By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Most of the freshmen on the University of Virginia football team didn’t get to town until July. For the Cavaliers’ returning players, the summer strength and conditioning program began in June, and they trained with director of football performance Frank Wintrich for several weeks ahead of Independence Day.

When the players returned from their Fourth of July break, Wintrich noticed a significant change in James Trucilla, a defensive lineman from Erie, Pennsylvania.

“All of a sudden something about him was just different,” Wintrich said. “His intent was different, his intensity was different, and he really started making a commitment.”

It’s safe to say the Cavaliers’ coaching staff did not see this transformation coming. As a redshirt freshman in 2016, Trucilla appeared in six games as a backup nose tackle, making four tackles, and his performance in spring practice this year did not elevate him on the depth chart.

“I didn’t have a great spring,” Trucilla acknowledged.

All of which makes a comment UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall made this week especially noteworthy.

“Probably the biggest surprise of maybe the entire camp has been James Trucilla,” Mendenhall said after practice Monday.

Heading into training camp, defensive line coach Vic So’oto met with the players in his position group and offered each a frank evaluation. Trucilla “was a guy that I thought probably wouldn’t get a lot of playing time this year,” So’oto recalled, “and I told him that.”

Even so, Trucilla persevered.

“It didn’t faze him at all,” said classmate Eli Hanback, who’s replaced Donte Wilkins as the team’s starting nose tackle.

“He just kept his head down and did his job, and he hit people. Coach Mendenhall loves that. That’s football. You’re doing your job, hitting people, being where you need to be, and making plays. James was doing that.”

So’oto moved Trucilla to defensive end this summer, and the player known to his teammates and coaches as Judge responded in impressive fashion. As Virginia prepares for its Sept. 2 opener against William & Mary at Scott Stadium, Trucilla is in the D-line rotation. He lines up with the first-team defense at times.

“He worked his butt off,” So’oto said. “He started out with the fourth team at the start of camp and worked his way up. He just comes with so much energy. He gets off the ball really hard, and so that’s what I’ve liked about him.”

Hanback said: “He had all the tools. He just needed to understand the defense and know where he was going, become more calm and collected.”

Trucilla, who’s listed at 6-1, played at about 270 pounds last season. He’s now around 285, and he’s added about 40 pounds to his bench press and 100 to his squat since the end of last season.

“He’s a weight-room guy,” Wintrich said in his McCue Center office. “I’ve never had an issue with him in here, but [after July 4] there was just something different, something clicked in his head.

“I saw it more in the field work: the jumps, the sprints, the throws we were doing. He’s always gotten after it in here, but it was just his intent in trying to become more explosive and more dynamic.”

He did not have an epiphany during the Fourth of July break or anything that dramatic, Trucilla said. But he started showing a greater sense of purpose.

“I remember when Coach Wintrich said to us at one point, `What happens in the weight room has to transfer over to the field,’ ” Trucilla said. “There’s a lot of kids that work really, really hard and they lift a lot of weight and move a lot of weight, but it doesn’t convert to the field.

“I’ve always been pretty strong, and that kind of clicked with me when he said that. I said, `I can hang in the weight room, but I’ve got to transfer it to the field.’ And that’s something that stuck with me. So I tried to really improve on that.”

Virginia’s base defense is a 3-4. When So’oto shifted him to end, Trucilla said, “I didn’t know what he was doing with that, because I have this image of an end being really tall and lanky, and that’s not me. But I think they saw some potential in me [against the run] in base.”

He smiled. “I don’t really know where that came from, but whatever they tell me to do, I’ll do.”

His physique makes No. 57 the target of good-natured ribbing from his teammates.

“[Offensive lineman] Jake Fieler always calls me `the tree stump,’ ” Trucilla said. “I’m just short and stout. I think one of my positives is, I know my center of gravity, and I know how to use my leverage. Coach Vic says, `Use what you have,’ and I have natural pad level.”

Trucilla is “like a root in the ground,” Hanback said.

A graduate of Cathedral Prep, Trucilla has five siblings. It’s an athletic family whose home is near Lake Erie. His father, John Trucilla, a judge in Erie County — hence James’ nickname at UVA — played baseball at the University of Dayton.

One of Trucilla’s brothers, John, threw the javelin at Texas, and the other, Luke, is a former walk-on football player at Minnesota. One of his sisters, Marielle, runs marathons. That leaves the Trucilla triplets: James, Grace and Anne. Grace attends Penn State, where she’s on the track & field team, and Anne is a student at Penn State Behrend in Erie.

The bond among triplets is exceptionally strong, and James, Grace and Anne stay in close contact when they’re away at school.

“We have our own little language that only we understand,” Trucilla said, laughing. “It’s good to check in with them and see how they’re doing.”

Cathedral Prep’s rivals include another Erie high school, McDowell, whose star when Trucilla was a sophomore was a senior running back named James Conner. Conner, of course, went on to star at Pitt and now plays for the NFL’s Steelers.

“I don’t like to pat myself on the back,” Trucilla said, “but when we played them my sophomore year, it was fourth down at the goal line, they put James in, and we had this heavy goal-line front, and we stopped them on fourth-and-1. It was one of my favorite moments of high school.”

His nickname notwithstanding, Trucilla is majoring in foreign affairs at UVA.

“I respect law, because of my father and seeing what he does on a daily basis,” Trucilla said, but that’s not a path he plans to follow. He’s likely to pursue a business career after graduating from UVA.

His experience at the University, Trucilla said, has been fantastic. “If you talked to my family, they’d probably say I never shut up about this place. I love it here.”

He’s thrilled about the possibility of playing a significant role on the football field this fall, but “I don’t want to get ahead of myself,” Trucilla said.

“I guess it’s very rewarding seeing the hard work pay off, of course, but my whole mindset this whole camp was `one day at a time.’ I just told myself my motto was `play by play, day by day,’ and to just keep building off those days.”

Practices are demanding, and Mendenhall, also the Cavaliers’ defensive coordinator, is an exacting coach.

“But I’ll say to this point I’m a better man for it,” Trucilla said. “It sounds corny and clichéd, but my mental toughness has gone up tenfold.”

Hanback, a starting defensive end last season, still lines up there occasionally, and Trucilla still takes reps at nose tackle. For the Cavaliers’ defensive linemen, cross-training is customary.

“I want them to get exposure,” said So’oto, who starred at BYU under Mendenhall and then played in the NFL. “So I send them all over the place and have them experience all kinds of techniques and blocks.”

Of Trucilla’s rise on the depth chart, So’oto said, “I think it’s always great to see guys fight through adversity and reach their potential. Judge is still far away, but he’s working hard. And I think the more guys buy into the system and buy into how I coach them and the small things — like trying hard, which is a lost art in college football — then they’ll reach their goals.”

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