By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He’d long since made peace with his younger son’s decision to become a Cavalier instead of a Yellow Jacket. Even so, Charles Mack II felt strange entering Bobby Dodd Stadium — on whose field he’d played fullback for Georgia Tech in the `80s — and taking a seat in the stands on the visitors’ side.
“That was very odd,” Mack said of the game in which Georgia Tech defeated Virginia 31-17 in Atlanta last November.
That doesn’t make him any less of a UVA football fan these days. Jordan Mack, who started nine games at outside linebacker as a true freshman in 2016, is now at inside linebacker in the Cavaliers’ 3-4 defense. To his father’s delight, Mack is becoming a force.
“He’s fast, he’s physical, he’s productive,” UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
Against Indiana last weekend, Mack had a career-high 16 tackles at Scott Stadium: the “best game that he’s played since he’s been at UVA,” said Mendenhall, who’s also the team’s defensive coordinator.
“He’s hungry,” senior defensive end Andrew Brown said of Mack. “He’s strong — real strong — and he definitely put on a show.”
Mack’s college debut came on Sept. 3, 2016, at Scott Stadium. The Wahoos’ opponent was Richmond, whose defensive backs included his brother, Charles III. In the stands were their parents, Charles II and Audria.
“I was wearing kind of a Sherlock Holmes hat, with Richmond in front and UVA in back, and the hat spun around about a hundred times during the game,” the elder Mack recalled, laughing.
Charles III graduated from UR this year. He’s now an assistant director of facilities and events in the Spiders’ athletics department.
“He tries to make as many [UVA] games as possible when Richmond doesn’t have a home game,” Jordan said.
Like his big brother, Mack attended Wesleyan, a private school about 20 miles north of Atlanta. Wesleyan, which then competed in 2A, one of the smallest high school classifications in Georgia, is not known for producing Division I athletes, but it’s “a powerhouse in academics, and that’s what we were after,” Charles II said.
“Academics meant much more to us than athletics. Given the choice to do it over again, we’d do it the same way.”
And that was fine with the Mack brothers.
“I’m a big believer that [college recruiters are] going to find you wherever you are,” Jordan said. “I was at a great school academically, so when they came, they didn’t have to worry about my GPA, my SAT, my ACT. They knew I was going to get it done in the classroom.”
In football, he played wide receiver and safety at Wesleyan. In track & field, he won the Class 2A state title in the high jump as a senior, clearing 6-6, and ran the 100-meter dash in a blazing 10.98 seconds.
That athleticism helped him earn football scholarship offers from such schools as Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Wisconsin and, of course, Virginia.
He’d grown up expecting to follow his father to Georgia Tech, and “I thought it was something that I really wanted at first,” Mack said. “But when I came up [to UVA], it was just a better option for me personally, getting away from home and being my own person.”
Charles II said: “He and his brother wanted to make their own stamp. I respected that. I went in my closet and cried a bit and then came out.”
As a schoolboy star in Decatur, Ga., Charles II took a recruiting visit to UVA, which he seriously considered before choosing Georgia Tech.
“Virginia was my second choice,” he said this week.
George Welsh was then Virginia’s head coach, and his assistants included Art Markos. Now an assistant director of compliance in UVA’s athletics department, Markos led the Cavaliers’ pursuit of Charles II.
“I remember him as being well-suited for our offense,” Markos said this week. “Powerful, good quickness, tough and, most importantly, smart. Charles was solid as both a person and football player.”
Charles II coached his sons in recreation league football when they were young.
“From an early age, for some reason I just took a particular interest in football and really liked it,” Jordan said, “and at the age of 5 I apparently went to my dad and I said, `Dad, I want to play,’ and he signed me up.
“From there, he’s been helpful in his criticism, because he knew what it took and he just tried to give me as much wisdom as he could for the age I was at. Nowadays he’s pretty much just a parent. He’s supportive, and whenever I call him, when I’m having a rough day, he definitely just motivates me and keeps me uplifted.”
Mack weighed 205 pounds when he arrived at UVA in July 2016, and the coaching staff slotted him at safety. When injuries left the `Hoos thin at outside linebacker, however, Mack was pressed into service at that position.
Never mind that he weighed only about 215 pounds last fall. Mack still had a solid first season. His most memorable moment came on Oct. 1 at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C., where Virginia defeated Duke 34-20 to end a 17-game road losing streak.
In the fourth quarter, Mack blitzed from the outside and leveled quarterback Daniel Jones. Mack’s sack jarred the ball loose in the end zone, and UVA lineman Eli Hanback pounced on it for a touchdown.
“I still hear about it now and then,” Mack said of the hit that has been replayed thousands of times on YouTube.
With Malcolm Cook sidelined by a heart condition, Mack and Chris Peace started on the outside for the `Hoos last season. Cook is healthy again this year, and that gave UVA’s coaching staff the luxury of moving Mack inside.
“For us, especially when we look at the linebacker spots, it’s a question of, `Who are our best four linebackers? Who do we have to have on the field?’ ” UVA assistant coach Shane Hunter said. “And so we’re going to put the best four out there.”
This season, that’s Cook and Peace on the outside and Mack and Micah Kiser on the inside.
“There’s definitely been a learning curve,” Mack said, “but as the weeks go by I’m definitely getting more comfortable, by watching film and just with the repetitions I’m getting. I’m starting to get really comfortable and being able to call out plays and line up and do different kinds of things.”
Kiser led the ACC in tackles as a redshirt junior last year. From his All-America teammate, Mack is learning the nuances of the position.
“When I watch film with him, I’m seeing the things he sees,” Mack said, “and [understanding] the communication part on the field and how big that is and how much it actually helps on Saturday when you’re on the same page and you can see a play and say, `It’s going over here, it’s going to the right, it’s going to the left.’ ”
He hasn’t always reviewed videotape of opponents as fanatically as Kiser, Mack said, but “I’m getting better at it. I’m definitely noticing how easier Saturdays are [after film study].”
Mack, who now weighs about 225 pounds, has dedicated himself in the McCue Center weight room too, with impressive results.
“I love it in there,” he said. “I just like getting bigger.”
There’s more room for growth on Mack’s 6-2 frame, but Hunter said No. 37 is big enough to be effective at his new position.
“Size isn’t an issue,” said Hunter, who coaches the inside linebackers. “You look at him, and he’s gotten so much stronger. He’s pound for pound one of our strongest guys. He works really, really hard [in the weight room], and to me it’s about that mindset and how he works off the field. He does the same thing on the field, and that’s why he’s showing a lot of growth and success very early on.”
Mack, who lives with sophomore wide receiver Joe Reed, said he’s likely to major in Youth & Social Innovation in UVA’s Curry School of Education. He’s always taken his schoolwork seriously. He had no choice if he wanted to play sports.
“It was all about getting my homework done, and then I could go to practice,” Mack said.
Virginia finished 2-10 last season, its first under Mendenhall. After opening his second season with a 28-10 win over William & Mary, the `Hoos had an opportunity to improve to 2-0 for the first time since 2012.
Breakdowns on offense and special teams proved costly against the Hoosiers, resulting in a 34-17 defeat. Still, the Cavaliers are not dwelling on the loss, Mack said.
“We’re past it,” he said. “I think we have a much more mature mindset [than in 2016]. As a team, we’ve put in too much work in the offseason and fall camp. This happened and we’re moving on and we’re going to play the next play, play the next game.
“It’s not a here-we-go-again mentality. It’s, `All right, this is what happened. We learned, so let’s move on and get ready for the next one.’ ”
Virginia concludes a three-game homestand Saturday at Scott Stadium. In a non-conference match-up ESPN2 will televise, UVA (1-1) hosts UConn (1-0) at noon.
“It’s an opportunity to put another win on the board,” Mack said.