By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When the football was snapped, University of Virginia cornerback Bryce Hall blitzed. It was an October game at Scott Stadium between ancient rivals Virginia and North Carolina. Mitch Trubisky managed to elude Hall, but another Cavalier, inside linebacker Landan Word, sacked the UNC quarterback for a 5-yard loss.
In a disappointing year for UVA, which finished 2-10 in its first season under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, positives included the contributions of true freshmen such as Hall and Word.
On Oct. 1, the Wahoos ended a 17-game road losing streak with a 34-20 win over Duke in Durham, N.C. Hall intercepted two passes at Wallace Wade Stadium, and classmate Jordan Mack, an outside linebacker, had a highlight-reel sack late in the fourth quarter.
Mack’s jarring hit on quarterback Daniel Jones forced a fumble that defensive end Eli Hanback, a redshirt freshman, recovered in the end zone for a UVA touchdown.
“It was really cool to be a part of something like that,” said Mack, a converted safety. “It was just the perfect play call, and everyone doing their job allowed me to come off the edge and make a play for the team so we could win. It was very exciting. The feeling in the locker room after was one of the best. The bus ride home was one you’ll never forget.”
In all, nine true freshmen played for the `Hoos this fall: Hall, Word, Mack, tackle Juwan Moye, outside linebacker Matt Terrell and safety Chris Moore on defense; and wide receivers Joe Reed, Hasise Dubois and Cole Blackman on offense.
Many of them distinguished themselves on special teams too, most notably Reed, who ranked among the ACC leaders in kickoff returns, averaging 25.1 yards per return.
Virginia’s base defense is the 3-4, and at times three of the four linebackers on the field were Mack, Terrell and Word, alongside redshirt junior Micah Kiser.
“When one of [the true freshmen] would make a play, you’d get extra excited,” Hall said, “because you know how hard it is to play at this level as a freshman. I’d be really excited seeing them out there with me, and it kind of put me at ease a little bit, like `I’m not alone out there. There’s more of us.’ ”
During a season that ended for UVA with a one-sided loss to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, the true freshmen were not available for interviews. But with preparations for 2017 under way, several of them spoke recently with VirginiaSports.com about the role of their class in Mendenhall’s rebuilding project.
“It’s our job, I think, and it’s the second-years’ job and third-years’ job,” Word said, “to push [the team] in the direction that Coach Mendenhall has been preaching and be coached the way that he wants us to be coached and to do everything to perfection.”
Word’s father, Barry, starred as a running back at UVA and in 1985 was honored as the ACC player of the year. But in 1982, Word’s freshman year, the Cavaliers finished 2-9 in their first season under head coach George Welsh. The younger Word and his classmates know the latest turnaround in Charlottesville will take time.
“Losing always hurts,” said Hall, who’s from Harrisburg, Pa., “but I understand this program is on the rise, so I wasn’t too discouraged about how this season went. I was optimistic, because I know how much better we can be … I’m just looking forward to the future now.”
Word said: “Even though the season didn’t go our way, I think we made strides in the right direction.”
This is a critical offseason for all of the Cavaliers’ returning players, but particularly the first-year class. Virtually all of the true freshmen — Terrell, who enrolled in January, was one of the exceptions — arrived at UVA in mid-July. That gave them little time to train with Frank Wintrich, Virginia’s director of football performance, before training camp began in early August.
“So a lot of these guys out there are playing off of raw athleticism,” Kiser said a few days before the regular-season finale. “What people don’t really know about our team is a lot of our true freshmen haven’t even really worked out yet, haven’t really lifted a lot of weights.”
Unforeseen circumstances pressed some of the true freshmen into service sooner than expected. When sophomore Myles Robinson suffered a season-ending injury, Hall moved into the rotation at cornerback and ended up starting seven games.
After senior Zach Bradshaw suffered an ankle injury, Word took over as one of Virginia’s starters at inside linebacker, alongside All-ACC performer Kiser. Word, who played only on special teams for the first half of the season, finished the year with two sacks and a fumble recovery.
“He’s going to be a beast,” Kiser said.
Bradshaw, who returned to start UVA’s final three games, is equally high on Word, whose mother grew up in the Charlottesville area.
“He’s really physical,” Bradshaw said. “Being a freshman you’re kind of iffy on being confident on what you’re supposed to be doing, especially in game situations. So when he has issues, it’s the normal I’m-out-there-for-the-first-time kind of mistakes that he makes. But just from a physical standpoint, he’s done a really good job for the situation he’s been put in this year, and I think he’s going to be really good next year and especially down the road.”
Word, who stands 6-5, weighed 258 pounds when he enrolled at Virginia in July. He was strong, “but it was sloppy weight,” Word recalled, “and during the first month or two, it just came off, like butter, with conditioning, the strength training, all the high-intensity practices. We’re always moving, so it’s easy.”
After playing this season at about 230 pounds, Word hopes to bulk up to 240 by the start of spring practice.
Word, who lives in Prince William County, graduated from Bishop O’Connell High in Arlington, where he played outside linebacker and defensive end.
In high school, Word said, “I was just kind of told to run around and make plays. So coming here and being immediately coached the way they wanted me to play and watching film and being around the guys who had been here for three and four years, I thought it helped me a lot.”
Like Word, Mack has excellent football bloodlines. Charles Mack played fullback at Georgia Tech in the 1980s, and Jordan nearly ended up at his father’s alma mater.
“I was so close to committing there,” the younger Mack said. “I thought it was a place I wanted to be, but when I came up here, I just thought [UVA] was a better option. I loved the campus, the people here, the scenery. I just loved it all.”
Mack, who’s from the Atlanta area, starred at safety for the Wesleyan School, and that’s where he expected to play at UVA. But when Malcolm Cook, a projected starter at outside linebacker, was lost for medical reasons near the end of training camp, the coaching staff approached Mack about a position change.
“I was all in. Whatever was going to help the team,” said Mack, whose brother, Charles, plays football at Richmond.
The Spiders, of course, defeated the Cavaliers in the Sept. 3 season opener at Scott Stadium, much to the younger Mack’s chagrin.
“I’m going to hear about that one for a long, long time,” he said, laughing.
Mack, who started nine games this season, recorded 40 tackles, including four for loss. Terrell, who also played extensively at outside linebacker, totaled 25 tackles, including 2.5 for loss.
When Mack arrived in Charlottesville, he weighed only 205 pounds. He played at about 215 during the season but knows he needs to get bigger and stronger.
That’s true for all of the true freshmen who saw time on defense, Mendenhall said. “The great thing is, all of [the young] players that we played, they’re capable, and I like them. They’re not consistent yet, but with commitment and the offseason and more time, we think that there can be a significant jump in their performance and maybe less volatility [in the defense’s performance].”
The 6-3 Hall weighs 195 pounds, and “I definitely want to get a lot stronger,” he said. “Put on some more muscle, just become more physical, a lot faster. I also want to hone in on my technique and my skills a lot more, because I feel like I’m still pretty raw.”
That’s not surprising. Hall primarily played wide receiver at Bishop McDevitt High School. He arrived at UVA in excellent shape, “because I wanted to be the best I could be,” Hall said, “but I didn’t think I was going to get any serious playing time [this season], just because of the fact that I never played corner before.”
Asked to assess his play as a true freshman, Hall said, “I think I exceeded a lot of people’s expectations with how I performed, but the coaches prepared me really well. I believed in myself, and I believed in my coaches, that they were going to put me in the right situations. But ultimately, I think I played pretty well for the circumstances that I was in, because I didn’t have that much work at corner.”
He’s impressed the coaching staff with his determination to improve. Hall regularly stops by the McCue Center to watch videotape of NFL cornerbacks.
“Just personally,” Hall said, “whatever I do, I want to be the best at it, I want to do the best I can and ultimately help my team and this program to be something special. So I take my work habits pretty seriously, to study and emulate some of the best that do it.”
The Cavaliers’ returning players began working out for 2017 not long after the season finale. Wintrich’s offseason strength-and-conditioning program will start in earnest once the players return to town next month for the spring semester.
“It’s going to be hard,” Word said. “We’re going to have to come in each morning ready to work.”