Emotions Run High for Departing Seniors
Nov. 11, 2016
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For University of Virginia running back Taquan Mizzell, a college career during which he’s produced countless highlights is almost over. Three games remain for the Cavaliers, and only one of them is at Scott Stadium.
That comes Saturday at 2 p.m., when UVA (2-7 overall, 1-4 ACC) hosts Coastal Division rival Miami (5-4, 2-3). Before the game, the Wahoos’ fourth- and fifth-year players will be honored, a group that includes such mainstays as Mizzell, center Jackson Matteo, offensive tackle Eric Smith, wide receiver Keeon Johnson, nose tackle Donte Wilkins, safety Kelvin Rainey and punter Nicholas Conte.
“I’m still trying to get more tickets [for family and friends],” Mizzell said with a smile after practice Tuesday.
A graduate of Bayside High School in Virginia Beach, Mizzell enrolled at UVA in the summer of 2013. His UVA career has passed, it seems to him, in a blur.
“Too fast, actually,” Mizzell said after practice. “I wish I had another year, but it is what it is. I’ve got to keep on pushing now.”
Mizzell needs only 10 receiving yards to become the first player in ACC history with at least 1,500 rushing and 1,500 receiving yards for his career. At UVA, he ranks No. 22 all-time in rushing yards (1,742) and No. 14 in receiving yards (1,490). He’s caught at least one pass in 42 consecutive games.
With 185 career receptions, Mizzell ranks second in program history, behind wideout Billy McMullen, who caught 210 passes.
The Cavaliers fell 27-20 at Wake Forest last weekend, a result that consigned them to a fifth straight losing season. Still, Mizzell said, the team’s seniors have ample motivation as Virginia nears the end of its first season under head coach Bronco Mendenhall.
The veterans are focused on “setting an example for the younger guys, just building a new culture here,” Mizzell said. “We know the culture is going to change, we know the whole program is going to change. We just don’t know when. So for us as leaders, with the younger guys looking up to us, we’ve just got to be positive role models for those guys.
“For me personally, it’s always been like that. Any day I can wake up and be healthy and play football, that’s always a blessing, so I never take that for granted.”
Mizzell is on track to earn his bachelor’s degree in anthropology next month.
“Just being the first one in my family to graduate from college, that’s a big thing,” he said. “Apart from the football accomplishments, my family is just so proud of me for sticking with school and being able to graduate.”
Mendenhall said the seniors have played an important role in his rebuilding project at UVA.
“I have multiple goals for this program,” Mendenhall said Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. “The easy focus is on what’s the outcome on the field and how soon we’ll win, and how soon we’ll be in postseason, and how soon we’ll be able to expect that consistently.
“At the same time, I want them to have an amazing experience, an amazing life experience, an amazing football experience, amazing relationships … I want each day and each game to be an amazing experience, and hopefully sooner rather than later the outcome will be the next phase added on to that. And I think the seniors are recognizing this is the front end, and I think they feel there’s some amazing things that will happen here.
“I think they feel fortunate to be part of it. I just keep telling them I’m lucky that they’re here. I couldn’t have asked and can’t ask more than what they’re currently doing, and I think that will remain the case for the next number of weeks we have.”
This will be the first time in Mendenhall’s 12 seasons as a head coach — the first 11 were at BYU — that one of his teams will finish below .500. Virginia’s seniors are more accustomed to losing, and that’s been frustrating, Johnson acknowledged Monday.
“But at the end of the day, my mindset is still to work,” Johnson said. “We’ve still got three games left. I’m not really worried about the future, to be honest, because this is what I have that’s guaranteed.”
In a breakout season, Johnson has 40 catches for 390 yards and three touchdowns. He said the seniors remain intent on doing the little things correctly, such as coming to practice with the proper attitude.
“If you approach it being sluggish like, `I’m not really feeling this,’ then you’re not going to have a good practice nine times out of 10,” Johnson said. “So we’re all really focused on approaching everything with a positive attitude, and that translates to the field, which translates to game days … Everybody’s locked in and still ready to work.”
Wilkins said the players have grown tighter as the season has progressed, even as victories have eluded the `Hoos. As emotional as Senior Day can be, Wilkins said, he’ll approach it as he would any other game.
“I’m just going to go in and give my all,” Wilkins said. “That’s what we do. We’re just going to work as hard as we can.”
Wilkins, Matteo and redshirt junior linebacker Micah Kiser, who leads the ACC in tackles, are the Cavaliers’ captains.
The reality that he has only one more game to play at Scott Stadium is “pretty surreal,” said Matteo, who came to UVA in 2012 as a recruited walk-on.
“I’m really taking the moment in and just really appreciating my time here, just the strides that I’ve made as a football player and as a person, and it’s all going to come down to this last home game. I’m just going to put it all out there.”
Matteo, along with Wilkins and Johnson, fielded questions Monday during the weekly press conference at JPJ. The more Matteo spoke, the more his faith in Mendenhall and the new coaching staff became apparent.
Fans judge a program by its wins and losses, Matteo noted, and that’s “really not what’s going on here. This is a complete and total reboot of the University of Virginia’s football program. And that starts with the culture, that starts with building good habits and setting a good foundation for the future of the University of Virginia’s football program. That’s what’s at stake.”
He’s not concerned with personal accomplishments, Matteo said. “I’m here for the team. I’m here for this coaching staff and where they’re going to take this program. It’s going to be so special in five years when I look back and I can say `Man, I had something to do with that.’ That’s what I’m here for.”
When the breakthrough will come, Matteo said, is uncertain. But there are “too many guys on this team who are selfless, who care genuinely about the success of others, for it not to break through,” he said. “This thing is going to turn, and, man, it’s going to be special when it does.”