In 2014, he had two receptions for 120 yards and two TDs against Virginia.

For all of Hollins’ talent, UNC head coach Larry Fedora said, the “biggest thing is losing Mack’s leadership. He was probably one of the strongest leaders on our football team … Mack will still be there leading as best he can, but he won’t be out there, and losing him on the field [means the Heels] lose a guy that’s got a lot of experience and a lot of confidence, a guy that can definitely stretch the field. And so somebody else is going to have to step up in that role.”

POINT OF EMPHASIS: Virginia ranks fifth among ACC teams in pass offense (289.2 yards game). With an average of 114.2 rushing yards per game, however, the Cavaliers rank last in the conference.

“I’m not going to say the run game has been or is an afterthought at this point,” Mendenhall said Wednesday. “It just, for whatever reason — and I don’t have a clear answer for you today — hasn’t taken kind of the same jump or moved at the same rate as the downfield-pass game.”

The `Hoos are hoping to change that Saturday. The Heels rank last in the ACC in rushing defense, and, with running backs Taquan Mizzell and Albert Reid and Jordan Ellis, Virginia will try to exploit that weakness.

The Cavaliers have the talent to run the ball with authority, offensive guard Jack McDonald said Wednesday. “For us, we’ve just got to make sure we stay on our blocks, work on our double teams and get up to the second level. If we can [open] some holes, even if they’re small, those guys are going to be able to hit it and get some yards.”

Against Pitt, Virginia netted only 86 yards rushing.

“As an O-line, when we see numbers that aren’t really where we want them to be in the run game, we just take that as a challenge for us going into the next game,” McDonald said.

INCREASED WORKLOAD? Mizzell, a senior, had a 44-yard TD run against Pitt and finished with 95 yards on 12 carries. But he had only three receptions (for 15 yards), and that probably wasn’t enough, his teammates and coaches acknowledged.

“That’s something we talked about in our meeting [Monday] morning,” quarterback Kurt Benkert said. “We needed to get him the ball a little bit more … He’s one of our most dynamic players, and I need to get him the ball more.”

Given the choice between passing to No. 4 or another target, Benkert said, he should probably opt for Mizzell, “just because he’s done it for so long and it’s something he’s really good at.”

As a junior, Mizzell caught 75 passes for 721 yards and four touchdowns. He has 24 receptions for 186 yards and one TD this season.

HIGHS AND LOWS: In his first season at UVA, Benkert has passed for 1,733 yards and 14 touchdowns. He’s also thrown at least one interception in every game.

“I don’t want to turn the ball over,” said Benkert, who transferred to Virginia from East Carolina after the 2015-16 academic year. “There’s not a game I go into thinking, `Hey, it’s OK to turn the ball over here.’ I’m just trying to find the fine line between being aggressive and taking what they give me and not trying to force it. Because you can get away with it every once in a while, but you’re not going to get away with it every time.”

On the scrutiny that comes with being a quarterback, Benkert said, “You get a lot of the [praise] when you win and you get a lot of the blame when you lose. But that’s just part of it. And you just try not to get too high or low on yourself, because you can have a great game one game and everyone will be all over you, but you have a bad game the next one and it’s right back to where it was.

“It’s really trying to stay level throughout everything.”

QUICK STUDY: The eight true freshmen who have played for UVA this season include 6-4 Matt Terrell, who backs up starter Chris Peace at weak-side linebacker.

Terrell, a graduate of Liberty Christian Academy in Lynchburg, enrolled at Virginia in January.

“He’s made a lot of jumps,” Peace said. “The main thing is weight. When he came in he was probably like 205, maybe. Now he weighs just as much as me. He’s in the 230s. Assignment-wise he’s definitely buckled down from the spring. He’s learning real fast and I’m proud of him so far. He definitely has room to grow and the ceiling’s high for him.”

In the three games he’s played as a Cavalier, Terrell has made eight tackles, including 1.5 for loss.

ON-THE-JOB TRAINING: Another newcomer is junior Jack Powers, a transfer from Arizona State who’s playing defense for the first time in college.

“I’m loving it,” said Powers, who’s in Virginia’s rotation at defensive end. “Just to be out there and to be getting the reps and the opportunities I’m getting is awesome. And again, just taking every opportunity and every rep as a chance to get better is what you’ve got to do. That’s what I’m trying to do each week.”

Asked where he has room to improve, Powers said, “Everywhere. Just being an all-around player, stopping the run, being gap-responsible and getting after it. There’s a lot to improve.”

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