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Sept. 15, 2017

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — When he came off the practice field Thursday morning, De’Vante Cross was in a white football jersey, which marked him as one of the University of Virginia’s defensive players.

For part of practice, however, he wore a blue jersey that identified him as one of the Cavaliers’ offensive players.

“I just switch `em in the middle [of practice],” Cross said with a shrug.

A 6-0, 200 redshirt freshman from Allentown, Pa., Cross came into the season prepared to play two positions: wide receiver and quarterback. But after one of the starters in Virginia’s secondary, Tim Harris, suffered a season-ending injury in the Sept. 2 opener against William & Mary, Cross began practicing at another position: cornerback.

“It’s like getting back on a bike,” he said.

At Parkland High, Cross starred at quarterback and cornerback, and Boston College recruited him as a defensive player. He came to UVA as a quarterback in the summer of 2016 but began working at wideout during spring practice this year.

“We were just trying to find a way to get one of our more dynamic players on the field and get the ball in his hands,” wide receivers coach Marques Hagans said in June.

Cross starts on three special-teams units: punt, punt return and kickoff. He has yet to take a snap at quarterback for the Wahoos this season, and he’s still looking for his first collegiate catch. But he’s been in the rotation at wide receiver, and an Indiana defensive back was called for interference on a pass intended for Cross last weekend at Scott Stadium.

He continues to improve as a receiver, Cross said. “It’s just a process. You’ve got to keep working, keep grinding every day.”

Virginia (1-1) hosts UConn (1-0) at noon Saturday at Scott Stadium. The Cavaliers have revamped their secondary since losing Harris. Junior Juan Thornhill, who started at safety against W&M, moved to cornerback for the Indiana game. Another option at cornerback is true freshman Germane Crowell, but Harris’ injury left the `Hoos thin at that position, and the possibility of using Cross there intrigued the coaching staff.

“We had the idea, even from last year, that the length, size, speed, and ball skills of De’Vante might make him able to do that,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said.

“He has a role offensively, but not a volume role that would prohibit him from playing more plays [on defense]. He is doing a nice job on special teams as well. We played him in one-on-ones for four plays [in practice], and everyone just stopped and said, `OK, that looks really good.’

“So there is a great chance he will be playing for us both ways going forward. We don’t know yet what that will completely look like, but every player matters right now, and the more you can do, the more you can do. That helps all three sides: offense, defense and special teams. We are looking to increase his play count, which hopefully helps our team and makes us deeper.”

Not since Vic Hall in 2009 has a Cavalier been used on both offense and defense.

“It’s a great opportunity to help the team and a great opportunity for myself, so I’ll try to take advantage of it,” Cross said. “I’m pretty comfortable with both [wideout and cornerback]. You just learn what you’ve got to do, and the rest is up to you.”

Crowell missed two open-field tackles on special teams in UVA’s 34-17 loss to Indiana, but that “doesn’t mean we’ve given up on him,” Mendenhall said. “It just gives us a clear idea where he currently is. So we take that and put it in the bank … and continue to work on what he needs to improve. He’s going to be a good player here for us.”

In high school, Cross said, he played both ways “the whole time,” and he’s confident he can handle the additional workload. He’s been spending more time on film study as he tries to familiarize with his new position.

“The same thing I would do for offense, I now do for defense,” Cross said. “I just do both in a day. There’s more prep work, but I’m managing it. It’s not crazy.”

As a receiver, he regularly battles defensive backs in drills. Now he’s one of those white shirts, at least for part of practice. UVA’s full-time defenders have welcomed him into the fold, Cross said.

“I know them all,” he said. “They’re my friends, so everything’s good.”

After throwing passes to Cross for much of this year, quarterback Kurt Benkert now finds himself trying to beat No. 15 through the air at times. Benkert has been impressed with Cross’ grasp of his new position.

“He’s aggressive, he’s got good make-up speed,” Benkert said. “He’s got good hands against the receiver. He looks really good at DB. I’m excited to see him get his chance.”

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