By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Doni Dowling’s harshest critic is Doni Dowling.
Three days after he shined at Lambeth Field in Virginia’s first scrimmage of training camp, the veteran wide receiver struggled during the team’s practice at the historic venue Tuesday.
“I had good day Saturday,” Dowling said, “but it’s in the past now. Today I had a terrible day, so I’m just going to get back at it.”
The end of practice rarely signals the end of training for Dowling, a 6-1, 220-pound senior who starred at Varina High School. After the scrimmage Saturday, he went into the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility and honed his receiver skills with redshirt freshman De’Vante Cross, who came to UVA as a quarterback but now primarily plays wideout.
Another receiver, Olamide Zaccheaus, is a regular at those sessions, too.
“I put in extra work every day,” Dowling said. “Some days it goes well. Some days it doesn’t. You’ve just got to stay resilient.”
Dowling is coming off a season in which he caught 50 passes for 626 yards and four touchdowns. Among the Cavaliers’ wideouts, only Zaccheaus (51) had more receptions than Dowling last year.
In the season opener against Richmond, Dowling hurt his shoulder early in the game and watched the second half from the sideline with his arm in a sling. The injury required surgery in December, but Dowling played through the pain and didn’t miss any games.
“Doni’s tough, and he’s someone that when things don’t go your way, he’s right by you,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “I respect and like Doni a lot.”
Injuries have marred Dowling’s college career. In addition to his shoulder surgery, he’s had three knee operations, one of them to repair a torn ACL.
He missed spring practice this year while rehabbing his shoulder, and so he’s “kind of getting back in the rhythm of things [this summer],” Dowling said.
The Wahoos’ most physical receiver, Dowling has paid a price at times for his aggressiveness on the field.
“He’s exactly what you want as far as toughness, but sometimes he’s too tough,” said Marques Hagans, who coaches Virginia’s wide receivers. “The thing that you love about Doni is he doesn’t back down, and he sets the tone for our group and partially our offense, because he’s the guy who wants to be on the front line and take on whoever.
“Now it’s just a matter of understanding how to control that physicality. You don’t have to run 20 people over every day or challenge everybody on one play.”
After arriving at UVA as an unheralded recruit, Dowling caught 17 passes as a true freshman in 2014. His college career has passed quickly, he said.
“You watch people come in, people leave, people come in, people leave,” Dowling said. “Next thing you know, you’re next up to leave. But it’s been fun. I haven’t had perfect seasons. I’ve battled injuries, and my role was minimized [at times]. There’s always an obstacle that pops up, and it’s a blessing just to be here.”
He’s become a mentor to the 6-2, 210-pound Cross, one of the team’s most explosive players.
“He’s still young and makes some inexperienced mistakes,” Dowling said, “but as he keeps going and keeps playing, he’s going to be a really good player.”
BOSS HOGG: He has yet to catch a pass in a game for the `Hoos, but a wideout to remember is Ben Hogg, a 6-0, 175-pound redshirt junior from Lynchburg.
Hogg, a graduate of Brookville High, came to UVA as a walk-on. He was put on scholarship last summer and has earned a spot in the rotation at receiver this year.
“You won’t outwork that guy,” Hagans said, “and for what our program is and what we want it to become, Ben Hogg symbolizes all of that: hard work, dedication, sacrifice.
“You just love that guy. He makes your group better. He competes and raises the level of expectation of the guys around him.”
Hogg lives with tight end Evan Butts and long-snapper Joe Spaziani, another former walk-on who’s now on scholarship.
“He’s done a really nice job of creating value for himself and building a role for himself,” Spaziani, also a reserve quarterback, said of Hogg. “We play basketball together, and he’s an athlete. He’ll go out there and catch balls when I’m throwing routes. He’s always the first one to get extra work or the first one to get on the JUGS [passing machine].”
FIRST OPTION: For most of last season, Richard Burney long-snapped on punts and Zach Bradshaw on extra points and field goals. Because of injuries to both, however, Spaziani handled the long-snapping duties in Virginia’s final four games, and he remains the starter on all three units.
Bradshaw was a senior last season. Burney, whose primary position is tight end, is now a redshirt sophomore.
“It’s great to have an emergency guy like Burney,” special teams coordinator Kelly Poppinga said, “because he’s done it in the game and he was our starter till he got hurt. But Joe had a great spring and has earned that spot up to this point, so we’ll see if that continues to go that way. And then we also have [true freshman] Tommy Christ, who can help us out there as well.”
ROLE MODELS: A former defensive coordinator at New Mexico, Mendenhall still remembers the influence Brian Urlacher had on his younger teammates in that program.
And so, Mendenhall said, “I’m trying to put as many guys in front of Micah and Quin as possible.”
Inside linebacker Micah Kiser and free safety Quin Blanding, both seniors, are All-America candidates and pillars of the program Mendenhall is building at UVA, where he took over in December 2015.
Asked Thursday about Kiser, Mendenhall said, “He’s really impressive, and he’s emerging into and becoming an even elevated form of leader than what he was. And so he’s growing into being the template, so to speak, for what I’d like a defensive player or a football player to look like at UVA.”
One of the team’s most promising newcomers is Zane Zandier, who this week traded positions with another talented true freshman, Matt Gahm. Zandier moved from outside linebacker to inside linebacker and Gahm from inside to out.
“A lot of our [reason for] moving Zane Zandier behind Micah at that spot is to have him be groomed and have them spend a year together and kind of be mentored and shaped,” Mendenhall said.
ONGOING BATTLE: Juniors Chris Peace and Malcolm Cook have won the starting jobs at outside linebacker, said Poppinga, who coaches that position, and they’ve played well during training camp.
Behind them, however, the depth chart remains fluid. The Cavaliers’ other options at outside linebacker include redshirt freshman Dre Bryant, sophomore Reed Kellam and true freshmen Elliott Brown, Charles Snowden and Gahm.
“Each of them has kind of done a thing or two each and every day,” Poppinga said, “but I’m just looking for consistency out of somebody in that group that’ll emerge as the for-sure No. 3 [outside `backer].”
The true freshmen are intriguing prospects. The 6-3, 225-pound Gahm is from football-mad Texas — his hometown is Dallas — and he starred on the Highland Park High team that won a state championship last season.
Brown (Odenton, Maryland) and Snowden (Silver Spring, Maryland) were outstanding high school basketball players who bring athleticism and length to the football field.
The 6-7 Snowden is listed at 205 pounds on UVA’s roster. The 6-6 Brown has filled out more.
“Snowden, physicality-wise, is probably about a year away,” Poppinga said. “But in understanding the game of football, and his pass-rush technique, he’s farther ahead than Elliott. But Elliott, as far as physique goes and the strength and the size, at 235 [pounds] as a freshman, he’s looking really good.”
NEXT GENERATION: Virtually all of the carries in UVA’s offense last year went to Taquan Mizzell (187) and Albert Reid (98).
Mizzell is now in training camp with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, and Reid is a graduate assistant at Virginia. Their backups in 2016, Jordan Ellis and Daniel Hamm, have emerged as the Cavaliers’ top two running backs this year. But the competition behind them continues, running backs coach Mark Atuaia said Thursday.
Asked about his rotation in the backfield, Atuaia said, “I haven’t found the third or the fourth guy yet, but ideally it would be four.”
Candidates for those spots include redshirt sophomore Chris Sharp (6-2, 195 pounds) and true freshmen Lamont Atkins (5-11, 200), Jamari Peacock (6-0, 230) and PK Kier (5-11, 225). Atkins and Peacock enrolled at UVA in January and then went through spring practice with the team.
The true freshmen are “doing a really good job,” Atuaia said. “I’m finding out more and more about them. The great thing I like about them is that they’re very humble and they’re willing to learn.”
Peacock is a bruiser who’s a natural for the “big back” role in offensive coordinator Robert Anae‘s system. That position requires more than the blocking ability of a traditional fullback.
“You’ve got to do everything,” Atuaia said. Some of the responsibilities are similar, “but you’ve got to have ball skills too. You can’t just be a meathead guy that we throw in there and that’s all you do.”